Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965) was a French composer, considered one of the pioneers and frontrunners of Avant-Garde Music. He saw music as a series of organized sounds, even noises, because as he said "what is music but organized noises?".
Varèse is also well known as a pioneer in Electronic Music, using electronic mediums for sound production, though not to actually generate sounds — his work of this type is more correctly considered musique concrète. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1927. His existing oeuvre is short, consisting of approximately three hours worth of music in total, though almost all of his earlier work was destroyed in a fire. A complete list follows:
- Dance For Burgess
- Density 21.5
- Ètude pour Espace
- Un Grand Sommeil Noir. This is his only surviving early composition.
- La Procession De Verges
- Nocturnal. Edited and completed by Chou Wen Chung.
- Poème Electronique
- Tuning Up. Completed from sketches by Chou Wen Chung.
Varèse's work provides examples of...
- All Drummers Are Animals: Percussion and drums are very prominent in Varèse's work. Ionisation in particular is scored entirely for percussion instruments.
- Avant-Garde Music: The genre he is closely associated with.
- Cradle of Loneliness: Déserts was composed by Varèse, not only alluding to physical deserts, but also "those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone."
- Electronic Music: Varèse was one of the early composers to experiment with electronica. One of his pieces is even named Poème Electronique. These works, as well as La Procession De Verges and the tape music portion of Déserts are correctly considered examples of musique concrète because they do not employ sounds generated from an electronic source.
- Everything Is an Instrument: Even wind machines, electronic tape, whips, sirens.
- Messy Hair: Varèse is recognizable due to his long, messy hair. In fact, this was one of the things that appealed to teenage Frank Zappa, as Varèse looked like a Mad Scientist on his album covers.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Nowadays, Varèse is probably best known as Frank Zappa's main influence.
- Shout-Out: Some of this composer's work titles reference scientific concepts. A notable example is Density 21.5, commissioned by flautist Georges Barrère for performance on his new platinum flute. The density of platinum is 21.5.
- Spell My Name With An S: He was given the first name Edgard at birth. When he emigrated to the United States, he first referred to himself as Edgar but reverted to his earlier first name (if not always consistently so) in the 1940s. Music history books normally use the Edgard version.
- Spiritual Successor: Several composers, most prominently Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Mario Davidovsky, Olivier Messiaen, Krzystztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn. Most any composer who produced electronic music or musique concrète is heavily indebted to his work.
Edgard Varèse in popular culture
- Frank Zappa discovered Varèse through a bad review in a magazine and out of Bile Fascination went out to look for it. It took him a year to track it down, but he bought it immediately. When he finally listened to it the record literally changed his teenage life and inspired him to become a composer himself. According to The Real Frank Zappa Book an 18-year-old Zappa asked for a phone call with Varèse for his birthday in 1958, but only got Varèse's wife on the phone. It turned out her husband was in Brussels, for the World's Fair, where he was commissioned to write Poème Electronique, but she promised he would phone back. Varèse did indeed call Zappa up and they talked on the phone. Unfortunately the two men would never meet in person, but Zappa did receive a personal letter by Varèse, which he had framed. A segment of "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet" on Freak Out is nicknamed "In Memoriam Edgar Varèse." On the same album Zappa names Varèse as one of his influences in a list printed in the sleevenotes, where he also reproduced a Varèse quote he would reprint on a lot of his albums: "The present day composer refuses to die." In the early 1980s Zappa also recorded an album of Varèse's music with a small ensemble, but never released it, preferring to keep it to himself.
- The opening track of Chicago's Chicago V (1972) album is called "A Hit by Varèse".
- "Cycles du Nord" on John Zorn and Music Romance's Music for Children (1998), is a 20 minute long wind machine composition dedicated to Edgard Varèse. The album Moonchild: Songs Without Words also takes inspiration from Varèse.
- The record label Varèse Sarabande. Its forerunner label Varèse International was founded in 1972 (several years after his death) and specialized in avant-garde and classical music, so he was an obvious choice as a Shout-Out for the label name. After Varèse International merged with Sarabande in 1977, they went with a much broader artistic lineup and the name became an Artifact Title.