Naming a work as the first of any genre is speculative, irresponsible, and fun. For modernist music, two perennial candidates are Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) and Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912), although I feel that external circumstances rather than musical content got them the nominations. (Pro tip: wanna get your piece remembered? Start a riot.) Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question (1908) predates both of them and innovates multiplane music and dissonance; I’ve argued for it as the First Modernist work before. Another, later work that has a strong claim on the spot is Edgard Varèse’s Arcana (written 1925-27, it’s close enough to the 1928 cutoff for me to crash Year of the Month, deal with it), which encompasses all of the innovations of Ives, Schönberg, and Stravinsky and pushes past them on some others; if it’s not the first work of modern music, it may be the first work to be securely in its new world.
In the broadest definition–and modernism necessarily broadened a lot of definitions in art–music is the transformation of sound over time. The method of common practice–music composed in the Western tradition through the early 20th century–uses tonality as the essential means of doing this: establishing a key and changing it, and the development of the tradition from about 1600 to 1900 was the development of more keys (more subsets of notes, really) that composers could move between. Not just the rise of twelve-tone music (which deliberately cannot stay in any key) but the increasing use of noise elements made this method impossible–you can’t have a key when you don’t have notes from which to make it.
Varèse once called his compositional strategy “interpenetrating planes of sound.” It’s a method well-suited for incorporating noise, or better yet, treating all elements, including tonal ones, as noise. He doesn’t go for the multileveled, simultaneous currents of sound like Ives before him or Elliott Carter and John Cage after; instead, Varèse shifts the music from one thing to another while still holding the other “planes of sound” in memory. He creates a music of contrasts, something like Picasso in reverse, showing all sides of the music one after the other yet not in a counting sequence, moving through the planes in a continuous but not straight line.
Arcana launches with what Varèse calls the “idée fixe,” not really a melody, but a stuttering eleven-note motive that will come back in various forms for all eighteen minutes of the piece. That little stutter makes it more memorable, more unusual; it’s something that can’t be swallowed up by the rest of the sound, dramatic, thudding, and recognizable (dun dun DUN dun dun DUN; dunDUN, DUN dun dun) by letting it recur, he gives our listening something to hold on to, a line through all the other sounds, a clear path through the noise. And wow, is it ever noisy: Arcana requires over 120 players, 40 of them playing percussion; no wonder Leopold Stokowski, who always went big, got to premiere it. (On records, I’ve seen it paired with Holst’s The Planets, a more conventional but equally grand work.) The idée fixe steps aside and the orchestra shrieks, rumbles, and rattles, shifting from horns to percussion to strings and back.
As with a lot of modernist artists, from James Joyce to Frank Lloyd Wright, Varèse emphasizes the particular materiality here. Much of the power of Arcana comes from its variety of sounds, and the way the orchestra completely commits to each one–there’s little sense of layering the different instruments for the total effect. There’s not much harmony, i.e., the reconciliation of different notes. Horns dominate one moment, strings the next, percussion the next; the music creates a clash of instrumental colors, not a unified whole. What matters here isn’t the notes but the sounds themselves, the impact of the orchestra, the clash of timbres. There can’t be a chamber version of this. Schönberg adapted some of his orchestral pieces for chamber ensemble, and rewrote a string sextet for orchestra; Stravinsky transcribed The Rite of Spring for piano four-hands. All of them sound great and that wouldn’t work at all for Arcana; it’s not a piece of pure music that can exist in different forms. Varèse follows the modernist project of stripping away the history-through-technique that has burdened the material and returning it to something more elemental, and necessary.
Arcana deploys volume differently than most works, before and after. This is a loud piece, make no mistake, but there’s not much crescendoing–or diminuendoing for that matter. There’s contrast between loud and soft, but it’s not a matter of emphasis; things aren’t loud to be dramatic or quiet to focus our attention. The sound simply arrives, fully loud or fully soft, in whatever form it happens to be. This points to another aspect of the “interpenetrating plane” structure: starting with the repetition of the idée fixe, there’s nothing you could call development. Each phrase or effect exists on its own and has its own charge but they don’t change, only recur; they exist in some elsewhere and come into and out of presence through the course of the work.
Varèse’s reputation rests on two works that follow from Arcana: Ionization (1930) takes a place in music history as the first all-percussion piece to make it into the standard repertoire (not only is it all percussion, there are no pitched percussion sounds until the final minute) and his final work, 1958’s Poème Electronique, is one of the early masterpieces for tape. These two works have in common with Arcana something defining for Varèse and necessary for modern music: a new method of creating a musical continuity, what he called “the organization of sound.” Cage’s praise that Varèse “fathered forth noise into contemporary music” comes close to describing his achievement: Varèse found a method of composing that works for noise elements or music elements or a combination of them.
There’s a long way to go from this piece to the sound-mass compositions of Krzysztof Penderecki or Gyorgy Ligeti, but Arcana takes the first step by creating a structure where the transformation-through-time doesn’t depend on tonality or even atonality. The dying-away of sound at the end feels just a bit like the final minute of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, though, and Olivier Messiaen, who was getting started in music around the time of Arcana, would develop really his entire compositional style around it. (Pierre Boulez once said “Messiaen doesn’t compose, he juxtaposes” as if that was a bad thing.) Ives had already used different musical ensembles for different sounds, but he tended to throw things together (the more the better) rather than sparely and carefully organize them them the way Varèse did; and Carter’s sense of the different characters of instrumental groups has an origin point here too. Arcana calls backwards and forwards: there were enough other works around to give it some context, and its methodology can be found in later compositions.
Of all the things modernism freed the arts from, the compulsion to beauty may be the most important; certainly it’s the most obvious. Implicit in so much pre-1900s music and art was the need to create beautiful, appealing surfaces, the kind of thing that could be played or displayed in a respectable living room without disturbing anyone. By doing away with that, the great modernist works expanded the range of content, in emotions, sounds, colors, and shapes. Arcana is a powerfully unbeautiful work, a building made out of unpainted steel girders and rough, unfinished beams, lopsided and looming. (As a building, it belongs in the Brutalist and Futurist architecture movements.) Even The Rite of Spring, which still shocks over a century later, feels too dependent on melody after hearing this. Varèse has a direct legacy in musicians like Frank Zappa (who was a huge fan and performed some of his pieces) but a more indirect one in Thelonius Monk, who had a similar and equally compelling sense of angular, awkward, unpretty and direct music.
Another great modernist composer, Anton Webern, said that the first thing a musical idea needed to have was clarity, and that points both to Arcana and a larger quality about this kind of music, if not of all modernist art. This is music and art that’s far less contemplative, far less about sitting and absorbing; the multiple meanings, the complexity, all of this lands with immediate impact. The painter James Brooks said of James Joyce “what you were reading was right there. You’re not waiting for something to come” and that might be another defining principle of the modernists; it’s certainly what makes Arcana work. Modernism was very much an urban phenomenon, and Arcana has the structure of a walk through a city. It’s not music of the sounds of urban life (George Antheil would take that on in Ballet Mechanique) but of its feel: a barrage of distinct but intelligible sensations, each one understandable on its own, each one with its own history, but continually moving in and out of attention. The sounds have their own logic, their own life; and what makes it great, what makes it an origin point for modernism, is that you don’t get to choose how they come to you.