Standing Up for Subjectivity

Varesebook.JPGSome months back Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann asked me to write an article on Edgard Varèse’s impact on American music for a book that the Paul Sacher Foundation would publish. Well, the book – Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary – is out, and rather than being the modest monograph I had envisioned, it is mammoth: a 500-plus-page coffee table compendium loaded with photos, diagrams, and manuscript facsimiles. Thirty-two authors are represented, and the articles cover Varèse’s student days, politics, patrons, personality, opinions of jazz, friends, influences, and other facets of this hard-edged figure.

Dipping into it at random (and I’m too immersed in composing to do more at the moment), I find some stunning quotes in Ulrich Mosch’s article about Varèse’s influence on Wolfgang Rihm: “Varèse [this is Rihm speaking] might have become much more of a key figure if he had only stood up more forcefully for his subjectivism and offset his image of the composer as objective architect with a different image: the artist as ‘manic-compulsive.’ As it is, we have to dig a long time before we reach him.” According to Mosch, Rihm feels that Varèse took on a self-protective cover of rationalism that was good politics for his milieu, but counter to his most basic compositional instincts. And he quotes something Varèse finally argued to Alan Rich in 1965: “Composition according to system is the admission of impotence.”

Whew! Well, the 20th century certainly needed a champion of subjectivity from the progressive side, someone to counter the then-spreading prejudice that subjectivity was the fetish of philistines. For my own article (and I hadn’t previously given Varèse much thought in 20 years), I found that that subjectivism made him forever suspect among the academics, who otherwise were delighted by his counterintuitive structures and extreme detail of notation. Meanwhile, the Downtowners loved him for his embrace of noise and that very subjectivism, though they resented his role in the imposition of a fanatical approach to notational exactitude. Exciting and original but thorny and personally off-putting, Varèse was a difficult figure to integrate into our musical landscape. This book looks like the most heroic attempt ever.


  1. Mark Surya says

    I came into contact with Varese the same way millions others did-his connection with Frank Zappa. I bought Zappa’s ‘Yellow Shark’ (My first classical CD) decided that everything on that CD was absolutley amazing (I still think it is) and decided to check out the roots of the music in Varese.
    I got a recording of Boulez conducting, and right off LOVED the ‘smaller’ pieces. Ionisation, Octandre, Integrales, Offrandes..they were all spectacular. It took me longer to appreciate Arcana, just because I had to sit down and listen for 18 minutes.
    I bought Deserts just a few months ago, and it reminded me of how cool Varese actually is, and why I like him so much compared to, say Schoenberg or Webern. You could ALWAYS tell that Varese was having it the way he wanted, even if it didn’t fit with what other people were doing at the time. My friend’s have written him off the same way they write Schoenberg off (Though they honestly write most music over 3 minutes off), but I don’t think they are the same at all. I think Varese has a lot of captivating melodies. Am I insane or what?
    (Yeah, I actually still like Zappa’s classical music more than Varese.)

  2. says

    Wonderful, this looks like an interesting book to get.
    Not having read it yet, I confess to having doubts about the term ‘subjective’ here. I mean, apart from “composing according to system” and subjective writing as in making decisions according to personal preference, perhaps there are more options? If you “let the sounds be themselves” – which may be the direction Varèse was going – it’s no subjugation to system, but is it subjective?

  3. says

    Seems to me that “subjectivism” is kind of standing in for “independence” here. Kyle, when you write “Well, the 20th century certainly needed a champion of subjectivity from the progressive side“, I think Ives or Cowell fall in there, and certainly Cage (yeah, I know, there’s all of that “remove the composer from the composition” thing, but the starting point for each process and element is about as subjective as it gets).
    And Samuel, I’ve got to think that “letting the sounds be themselves” was just about the last thing Varese was heading to; he definitely wants them to do his bidding.

  4. Samuel Vriezen says

    Not sure about that, Steve – I recall that Varese compared his way of crafting forms to traditional masonry, where you just look for which stone fits where.
    Letting the sounds be themselves can be a surprisingly broad attitude. Tom Johnson was over at a forum we organised last month in Amsterdam, and he was also quoting Feldman on this, saying that this was how he (Johnson) composed. But it’s super-rational at the same time, isn’t it? But there really is no contradiction: Johnson listens to what the processes he works with want, Varese looks for where the sounds he develops fit. Neither strike me as either “subjective” or “according to system”.

  5. says

    Varese may have said it, but it’s not what’s there on the page. The best example of a “just look for which stone fits where” composer might be Feldman, don’t you think? (though stone might be far too substantial a material to describe his walls…) Or, to head away from traditional instruments, maybe Henry Gwiazda.

  6. jimmymac says

    tom johnson is a great touchstone. the extreme rationality of his music is precisely what makes it intensely personable.