Can These Bones Live? A prejudiced ramble through Paris et environs

Iddhis Bing

[February 2013.]


Edgard Varèse’s Déserts

Le désert est un tourbillon brulant qui transcende l’attitude de l’homme, vous ne pouvez pas savoir combien je l’aime. – Edgard Varèse

Parisians who ride the metro know that Verlaine is in jail. The poet is constantly in and out of trouble, and now that he’s taken to aiming pistols at his acolytes, it’s serious. How this will end no one is quite sure.

The French relate to history differently than you or I: anything that happened four years ago Americans are all too happy to forgive, and if it’s bad news, forget. France, being a small country, relives its history on a daily basis, not so much to explain it as to excavate it for meanings and ideas. A poet in jail? What kind of career move is that? Verlaine stays put cellulairement, as he scribbled on the photo the press photographer took of him through the bars…

All of which may provide a partial explanation for why I braved a rotten slurry of February rain and snow to grab a seat at Theatre des Champs Elysées. It was here that Prokofieff played, that Benevenuto Cellini finally had its premiere, that Josephine Baker danced… and that sandwiched in between folkloric Russian dances, a certain Sacre du Printemps assaulted the ears on December 15, 1913. Reaction was swift: there was a riot. Stravinsky was a made man.

The Theatre des Champs Elysées clearly isn’t lacking in history but, like much of Paris, is having trouble coming up with a present tense. So they’ve gone the museum route, which everyone grumbles about while busy counting the receipts. Parisians have a healthy appetite for shock; something in their blood seems to require it. But what would constitute un vrai outrage these days? The bourgeois have been epatéed and no longer care what you think. They’re rich and vulgar and don’t give a damn, and, in any case, the art of scandal is as lost as an alchemist’s formula. Paris is a museum city, with long lines of tourists blocking the sidewalks, queuing up at the baptismal font of the Beautiful Past. It’s a bit of a bore. So forgive the program planners, they’ve lined up a program of Outrages Past. Please applaud politely.

There’s another anniversary in December at the Champs Elysées, overlooked but of equal consequence for the music of the 20th century and beyond: the December 2, 1954 premiere of Edgard Varèse’s Déserts. A catastrophic evening that sandwiched Varèse between Mozart and Tchaikowsky and left the composer, by one account, in tears.

A writer for the dailies said, “The audience was very patient. They waited several minutes before protesting.” Not true – eyewitnesses report the crowd shifting in their seats almost from the first notes. Soon the public is whistling and the boos are raining down everywhere in the theater. At 3:14 when the first interpolation of taped sound begins, the audience goes mad. Pierre Henry turns the volume to the max, and the uproar follows suit. Members of the audience yell Salaud and Pendez-le! at Varèse. Hermann Scherchen, the conductor, stands immobile like a man at the prow of a boat in a bad storm. According to Varèse’s biographer, the composer wasn’t crying at all but pacing furiously, “like a bull from the Camargue snorting in the night air.”

Press the next day was equally kind. One said, “This Mr. Varèse should be shot immediately.” More repercussions: the concert was the first to be broadcast stereophonically over French radio, and the new program was nearly cancelled, as was the fledgling studio for electronic music (forerunner to IRCAM), where Varèse had engineered the taped sounds in collaboration with Pierre Schaeffer.

Varèse had alienated the maximum number of people – an entire nation – at one go. It was the second beginning of his career. He was 71 years old.

Varèse’s story is perhaps too well known to warrant a full retelling. A natural wanderer, he emigrated to Berlin before the first World War, where he met and befriended the much older Ferruccio Busoni, pianist and author of Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, who wrote “Music was born free and to win freedom is its destiny.” Soon he’s in New York, a complete unknown who in 1921 organized the International Composers Guild, dedicated to the presentation of works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern. The manifesto for the Guild contains what is perhaps Varèse’s most famous line: “Dying is the privilege of the weary. The present-day composer refuses to die.” The concerts were a failure but Varèse was unrepentant. He continued to compose and in the 1930s experimented with the Ondes Martenot and the theremin. He was a lonely figure, frequently depressed, given to grand pronouncements (“I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspecting sounds will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm”) but forgotten in France and a regular Joe Blow in America.

The years after World War II are a different story. Six years of peace acted like a seedbed for the arts. Interest in electronic music surged on both sides of the Atlantic. Varèse’s Greenwich Village neighbor Charlie Parker, he too a musical omnivore, wanted to study with him. (The Eastwood movie changes it to LA and Stravinsky.) In 1950 he begins work on Déserts and goes to Philadelphia where he records sounds in the factories.

All of which is very good to know but of absolutely zero use when one is half-drenched and listening to a bewildering score live for the first time. The opening, so like church bells tolling, before the horns and reeds enter on bracing, extended ninths (F4 to G5) that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, is enough. Within a few seconds all twelve tones are audible, and yet this is an organization of sound the ear instantly recognizes as having nothing to do with serialism or polite neoclassicism, with which Varèse’s first listeners would have been familiar. The constant clash of tonalties, a palpable feeling of harmonies merging and repelling, physical sensations of space (emptiness, silence) and along with it a grandeur and monumentality (16 pieces of percussion, including claves, glockenspiels, metal tubes, xylophones and güiro). What exactly is going on? Incredible ferocity, and gentleness. All this before 3:13, when the first taped interlude begins.

Perhaps it is a kind of program music – Night in the Desert. Varèse famously remarked to Henry Miller that “Je voudrais faire quelque chose qui donne l’impression du désert de Gobiˮ and there are analyses of the piece that make it into a kind of requiem for a world that had just passed through two devastating world wars, complete with the noise of the machine age. Perhaps.

Varése was fascinated by the organic growth of crystals, spoke of the “oxigenation” of chords, thought of music as a beam of light, and created a body of work based around warring sound cloud congregations (“pitch-planes”) – you don’t have to know any of those things when you listen. You can sense it.

The taped passages sound like Wagner, or recordings from outer space: mysterious, dramatic, at times crushing. Difficult – but intensely musical. It was, from that first audience’s point of view, the last straw. The shrill, sonorous tones of a small orchestra based on a compositional method thoroughly divorced from anything they were accustomed to, followed by a barrage of noise.

And yet those sounds from a factory in Pennsylvania are the beginning of everything, and therein lies Varèse’s importance to today’s music – and a way out of Museum City. The noise scene (for want of a better term) is spread across Europe and the States and has a foothold in Paris in half a dozen small clubs, sheds in the courtyard of buildings, impromptu gigs late at night, on the radio. The musicians put out records (real vinyl) on a flourishing number of DIY labels and the crowds come out. Lapin Kult radio mixes noise in with the funky fun. It isn’t Dada play-acting but a serious exploration of sound – with terrific variety and complete freedom, the kind Busoni was talking about.

John Cage and Varèse are the 20th century’s two irreplaceable composers. The way they thought about music cleared the table. Others extended and elaborated – they started from scratch. Cage, the cryptic heresiarch of U.S. postmodern art (Alan Moore’s phrase) had, all in all, the much easier ride.

Things turned around for Varèse in the last decade of his life. December 4, 1954 was fuel for the fire. In 1959 he collaborated with Corbusier and Xenakis on the Philips building at the Brussels exposition, of which Varèse said, “For the first time I heard my music literally projected into space.” (Poème Èlectronique: 425 speakers, twenty amplifier combinations, three-track tape variable in intensity and quality.) In the 1960s a young musician by the name of Zappa took up the cause, which probably accounts for the flurry of Varèse recordings that came out in the years immediately after his death. And yet Varèse is hardly a study in frustration – more like radical determination. Whatever the public reception, he stayed true to his original intent: “I refuse to limit myself to sounds that have already been heard.”

* * *

Geometric Pitch Structure and Form in Déserts by Edgard Varèse by Michael David Sprowles (available on-line) is a good place to start.

The Paris scene: Instants Chavires hosts a wide range of music, some of it falling under the noise rubric; Kobe in Ivry sur Seine and Le Non-Jazz, espace en cours (building courtyard, irregular), Menilmontant.; Lapin Kulte on facebook.


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