Recording of December 1963: Music of Edgar Varèse, Vol.2

Music of Edgar Varèse, Vol.2
Arcana, Déserts, Offrandes, Chanson De Là-Haut (Song From High)
Dona Precht, soprano, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Robert Craft, conductor.
Columbia Masterworks MS-6362 (LP). John McClure, Thomas Frost, prods. TT: 24:45.

In electronic music, the sounds of musical instruments, natural noise-makers and electronic signal generators are recorded on tape, modified by running them at higher- or lower-than-normal speeds and manipulating their tonal content, and then combined in rhythmic and tonal patterns to create entirely new forms of music.

This Columbia recording is one of the few discs of full-length electronic compositions, and is an outstanding example of the virtually limitless range of tonal colors available to the electronic music composer. As for the music itself, I do not pretend to comprehend it. I even hesitate to grace it with the designation "music" at all. Perhaps in so doing, I label myself as a stick-in-the-mud reactionary, but I must admit that repeated listenings have not made this any less alien to my ear than it was on the first playing.

There is, however, a strange fascination about its shimmering, iridescent patterns of sound. It is also, incidentally, quite a demonstration record for top-notch equipment, for it has some of the highest- and lowest-frequency tones recorded on it that I've heard in some time. The recording is one of Columbia's best, although I defy anyone to tell whether it is high-, low-, or medium-fi. How hi-fi can a recording be, when none of the sounds on it are supposed to sound natural?

This is a must, even if only as a tonic for jaded ears.—J. Gordon Holt

volvic's picture

Varese has to be one of the few modern composer of the 20th century that I could never like, no matter how hard I tried. It has been over decades maybe it's time to revisit?

Robin Landseadel's picture

Note to Volvic—It's "Composer", not "Conductor". Nicolas Slonimsky conducted the music for Varese, Varese was his best man when Slonimsky got married in Paris, back in 1931.

Varese opened the door to Musique Concrete. People will watch a horror movie, not even thinking of the emotional impact of the "soundtrack", often a combination of acoustic and electronic sounds. Movies combine foley and the "soundtrack" for their emotional impact, musique concrete being an essential element and sometimes a proper description of the sound design of such movies.

Is it music? Of course it is. Is it important? Sho 'nuf. John Lennon's "Revolution #9" is probably the best known example of the form for a stand-alone composition. And, as I already mentioned, it has become an essential element in motion picture sound. One of my favorite recent examples, the Soundtrack/Foley of Blade Runner 2049, with its deep bass bombs.

Zubin Mehta's LAPO recordings of the acoustic music of Varese are a good starting point. Note that the "Musique Concrete" elements of this sort of music making have had a major influence on Techno and other popular forms of music as well. It's not just "Music", it's damn near ubiqutious.

The master of the form is/was Iannis Xenakis, the polymath mathematician, architect and composer. My favorite recording is now out of print [naturally], containing the epic "Bohor". It's on the EMF imprint, EMF 003.

volvic's picture

But I do believe he was at some point early in his career perhaps, a conductor as well. Tried recently with Ameriques and Ecuatorial...not for me thanks. Will pass again. Maybe in another 30 years.