04 Varese

Edgard Varèse (b. 1883) was a composer who envisioned a new concept of music and new musical instruments. His electronic masterpieces Déserts (1950-4) and Poème Électronique (1957-8) focused on timbre, texture, and musical space and were important foundations for later electronic and ambient music.

In “New Instruments and New Music” (1936), Varèse describes a spatial understanding of sound created by the new instruments he envisions. He describes music in four dimensions: horizontal, vertical, dynamic changes, and “sound projection,” a sense of “a journey into space” that will not be reflected back. I do not understand entirely what Varèse intends to denote by this fourth dimension, nor do I find it necessary. He describes new music created by shifting and colliding “sound-masses” of different timbres. I think this concept later became pervasive in electronic music, which tends focus more on adding and subtracting new layers and timbres than new melodic material. In this essay and also in “Music as an Art-Science” (1939), Varèse envisions new instruments which can create sounds of any frequency and of any timbre by adding overtones, which can play a written score, which can play any possible semi-tone at any possible rhythm. He sees these instruments as a liberation from the constraints of traditional instruments which must be played by a human. Varèse’s ideas seem very prophetic for the 1930s, since his visions would later be realized through synthesizers.

In “Rhythm, Form, and Content” (1959), Varèse echoes a common sentiment of innovators in electronic music: he does not intend for electronic instruments to replace traditional musicians, but to expand the possibilities for creating new music. In “The Electronic Medium” (1962), he addresses the question of whether electronic music is actually music. Varèse states that the distinction between music and noise is highly subjective and varies between culture; noise is simply “any sound one doesn’t like.” I would agree with him on this point. A simple example is that of various genres of pop music that have become acceptable across different generations – an octogenarian will not enjoy the death metal that her grandson loves because that type of music is not part of her culture and she is not accustomed to it. “Noise” has become more accepted as an element of music as years have gone by and “organized sound” will become more pleasing to its listeners the more it is heard.


Varese: A Sonic Poetics by Robert Cogan
Visualization of Poème Électronique

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