How I discovered Edgard Varèse, the father of Electronic Music

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 completely immerse myself in their work. I wanted to discover every nuance, every step of their journey to where they were today.

An elderly man with grey hair, wearing a smart black and white suit and tie, leans on his hand, looking very serious, in music studio. Behind him is equipment from the music studio

John Cage, Stockhausen and my neighbour

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. More on the Origins of Scanner here.

These earliest experiments, as you might call them of mine, aged 11, still survive on a battered old cassette, accompanied by 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.

The Father of Electronic Music

Varèse was a name that began to appear on my horizon via the radio and reading interviews with Frank Zappa and 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 versions of his 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.

A vinyl record sleeve, in black and white, with an abstract spiral image across the front, and a band of black across the top with the titles for the pieces of music.

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. Apparently even the legendary Charlie Parker begged to be taken on as a pupil for Varèse!

Varèse in my Own Life

Varèse has made several direct interventions into my life too, and yet almost mysteriously, never been made public. 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. Somehow this album rather disappointingly never saw the light of day. Then, a few years back, I collaborated with film director Frank Scheffer on his documentary on the work of Varèse.

In preparing for this I immersed myself back into the composers entire oeuvre, to pick out resonances within my own ideas, compositions and approach to creativity. I flew into Amsterdam for the day, and sat in a large industrial building by the water, speaking to camera at length about musical and philosophical relationships, and even rather 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. But, as happens, this ended up on the cutting room floor, perhaps to be seen on a DVD extra one day. That’s if DVDs still even exist then!

A very colourful and dramatic vinyl LP sleeve, with handwritten text Edgard Varèse in yellow across a photograph of an elderly white man in a smart brown suit staring directly at the camera

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Then about a decade ago I decided to actively pursue my interest in Varèse. I discovered that Varèse had acted in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, the classic 1921 silent movie by Robert L Stevenson, playing the role of a police officer. This inspired me to create a new work, that re-assembled and sampled the entire archive of Varese recordings towards a new soundtrack, using digital tools to imagine something that might be heard today if only Varese were still with us.” You can watch and listen to an excerpt here:

And here we are in 2020, at a time when almost anyone can be an electronic composer with the press of a button on a synthesiser, the click of a mouse on a computer, or even a finger on a mobile screen. It’s important to remember the origins of this almost living matter though. Varèse asked the question that still resonates today – what is music but organised noise? For a composer whose surviving works total less than three hours, it’s remarkable how influential he has been.

And there’s no better way to remember Varèse than how the writer Henry Miller’s encapsulated him in a few words, as ‘the stratospheric Colossus of Sound.’

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