Listening Log- [Pt. II – Proj. 1] ~ Edgar Varèse- Déserts

Edgar Varèse’s ‘Déserts’ (1950–1954) original soundtrack to the film “Blue” Gene Tyranny

French émigré to the U.S, Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), wrote his piece ‘Déserts’ as a soundtrack to the modernist film ‘ “Blue” Gene Tyranny ‘ in 1950-54. The piece was written for wind, piano and percussion to be played alongside tape and electronics. He had supposedly been given a tape recorder and decided to compose a piece incorporating both tape and orchestral instruments. He recorded a variety of factory sounds to be played along the percussion, modulating and affecting their resonance. On its first ‘tape and orchestra’ premier in Paris 1954 it was received with disdain by a largely reactionary audience. It was a case of poor programming to include this piece on a night of Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

‘Music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression, and science alone can infuse it with youthful vigor.’ Edgar Varèse

My immediate impression of the piece is of a vast open space. Varèse named it ‘Déserts’ (meaning deserts). He was referring to internal as well as external space. Me, I think of outer space…  Outer Space being the biggest known physical desert in our Universe. I feel that the music and soundscape give an illusion of huge depth, a 3D type of effect and it immediately brings visuals to mind. The sounds are so visceral and cause an almost altered state of mind. It would be an understatement to say that I love it! I listened to this piece before reading any biographical information about it and I thought it sounded like a soundtrack to a film, perhaps involving some type of interstellar travel and orbiting heavenly bodies. I am pleased to find out that it was in fact written as a soundtrack (albeit not a sci-fi one).

Does Déserts show a departure in terms Varèse’s music? I think not. The main difference between Déserts and his earlier pieces, for instance Amérique, is one of size and subtlety. His art in Déserts is refined and extremely sensitive. The scale is bigger and the dynamic range greater. It is both more experimental and more musical at the same time. An evolution and refinement rather than a departure. His aims, of finding a new way to codify sounds into music and new instruments to express it with, remained the same.

‘I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm.’ Edgar Varèse

Varèse biography says he was influenced by Busoni and Leonardo Da Vinci and that he sought to collaborate with Antonin Artaud. It is perhaps not surprising that I am instantly drawn to his music since all of the same personas have meant a great deal to me too. They were all artists working at the alchemical/magical intersection of science and art. This is how I perceive Varèse, as a magical visionary way ahead of his time. His way of perceiving sound structures as spatial, architectural entities and the methods of using tape, Theremins, percussive timbres of both musical instruments and other objects were at the forefront of music technology development and he even predicted computerised music. Understood by a select few and misunderstood or perhaps completely ignored by the larger public. The influence of his innovations, both technical and conceptual, on future generations and electronic music are immeasurable. The list of people he influenced is very long and includes ground breakers such as Pierre Boulez, Karl Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Olivier Messiaen, John Zorn, Frank Zappa and many many more.