Not too long ago I took you for a dive into the Abyss of the Unknown and made you discover and perhaps even enjoy a piece of chamber music by Paul Hindemith. Let’s do this again, another dive, but this time we go into a completely different direction. Today’s post is about a philosophical question: Music or… noise?
Noise. Noise is a phenomena of modern life, of the introduction of machines and electricity into everyday’s life at the beginning of the 20th century. Edgar Varèse was a composer of French origins who later settled down in the United States and joined the New York based musical avant-garde in between the two world wars. In 1923, two years before Hindemith wrote his Chamber music No. 4, Varèse composed a piece called “Hyperprism” for a small ensemble consisting of a flute (doubling piccolo), a clarinet, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones and up to 16 different percussion instruments. He embedded in his work noise illustrating city life in the 20s in New York: You will hear a siren, signaling the end of a shift, a phone ringing, a horse trotting over cobblestones.
Needless to say that the premiere in New York in 1923 provoked a scandal. That had not been Varèse’s intention, and he did not care much about the audience mocking his piece. We are making noise and we are constantly surrounded by noise. We change from one mode of life to another instantly: work/leisure and our personality can be broken down in different aspects in the way a prism refracts light. Hence the name of the pieces. Varèse simply wished to reflect modern life in his compositions and considered noise just another type of sounds sets.
Science does away with Romanticism
There is nothing random about his work, although it may initially resemble an arbitrary collage of sound bits. “Hyperprism’s” effects are meticulously calculated to reflect man in the scientific age, a stark contrast with the pastoral or Romantic themes of the past. The piece definitely has a modern ring (no word-play intended), but at the same time Varèse’s careful construction makes it a stimulating and enjoyable piece. You will find short melodic phrases, alternating with percussion induced forceful rhythmic parts, and the repetitive pattern give the piece its structure.
I am aware that I am abusing your patience, but at the same time I intend to challenge your curiosity, your ideas about aesthetics and your musical taste. I believe we live in a transition period from the mechanical age to the digital age, a huge paradigmatic shift and I find it important and interesting to see how art – music that is – has reflected such a change in the past.
If you’re ready for the dive now – the piece has been recorded by the Ensemble InterContemporain under Pierre Boulez and by the Asko Ensemble under Riccardo Chailly in the version revised in 1986 by Richard Sarks.
© Charles Thibo