Edgard Varèse
Edgard Varèse; drawing by David Levine

Edgard Varèse, born 1883, was on his Burgundian side, the mother’s, robust in fellowship and deeply loyal toward any object, place, person, or experience that had once touched him. Thus his grandfather Cortot with whom he spent his first ten years in a village near Mâcon remained throughout his life a memory idolized. But Varèse could also move with violence. And he could be ever so demanding, early in life for serious musical instruction, later for recognition of his music by all those whom it might concern.

From his half-Italian father, a prosperous engineer whom at ten he went to live with in Turin and whom he came to hate, he probably learned those wild and sudden angers that all his life he never could control. His mother had warned him at fourteen on her deathbed that his father was “an assassin.” At sixteen he ran away, to be brought back by the director of the Turin Conservatoire, who thereupon with the help of the local bishop negotiated a treaty whereby the boy was to drop out of technical high school, be given remunerative office work, and allowed music lessons. At twenty, on seeing his father raise a hand to his stepmother, he gave “the bastard” a thrashing and left home again, this time for Paris, and for good.

There for five years he led the poverty life, taking music training (the best) at the Conservatoire and the Schola Cantorum, knowing everybody far-out from young Picasso to Lenin, and acquiring the valued friendship of Debussy. The latter’s influence was definitive, for it was from him, at twenty-five, that Varèse took over and kept for life the view that harmony is a free element, as free as orchestration and rhythm. Imaginative advance in all three of these domains had been for a century, and indeed still is, the hallmark of romanticism in music.

In 1908 he went to Berlin and stayed seven years. There again he knew everybody. He also conducted choirs and orchestras, collaborated on theatrical productions with Max Reinhardt, had an orchestral work (called Bourgogne) played by a major orchestra, became famous as a musical enfant terrible, started an opera on a classical subject (Oedipus and the Sphinx), and for six years was close to Ferruccio Busoni, his second major influence.

The services of this friendship, which included introductions to all the leading professionals, were as much literary and philosophical as directly musical. For Busoni was full of speculations about acoustics, about tunings and pitch relations, and most important of all, about mobilizing the scientists for discovering new sources of sound that might be used in composition, especially for producing (possibly by electricity) micro-intervals more precise than anything tuned by hand.

No such instruments were available then, though Busoni was pleading with the manufacturers to make him a pianoforte for playing sixths of tones. But these speculations did reawaken in Varèse his early taste for engineering-oriented thoughts, long rejected as recalling the hated father but now acceptable for their possible tie-up with music. And here we go still deeper into romanticism, into science as a dream—a science-fiction dream, in fact, since none of the devices really existed (or existed yet, a dreamer would have said).

In any case, by World War I Edgard Varèse was in possession of what he needed to become the kind of composer he was forever afterward to be, a technically original, an advanced (or advancing) composer whom nothing could stop, not even a world-wide war with its unavoidable restrictions. He was married, too, had a child, and was subject to mobilization by the French army. Nevertheless he managed to burn his bridges (along with most of his musical production, caught in a Berlin fire). By the end of 1915 he had been freed from his military servitudes (through illness), had left the wife and child with her relatives, and arrived (the third and last of his major displacements) in New York. He had ninety dollars and he knew Karl Muck, still conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, later to be interned as a German spy.

For Varèse America was not a musical influence; it was merely the place where his musical maturity occurred. Revved up by Debussy and Busoni (after a sound conservatoire training and a richly international background), at thirty-three he was ready to take off. Another year of war-bound Europe and he might have gone down—died of consumption, of despair, got killed. From another place than New York he could never have taken off; there was no other field for so large a craft—not in Mexico surely, nor in Spain, nor South America. But from here take off he did, first as a conductor (for America just the right beginning), then as an organizer of far-out concerts (all modernism was considered to be far-out), finally three years later as a composer (with a vast orchestral tribute to his new country entitled, in the plural to symbolize all discovery, Amériques).


His earlier music had borne contemplative or literary titles—Rhapsodie romane, Gargantua, Le Prélude à la fin d’un jour. From here on they leaned toward hope, toward science and mathematics, only occasionally toward dreams of adventure or imaginary travel. His second American work, Offrandes, though dedicated to his American wife Louise Norton and to his French partner of the International Composers’ Guild, Carlos Salzedo, bears for its two parts the titles Chanson de là-haut and La Croix du Sud. For the future there were to be Hyperprism, Octandre, Intégrales, Arcana, Ionisation, Ecuatorial, Espace, Density 21.5, Déserts, and Le Poème électronique. The only throwbacks toward literature are La Procession de Vergès (from a film about Joán Miró), Nocturnal, and Night (the latter two being settings of psychological horror texts out of Anaïs Nin.

Varèse’s music, constructed out of sound-blocks not unlike crystals in their vast and precise variety, in their constant overlappings are suggestive of the intersecting polyhedrons that are the forms of modern architecture. His bibliography, though rich in reviews, articles, and chapters, contains, I believe, only two full books. There are a life and works by Fernand Ouellette (published in both French and English) and the recent Varèse: A Looking-Glass Diary by his widow. Neither is a critical study; I doubt whether at this time an examination in depth of Varèse’s work is possible. Its resistance to analysis has over a fifty-year period been so stubborn that that fact alone leads one to suspect in the music a comparable power of resisting erosion. Indeed, after Debussy, Varèse may well be the century’s other great voice. We can recognize in Stravinsky and in the Schoenberg trinity (which includes Webern and Berg) a well-deserved popularity and undoubted pedagogical interest. But there is very little mystery left in any of them, or characteristics still needing to be explained, though there does remain of course much juice to be squeezed out for the market.

Ouellette’s book is a valued biography, regarding the works fully descriptive, and completed by all the lists and calendars one needs for reference. The other, its no less valuable twin, tells the same stories (as well as many more) from a wife’s-eye view. One needs both for looking up almost anything about Varèse. The latter, based on diaries covering a half-century of life together and brought into vigor through a poet’s power to relive the past, is a delight where the earlier book is mainly informative. Ouellette gives relatively deadpan accounts of the five-year Paris stay between 1928 and 1933 and of the cold shoulder there received from Cocteau, Milhaud, Auric, Honegger, Poulenc, and the salons (not to mention their kingpin Stravinsky), in spite of high praise from the best French critics. One might have enjoyed a bit more malice, but malice is not his tone; and Mrs. Varèse’s volume, announced as one of two, stops short of the 1928 return to Paris and the composer’s firm rebuff there by the musical power-set.

Both being involved with the earlier years, we come off better regarding the five-year war between Varèse’s concert society in New York, the International Composers’ Guild, and the League of Composers. The latter group offered in 1922 energies and organizational help that were most welcome. By fall, when Varèse returned from a summer trip, he found that his valued Guild had been completely taken over—programs, direction, everything. Only a lawyer’s intervention got the invaders out. After that the two societies were enemies. The Guild survived till 1927, the League effectively till 1947, and though in principle friendly toward all contemporary music, without ever playing anything by Varèse.

These once bitter animosities have been covert gossip in New York for years, but somehow the League has largely avoided their exposure. Now that Mrs. Varèse has let the lid off there may be “talk,” though so far I have heard none. Surviving League members are still silent. And fifty years later, who cares? Historians only, perhaps. All the same, without a full story of the League’s quarter-century power play it will not be easy to reshuffle the reputations made and unmade during the 1920s and 1930s into an order that today’s young, either here or in Europe, are likely to accept.

Iannis Xenakis, French composer of Greek forebears, was in his early years a product of the engineering schools. He also became an architect and was during that master’s last years assistant to the Swiss Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as Le Corbusier. In music he was the pupil of Olivier Messiaen and the conductor Hermann Scherchen, in mathematics of a Professor G. Th. (so abbreviated in the text) Guilbaud. He is at present a professor of music at Indiana University, where he directs for three separated months each year a Center for Mathematical and Automated Music. His preoccupation with engineering-music relates him to Varèse, though he was never a pupil. Actually he was at one point a patron of Varèse, whose work he admires, Xenakis having been responsible for the commissioning of Varèse to create an electronic composition to be played in the pavilion erected at the Brussels Fair of 1957 by the Philips Electrical Company.


Le Poème électronique would seem to have appeared to Le Corbusier in a dream, along with the idea of putting his pavilion on show twice an hour with a montage of cinema shots on the ceiling accompanied by original electronic music. And just as he had farmed out the building’s design to Xenakis, the latter appointed Varèse, with Le Corbusier’s consent, to create the music. Le Corbusier seems to have taken some part in the choice of film-shots. Otherwise he was mostly absent, though he did do battle with the Philips Company over the hiring of Varèse and over his right to keep him hired when the whole plan, building and music, turned out to be more modernistic than the company esteemed advantageous.

It seems also that Le Corbusier had hoped for a closer relation between cinema and music than he ever got. For Varèse would have none of merely accompanying a surrealistic montage of newsreels. So that in the end there was no connection at all between the visual and the auditory elements, beyond the fact that, as exhibited, they began and ended together. The public nevertheless kept looking for a tie. When the Fair itself ended, Philips caused the building to be instantly destroyed, the musical wiring layout with it. If the film was preserved, as I hope, its place of deposit is unknown to me. Varèse, however, kept the title of Le Poème electronique, and his music for this, without its ceiling-travel through 240 tiny speakers, has been recorded as a composition “for electronic tape.” A beauty it is too, in ever-so-delicate chamber-music mood.

The design of the Philips building, though commonly credited to Le Corbusier, was created (at the master’s request) by Xenakis, who also supervised its construction. And according to Xenakis’s book Formalized Music, its shape, illustrated there by graphs, photographs, equations, and geometric projections, represents a solid, or three-dimensional form, generated by rotating three straight lines conoidally around their end-points. The result is the equivalent in space of a musical composition by its author entitled Metastasis, for which the calculations are also given and the musical score in part reproduced.

The calculations, if I understand aright, have to do with a situation of indeterminacy governed, as all such situations are (short of an unobtainable absolute in chance), by the calculus of probabilities. And here the composer has adopted the adjective stochastic to describe his results and to cover everything that could be included under the ideas of probability, chance, the aleatory. The word stochastic, first used in 1713 by the mathematician Jacques Bernouilli in his Ars Conjectandi, is a pretty one and quite Greek enough for science; but somehow it has not caught on for music. So that twenty years later, or thereabout, Xenakis remains stuck with it, though still using it proudly for justifying his own method of composition.

The equations invoked to elucidate stochastic theory are all, so an investigator assures me, correctly applied. The metaphysical chapters, backed up though they are by much praise of logic and by quotations from the Greek philosophers, are to me not invariably convincing. But these are not needed for creating graphically, by means of a computer, the “clouds” of seemingly random dots that are said to be the origin of the music.

These random dots may be considered to represent almost anything—clouds, crowds, protozoa, or the molecules of gas in a chamber. Musically they are expressible by points of dry sound, such as string pizzicatti or percussive taps, and their variations of pattern and density are infinite, like those of gases under volume change. Subjected, however, to heat changes at the same volume, gas molecules, like any crowd stirred up, will start rubbing against one another and bumping around till their casual contacts take on, at least from a distance, the aspect of an unbroken contiguity. And this effect Xenakis renders by multiple string glissandi.

He further finds that by drawing the moving dots on graph paper as short straight lines, these tiny dashes will often assemble as tangents defining a curve. And so we arrive at something not unlike tunes, crescendos, rhythmic patterns, and even larger musical shapes, within a continuum all the more delightful to swim around in when constituted of classic musical sounds rather than of their electronic substitutes. Also, as an architect, Xenakis, in the Montreal and Osaka Expos, has been known to create for his interiors special room-shapes which place his hearers and performers in patterns of proximity far different from those now standard.

All this would be just games and happenings were not the auditory results so. “musical,” so genuinely imaginative, so clearly the work of a high temperament. It is not important to me that Xenakis uses recondite procedures toward so pleasurable an end, though by now it is clear that today’s complex musical textures, if they are to avoid a willful or personalized expressivity, and to achieve effects related more to space rockets than to heart beats—for such indeed is the modern dream—will have to be achieved through following the higher equations, no matter how much hand-work may also be involved. For surely the well-prepared engineer (prepared in music I mean, and aesthetically sophisticated as well as mathematically) is likely to carry further the science-in-music ideal than the electronic improvisers or the merely classically educated. For an interesting complexity cannot be faked.

That the complexity of Xenakis’s music is real I cannot doubt. It would not sound so handsome otherwise, or stand up as it does under usage. That his great show of a scientifico-philosophical volume is all of it for real I do doubt. Not that I suspect a put-on, not at all. But its straight passages, its nontechnical sermons are a bit dithyrambic as argument. For that matter, so were the architectural propaganda books of his teacher Le Corbusier. So let us not be difficult with a multilingual musician not really the master, perhaps, of any idiom. And let us take the Greek-letter equations on faith till we can have them tested. A man whose music is so strong cannot in writing about it have turned overnight into a weakling.

The word overnight is not applicable anyway, since the bulk of Formalized Music was published in French in 1963 as Musiques Formelles and large chunks of that as early as 1955 and 1956 (along with a German version, I presume) in Gravesaner Blätter. The present edition contains new thoughts and much graphic material. To a mere musician its mathematical presentation is forbidding, its full understanding out of the question.

But its faith in music’s imminent transformation is a romantic view long familiar, just as the application of scientific method toward this end is recognizable as a common contemporary dream. The author’s belief in the authenticity of his own work is admirable. His explanations of how it got that way are no more to be believed, I suspect, than those of any other creator. And his yearning toward a future for the musical art largely disengaged from its humanistic past is a puritan ideal all too reminiscent of antiseptics and sterile gauze.

For the birth, presumably under laboratory conditions, of what Xenakis calls “a metamusic,” let us turn to his own prophetic statement.

It cannot be said that the informationists or the cyberneticians—much less the intuitionists—have posed the question of an ideological purge of the dross accumulated over the centuries as well as by present-day developments. In general they all remain ignorant of the substratum on which they found this theory or that action. Yet this substratum exists, and it will allow us to establish for the first time an axiomatic system, and to bring forth a formalization which will unify the ancient past, the present, and the future; moreover it will do so on a planetary scale, comprising the still separate universes of sound in Asia, Africa, etc.

In 1954 I denounced linear thought (polyphony), and demonstrated the contradictions of serial music. In its place I proposed a world of sound-masses, vast groups of sound-events, clouds, and galaxies governed by new characteristics such as density, degree of order, and rate of change, which required definitions and realizations using probability theory. Thus stochastic music was born. In fact this new, mass-conception with large numbers was more general than linear polyphony, for it could embrace it as a particular instance (by reducing the density of the clouds). General harmony? No, not yet.

Today these ideas and the realizations which accompany them have been around the world, and the exploration seems to be closed for all intents and purposes. However the tempered diatonic system—our musical terra firma on which all our music is founded—seems not to have been breached either by reflection or by music itself. This is where the next stage will come. The exploration and transformations of this system will herald a new and immensely promising era.

Since World War II Elliott Carter has been our most admired composer of learned music and the one most solidly esteemed internationally. His chamber music in particular (which includes the Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord each accompanied by a separate instrumental group) is respected by composers and viewed by instrumentalists as a challenge to their virtuosity. Extremely well-written to exhibit virtuosity, Carter’s music is always hard to play, but seldom hard to listen to; though complex for eye and hand, it ever delights the ear. In this sense, though in no other, Carter is a parallel to Franz Liszt. For high seriousness and monumental form, however, his aspiration, like that of so many other Americans—Ives, Harris, and Sessions, for example—emulates Beethoven. (This is not a European habit; the monumentally inclined over there seem content with Tchaikowsky and Mahler.)

Elliott Carter, moreover, is a man of culture. He knows languages, reads Greek, has traveled. His musical history includes not only the Harvard-and-Nadia Boulanger orbit, formerly standard for American composers, but also a long and close friendship with Charles Ives. He learned the choral routines under Archibald T. (“Doc”) Davison, show biz under Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, for whose early dance companies he served as musical adviser and composed two ballets. For a short time too he taught at St. John’s College in Annapolis, which is probably where a good deal of his classical reading took place, such as Plato and Lucretius. For some years I have noticed that the Great Books method of instruction, however quickly it may run off of the undergraduates’ bright plumage, will occasionally go deeper with the young instructors, especially those for whom it is a second plunge.

In any case Elliott Carter has read everything and been everywhere, and he has reflected about music as well as written it. He has also written about it under that impeccable trainer Minna Lederman, editor of the regretted quarterly Modern Music. So that whatever he has to say about music is not only penetrating as thought but gracefully expressed. And if a certain pessimism permeates his view of whatever or whomever has not contributed to the blazing of his own fine complex trail, he is courteous for the most part toward those who have.

It is surprising that at sixty-three with so solid a career laid out and so splendid a repertory to exploit, Carter has not been the subject of a biographical brochure, nor has there yet appeared regarding his work any attempt at sustained analysis. The recently issued Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds, a Conversation with Elliott Carter, by Allen Edwards, aspires to give us the composer along with his views on music. But the questioner is so full of his own views that the composer has to spend time blowing away fog which might have been employed to greater advantage in direct observation. All the same, a great deal of Carter’s remarkable intelligence and good sense does come through. And if these offer less enlightenment regarding his own work than about the musical situation in general, that is only natural, to his credit even, since no artist, especially a successful one, is ever much good at explaining himself.

His account of his youth and educational background, however, is very good indeed, involving as it does practically everybody, practically everybody’s music, and the adventures of a possibly not so gifted but very bright young man in sizing them all up and picking out relentlessly everything that he might eventually, in his full maturity, be using. The thoroughness of his investigations and the decisiveness of his rejections, especially his acquisitiveness in stock-piling musical, literary, all sorts of humane and other cultural experiences, is virtually without parallel among American musicians, though his predecessors in this essay, Varèse and Xenakis, being Europeans, were as young men no less avid and no less determined in finding their way about among the treasures.

Actually Carter, in spite of economic and cultural advantages, was slow to ripen. The process was long and painful, also complicated (perhaps cushioned) by psychosomatic maladies. He was thirty-seven when his first break-through occurred, his first work wholly free and original, the Piano Sonata of 1945. Since then his production has been steady, its quality stable, its individuality unquestioned. His excellence in general renders academic much of the technical talk in the latter half of the present book. When he mentions, for instance, music’s having moved into a “post-tonal” epoch, the word has little meaning. So has the assumption that music has “moved,” has in fact ever “moved,” though it changes constantly, if not in syntax, surely in meaning.

Carter also refers to his use in certain later works of four-note chords containing all the intervals. One such would be C-C#-E-F#. Whether this is in any acoustical sense a chord, rather than merely an agglomerate, I question. It is certainly a combination of intervals numerically arrived at, hence easy to manipulate in today’s vernacular. It is also bound irretrievably to the conventions of tempered tuning, so tightly bound indeed as to render it acoustically void of identity in any music that might aspire to be considered “post-tonal.”

But Carter is not far-out in either theory or practice. His music’s textural basis is the contrasted invertible counterpoint characteristic of fugue. His game is instrumental virtuosity, and it is in this field that his most ingenious discoveries have been made. His expressive sources are likely to be literary though not narrative (philosophical meditations on infinity, rather) and its forms asymmetrical. It is therefore both romantic (by inspiration) and neoromantic (through its dependence on planned spontaneity). His neoclassical allegiance to invertible counterpoint is also a romantic element, tending toward sequence-structure, though its preoccupation with virtuosity is hard-edged baroque. All in all, it is a past-oriented music, not one that dreams of transforming the art, and Carter is a conservative composer, in the sense that his aim is to say modern things to the classically educated.

His youthful taste for quality and flair for finding it, along with his nowadays wisdom in defining it, are all a part of the man and of his music. And the spectacle of him, as Carter’s unusual mind and forthright tongue bring out firmly in the book, is that of an artist very little fooled by anyone, or self-deceived either. As a man of culture and sound skills he believes in an elite and knows its existence to be true. As a man of means he disdains to make the adjustments in his life style or his music style that would be required for seeking popularity. He writes therefore as an elite composer for an elite public, for consumers with education, some leisure, and a consecration to cultural experience.

As we know who can remember when plays, ballets, concerts, and museum shows were frequently aimed at such a public, its being educated and well-to-do was never enough. The only consumer we respect today is one whose life is consecrated to a skill, in other words a professional. Beyond these lie the limbo of nonresponsibility, of mass publics merely addicted to consumption.

The view is not a popular one. And Elliott Carter is not a popular composer, not in any sense now possible to conceive. But he is an interesting man and his music is interesting. Interesting intrinsically, I mean, not just fun and games or a jolly noise, but appealing to the mind and to the heart as well as to the musical ear. A great deal of the man is in this book, not any of the music; but the man is seen wrestling, if not quite with music, with the formulation of ideas provoked by the wrestlings that unquestionably went on during the gestation and the writing of music. That is certainly the meaning of its title, which is a quotation from the poet Wallace Stevens. And if maybe some of this is shadow-play (inevitably), some of it is also real (it has to be). That too is interesting. Intrinsically.

This Issue

August 31, 1972