Listening Log – [Pt. II – Proj. 1] – Edgar Varèse’s Amériques

EDGAR VARèSE’S orchestral work ‘AMéRIQUES’ (1918-21, revised 1927). Unofficially his Opus 1.

Edgar Varèse (1883-1965) was a French composer who emigrated to the U.S at the beginning of World War I. He wrote the orchestral work Amériques after he arrived in the U.S. The first version was created sometime 1918-1921 but was subsequently revised in 1927.

The 23-minute piece was written for an extremely large orchestra which included an extended percussion section and numerous unusual instruments such as sirens, boat whistles, whips and wind machines. It shows a huge dynamic range and escalates into a near cacophony of polyrhythmic percussion set against dissonant cells of music in various contrasting timbres.

Amériques was well received by the critics, although the New York premier was better received than the initial first performance in Philadelphia. They recognised the virtuosity of the orchestra and perhaps the influence that Varèse was to have over the coming generations of contemporary classical musicians like Boulez, electronic music, the avant-garde and even rock musicians like Frank Zappa. How long it took for the general public to appreciate Varèse’s genius is however debatable. Amériques does not conform to previous traditions of music and is perhaps not easy or pleasant to listen to on first encounter.

I personally feel the piece produces both beauty of form and expression of emotion although it might not deal with harmony in a traditional sense. It only partially conforms with The Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of music; ‘the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion’.

The definition would have to be expanded to include ‘sound’ and the ‘codification of sound’ in order to accommodate the way in which Varèse structures his music. His method of creating blocks of sounds that form clusters and shapes which are perceived as musical patterns are outside the normal classical definitions of form and harmony but do manage to fill the same function of drawing the listener into a progressive and developing musical journey. The emotional effect is indeed heightened. Varèse’s ideas of organised sound are much closer to my own definition of what constitutes music and encompass a greater range of possibilities and modern styles. I am a fan.

‘Music is organized sound.’
Edgar Varèse