The door that Busoni gazed at but never entered, Varèse ran through. Sadly, Varèse spent the majority of his life waiting for technology to catch up with him. Varèse was simply born too early. Of course if he had been born later, his mentor Busoni would probably not have been around to prepare him for his role in the coming age.
Varèse prepared for a career as an engineer by studying mathematics and science. He studied the notebooks of da Vinci. Pulled towards music, he used his learned scientific principles to study the science of sound. He was an unhappy student at the Schola Cantorium and Paris Conservatoire. His friends were a list of who's-who of the time. Satie, Romain Rolland (an author who used Varèse as the inspiration of his great novel Jean-Christophe), Russolo, Villa-Lobos, Duchamp, Russolo, Cowell, Luening, Lenin Trotsky, Picasso and countless others.
While at the conservatoire, he began shaking things up, announcing, "I refuse to submit to sounds that have already been heard." His inspirations were Busoni and Debussy. Debussy encouraged him to become a composer telling him, "Rules do not make a work of art. You have the right to compose what you want to, the way you want to." Debussy also encouraged Varèse to look at non-western music for inspiration.
After serving in the French army during the First World War, Varèse moved to America in 1915 at the age of 33 with $32 in his pocket. He settled down in the Greenwich Village of New York and fell in love with the sounds of the city. The roar of the city became his inspiration. In America he found a musical frontier as yet undeveloped: "American music must speak its own language, and not be the result of a certain mummified European music."
He supported himself doing odd musical jobs, conducting choirs as well as conducting. In 1919 he founded the New Symphony Orchestra which was devoted to modern music. Later he founded the International Composers Guild with Carlos Salzedowhich, which exposed Americans to Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg. In his prospectus for the guild he wrote, "The International Composers Guild disapproves of all 'isms'; denies the existence of schools; recognizes only the individual."
Varèse's music falls into three styles. His work before 1914 consisted of an unfinished opera and some pieces for orchestra, none of which have survived. Between 1918 and 1936, Varèse began working on music that broke from European influences. In 1923, his work Hyperprism, caused a riot in the audience. Half of the audience stormed out, the other stayed and asked him to play it again. In all he completed nine works for orchestra or chamber groups. In his search for new sounds he incorporated new musical instruments. Hyperprism made the use of sleigh bells, cymbals, crash cymbals, rattles, triangle, anvil, Chinese blocks, tam-tam, Indian drums, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, and a lion's roar (a tub with a hole in the bottom through which the player pulled a rope). The piece contained two percussion solos. The great composer Leopold Stokowski played Hyperprism in Carnagie Hall in Philadelphia, the only renowned conductor to support Varèse (although some lesser conductors played his music).
The most popular work by Varèse at this time was Ionisation (1929-31) which introduced the siren as a musical instrument. With 37 percussion instruments and two sirens, it was likened to "a sock in the jaw."
It was during this time that Varèse longed for new sounds, "...in music we composers are forced to use instruments that have not changed for two centuries." His profound frustration in the sounds available to him eventually led to the death of his composition muse. He felt he could no longer "make do" with the instruments available for him to compose for. This frustration led to his manifesto of "the Liberation of Sound."
"The raw material of music is sound. That is what the 'reverent approach' has made people forget-even composers. Today when science is equipped to help the composer realize what was never before possible- all that Beethoven dreamed, all that Berlioz groppingly imagined possible- the composer continues to be obsessed by traditions which are nothing but the limitations on his predecessors. Composers like anyone else today are delighted to use the many gadgets continually put on the market for our daily comfort. But when they hear sounds that no violins, wind instruments, or percussion of the orchestra can produce, it does not occur to them to demand those sounds for science. Yet science is even now equipped to give them everything they may require.
And there are the advantages I anticipate from such a machine: liberation from the arbitrary paralyzing tempered system; the possibility of obtaining any number of cycles or, if still desired, subdivisions of the octave, and consequently the formation of any desired scale; unsuspected range in low and high registers; new harmonic splendors obtainable from the use of subharmonic combinations now impossible; the possibility of obtaining any differential of timbre, of sound-combinations, and new dynamics far beyond the present human-powered orchestra; a sense of sound projection in space by the emission of sound in any part or in many parts of the hall as may be required by the score; cross rhythms unrelated to each other, treated simultaneously, or to use the old word, 'contrapuntally', since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes, any subdivision of them, omission or fraction of them- all these in a given unit of measure of time which is humanly impossible to attain." Obviously Varèse was crying for the technologies that we take for granted today.
After receiving some recognition, at least in the avant-garde circles, Varèse began to fade. He became moody and despondent and actually thought about committing suicide. For twelve years he stopped composing and thought of getting out of music all together. Nobody would even hire him as a researcher in acoustics. He joined Schoenberg as one of the only two famous composers to be turned down for a Guggenheim grant. He wrote, "I am handicapped by a lack of adequate electrical instruments for which I can conceive my music." Fernand Ouellette wrote, "He could not free himself from the sounds that were inflaming his soul, and there was no way of producing those sounds."
In 1927, Varèse contacted Harvey Fletcher, the director of acoustical research of Bell Telephone Laboratories, in an attempt to acquire a studio with which he could research electronic music. He was turned down with the reason that funds were not available. He tried again in 1932 offering to work for Bell in exchange for the use of the studio. He was willing to sacrifice his career as a composer in order to follow his yearnings for new sounds. He was still not allowed access to the laboratories. (Years later the Bell labs would become a central part of research in computer synthesis).
In 1939, in a lecture at the University of Southern California, Varèse said," When you listen to music do you ever stop to realize that you are being subjected to a physical phenomenon? Not until the air between the listener's ear and the instrument has been disturbed does music occur...In order to anticipate the result, a composer must understand the mechanics of the instruments and must know just as much as possible about acoustics...I need an entirely new medium of expression: a sound producing machine (not a sound re-producing one)."
The music world turned its back on Varèse. After World War II, composers in France and Germany began exploring the use of new technologies, many invented during the war, in the making of music. Suddenly Varèse was remembered and he became a celebrity. He was asked to lecture at Yale, Princeton, Columbia and other universities. He was invited to work at the Radio Television Francaise Research center, the studio where Schaeffer was experimenting with musique concrete.
Suddenly, at 71 years of age, Varèse came back to life like a seed that had been in hibernation touched by water. Technology finally caught up with Varèse, and he thrived in the new environment. Many did not even realize that he was still alive.
He composed Deserts, a collage of taped sounds, which was a unique, frightening masterpiece of the atomic age. At the premiere, once again the audience was hostile. One critic wanted to send Varèse to the electric chair.
Still, Deserts was the first important work of electronic music, and Varèse was recognized as a significant force in music. It was described as, "the opening gun in the battle for the liberation of sound."
Finally, Varèse found the world that he had wanted to live in all of his life. His views on sound and music were sought after, and he had new tools with which to explore. He was invited to work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He was elected a member of the Swedish Royal Academy, won awards, and went to Japan to give lectures. Then came the highest point of his life. Le Corbusier, a famous architect, was asked by Philips to design and create the Philips pavilion at the Brussels world fair to be held in 1958. 'Corbu' decided to make the pavilion a multimedia event. He remembered Varèse whom he had met 25 years earlier and insisted on him composing the music. Philips balked at the idea and wanted a more famous composer, like Copland or Walton. Corbu basically said no Varèse-no Corbu! So Philips gave in Corbu also insisted that Philips pay Varèse a good sum. Corbu contacted Varèse and told him that the piece would be called Poem Electronique, and that Varèse was totally free to compose anything that he wanted. For Varèse it was a gift from the gods.
Philips offered Varèse the use of their laboratory in Eindhoven as well as technicians and engineers. Money was no problem. Varèse plunged into the work like a madman, consumed with the fulfillment of his visions. When the staff at the Philips lab were hostile to Varèse, Corbu came from India and banged his fists on the table...no more problems from the staff.
Poem was commissioned to be 480 seconds of music and accompany a poem. The music was to sound from 425 speakers placed everywhere in the pavilion. Varèse worked for eight months. Finally $260,000 later, Philips asked to hear what he had composed. After playing for them they were aghast. Once again Corbu had to come to the rescue and insist on using the piece. Philips then asked Varèse to give some concessions to which he replied," Make concessions? In music? that is something that has never happened to me." Philips gave in again.
The building looked like a seashell in silver concrete. Inside, a model of an atom hung from the ceiling. The walls were bare and lofty with the 425 speakers placed all around. In another area, a nude figure hung from the ceiling. With standing room only crowds, the lights were dimmed and eerie sounds emerged from every direction. Washes of colored lights swept and changed over the surfaces. The sounds of rattles, whistles, thunder, and murmurs float about. Human sounds, modified emitted from the walls.
The exhibition was a complete success. Millions of people heard Varèse for the first time . A whole generation of composers had there heads jerked towards the sounds of Varèse. Varèse had arrived.
Poem Electronique was to become Varèse's swan song. Soon after the Brussels triumph, he became afflicted with bronchitis. He wrote to a friend, "I have plans for five more projects. I shall have to make up for lost time."
He died November 6, 1965.
Frank Zappa, Charlie Parker, the Beatles and others credit Varèse with inspiration. (Pink Floyd was supposed to have someone saying ,"can you dig it Varèse?" on the Ummagamma Album. I have not heard this myself, nevertheless, it is obvious that Varèse became a prophet to generations of musicians.)
Most music history classes only pay brief attention to Varèse, if he is mentioned at all. Most notably his work, Ionisation, maybe discussed. But he belongs in the same group of the great shapers of music as Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven and company. He is the prophet of electronic music. His life reads like a tragic novel of inspiration, rejection, and finally acceptance in our world.