History of Electroacoustic Music

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965)

Composer Edgard Varèse holds a special place in the history of electroacoustic music, as in many ways he envisioned it before it was feasible to realize it.

The family lived in Turin, where Edgard went to the Institute Technique, the science high school. His father, an engineer, was cruel and abusive to his family. He was adamant that his son also study engineering. He locked the piano to keep Edgard away from it. Undaunted, the boy studied it in secret elsewhere.

Edgard eventually disowned himself from his father and snuck to Paris in 1903 to study music. He also took science and math courses at the Ecole Polytechnique.

His conception of music was formed through his study of science. As he later recalled, "When I was about twenty, I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my gropings toward music I sensed could exist. Hoene Wronsky, physicist, chemist, musicologist and philosopher of the first half of the nineteenth century, defined music as 'the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.' It was a new and exciting conception and to me the first that started me thinking of music as spatial -- as moving bodies of sound in space, a conception I gradually made my own."

Varèse was also inspired by reading Helmholtz. From reading On the Sensations of Tone, Varèse got the idea of incorporating the siren into music as a means of creating "curved shapes" of sound.

While he was in Paris, he had another pivotal experience during a performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony at the Salle Pleyel. The story goes that during the Scherzo Movement, perhaps due to the resonance of the hall, he had the experience of the music breaking up and projecting in space. It was an idea that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was to describe his works as consisting of "sound objects, floating in space."

In 1907 he went to Berlin to broaden his horizons. There, he became a pupil of Busoni and a friend of Debussy. His reputation as a composer grew.

In 1915 he moved to New York to escape the war. He became part of an expatriate community of artists and rebels that included Duchamp and other Futurists and Dadaists.

Click here to see an appearance by Varèse as an actor in the 1920 J.S. Robertson film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In 1921, he co-founded the International Composers' Guild, which gave him a steady ensemble to write pieces for. The founding of eclectic musical ensembles was typical of the modernist sensibility of finding new means of expression through music. Many composers founded their own ensembles or started their own music journals in an attempt to redefine music's role to the public. He wrote most of his significant compositions during the 1920s and early 1930s. While his first piece, Offrandes in 1922, was a great success, subsequent works met with derision for the most part. It was only later that their merits were recognized.

Many of his titles reflected his interest in sciences: Hyperprisme (1922), Octandre (1923), Ionisation (1923-25), Intégrales (1931), Density 21.5 (1936). In terms of content, his works bore a conceptual basis in many of the scientific revolutions of the time (relativity, quantum theory). In the program notes for Integrales he wrote:

I often borrow from higher mathematics or astronomy only because these sciences stimulate my imagination and give me the impression of movement, of rhythm. For me there is more musical fertility in the contemplation of the stars...and the high poetry of certain mathematical expositions than in the most sublime gossip of human passions.

He termed this piece "spatial music," and began to call his pieces "organized sound" to distinguish them from more traditional forms of composition. Intégrales was later described by his student Chou Wen Chung as a body of sounds with certain specific attributes in interval content, register, contour, timbre, intensity, attack and decay. They can collide, penetrate, repulse each other; this continual process -- expansion, penetration, interaction, and transmutation -- creates the sense of a growing organism in the entire score, and illustrates Varèse's concept of sound as living matter. He described himself not so much as a musician as a worker in rhythms, frequencies and intensities, one of the first composers to explore sound as an acoustic event.

In classical music, there is a sense of continuity -- events are meant to imply a direction. Taking the lead from Debussy, Varèse tried to absolve sounds of any such implications and predictability. Each sound was to be perceived as its own event, not an element in a directional flow. Many years later, composer Charles Wuorinen was to describe Varèse's music as:

...pass[ing] musical time with the juxtaposition of differentiated elements, not the interconnection of evolutionarily related elements. The idea was to focus the listener in the present as an isolated moment, not to be predicting the future.

Besides his innovations of sound masses and lack of predictability, Varèse's music is notable for its attempts to create new kinds of sounds altogether. He worked with creating composite ("chimeric") timbres through new instrument combinations.

While Varèse did not care for 12-tone composition or, later, chance composition, he was very much the modernist in his attempts to do away with typical forms of predictability in music, as well as in his attempts to create instruments that could realize new timbres and scales. In 1927 he approached to Bell Laboratories, hoping to be given a lab where he could explore the creation of new types of sounds. He was turned down.

In 1928 he incorporated electronics into his music when he wrote Amériques, which included the new ondes martenot. In 1933 he applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for funding to do acoustical research. He was excited by the invention of the Dynaphone, which was created in 1927 by Rene Bertrand. The Dynaphone had a pointer that was rotated to choose pitches, and a variety of knobs and buttons to control volume and timbre. Varèse articulated a desire to collaborate with Bertrand to further develop the Dynaphone. He wanted to be able to create new tones from selected partials, to work with any range of frequency or create different types of scales. In short, he envisioned a synthesizer, 20 years before they were invented. In 1971, Milton Babbitt was to describe Varèse's music as "nonelectronic synthesis." But Varèse was also turned down by the Guggenheim Foundation.

He continued his experiments with electronics when he wrote Ecuatorial in 1934, which included two specially constructed theremins. (Although when he was asked to have the piece published in 1961, the instruments were no longer available, so he reassigned the theremin parts to ondes martenots.)

Having married into wealth (a publisher's daughter), Varèse was less prolific in the 1930s and 1940s. Frustrated by hostile reactions to his works and his inability to get support to develop new instruments, he spent the next 15-20 years in a state of personal and creative crisis, teaching a few students, writing infrequently, theorizing about new forms of music.

The following are some descriptions he gave of his work in interviews over the years:

"[My works are] an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and split into different shapes or groups of sounds constantly changing in shape, direction, and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form of the work is the consequence of this interaction."

"The emotional impulse that moves a composer to write his scores contains the same element of poetry that incites the scientist to his discoveries. There is solidarity between scientific development and the progress of music. Throwing new light on nature, science permits music to progress -- or rather to grow and change with changing times -- by revealing to our senses harmonies and sensations before unfelt. On the threshold of beauty, science and art collaborate...There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and split into different shapes or groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form is a consequence of this interaction." (1939)

" little our music reflects the stupendous physical discoveries that have so fundamentally altered most of our inherited scientific beliefs which the nineteenth century regarded as anxious. Music, the most physical (and most abstract) of the arts should be the first to reflect this revolution, as it could be the art to benefit the needs new means of expression and science alone can infuse it with youthful vigor." (1947)

"My music being based on movements of unrelated sound masses, I have long felt the need and anticipated the effect of having them move simultaneously at different speeds." (1960)

Ouellette, Fernand. Edgard Varèse. Translated from the French by Derek Coltman. New York: Da Capo Press, 1968, 1981.
Theremin Vox - Edgard Varèse