Edgard Varése: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary
Edited by Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmerman
Paul Sacher Foundation/Boydell Press
Switzerland’s Paul Sacher Foundation has some of the most extensive contemporary music archives in the world. In addition to their Carter holdings, Sacher also maintains an extensive collection of scores, writings, sketches, and the correspondence of Edgard Varése (1883-1965). Although born in France, Varése spent much of his career from 1915 onward in the United States. Not prolific in terms of number of works – one can listen to his oeuvre in a single (likely mind-blowing!) evening – he is still a legendary and innovative figure in Twentieth century music.
Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary points out Varése’s many conceptual and material contributions, both his approach to more traditional musical elements, such as pitch and rhythm, as well as his investigations of electronic music, extended orchestral resources, and sculpted texture. The volume includes analyses and discussion of many of his important works, spotlighting Poéme électronique, an important early example of tape music, Ionisation, a watershed work for percussion ensemble, and Déserts, for winds, percussion, and tape. These are supported by beautifully reproduced examples from scores and sketches.
Varése’s influence on his contemporaries as well as the generation that succeeded him is also amply documented. A number of composers pen tributes to his work and legacy. Most affecting is Chou Wen-Chung’s chapter, “My sixteen years with Varése,” relating his time as student and assistant to the elder composer. Wen-Chung has done a great deal for Varése studies, editing a number of the composer’s works (even completing some from unfinished sketches); his contribution here is essential reading. Another strong contribution is Kyle Gann’s “Magnificent, in a Mysterious Way,” which charts Varése’s influence on American music.
Because of his celebrity and dedicated advocacy, Frank Zappa probably did more than anyone to bring Varése to the awareness of the general musical public. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the Boydell book closes with Matthias Kassel’s appraisal of the importance of Varése’s music and aesthetics on Zappa’s rock and concert works.
With their recent large-format Carter and Varése volumes, Boydell has raised the standard for completeness, annotation, and presentation in retrospective volumes on composers.