Scientists describe ionisation as the process in which, by gaining or losing electrons, atoms or molecules come to possess a positive or negative charge. For his percussion ensemble work Ionisation (1931), Edgard Varèse uses this scientific principle both as the work’s title and as an extra-musical idea that impacts its form. For much of the piece, the composer explores instruments of indefinite pitch (drums, cymbals) or rapidly shifting pitch (sirens and the lion’s roar): the noise spectrum. It is only at the very end of Ionisation that, structured as dissonant chordal verticals, pitches from the 12-tone chromatic scale are significantly used. The listener can judge whether the addition of notes to noise is designed to give a positive or negative jolt.
The principal building blocks of the piece are small rhythmic cells that permute and develop, at one point or another appearing in most of the instruments’ parts. There is also a significant exploration of antiphonal sounds: the thirteen musicians specified in the score each have a motley assortment of instruments to play, thus treating listeners to a widely spaced and diverse palette of timbres.
No musical composition is created in a vacuum. When writing Ionisation, Varèse was influenced by a number of preceding pieces and artistic movements: Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (1913), Dada, George Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique (1924), Amadeo Roldán’s Ritmica No. 5 (1930), and, of course, by the noise concoctions and sound art manifestos of Italian futurists such as Filippo Tomasso Marinetti and Luigi Russolo. But this debt has been more than abundantly repaid. Indeed, Ionisation has served as a musical touchstone for numerous subsequent pieces by composers such as John Cage, Lou Harrison, Nicholas Slonimsky, James Tenney, Charles Wuorinen, and Frank Zappa. In many ways, Ionisation was the percussion ensemble’s “Declaration of Independence.” Certainly, New Jersey Percussion Ensemble wouldn’t be the same without it.
New Jersey Percussion Ensemble plays Ionisation, as well as pieces by Saperstein, Kresky, Carey, and others, on November 25 at 7 PM at William Paterson University.