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Thread: Edgard Varèse

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    Senior Member Bach's Avatar
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    Default Edgard Varèse

    A miraculous composer

    Thoughts?
    Si vos agnosco is tunc vos es quoque erudio

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    Indeed. Every time I put on disc of his, I'm struck by how fresh and new it all still seems. Utterly logical, utterly unique and individual pieces, too (though each of them obviously by just the one guy).

    Miraculous is le mot juste.

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    Senior Member danae's Avatar
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    And think of how small his overall output is!

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    Senior Member Weston's Avatar
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    My only knowledge of him is anecdotal as he appears in Frank Zappa's biography as an early influence. I have heard his Arcana only -- it was included on a disc of Holst's The Planets.

    What are your recommendations for works?

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    Senior Member danae's Avatar
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    Certainly Density 21.5, Ameriques, Poeme Electronique, Hyperprism and Ionisation. To be exact, almost all of his very few works are masterpieces. You should listen to all of them. But I would advise you to start with these.
    And BTW, Weston, I sent you a p.m. Can you read it please?

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    Default A great composer of the C20th

    One of the great composers...especially like his Deserts which takes you on a journey through strange and inhospitable landscapes. But most of all, these are deserts of the mind rather than just physical wastelands. And also like his Ameriques which conjures up images of the urban and real jungles; I especially like the use of a siren which sounds like a fire engine rushing through the busy streets of a city.

    It's a pity that his music is not performed that much live (well, anyway, here in Sydney that's the case, I don't really know about elsewhere). Although I do have a recording that was made during the Warsaw Festival with the Polish National Radiio Symphony Orchestra. In any case, its good that there are some very good recordings of his work available. I have the above recording which was put out by Naxos.

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    One of the great iconoclasts of 2oth century music. Even the most radical works of other composers appear more conventional when compared to those by Varese.

    Some great quotes of his:

    "Contrary to general belief an artist is never ahead of his time but most people are far behind theirs."

    "I refuse to limit myself to sounds that have already been heard."

    "I am not a musician. I work with rhythms, frequencies and intensities. Tunes are the gossips in music."

    (As a 20 year old student to his teacher Saint-Saens): "I have no desire to become an old powdered wig like you!"

    Early in his career he was admired by such musical and artistic figures as Debussy, Richard Strauss, Busoni, Guiliiaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Roussel, Widor, Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Roman Roland. Most of his early works are lost to us, as they were destroyed when a Berlin warehouse storing them burnt down in 1913. These included Rhapsodie romane, Prelude a la fin d'un jour, Gargantua and Mehr Licht. Still, later in 1962, the composer destroyed a number of his works, including the symphonic poem Bourgogne. His earliest work to survive today is the song Un grand sommeil noir from 1906.

    Varese's music clearly lays down a challenge to us to think about the uncertainties, ambiguities and ambivalence that the modern world is made up of.

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    Senior Member Weston's Avatar
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    I am resurrecting this thread (for that is what the composer guestbooks are for, are they not?) to ask some questions about Varèse's Arcana. I have spent much of the weekend seriously listening to it and little else, in the hopes that memorizing it will help me appreciate it. This method worked for me as a kid listening to Ligeti's Atmospheres though the pieces have nothing in common other than both eschew 19th century common practice.

    So far I haven't memorized it, but I am making a dent in understanding I think. I still have a long way to go. The allmusic guide has this to say about the work:

    Quote Originally Posted by allmusic.com
    In this work, a kind of a freely extended passacaglia, a basic 11-note musical idea is subjected to all kinds of permutations and variations, eventually returning in an echo of its original shape just before a coda.
    So my questions:

    What is it that makes this a passacaglia? This is a far cry from a walk in the park, which the term passacaglia tends to denote.

    Why am I only hearing a six note motif rather than an "eleven note musical idea?" Are the six notes I'm hearing repeated with a slight variation making eleven and I'm just not picking up on it?

    I do hear this motif resurface once in a while throughout the piece, but in between is a lot of discordant ominous orchestral stabs with seemingly unrelated percussion layered on top. Is the motif or "musical idea" still residing hidden in those sections somewhere and I'm just not catching it?

    Does anyone have an idea why the ominous discordant sections would have light and airy ticky-tock, clippy-clop percussion layered over the top? These seem completely out of place to my ears.

    What else am I supposed to be getting out of this work? I do hear the various orchestral colors and timbres being explored, but surely there is more to it than that.

    I know that's a lot of tedious questions and a long tedious post, but any advice, even months or years later, will be much appreciated.

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    Just received his complete works in the mail (RCO/ASKO with Chailly). After a few cursory listens I must agree with the above comments. I hope to get back to you after Ive discovered the music a little.

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    Arcana's a rich and lovely work to be sure. One of my favorites.

    Here's my advice, Weston. One, don't worry about whether the opening motif is six notes or eleven. (However I slice it, I always come up with something other than eleven. Though six is always too short--that first figure includes the pause. That is, the pause does not signal the end of the figure.)

    Two, try to jettison the associations. Passacaglia probably shouldn't denote a walk in the park. It's just a form, like sonata. And even more importantly, the ominous orchestral stabs. Try not to think of things like "ominous." (Or even stabbing, for that matter.) Then the percussion bits might seem less arbitrary.

    Indeed, best to let the music play, with all the sounds going just as Varese put them in, and just listen. It seems like analysis is simply kicking in too early for enjoyment. Analysis, I would say, is not a means to understand the music so much as it is a way to articulate what you have come to understand. If the analyses you're reading come to different conclusions than you come to, so be it. Just don't let those conclusions guide your listening is all. (I had become thoroughly familiar with that piece before I heard it described as a kind of passacaglia, for instance. And so that description for me while interesting was not very useful. And it still doesn't really intrude on my listening while I'm listening.)

    Anyway, hope that helps. It's a lovely piece and well worth getting to know!

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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by some guy View Post
    Arcana's a rich and lovely work to be sure. One of my favorites.

    Here's my advice, Weston. One, don't worry about whether the opening motif is six notes or eleven. (However I slice it, I always come up with something other than eleven. Though six is always too short--that first figure includes the pause. That is, the pause does not signal the end of the figure.)

    Two, try to jettison the associations. Passacaglia probably shouldn't denote a walk in the park. It's just a form, like sonata. And even more importantly, the ominous orchestral stabs. Try not to think of things like "ominous." (Or even stabbing, for that matter.) Then the percussion bits might seem less arbitrary.

    Indeed, best to let the music play, with all the sounds going just as Varese put them in, and just listen. It seems like analysis is simply kicking in too early for enjoyment. Analysis, I would say, is not a means to understand the music so much as it is a way to articulate what you have come to understand. If the analyses you're reading come to different conclusions than you come to, so be it. Just don't let those conclusions guide your listening is all. (I had become thoroughly familiar with that piece before I heard it described as a kind of passacaglia, for instance. And so that description for me while interesting was not very useful. And it still doesn't really intrude on my listening while I'm listening.)

    Anyway, hope that helps. It's a lovely piece and well worth getting to know!
    I found Arcana (1925 - 1927) quite listenable, and moderately enjoyable. Dramatic and full of disturbing vigour, which reminded me of old thriller movie scores or to that effect. Quite an exciting piece to listen to. Has this piece been used in movies or with such Hollywood-ish intention when composed? I'm curious. I think it's a fine piece of music.

    Unfortunately, I cannot share the same level of enthusiasm for some of his other works. Poème électronique (1958), belongs to the weird electronic fart, crappy junk category. My understanding is Varese didn't compose a lot of music; his complete oeuvre can fill up 2 CDs. So it's ashame to see him writing weird junk when he was clearly capable of doing far better, as I discovered with Arcana.

    [YT]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQKyYmU2tPg[/YT]

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    Senior Member Weston's Avatar
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    Oh -- I sort of like this weird electronic fart, crappy junk. The video is cool too. But I think the point about old thriller movie scores is part of my problem with Arcana. Hollywood embraced this style of music for ominous or thriller scenes. Now it's hard for me to listen to this style without thinking a TV is on somewhere showing old film noir. That is not necessarily the fault of the music, just an unfortunate cultural thing. That wouldn't be a problem except it has caused me to feel the percussion is out of place.

    @some guy. You are probably right about the analysis. It's just that sometimes analysis has helped me in the past "get" something I wasn't quite picking up on. I think maybe in this case it can hinder though. I will stop trying so hard to understand and just let it happen.

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    Senior Member Chris's Avatar
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    I have just experienced Ionisation on Youtube.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9mg4KHqRPw

    First time I've seen a piano played with the forearm! I'll leave the rest of you to enjoy Varese. I'm going back to Beethoven

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    Senior Member emiellucifuge's Avatar
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    Would anyone like me to translate the text at the beginning of that video?

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    Quote Originally Posted by HarpsichordConcerto View Post
    Poème électronique (1958), belongs to the weird electronic fart, crappy junk category.
    Farts, junk, crappy and weird. What elevation of conversation we are capable of, to be sure. And directed at such a perfect little jewel of a piece, too, a piece that got a lot of people I know into classical music in the first place, a piece that is widely admired, so much so that it got Varèse called "the father of electronic music," which he certainly was not, by any means. But such was the glamour of Poème électronique.

    The fart remark is a bit like calling Orlando a screech fest, with the caterwauling relieved only by the squalling. It belongs to the ridiculous, thousand notes for every syllable category.




    And, of course, it is nothing of the sort....

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