We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

Nevertheless, Babbitt's remarks about taking the limits of the “auditory apparatus” as the limits of compositional technique have to be balanced, as always, against the inevitable slippage between what can be conceptualized in the act of composition (or analysis) and what can be parsed by the mind's ear in the act of listening. For those who consider that to be a problem, the electronic medium offers no solution. Among those who did so consider it was Varèse. Babbitt has recalled Varèse's excitement when he came up to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and was given a demonstration of the Mark II synthesizer's capabilities. But Varèse has recorded his dismay at the paltry use to which the machine was being put, as he saw it, by the pompiers des douze sons46 (“bureaucrats of the twelve tones”), as he put it (in a whisper) to Stravinsky, and what he took to be the musically insignificant outcome of all the arduous precompositional planning that went into such administration.

More diplomatically, for publication, Varèse put it this way:

I am not impressed by most of today's electronic music. It does not seem to make full use of the unique possibilities of the medium, especially in regard to those questions of space and projection that have always concerned me. I am fascinated by the fact that through electronic means one can generate a sound instantaneously. On an instrument played by a human being you have to impose a musical thought through notation, then, usually much later, the player has to prepare himself in various ways to produce what will—one hopes—emerge as that sound. This is all so indirect compared with electronics, where you generate something “live” that can appear or disappear instantly and unpredictably. Consequently, you aren't programming something musical, something to be done, but using it directly, which gives an entirely different dimension to musical space and projection …. To me, working with electronic music is composing with living sounds, paradoxical though that may appear. […] I respect the twelve-tone discipline, and those who feel they need such discipline. But it seems much more fruitful to use the total sonic resources available to us …. I respect and admire Milton Babbitt, but he certainly represents a completely different view of electronic music from mine. It seems to me that he wants to exercise maximum control over certain materials, as if he were above them. But I want to be in the material, part of the acoustical vibration, so to speak. Babbitt composes his material first and then gives it to the synthesizer, while I want to generate something directly by electronic means …. I do not want an a priori control of all its aspects.47

By the time he made these comments (1964), Varèse had managed, despite his advanced years (and his inability to work the electronic equipment without technical assistance), to produce three electronic compositions of his own, which he regarded as the crowning works of his career.

Having received the gift of an Ampex tape recorder, arranged by a painter friend in 1953, Varèse took the machine exactly where a Futurist might have been expected to take it, to iron foundries, sawmills, and other factories in and around Philadelphia. These sounds, augmented by recordings of gongs and other percussion instruments that he kept at home, provided the raw material for three tropes or interpolations of “organized sound” that impinged upon and commented on the music played by a typical Varèsian ensemble of four woodwind players on nine instruments, ten brass (including both bass and contrabass tubas), a piano, and five percussionists manning forty-eight instruments, in Déserts, his last big piece. He began writing it in 1949, adopting for the purpose some of the many sketches for Espace. When completed in 1954, it was Varèse's first finished ensemble score in more than twenty years.

Could the title have been a nod in response to Henry Miller's lonely encomium that punctuated, and perhaps consoled, Varèse's barren decade? That would be plausible, but Varèse offered an alternative reading of it that resonated with the existentialist mood of the early 1950s. In a program note solicited by Robert Craft to accompany the first recording of the work, Varèse wrote that, for him, the word “deserts” suggests not only “all physical deserts (of sand, sea, snow, of outer space, of empty city streets) but also the deserts in the mind of man; not only those stripped aspects of nature that suggest bareness, aloofness, timelessness, but also that remote inner space no telescope can reach, where man is alone, a world of mystery and essential loneliness.”48

Work proceeded on separate but parallel tracks. First the instrumental parts were composed (and there is a note in the score to the effect that they can be played without interruption in the absence of the taped insertions), but always with the prerecorded sounds in mind. The actual shaping into “organized sound” of the raw sonic material Varèse had recorded and stored came afterward. In January 1954 Pierre Schaeffer invited Varèse to his studio for musique concrète at the Radiodiffusion française in Paris to finish the job. Arriving in October, he recorded some supplementary sounds on oscillators, rapidly twisting the dials to get the radical curves he had always loved, but now extending over a previously unimaginable (or if imaginable, then surely unachievable) frequency range.

Déserts received its first performance in December at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (the site, four decades earlier, of the stormy premiere of The Rite of Spring). It was conducted by Hermann Scherchen (1891–1966), a new-music specialist of long standing, who like Varèse had been in his youth a disciple of Busoni. Old-fashioned modernists greeted futurism's return with typically sadomasochistic delight. “The work roughs us up, in fact, annihilates us,” wrote one. “We have no power over it; it is the work that takes possession of us, crushes us with blows of its terrible fist.”49 The performance was introduced by Pierre Boulez, who paraphrased for the audience a lecture Varèse had given in 1936, in which he had compared his music to opposing planes and volumes in a perpetual dynamic of mutual attraction and repulsion. The advent of electronics, Varèse announced through Boulez, had liberated his music from analogy. Whereas the composer had always striven indirectly to represent movement in space by the use of percussive rhythm, dynamics, and pitch contours, he could now do so directly thanks to the stereophonic deployment of organized sound through speakers.

The instrumental sections of Déserts are remarkably like Varèse's ensemble works of the 1920s; it is as if there had never been any break in his creative output, let alone one that had lasted decades. As in his earlier compositions, the instrumental music's shape is determined by the opposition of pitched material, built up into huge, static, often symmetrical “immovable objects” (as in Ex. 4-4) and the “irresistible force” of unpitched percussion. The freely sliding pitch in the taped interpolations exposes the extent to which (just as Busoni had insisted a half century before) the monolithic system of douze sons is a prison, and the long, slowly changing sounds that electronics easily produces makes a similar point about time-honored conceptions of rhythm as pulse. It is only in the taped sections that the immovable objects and the irresistible forces can be reconciled and achieve integration. Perhaps that is why audiences found the work—and especially the interpolations of “organized sound”—so moving, and, at a time when the electronic medium was giving renewed impetus to the dehumanization of art, so human.

A Happy Ending

ex. 4-4 Opening up of symmetrical pitch space in Edgard Varèse's Déserts

In 1960–61, at Vladimir Ussachevsky's invitation, Varèse revised the first and third taped interpolations (the latter now including the prerecorded sound of an organ) at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center with the assistance of the Turkish composer Bülent Arel (1919–90), who was working there on a Rockefeller grant. By then Varèse had completed a work for tape alone, Poème électronique, commissioned by the Philips company to be “delivered,” as the architect Marc Treib put it, “from multiple points in space”50 over an installation of more than four hundred speakers in its famous Le Corbusier–Xenakis pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. The effect of these “four hundred acoustical mouths completely surrounding the five hundred visitors”51 (in Le Corbusier's happy words) was by all accounts a technological marvel, overwhelming even those it offended.

The music was routed through “sound paths” determined by a mixing console that had the capacity to deploy as many as 180 audio and visual signals through telephone relays to the loudspeakers, film projectors, and multicolored light installations. Heard (and seen) by nearly two million visitors over the six-month course of the Fair, and issued more than once thereafter on commercial recordings, Varèse's eight-minute Poème is probably still the most widely disseminated all-electronic composition in the short history of the medium. The charge from Philips was to create “effects of sound in space, therefore of movement, of direction, of reverberation and echoes, which until now have never been used in electronic installations.” The company was of course primarily interested in showing off its reproductive equipment and was at first dubious about entrusting the task to a composer of the avant-garde; Le Corbusier had to insist with threats. But the idea perfectly suited Varèse's long-standing musical ideas, as did the neoprimitivist visual display that Le Corbusier devised to accompany the organized sound.

A Happy Ending

fig. 4-7a Varèse's Poème électronique in its original performance space in the Philips pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair, 1958.

A Happy Ending

fig. 4-7b Varèse's sketch for Poème électronique.

Varèse came to the Philips laboratories in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, in the fall of 1957. He brought over some sound materials unused in Déserts, and relied further both on the company's own library of recorded sounds (including its extensive commercial line of classical recordings) and on its sound-synthesizing apparatus. The deliberate result was a (for the time) uniquely eclectic conglomeration of ingredients: “Studio recordings were used, machine noises, transposed piano chords and bells, filtered recordings of choruses and soloists,” as the composer enumerated them in retrospect. In addition, “oscillators were used to record sinusoidal sounds [i.e., “sine waves”], and literally unheard of sounds were made by mixing and combining all these.” In 1959, looking back on the work, which had confused and antagonized the corporate executives who had commissioned it, Varèse saw the Poème électronique as the high point of his career, the single consummate realization of his musical aims. “For the first time I heard my music literally projected into space,”52 he recalled. It was to be the last as well. Unfortunately, that spatial projection is the one aspect of the work that, since the scrapping of the pavilion at the end of the Fair, can no longer be experienced except as it finds pale reflection in the two channels of domestic stereo reproduction.

Poème électronique follows a trajectory analogous to that of Ionisation, from lesser to greater determinacy. In the earlier piece that trajectory was realized in the transition from nonpitched to pitched percussion sound. In Poème électronique, once past the initial bell sounds (a Dutch and Belgian specialty, perhaps a tribute to the locale in which the piece was created and performed), the transition is from abstract “studio” sounds to sounds associated with human agency, whether produced by voice (in solo and in chorus), by hands holding drumsticks, or by fingers at the keyboard. The first vocal apparition—a female voice moaning “Oo-gah!”—is a near quote from the Mayan text of Ecuatorial, Varèse's earlier neoprimitivist masterpiece, and brings his career full circle. It accompanied the projected images of African tribal costumes and coiffures, drawn by Le Corbusier from his pictorial anthology L'art décoratif d'aujourd’hui (“The decorative art of today,” 1925). The up-to-the-minute technology notwithstanding, this was a very old-fashioned modernism for the date. Its “futurism,” in an age of actual space-exploration, was retrospective, even nostalgic (Fig. 4-7).


(46) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), p. 109.

(47) Gunther Schuller, “Conversation with Varèse,” Perspectives on American Composers, pp. 38–39.

(48) Edgar Varèse, liner note to The Music of Edgar Varèse, Vol. 2 (Columbia Master-works ML 5762, 1960).

(49) Jean Roy, Musique française (1962); quoted in Ouellette, Edgard Varèse, pp. 188–89.

(50) Marc Treib and Richard Felciano, Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgard Varèse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 11.

(51) Jean Petit, Le Poème électronique Le Corbusier (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1958), p. 25.

(52) Quoted in Ouellette, Varèse, p. 200.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 The Third Revolution. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004009.xml