Edgard Varese, VARESE: Arcana / Integrales / Deserts

Todd Burns

By Todd Burns

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
A legendary modern composer returns to the stage. Only to get booed off.

Only 12 of Edgard Varèse's compositions still survive, but his name is among the most venerated of modernist composers. Much of that can be attributed to Frank Zappa's tireless and frequent championing of the French composer. That and premiering a work in Paris and having it jeered off the stage. (Hey, it worked for Stravinsky.) Varèse's "Deserts" did just that in 1954. He'd composed the piece after nearly 20 years of silence, dejected by the reaction to his challenging orchestral work of the 1920's and '30s, and frustrated by his inability to properly capture on paper the sounds in his head. Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète studio offered help in the form of a two-track tape that was played as interludes between the ensemble's atonal compositions. A cynical soul would point out that the two don't sound all that different — a listener interested in the simultaneous birth of electronic music and avant-garde classical would probably make the same point.