The Complete Works

Varèse, Edgar

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The Odd Sonic Schemes of an Off-Putting Visionary

In March 1997, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne assembled more than forty cars on one level of a parking garage in Austin, Texas. He gave each driver a cassette tape with music he'd prepared on it, and told the participants to roll down the windows or open the doors and crank up the volume. At his exact cue, the drivers hit Play, unleashing an odd sonic chase scene—with short melodic motifs rolling from one end of the garage to the other.

This audio "sculpture," which was performed for an audience estimated at over a thousand, had historical precedent—most obviously "Poème electronique," Edgar Varèse's riveting installation for the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. Varèse (1883–1965) intended his piece to be played on three synchronized tape recorders, with the signals fed to multiple amplifiers and speakers. One of the most important early examples of tape-based composition, it begins with the tolling of far-off bells, and progresses through devices typical of the French composer's more traditional music—there are slide whistles and sirens, rhythmic tapping, and odd far-off squiggles that approximate gull calls. Each sound is a discrete "event" that functions somewhat like an image in a poem; the relationships between the episodes are unclear, and the listener is left to ponder the unusual juxtapositions.

The "Poème," Varèse's last completed work, arrived at a time when most electronic music had the resonance of a monotone doorbell. Though many criticized its abstractions, it has grown in stature. One reason is that Varèse didn't adhere to any single preexisting "system," like serialism, that defined much composition in the early twentieth century. Instead, his great works rely on a variety of techniques. They're governed by sharp-stick orchestral provocations one minute, highly ordered, almost Stravinsky-like motifs another, and pure gimmickry (the police sirens that terrorize "Amériques," rendered with great zest by Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra here) the next. Such a mishmash of techniques anticipates the scattershot evolution of music in the second half of the twentieth century, and makes Varèse a patron saint of sonic scheming. His concepts still thrive in audio "installations" in art galleries and, every now and then, some crowded parking garage.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1998, London
Key Tracks: "Poème electronique," "Amériques," "Ecuatorial"
Next Stop: Frank Zappa: The Yellow Shark
After That: The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka
Book Pages: 802–803

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#1 from Ryan Quinn, Ontario, Canada - 09/20/2010 10:58

Brilliant modern classical music, those wishing to get a sense of where modern classical music lies should listen to this album, and the John Adams entry.

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