There are few composers - at least among those who lived beyond their three score years and ten - whose musical output can be contained on two CDs. Edgard Varèse, whose work is celebrated over three evenings at the Southbank Centre this weekend, completed and published a relatively modest amount of music, but his influence on the work of a wide range of musicians continues - 45 years after his death.
Anyone captivated by the range of Varèse’s music - whether through the Southbank or Sage, Gateshead, celebrations or Riccardo Chailly’s award-winning recordings - should investigate Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary edited by the Paul Sacher Foundation’s Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann. ‘No-one interested in this composer, or indeed the 20th century modernist adventure as a whole, should be without [this book],’ wrote Bayan Northcott in BBC Music Magazine in 2006.
Exquisitely illustrated with material from the Varèse archive, the book contains essays by a range of contributors. There are, of course, pieces on the major compositions, alongside others on the lost early works - destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire; the influence of jazz on his work (it is said that Charlie Parker begged Varèse to teach him composition); the truth about that mythical phone call from a teenage Frank Zappa; his influence on American music; the Whitney connection and his New York patrons; even the art collection of Varèse and his wife, Louise.
One of the most thrilling pieces is ‘Converging Lives: Sixteen Years with Varèse’ by his pupil, assistant and music executor, Chou Wen-Chung. In 1937, Chou was a refugee at 14,
Somehow, despite the chaos and the smell of death around me, I learned of Ravel’s passing, and it dawned upon me that not all composers were dead historical figures. Transfixed by the idea that there were actually ‘living’ composers, I resolved to be one myself.
Some years later, having studied music at the New England Conservatory, Chou found himself in New York, searching for a teacher. He met Colin McPhee who told him, ‘Varèse is your choice,’ but warned him ‘Varèse is a volcano. His music consists of explosion after explosion…you must resist him or you will be buried.’
Varèse telephoned and invited me for a visit. When he asked to see my music, I was embarrassed to show him the first movement of Landscapes (1949)…In this piece I had tried to let fragments of ancient Chinese melodies drift across the sonic space of a western orchestra without conforming to western concepts of musical structure. So I could hardly believe it when I heard him say, ‘Come next week at the same time.’ Wondering how I could afford his tuition, I hesitated. He exploded, offended that I thought he was offering to teach me for money. He then explained how he had benefited from Debussy, Busoni and Romain Rolland without paying ‘a sou’. All he wanted was for me to ‘pass on the heritage’. Then he added with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘but perhaps you will find me a big old Chinese gong someday?’ He did not have to wait for long. In his later years, he was often shown in photos playing the enormous tam-tam I gave him. After his death, Louise gave me his favourite Chinese gong which he had bought on the street in Paris at about the time he finished Ionisation. This exchange of a tam-tam for a gong must have some symbolic meaning.
Chou goes on to describe how he came to edit Varèse’s work after his death, including a definitive version of Amériques for Chailly. ‘His art rests on a delicate balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian, or logical construct and metaphorical suffering,’ he claims. ‘While I would spare no effort collecting information regarding Varèse’s intentions, planning and sketches, I would also attempt to examine every issue from his viewpoint emotionally as well as rationally.’
The book ends with a series of statements from other composers, including Pierre Boulez (‘Was he ever tempted to imagine that he was born too late in a world too young?’), Elliott Carter (‘After his death he was played much more frequently and with greater care. How he would have been cheered by this!’), Dieter Schnebel (‘I can still picture him, fifty-five years [after encountering him at Darmstadt] as if he were standing before me.’), Peter Eötvös - who collaborated with Frank Zappa, shortly before the latter’s death, on some as yet unreleased recordings, and others.
Anyone within reach of London or Gateshead this weekend should treat themselves to the music of Varèse, a pioneer who remains unique, and this superb book. How many other composers have influenced jazz musicians, composers such as Birtwistle and Schnittke, and rock musicians from OMD to Can to jazz-rock combo Chicago?
Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, edited by Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, is published by the Boydell Press in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation. There is a limited quantity of this lavishly-produced volume left, and further reprints are unlikely. More information about the Southbank concerts may be found here.