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Edgard Varese Edgard Varese
Album: The Complete Works, Volume 1
Label: El/Cherry Red
Tracks: 8+9+5

This release is one for the curious and adventurous listener – but it’s also one for the listener with more than a passing acquaintance with the music of this enigmatic, uncompromising and highly influential musical figure. Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) was born in France but emigrated to America in 1915. He composed music of great originality, and like all true originals was unappreciated or misunderstood for most of his life, even in America. But rock fans will have heard of Varèse through the endorsement of Frank Zappa, who was blown away by a record of Varèse’s music that he bought as a teenager in the mid-50s. Zappa’s interest in sound for sound’s sake, and his openness to new musical experiences, were the ideal breeding ground for the onward influence of this unique kind of musical expression on (especially) one strand of his own multi-faceted music, that of Lumpy Gravy, sections of Uncle Meat and 200 Motels and the later orchestral scores. Varèse was an innovator in the use of percussion and wind instruments, and rhythmic construction and layering of timbres. He opened up the spaces outside the conventional concepts of harmony; for him these had no meaning or purpose in modern music. Thus in his compositions, conventional themes and development are replaced by motifs and soundscapes, while the concept of timbre and its weight holds a central place therein. The uniqueness of Varèse’s music is not to be underplayed and, once heard, tends not to be mistaken for that of any other composer. Having said that, it’s possible to hear echoes and elements in film music (horror, sci-fi and action movie scores, sometimes bordering on cliché) to this day.

The title of this set is mildly baffling, if not illogical, to those who know something of Varèse’s music. Varèse was not by any means a prolific composer, his total surviving œuvre consisting of just 15 works (excluding revisions and alternate scorings) in a composing career lasting from the very early 1900s through to 1961, four years before his death – remembering that almost all of his pre-1914 compositions were lost in a warehouse fire. This anthology presents performances of only nine of the 15 works – and six of these are given in more than one performance. But the three discs making up this anthology do a great service in gathering together a host of pioneering recordings of Varèse’s music, taken from the contents of several obscure LPs. But in all honesty it can’t claim to be the complete works (the box’s prominent “Volume 1” tag refers to the original issue of one of the LPs represented here rather than any intention to issue a Volume 2, I understand…)

Possibly Varèse’s signature work is Ionisation, written in 1924 and scored for 13 performers who between them play 35 different percussion instruments; it relies on sensitive interplay between the different kinds of percussive sounds, and has a determinedly modernistic sound, suggestive of the sounds of modern city life. Ionisation crops up here in four different performances, which were recorded in 1933 (the work’s première recording), 1950, 1957 and 1959 respectively – and by the way make for fascinating comparison. These recordings may not be highest-fi, at times quite brittle, but (as we learn from the Zappa story recounted in the set’s booklet) the second of them was used by a record shop for hi-fi demonstration purposes. They all stand up amazingly well and convey the sheer feral power of the music, with a fantastic dynamic urgency that does quite literally bowl you over, especially when encountering it for the first time. (As an interesting side-note, the work’s première recording involved cameo stand-ins from Varèse’s fellow-composers including Henry Cowell and William Schuman, since the engaged NYPO percussion players were unable to master the rhythms! The composer himself manned the sirens, which were borrowed for the session from a retired NYC fireman…)

Other works on these discs are scored for different combinations of instruments, from wind ensemble with percussion (Intégrales, Octandre, Hyperprisme) to chamber orchestra with soprano soloist (Offrandes) to full symphony orchestra (Arcana). At the other end of the scale is a piece for solo flute (Density 21.5), and there are two pieces involving the pioneering use of electronic tape (Poème Électronique and in the orchestral work Déserts, where the tape operator is a certain Pierre Henry, whom you’ll recall worked with Spooky Tooth in the late 60s – this latter recording is of the work’s 1954 world première, where the audience reaction is a violent mixture of enthusiastic applause and angry protest!). One of the original discs was entitled A Sound Spectacular, and this is for once an accurate description. This is not “easy” music, but it is music of tremendous importance, and this

As a footnote: if after listening to this set you feel sufficiently motivated to complete your survey of Varèse’s compositions, then the comprehensive (also tagged “complete”) two-disc edition on the Decca label with conductor Ricardo Chailly at the helm is worthy of consideration, since it contains everything (that is, except for the 1927 revised version of Amériques with its reduced scoring). It also has state-of-the-art digital recorded sound. However, although it can be argued that, next to live performance, true hi-fi is the best way to experience these overwhelming pieces, I find that these early recordings convey the music’s innovatory and iconoclastic nature, the shock of the new, with a presence and fire that is unsurpassable in the digital age. Thus, this new anthology is essential for the appreciation of Varèse’s art. And the documentation, detailed discographical notes and revealing perspective granted by the accompanying booklet’s essays (including original notes by fellow-composer Igor Stravinsky) really do Varèse justice. As he himself famously said, “The present-day American composer refuses to die.”

David Kidman