Anybody can do it, can’t they? All you need is a computer, Garageband and, or, the sort of audio editing software I use, and there we are. No simple two-track tape; how many do you want? Eight, sixteen, forty eight? Dolby Surround? 5.1? So why is it worth bothering about this old curmudgeonly bear of a bloke called Edgar Varèse?
It’s simple really. Varèse could imagine a musical concept, and create it as a whole. And an awful lot of people playing with their computers are really just patching together ‘found sounds’ and they don’t have that. Maybe, as Boulez said in the interval ‘bio’, with “more knowledge of musical language” he would have gone further, but I think I hear an IRCAM philosophy talking here. I’ve never really seen Varèse as a composer of music, but a creator of soundstages. Of sound events. Of sonic buildings.
And Poème électronique (doesn’t that title remind you of ‘poème concrête’? I think it should) is a construction: just listen to the way some sounds are carefully repeated, how they carry a kind of flowing motion of the kind you get in the curves of Le Corbusier buildings. How they cycle: and of course, we are thinking electronics here, so we should also be thinking ‘kilocycles’ as well as kilohertz. Yet even this short piece can deliberately startle you with a heart-stopping—purely human—scream.
Yet, on a very simple level, you can listen to it simply as a sound image of a city; but these sounds are not mere imitations of footsteps and construction work (or even the unnerving whistle of a steam engine that, like the ‘footsteps’ has a human echo instead of, like others, an electronic one). They are the sounds you hear just before it gets light, when you cannot be sure they were real, in a dream you have just woken from and cannot quite recall, or ones you have simply imagined. They have come to exist outside reality, only in some inner one. They are the sounds heard by someone who is separate from all the rest of us, the ‘outsider’ of Camus. And you can feel yourself taking up that very lonely distance as you listen. That scream says “Why am I out here. . ?”
Apparently Varèse said of a contemporary composer: “He creates shit and gets paid in gold. I create gold and get . . .) Forget that this is a relatively simple piece in its technology. That’s irrelevant. It is a little nugget of gold.
It’s been said Philips were somewhat ambivalent about the Poème électronique at their Brussels pavilion fifty years ago, but I can’t altogether credit that. If they were lukewarm about this kind of music, then they certainly made up for it within a couple of decades or so with their superb Xenakis recordings. I liked the silvery sleeves, too.
He would have laughed, very sardonically I think. Transferring my digital recording of Déserts from one computer to another, I found (after I'd deleted the original) I hadn't copied all my data files for it, so my software helpfully interpolated hundreds of bars of silence. Now if I'd recorded that on my two track reel-to-reel, that wouldn't have happened, would it? Anyway, I want to listen to all of Jonathan Harvey's Speakings instead of just the last few minutes, so I'll listen to the repeat on R3 in a few days. Prom 45 'sounds' as though it was a very intriguing programme.
Prom 45: Varèse, Poème électronique