On instrument design: Edgard Varèse

In his lecture, Sound as a Medium of Art,  artist and media theoretician Peter Weibel describes the progressive emancipation of noise in the XXth century and its role in the emergence of new art forms. Composer and thinker Edgard Varèse was a central figure in the quest for unheard-of sounds and instruments, an entreprise that, for him, was closely associated with scientific progress.

We reproduce here two significative lectures on the "Liberation of Sound" given by Varèse in California in the 1930s.

I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm. (1)

New Instruments and New Music

(From a lecture given at Mary Austin House, Santa Fe, 1936)

"At a time when the very newness of the mechanism of life is forcing our activities and our forms of human association to break with the traditions and the methods of the past in the effort to adapt themselves to circumstances, the urgent choices which we have to make are concerned not with the past but with the future. We cannot, even if we would, live much longer by tradition. The world is changing, and we change with it. The more we allow our minds the romantic luxury of treasuring the past in memory, the less able we become to face the future and to determine the new values which can be created in it.

Art's function is not to prove a formula or an esthetic dogma. Our academic rules were taken out of the living works of former masters. As Debussy has said, works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art. Art exists only as a medium of expression.

The emotional impulse that moves a composer to write his scores contains the same element of poetry that incites the scientist to his discoveries. There is solidarity between scientific development and the progress of music. Throwing new light on nature, science permits music to progress-or rather to grow and change with changing times-by revealing to our senses harmonies and sensations before unfelt. On the threshold of beauty science and art collaborate. John Redfield voices the opinion many when he says: "There should be at least one laboratory in the world where the fundamental facts of music could be investigated under conditions reasonably conducive to success. The interest in music is so widespread and intense, its appeal so intimate and poignant, and its significance for mankind so potent and profound, that it becomes unwise not to devote some portion of the enormous outlay for music to research in its fundamental questions."(2)

When new instruments will allow me to write music as I conceive it, the movement of sound- masses, of shifting planes, will be clearly perceived in my work, taking the place of the linear counterpoint. When these sound-masses collide, the phenomena of penetration or repulsion will seem to occur. Certain transmutations taking place on certain planes will seem to be projected onto other planes, moving at different speeds and at different angles. There will no longer be the old conception of melody or interplay of melodies. The entire work will be a melodic totality. The entire work will flow as a river flows.

We have actually three dimensions in music: horizontal, vertical, and dynamic swelling or decreasing. I shall add a fourth, sound projection-that feeling that sound is leaving us with no hope of being reflected back, a feeling akin to that aroused by beams of light sent forth by a powerful searchlight-for the ear as for the eye, that sense of projection, of a journey into space.

Today with the technical means that exist and are easily adaptable, the differentiation of the various masses and different planes as well as these beams of sound, could be made discernible to the listener by means of certain acoustical arrangements. Moreover, such an acoustical arrangement would permit the delimitation of what I call "zones of intensities." These zones would be differentiated by various timbres or colors and different loudnesses. Through such a physical process these zones would appear of different colors and of different magnitude, in different perspectives for our perception. The role of color or timbre would be completely changed from being incidental, anecdotal, sensual or picturesque; it would become an agent of delineation, like the different colors on a map separating different areas, and an integral part of form. These zones would be felt as isolated, and the hitherto unobtainable non-blending (or at least the sensation of non-blending) would become possible.

In the moving masses you would be conscious of their transmutations when they pass over different layers, when they penetrate certain opacities, or are dilated in certain rarefactions. Moreover, the new musical apparatus I envisage, able to emit sounds of any number of frequencies, will extend the limits of the lowest and highest registers, hence new organizations of the vertical resultants: chords, their arrangements, their spacings-that is, their oxygenation. Not only will the harmonic possibilities of the overtones be revealed in all their splendor, but the use of certain interferences created by the partials will represent an appreciable contribution. The never-before-thought-of use of the inferior resultants and of the differential and additional sounds may also be expected. An entirely new magic of sound!

I am sure that the time will come when the composer, after he has graphically realized his score, will see this score automatically put on a machine that will faithfully transmit the musical content to the listener. As frequencies and new rhythms will have to be indicated on the score, our actual notation will be inadequate. The new notation will probably be seismographic. And here it is curious to note that at the beginning of two eras, the Mediaeval primitive and our own primitive era (for we are at a new primitive stage in music today), we are faced with an identical problem: the problem of finding graphic symbols for the transposition of the composer's thought into sound. At a distance of more than a thousand years we have this analogy: our still primitive electrical instruments find it necessary to abandon staff notation and to use a kind of seismographic writing much like the early ideographic writing originally used for the voice before the development of staff notation. Formerly the curves of the musical line indicated the melodic fluctuations of the voice; today the machine-instrument requires precise design indications.

Music as an Art-Science

(From a lecture given at the University of Southern California, 1939)

The philosophers of the Middle Ages separated the liberal arts into two branches: the trivium, or the Arts of Reason as applied to language-grammar, rhetoric and dialectic-and the quadrivium, or the Arts of Pure Reason, which today we would call the Sciences, and among which music has its place in the company of mathematics, geometry and astronomy.

Today, music is more apt to be rated with the arts of the trivium. At least, it seems to me that too much emphasis is placed on what might be called the grammar of music.

At different times and in different places music has been considered either as an Art or as a Science. In reality music partakes of both. Hoëne Wronsky and Camille Durutte (3), in their treatise on harmony in the middle of the last century, were obliged to coin new words when they assigned music its place as an "Art-Science," and defined it as "the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds." Most people rather think of music solely as an art. But when you listen to music do you ever stop to realize that you are being subjected to a physical phenomenon? Not until the air between the listener's ear and the instrument has been disturbed does music occur. Do you realize that every time a printed score is brought to life it has to be re-created through the different sound machines, called musical instruments, that make up our orchestras, are subject to the same laws of physics as any other machine? In order to anticipate the result, a composer must understand the mechanics of the instruments and must know just as much as possible about acoustics. Music must live in sound. On the other hand, the possession of a perfectly pitched ear is only of a relative importance to a composer. What a composer must have, must have been born with, is what I call the "inner ear," the ear of imagination. The inner ear is the composer's Pole Star! Let us look at music as it is more popularly considered-as an Art-and inquire: what is composition?

Brahms has said that composition is the organizing of disparate elements. But what is the situation of the would-be creator today, shaken by the powerful impulses and rhythms of this age? How is he to accomplish this "organizing" in order to express himself and his epoch? Where is he to find those "disparate elements"? Are they to be found in the books he studies in his various courses in harmony, composition, and orchestration? Are they in the great works of the great masters that he pores over with love and admiration and, with all his might, means to emulate? Unfortunately too many composers have been led to believe that these elements can be found as easily as that.(4)

Eric Temple Bell, in a book called The Search for Truth, says: "Reverence for the past no doubt

is a virtue that has had its uses, but if we are to go forward the reverent approach to old difficulties is the wrong one!" I should say that in music the "reverent approach" has done a great deal of harm: it has kept would-be appreciators from really appreciating! And it has created the music critic! The very basis of creative work is irreverence! The very basis of creative work is experimentation-bold experimentation.

You have only to turn to the revered past for the corroboration of my contention. The links in the chain of tradition are formed by men who have all been revolutionists! To the student of music I should say that the great examples of the past should serve as springboards from which he may leap free, into his own future.

In every domain of art, a work that corresponds to the need of its day carries a message of social and cultural value. Preceding ages show us that changes in art occur because societies and artists have new needs. New aspirations emanate from every epoch. The artist, being always of his own time, is influenced by it and, in turn, is an influence. It is the artist who crystallizes his age-who fixes his age in history. Contrary to general notion, the artist is never ahead of his own time, but is simply the only one who is not way behind.

Now let me come back to the subject of music as an Art-Science. The raw material of music is sound. That is what the "reverent approach" has made most people forget-even composers. Today, when science is equipped to help the composer realize what was never before possible- all that Beethoven dreamed, all that Berlioz gropingly imagined possible-the composer continues to be obsessed by the traditions that are nothing but the limitations of his predecessors. Composers, like everyone else today, are delighted to use the many gadgets continually put on the market for our daily comfort. But when they hear sounds that no violins, no woodwind or percussion instruments of the orchestra can produce, it does not occur to them to demand those sounds of science. Yet science is even now equipped to give them everything they may require.

Personally, for my conceptions, I need an entirely new medium of expression: a sound- producing machine (not a sound-reproducing one). Today it is possible to build such a machine with only a certain amount of added research.

If you are curious to know what such a machine could do that the orchestra with its man- powered instruments cannot do, I shall try briefly to tell you: whatever I write, whatever my message, it will reach the listener unadulterated by "interpretation." it will work something like this: after a composer has set down his score on paper by means of a new graphic notation, he will then, with the collaboration of a sound engineer, transfer the score directly to this electric machine. After that, anyone will be able to press a button to release the music exactly as the composer wrote it-exactly like opening a book.

And here are the advantages I anticipate from such a machine: liberation from the arbitrary, paralyzing tempered system; the possibility of obtaining any number of cycles or, if still desired, subdivisions of the octave, and consequently the formation of any desired scale; unsuspected range in low and high registers; new harmonic splendors obtainable from the use of sub-harmonic combinations now impossible; the possibility of obtaining any differentiation of timbre, of sound-combinations; new dynamics far beyond the present human-powered orchestra; a sense of sound-projection in space by means of the emission of sound in any part or in many parts of the hall, as may be required by the score; cross-rhythms unrelated to each other, treated simultaneously, or, to use the old word, "contrapuntally," since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes, any subdivision of them, omission or fraction of them-all these in a given unit of measure or time that is humanly impossible to attain.

In conclusion, let me read to you something that Romain Rolland said in his Jean Christophe and which remains pertinent today. Jean Christophe, the hero of his novel, was a prototype of the modern composer and was modeled on different composers whom Romain Rolland knew- among others, myself.

The difficulty began when he tried to cast his ideas in the ordinary musical forms: he made the discovery that none of the ancient molds were suited to them; if he wished to fix his visions with fidelity he had to begin by forgetting all the music he had heard, all that he had written,

to make a clean slate of all the formalism he had learned, of traditional technique, to throw away those crutches of impotency, that bed, all prepared for the laziness of those who, fleeing the fatigue of thinking for themselves, lie down in other men's thoughts. (5)" 

1. From "391" (periodical), No. 5 (June 1917); transl. from the French by Louise Varèse. 2. John Redfield, Music, a Science and an Art (New York, 1928).

3. Hoëne Wronsky (1778-1853), also known as Joseph Marie Wronsky, was a Polish philosopher and mathematician, known for his system of Messianism. Camille Durutte (1803- 1881), in his Technie Harmonique (1876), a treatise on "musical mathematics," quoted extensively from the writings of Wronsky.

4. This, Varèse said in the same lecture, "undoubtedly accounts for one of the most deplorable trends of music today-the impotent return to the formulas of the past that has been called neo-Classicism."

5. Romain Rolland (1866-1944), Jean Christophe (1904-12); published in English as John Christopher (G. Cannan, tr.; 1910 - 13).

From: http:/helios.hampshire.edu/~hacu123/papers/varese.html