Counter-Culture and The New Horizons of Sound (Thinking With Varése)

I want to minimize the revolutionary images, the superficial tensions that are projected onto composers like Varése and Antheil, they need not to be made into mavericks or rebels—its simply not true (entirely) or helpful when listening/understanding their music. When looking through their words, one will encounter plenty of strange and seemingly eccentric information, but plenty that is mundane and not rebellious. Consider Edgard Varése in regards to Amériques “This composition is the interpretation of the mood, a piece of pure music absolutely unrelated to the noise of modern life which some critics have read into the composition”(Ouellette, 57). So, the composer appears both unreliable and sincere in his attempts to create new music with new sound. My point in minimizing the revolutionary image is mostly for the sake of dropping pretension an unrealistic standard in which we understand art. Modernist, and men like Varése are Agents/representations of change (yes a small distinction), rather than forces of change. There is something Pseudo-democratic in the nature of Art; like language (speech) Art is largely consensual, and exists always outside of the subject. Perhaps Artist anticipates just as much as they shape cultural perceptions.

As we have mentioned in class, these composer’s and their music exist in a timeline of a musical tradition. I reject the idea of revolution and paradigm shift, at least in terms of the individual piece if music or performance—the subject is always over determined by the critic and the audience. Their ability to understand the piece of music is evidence enough, meaning that change is always anticipated by the conditions that give rise to the cultural movement or product. For Varése “To be modern is to be natural, an interpreter of the spirit of your own time. I can assure you I am not straining after the unusual”(Ouellette, 57). Varése seems to be quite aware of how unremarkable his position is, as his revolution of sound and noise in merely a manifestation of the natural development of music. He is merely accessing the technology and sounds of the world he arrived in (both literally and ontologically). It is difficult to not insert sarcasm or a sense of irony in Varése’s words because: the question of what is natural is implicated in the modernist exploration of noise. What is natural? And how is man’s perception of nature conditioned? These questions extended into the realms of noise and music. What is natural and what is man-made (unnatural); what is music and what is noise?

For this thought, the composer is the: scientist, the cook, the tinkerer and the experimenter. The ideal experiment/preparation will reveal and report a phenomenon that already exists. Science does the best to uncover constants; the only new information is the means of reaching the constancy. The crafter will always arrive at their real state of existence as well as within a system ideology. First we have, raw values of what is going to be manipulated, and then we have the history and context of how things have been used, manipulated/utilized. On the other end of the artist and their Art there is the willing recipient, and producers, Varése like his contemporaries were able to secure patrons as well venues to share their art. Sure, there are conservative and nostalgic forces at work, but these are usual at odds with change and progress.

Mathematics are not the means of exploring new frontiers, so formulas only prove, verify old models of perception. Yet one discovery anticipates the next. Consider “Art’s function is not to prove a formula or an esthetic dogma. Our academic rules were taken out of the living work 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…”(M&M, 185). Varése speaks to the over determination that often occurs as well as the problems with conservative and nostalgic approach to creating art. When a fine piece of work arises, the critic and the audience must systematically establish it’s greatness, to prove a formula for success. In in reality the basis of the artist success includes an array of specific and arbitrary conditions.

How is something both new and completely anticipated (predictable)? This tension is all pointing towards the implication of a work like Amériques and other noisy pieces of music “clearly developed a new way of listening, learning not only to celebrate the noise in music, but also to appreciate the music in noise” I am a little hesitant to celebrate this notion, as we have seen from Fascist zeal and the Marxist criticism, there are clearly consequences and pretentious overtones here. How we get to the noise and how we receive the noise is all subject to highly structured cultural activities. I don’t think we need to celebrate one thing or another rather we need to rigorously explore the tension between noise and music. We still have the music of Varése and Antheil and they are still difficult to listen to. It is not so much about the new worlds of sounds but new questions and conflicts represented in sounds.

Ouellette, Fernand. Edgard Varése. New York: Orion, 1968. Print.

–Harry Brown


4 thoughts on “Counter-Culture and The New Horizons of Sound (Thinking With Varése)

  1. I really appreciate your insight regarding Edgard Varése’s Amériques, as well as your interpretation of “minimizing the revolutionary images” and artificial conflicts that have been projected onto composers such as Varése and Antheil. I do agree with your point in not making these modern artists into radicals or eccentrics in the sense that this detracts from their work, and your call for simply appreciating their music for what it is, and what it meant at the time that it was created. I think that questioning an artist’s intention behind their work is important, and found the quote that you chose in which Varése claims that Amériques is “a piece of pure music absolutely unrelated to the noise of modern life” to highlight this declaration quite well (Oullette, 57).
    It seems that although Varése claims to be striving for so called “pure” music and a sense of absolute authenticity in his work, there is in fact an idealistic and impractical standard that is set when we study and attempt to understand art, specifically modern art that works so ardently to avoid being understood completely. Modern artists such as Varése seem to fall under the impression that to be modern is to strain and put pressure on the authenticity of sound, to reconstruct our notion of “pure” music as it exists in the present moment. In this sense, they are simply putting tension on what was previously considered to be modern, disrupting and unsettling the unity that had historically brought music together. I think it is important to keep the artists and their work in perspective when studying them, and to view them as representative of the constantly shifting and fluctuating nature of art.


  2. Your point at the end of your first paragraph regarding art as being “Pseudo-democratic” intrigued me. I was reminded of a moment in Butler when he claims that Modernist artists “tended to be divorced from and marginal to the society in which they lived (Butler 42).” While it could be argued that their separation from society gave them a perspective that others lacked, I found it surprising that a set of people who made such grand claims about how their art operated in culture perhaps weren’t actually that aware of what society at large wanted. This is at odds with the general attitude of Modernist artists who were actively trying to change the way people viewed art. That goes to your point about art as something democratic or natural. Trying to actively change the way people feel about art is a losing proposition.

    Stravinsky seemed to get that point, he is quoted in Butler as saying his art is “the music of today (Butler 31).” and that artists labeled as modernists work with formulas. Modernists were trying to adapt the art of the past and create the art of the future, whereas someone like Stravinsky seems more invested in creating a work that stands on its own at the time of inception. Which isn’t to say that art which feels present in the moment can’t draw on the past or remain viable in the future. However, the active pursuit of a timeless art by modernists probably ended up being too formulaic to be truly lasting. It ignores the reality which you suggest, that a work of art will not and cannot be “systematically established” as great. It’s an organic process.


  3. I’m wondering what you would consider a “revolutionary image” to be exactly if it’s not the hallmarked people of movement that are still burned into history and textbooks almost a century later. It also makes me question what you would consider to be a movement if you don’t consider modernism a paradigm shift. Yes, music exists in a linear timeline of tradition, which almost seems like it would only strengthen the argument that when one (like Varése and Antheil) breaks from the current tradition and creates an impetus that other composers and artist draw on to shape their own work (away from the previously held customs) that it would in fact be considered a revolution in music and art. Revolution, by its dictionary definition, means “a drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving”(Miriam-Webster 1913). Today, Edgard Varèse is considered to be “a pioneer, a visionary whose mission was the liberation of sound from tradition… he sought a clean break with the past by developing entirely new ways of writing music,”(Carnegie Hall Post). I don’t know about you, but someone that comes up with an entirely new way of doing something sounds pretty revolutionary to me. And yes, I would consider singular pieces of music or art to represent that. When one thinks about a movement, do not specific names and specific works come to mind? Cubism, romanticism, neoclassicism, realism, representationalism, postmodernism,etc. I will eat my hat if Picasso, Woodsworth, Stravinsky, Degas, Warhol, Rite of Spring, or Ravel doesn’t come to mind.

    I want to further another thought about music and noise you left us with in your piece. First off, I’d really like an explanation of the consequences of celebrating modernist music. I’m not sure there is anything “clear” in regards to that. I actually didn’t follow a lot of what you were saying, but I did find your formula for deciphering noise problematic in its complexity and vagueness. “How we get to the noise and how we receive the noise is all subject to highly structured cultural activities.” Like what structured activities? And are we getting to the noise or is the noise getting to us? Do we have a choice outside of opting for deafness? Can’t we just accept that noise is a constant? Secondly, I think the real question should be how do we receive the noise and make it into music? And to that I would say that it’s not subject to culture but subject to subjectivity. Kanye West, for example, because he’s my doubleplus fave. I regard his “music” as noise but his mass millions of dollars seem to imply other people do not share this opinion. Other people receive his noise as music worldwide in diverse cultures. That seems to imply that there really isn’t a formula for receiving noise or music. And no matter how many hits Ameriques gets on youtube that’s not an indication to its likeability necessarily. I don’t like it at all yet I’m listening to it for this class. Music should be celebrated and what a single person decides is music because it makes them feel good or feel anything is completely up to them. I don’t think you have to look very far to encounter someone that has a very different music taste than you or someone that has been forced to endure a noise they didn’t want to hear. Thanks, Justin Bieber. Music, like art, like literature, like life, does not inherently need rigorous exploration. For every Ezra Pound there are 100 Nora Roberts. Music, like art, like literature, like life can be celebrated for simply being in existence. What does this have to do with Varese? Probably nothing but I have to make a point somehow for a good grade, right? Oh yeah, my point is that whether you idealize Varese as a revolutionary or Iggy Azaela, that’s up to you. Both seem to have a huge following. Neither can be measured with a formula. All you really have is one person expressing themselves and another deciding if they subjectively like it.


  4. The question of the extent to which Varése appears simultaneously unreliable and sincere is, I think, an worth-while entry-point into examining some of the problems we have to deal with concerning what Butler refers to as the false-scientism of Modernism. While Varése may claim that the noise of modern life is unrelated to his piece of music–and it may very well be unrelated to his compositional act–the connotative effect of the “noise” certainly has, and had, that effect.

    I believe, the extreme pretension–if we choose to call it that–and the revolutionary attitude that pervades the theoretical underpinnings of these works, is fundamental to understanding these works as direct responses to what was seen as a diseased series Romantic misconceptions about the nature of art. When Varése writes, “Moreover, the new musical apparatus I envisage, able to emit sounds of any number of frequencies [a technical impossibility, and one that ignores the range of human hearing] , will extend the limits of the lowest and highest registers, hence new organizations of the vertical resultants…their oxygenation.” this is an attempt at systematizing, and scientifically-couching music in a direct and opposing series of values and goals those of the Romantics (186). Central to this drive, finding a way to legitimize and systematize the arts–music in particular–in a way similar to the rise of new scientific discoveries, and a ever more exacting scientific language, is Neoclassic in much the same way the original Neoclassicists of the Enlightenment were concerned about the arts in response to Newton.

    As a result, as I see it, understanding the very real desire to differentiate themselves from Romantic notions of the arts in a way that contains elements both quite pretentious, revolutionary, and most striking to me, scientific, is a proper window into understanding the attempt at a break that represents the same type of attempt made by Newton and Einstein (even if they ended up to be more commonly understood to have succeeded). The fact that they viewed their work as a rigorous building upon past knowledge is in fact a sign that their thinking way directly contrary to the cult of Genius and Originality that left such an enormous legacy from the Romantics.


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