“Bodies of Sound in Space”

Varese: Arcana / Martin: Concerto for 7 Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra

Jean Martinon / The Chicago Symphony Orchestra

RCA LSC-2914

I like music that explodes into space.

Edgard Varese

One indication of a work’s significance in the post-Romantic era was the inverse of the criticism and hostility hurled at it after (and sometimes during) its premiere. Stravinsky, Ives and Riegger all experienced severe backlashes to their unconventional music. Such was the reaction to Edgard Varese’s Arcana when it premiered in 1927 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Leopold Stokowski. The haters of the unconventional, monumental work reached a consensus summed up by music critic Oscar Thompson: “There was no mercy in its disharmony, no pity in its succession of screaming, clashing, clangorous discords.”

And it’s true that to listeners in the 1920s, used to scandalous avant-garde pieces from composers like Henry Cowell and George Antheil, Arcana must have sounded like a new form of music altogether. Even now, used to digital manipulations and mixing as we are, it still sounds like some mysterious cosmological event. Hearing it for the first time, you’ll understand why so many conservative reviewers and general audiences were stunned by Varese’s symphonic experiment.

Varese was born in 1883 in Paris. His earliest musical influences were the unlikely pair of Richard Strauss and the great Bach transcriber Ferruccio Busoni. His first work, Hyperprism, appeared in 1923, after he’d relocated from Berlin to America and founded the International Composers Guild (ICG). The unorthodox scoring is for wind, brass and percussion. Varese’s pieces were incredibly difficult to compose (there are a half dozen in all) because of his rejection of all systems of composition; essentially, he had to create a new musical methodology of his own, from scratch. It would be like a painter compelled to invent color for each of her canvases. Ionisation (1929-33) is scored for 13 percussionists, and is based on molecular movements.

But it wasn’t until Deserts (1936) that the pioneering nature of Varese’s music became wholly apparent, as it was the first ever work to incorporate tape-recorded sound into its instrumentation. Varese was one of those innovators who’s ahead of the people who are ahead of their time. His Poeme Electronique (1958) is eight-minutes of proto-electronica, and was completed to be broadcast out of 425 loudspeakers at the World’s Fair in Brussels. 

Perhaps his most accessible work, Arcana is an attempt to make alchemy of pure sound, as the title suggests. (It’s based on Varese’s conception of the Renaissance alchemist, and possible inspiration for Frankenstein, Paracelsus.) Arranged in an 11-note “sound-cloud”, it’s an enormity of music–Varese termed it “absolute music” for a reason. It was based on a dream of his, and the fantastical elements seem built of surreal, bristling wavelengths that go from titanic to a climax that’s barely audible, like the dwindling echoes of a distant constellation. Cutting-edge scoring, with Varese’s trademark percussion at the fore, includes a string attached to one of the drums that, when swiped with a strip of leather, sounds like a ferocious roar. It’s a phrasal instead of thematic work, with distortions and quasi-variations: an alchemical whirlwind that takes order and transmutes it into chaos.

Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra give a performance that totally meets Varese’s original somewhere in the deepest parts of space, with sound production that’s stupendous on this mid-1960s RCA recording.

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