We inhabit a landscape of electronic sound: alarms, alerts, beeping appliances, chiming elevators, singing telephones, throbbing cars, street noises repurposed into music, bits of music accreting into noise. We carry our personal soundtracks with us and feed the city’s burble of competing beats. The godfather of this electroacoustic cornucopia is Edgard Varèse, the Parisian composer who arrived in New York in 1915, at 32, and remained here, on and off, until his death in 1965. He began his career in the drawing room of Richard Strauss and ended it in the heyday of the tape recorder. All these years later, we live in the sonic world he imagined.
It’s easy to picture Varèse, with his extravagant corona of hair, striding out of his Sullivan Street apartment into a pre-electronic cacophony of source material. Relentlessly curious, steeped in history but devoted to originality, he was a Broadway orchestrator and sometime jazzman who also served as a guru of the avant-garde. Frank Zappa and Charlie Parker asked him for guidance (neither received any). On one recently unearthed recording, he conducts a band that includes Art Farmer and Charles Mingus in an early budding of free jazz.
Varèse doled out dense music that goes by very quickly. Lincoln Center Festival has programmed his complete works on two consecutive nights (July 19 and 20): one concert of scores for small ensemble, and another of the New York Philharmonic playing his brief but massive orchestral explosions. He had an overpowering personality and he dispensed pronouncements freely, but expressing himself in music was a struggle, mostly because he felt compelled to reinvent the whole art from scratch. Notes and rhythms, he felt, were merely splinters from the universe of available sounds, though for the first part of his career, he made do with those. He preferred the sharp bite of wind instruments to the timbre of strings, which he called “frail and pitiable … without vitality.” He tried to incorporate the noisy plenty of his adopted city into his first New York score, the orchestral work Amériques, which boasts hand-operated sirens and a dozen or so overworked percussionists. In the early thirties, he composed Ionisation, a festival of klaxons, snare-drum tattoos, and roars that hasn’t lost its kinetic urgency and that inaugurated a now-rich genre of works for percussion ensemble.
But he was dissatisfied and frustrated, and he spent the period between 1936 and 1953 composing almost nothing. What interested Varèse was the tactile quality and unbroken fluidity of sound—the way a growl could slip into a wail and then burst into a multicolored swirl of timbres. Near the beginning of his long break, he delivered a lecture in which he envisioned “new harmonic splendors … the possibility of obtaining any differentiation of timbre, of sound-combinations; new dynamics far beyond the present human-powered orchestra; [and] a sense of sound-projection in space by means of the emission of sound in any part or in many parts of the hall as may be required by the score.” Varèse’s desires echoed a visionary passage, now widely known among electronic musicians, in Sir Francis Bacon’s 1627 novel The New Atlantis, which describes with fantastical accuracy everything from synthesizers to multichannel amplification. (“We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances,” Bacon wrote.)
In 1953, Varèse received a gift of an Ampex tape recorder, which jolted him out of his semi-retirement. He was finally able to realize Bacon’s ancient fantasy with 1958’s Poème électronique, a multimedia concoction of bleeps, whines, and eerie crashes, accompanied, in its original installation at the Brussels World’s Fair, by a film that rehashed the surrealistic imagery he’d known in his younger days. Most pioneers invent tools for greater talents to refine. Varèse had an intricate musical universe in his mind before he had the techniques to share it, and as a result his work is intensely original and maddeningly constrained. He dreamed of being able to sculpt sound like clay, rather than having to jam his ideas into the rigid code of musical notation. Today, the machines he fantasized about have become ubiquitous, and we need only watch a YouTube clip of applegirl002, tapping out a song on an orchestra of iPhones, to imagine Varèse’s thunderous regret that he was born a century too soon.