Some 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.