Thoughts on Varese

Thoughts on Varese
Robin Rimbaud

It began with a story and a name, in fact two names and one story. I was a curious teenager, determinedly wanting to learn everything about everything, and particularly in relation to the arts. If I discovered an artist, I wasn’t content to simply see an exhibition, buy their album, or read their latest publication; I wanted to envelop myself in their work. I wanted to discover every nuance, every step of their journey to where they were today. I’d been especially fortunate at school to have a visionary music teacher who had played us all John Cage’s celebrated Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948) on prepared piano and I vividly remember rushing home to batter and bash our modest upright piano with my brother and record the results on cassette. These earliest experiments as you might call them of mine, aged 11, still survive, somewhere deep in a family archive, beneath layers of dust and memories. My interest was always piqued by the quirky, the playful, the unusual, the ‘avant-garde’ as I was later to discover it was tagged. By chance I encountered the scores of Karlheinz Stockhausen by a neighbour who was a conductor, Ligeti courtesy of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, whilst BBC radio and pirate radio stations brought in new voices, new sounds on a daily basis.

Varèse was a name that appeared on my horizons via BBC radio and reading interviews with Frank Zappa and HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Corbusier”Le Corbusier as a teenager. Learning that one could experience the entirety of this ‘Father of Electronic Music’ as he was affectionately known, on just a few vinyl discs or later on a double CD was another revelation, having apparently lost all of his early work in a Berlin warehouse fire. There was this sense of compression and precision about an artist who produced such a restricted series of works, but within each lived a lifetime of composition. Hearing a version of his HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Po%C3%A8me_%C3%A9lectronique”Poème électronique and Ionisation for the first time was genuinely shocking and moving, a whole new world opening up in an instant, presenting exploratory forms of sound that were hard to grasp at first, inventive abstracted collisions of percussion nudging against hovering sculptural masses.

His titling of works was suggestive, poetic and grand and in name alone Hyperprism and Intégrales appealed to my sensibility. Discovering Ecuatorial with its use of fingerboard theremin instruments and Ondes Martenot arguably anticipated future applications of electronic sounds within a contemporary music field and clearly inspired artists such as Frank Zappa, Radiohead and Holger Hiller, the latter of which sampled huge chunks of Varese for his Oben im Eck (1986) release.

Varese has made several direct interventions into my life too. Back in 2002 I was commissioned by a major record label to produce a series of re-interpretations of Varese’s work in the context of a contemporary sampling/remix culture which disappointingly never saw the light of day, but more recently I collaborated with film director Frank Scheffer on his forthcoming documentary on the work of Varese and in preparing for this immersed myself back into the composers entire oeuvre, to pick out resonances within my own ideas, compositions and approach to creativity. I spoke at length about musical and philosophical relationships and amusingly performed live before the camera wearing a brain-avatar head set which measured the differences in brain activity as I focused on the performance. You will hopefully be able to enjoy the fruits of my labour in the next year on the screen when it is broadcast.

And for the present here I am re-sampling the entire archive of Varese towards a new soundtrack, using digital tools to re-process and re-imagine something that might be heard today if Varese were still with us. I hope you will enjoy my creative travels.