Edgar Varese (1883-1965) was a French composer, and pioneer of both the percussion ensemble idiom, and electronic music.
Varese received his early training in the traditional mold, studying composition in Paris and Berlin. His first important work, 'Hyperprism' followed his completion of the conservatory curriculum, in 1923. Hyperprism, scored for winds and percussion, set Varese apart in style from the rest of his contemporaries. His approach to musical organization was not based on traditional tonal/on-tonal relationships, but rather his own abstracted view of architecture. 'Hyperprism', like so many of Varese's subsequent works, uses the notion of blocks of sound, used to build up a large musical structure. His works hence focus on the exploration of musical space, time, shadow, and other architecturally derived concepts. This early work also provided the basis for Varese's future career, for its first performance had the good fortune of being attended by a rather enlightened music publisher, Kenneth Curwen, who published Varese's early works, and helped him establish both a name for himself, and financial security, rare for any composer.
Varese's next great work, Ionisation , was written in 1928, The piece was groundbreaking in its near complete disposal of pitched sounds in favor of percussion, and still sounds fresh today. Moreover, any fan of industrial music will instantly recognize the piece's influence on that genre, as will fans of action movies with heavy, percussive scores.
During the 30's Varese lived in America off and on, contacting the Bell Telephone Company, and later, Phillips, in the attempt to establish a center for electronic instrument research. While Varese waited anxiously for technology to advance to a point sufficient to realize his musical ideas, he taught composition in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and nearly accepted the position of Professor of Music at the University of New Mexico. Varese turned down the offer however, to travel to Hollywood in the attempt to persuade filmmakers of the potential for "organized sound" in cinema.
During the war, Varese stayed in New York, where he organized performances of Renaissance and Baroque music,
an early prophet for the early music movement which has thrived so in the past decade.
Finally, in the 1950's, Varese received a tape recorder as a gift from an anonymous donor. Having the technology finally, Varese tinkered and experimented with the range of possible electronic sounds now available to him. Remembering fondly the openness and sense of space in New Mexico, Varese returned, gathering material for his groundbreaking piece for electronic and acoustic instruments, Deserts . Deserts , heavily based in its subject is Varese's greatest exploration of musical space and dimension, giving a rather unearthly sense of an open, sparse tract of desert, and is one of the greatest works of extra musical suggestion ever.
Varese's final major work, was written for completely electronic sounds, and requiring a huge amount of technology and equipment. he convinced the Phillips company to build him the instrument he required, Phillips using the opportunity for company advertising, establishing the huge device in its tent at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, where the piece, Poem Electronique was first performed. Not only was the piece one of the first electronic pieces ever, it was certainly the first to reach a considerable audience. Even those who stopped by the tent for a moment out of novelty, went away with a new idea of what music could be. Moreover, a generation of young composers were introduced to a world of new possibilities by Poem Electronique.
By the time of his death in 1965, Varese had established a legacy as not only a brilliant composer, but as one of the unsung pioneers of contemporary music, in genres as diverse as noise, industrial, percussion ensemble, avant garde classical, film score, and general electronic. His music still sounds as if it was composed today, and is a worthwhile experience even for the average music listener. You may not agree, but you certainly should hear it once.