Where, exactly, does Edgard Varèse fit into the narrative of 20th-century music? He loved spiky, biting dissonances as much as the serialists in the Second Viennese Mafia, and shared their commitment to the Darwinian inevitability of (a certain kind of) musical progress, but unlike them, he was an iconoclast who didn't hold to or advocate for a single, specific, unyielding compositional method. Which, for an early 20th-cen. composer, is a sure-fire way to ensure you're viewed as a bit of a marginal figure compared to the serialist crowd. Mainly because it's a lot harder to teach Varèse in theory class than it is to teach Schoenberg.
But listening to his music today, doesn't Varèse sound far more bracing, inventive, muscular, distinctive, and, well, contemporary than all that sober serialist stuff that (still!) gets most of the attention in music schools and conservatories? In the 1920's, Schoenberg et al. are plugging tone rows into Brahmisan phrases and gestures, using big-C Classical instrumental ensembles, still obsessed with artfully expressive angst and the elegance of formal unity. Meanwhile Varèse is getting in your face with rapid-fire brass stabs and a full-on percussive assault, advancing his argument with jump-cuts and sudden contrasts and a delight in purely sonic constructions. For a composer that has a reputation as the ultimate rationalist -- one of the quotes pulled for the program notes is "[t]here will be a laboratory where sounds will be scientifically studied and where the laws permitting the genesis of countless new means of expression will be corroborated" -- actually listening to Varèse done right is a thoroughly visceral experience.
This is most obvious in a piece like Ionisation, which has become the canonical piece for (mostly) unpitched percussion. It was originally intended as a dance piece (apparently Martha Graham passed on it -- gee, big surprise) and you can definitely tell. Despite all the rhythmic superimpositions, there is a constant underlying, unyielding pulse -- it's on a grid, meaning you can actually feel the rhythmic pull of the quintuplets etc. against the beat. I've seen several live versions of this piece, and listened to a few recordings, but Saturday's performance by the Manhattan School of Music Percussion Ensemble was definitely the tightest and most exciting I've heard. Having grown up surrounded by hiphop, industrial, and electronica, these kids find nothing unusual in the idea of a piece which is all about sirens, noise and thunderous percussion. In fact, I think they get a work like Ionisation in a way that most classically-trained musicians of previous generations have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around. At the risk of repeating myself, for this music to work you need an emotional connection to rhythm, and the MSM percussionists locked right in and kept the momentum flowing straight through.
Other Manhattan School music students joined forces with the only slightly older players in Alarm Will Sound for what was billed as "the most Varèse ever performed at one concert in New York." Included were two versions of the 1958 tape piece, Poème électronique -- first, the original recording, and then, in the second half, a new arrangement of the work for acoustic instruments by Evan Hause. This live re-enactment of a purely electronic piece is very much in the spirit of Alarm Will Sound's Acoustica. The original opens with ominous cathedral bells before almost immediately giving way to vintage electro clicks, buzzes, zaps and sweeps. The audience actually laughed in a few spots -- and yeah, some of it seems awfully campy now, like the "special effects" in a B-movie from the same period -- but it's also a charming and spacious piece. The rate of change is very quick, but there's usually not more than a couple of sonic events happening at any one time. The original work was a technological tour-de-force, and Hause's adaptation for Alarm Will Sound is extremely impressive -- if I had been asked to do this, I honestly wouldn't know where the hell to begin. The work definitely loses something without all the old-school bloop-bleeps, but I really enjoyed the theatricality of the acoustic version, which calls for almost every member of AWS to move around the stage, juggling their regular instrumental duties with an array of kitchen-sink auxiliary percussion effects.
Another highlight was Octandre, an edgy but elegiac piece for four winds, three brass, and bass. Maybe it's just because of the vaguely similar instrumentation, or because I studied both pieces around the same time, but I always thought of this piece as something of a sequel to Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Both pieces unfold using techniques you'd normally associate more with movies than music -- they are full of montages, parallel editing, rapid repeated sequences, jump cuts, and the like. Octandre was written just a few years after Symphonies of Winds, and I have no idea whether Varèse had even heard it, but it sure feels like he's taking the structural possibilities opened up by Stravinsky and pushing them to the limit. He's definitely pushing the players to their limit -- the piece is wicked hard, full of jumps in and out of extreme registers and tricky rhythms that you can't just fake your way through. The AWS octet didn't make it seem easy, exactly, but the music's technical demands never once got in the way of a soulful and emphatic performance. Special praise is due to flutist Jessica Johnson and oboist Jacqueline Leclair, who killed not just on Octandre, but on their respective solo features -- Jessica on Density 21.5 (for solo flute), and Jacqueline on Intégrales, which features a dramatic oboe solo.
This version of Intégrales reprised the staging used at last year's Zankel Hall hit, with most of the performers beginning offstage (in the wings and in the balconies) and constantly reconfiguring themselves as they play, gradually and inevitably being pulled towards the stage. There's also a great moment midway through where it looks like the oboe soloist is going to be eaten alive by the brass section. I still enjoyed this rendition immensely -- the evolving physical distance between the instruments does a lot to clarify the piece's dense sonorities -- but for some reason I found the staging not quite as satisfying the second time around. Perhaps because this time it lacked the element of surprise -- and not just for me. At Miller, conductor Alan Pierson announced in advance that Intégrales would be staged. I think the effect is much more powerful when it's unexpected.
That said, the actual playing was just as strong as last year's revelatory interpretation -- intensely focused and sure-footed. Alarm Will Sound's earthy, visceral interpretations make me long for an alternate version of early 20th-century "classical" music history, where composers like Varèse, Ives, Bartók, and (post-Rite) Stravinksy are the ones whose legacy is taken up by subsequent generations, and nobody cares about anything Schoenberg did after Pierrot Lunaire.
Tikets to this event were provided by Miller Theatre. Alarm Will Sound trombonist James Hirschfeld is also a Secret Society co-conspirator.