• pico

    This is great! A lot to chew on: I haven’t heard much Varèse, and now I’m curious where and how to “fit” him in my own understanding of 20th century music (which is tilted more toward Eastern Europe, so I have different borders for things like Modernism, and I’m not always good at reconciling them with Western Modernism in my head.) I see Varèse was fan of Scriabin, which explains a lot: some of your descriptions sound like a composer who grabbed at some of Scriabin’s innovations but freed them from that composer’s more conservative formal constraints.

    I wonder how much of late Imperial/early Soviet music Varèse knew. Are you familiar with Avraamov’s Symphony of Factory Sirens (1922)? Most of the “orchestra” are “non-musical” objects like artillery, planes, marching soldiers and, well, factory sirens, juxtaposed in ways that seem very similar to how you describe Varèse’s method here: they seem to arrive into and depart the soundscape at their own pace and of their own will with no desire to make the overlapping sound “beautiful” so much as asserting their presence (after all, it’s impossible to perform except outdoors at a well-equipped military base). It’s like a live version of the sound collages Dziga Vertov was building out of found material in the 1910s. Similar sort of embrace of the urban and the technological (inspired by Futurism, natch) and rejection of the Romantic heritage.

    Gonna spend some time with Varèse now. Thanks again!

    • You’re welcome! Honestly, these three pieces are his best and most characteristic work, although Density 21.5 shows how you can build a solo piece from a single motive rather than a melody. When I was writing this, I remembered your earlier comments on Vertov; Varèse really strikes me as someone who tried to come up with a method to organize all the new sounds that were available in the early 20th century and succeeded at it more than anyone else. It’s why this has a claim on being the original modern composition.

      • pico

        I can definitely see that: I’d much rather listen to Varèse than Avraamov or Vertov. The latter two still seem to be experimenting, where Varèse’s piece sounds fully realized.

  • BurgundySuit

    Wanna be as cool as Wallflower? Then sign up for Year of the Month!


    NO DATE: Wallflower: Arcana
    NO DATE: Son of Griff: Show People

    Jan 8th: BurgundySuit: The House at Pooh Corner
    Jan 11th: Pico: The House on Trubnaya
    Jan 15th: Joseph Finn: All Quiet on the Western Front
    Jan 20th: Conor Malcolm Crockford: Steamboat Bill Jr.
    Jan 28th: The Ploughman: The Circus
    Jan 30th: Miller: Decline and Fall

    • Thanks for letting me crash with this, man. (I figured it was also allowable since ’28 was the earliest year.) Also, check out two older pieces on The Passion of Joan of Arc, from Nerd and myself.

      • BurgundySuit

        Still waiting for someone to call dibs on that. I assumed it would be the first thing to get snapped up!

    • ZoeZ

      I’ll throw my hat in for Maugham’s Ashenden, but be cautious enough to ask for the 31st.

    • pico

      Mine is scheduled and ready to go. All we need is someone to do Fall of the House of Usher in the next week and we can have a House trifecta.

      • BurgundySuit

        A full house, you might say.

  • mr_apollo

    Thank you, Frank Zappa, for turning me on to Varese at an early age.

    One of the aspects of Varese’s music that has always impressed me is how accessible it is. Perhaps it’s because the clash of sounds doesn’t seem so unnerving as it once might have, particularly to anyone who listens to film scores (paging Carl Stalling…)

    There’s a sense of suspense to the music. What is coming next? It could be anything yet never feels like a mess or hodge podge. Without melodies or consistent beats, the ways we normally measure time when listening to music are gone. Last night while listening to “Arcana” I had no idea where I was in terms of the piece’s duration. I simply was, in the moment.

    Your pieces on music are my favorite articles on The Solute, Wallflower. Thank you again.

    • Aw thank you. Varèse and Arcana have only gotten more accessible over time, which strengthens the claim here that this is the first truly modern piece of music. It’s not that there’s more music composed like this (although there is), it’s that the world has caught up to this kind of sound. It’s why I find this to be a really urban piece of music; Steve Reich’s Music for 12 Musicians hits me this way too.

      That’s exactly right that time seems to be suspended in this piece–nothing is anticipated but nothing is unexpected either. I’m beginning to see an idea about how different composers approach time, from the continual multiple flows of Elliott Carter to the vibrating stasis of Morton Feldman, who has entirely conventional sounds that can’t ever be predicted, because he keeps tricking up the rhythms.

  • ZoeZ

    This makes me think about how the lowest part of the appeal of beauty in art is that it gives you the criteria by which you should evaluate it: yeah, eye of the beholder, but you go into it knowing that you’re looking for. Pleasure, symmetry, harmony. And Modernism upsets that–by refusing to be beautiful, or to be inherently respectable, it also refuses to tell anyone listening to it/looking at/reading it how it should be judged. Which goes along with its straightforwardness: it just is.

    …And as I was listening to these clips with my headphones in, my work email chimed and I briefly mistook it for part of the music and entertained the idea that someone had borrowed that sound specifically from Varese. I’m very disappointed now.