Thursday, 4 May 2017

Edgard Varèse Total Immersion, Barbican

On Saturday at the Barbican, London, there'll be an Edgard Varèse Total Immersion : a major retrospective, augmented by a talk, a film and a reconstruction of Varèse’s Poéme électronique.  This is the third big festival featuring Varèse in recent years, following on from the excellent Total Immersion on Xenakis at the Barbican in 2008  (read more here) and the  Varèse 360˚ weekend, at the South Bank in 2010 (read more here), plus other performances of individual works over the years.  In his lifetime,  Varèse was a cult figure. Now he's practically mainstream.  The time has come, for the "First Wild Man of Music".

The film will be The One All Alone, Frank Scheffer's documentary from 2009, including  interviews with Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman,  Riccardo Chailly and Prof Chou Wen-Chung who worked closely with the composer and produced performing versions of incomplete pieces.  The installation of  Poème é important, too, because it makes concrete, or rather non-concrete, Varèse's ideas on the confluence of all sensory experience.  Written for tape, it was a pioneering moment in the development of electronic music.  Through multiple images, aural, visual and atmospheric, Varèse hoped to create a universe spanning space and time. In 2008, the Barbican recreated Poème é closely as possible to the original in 1958, at the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair, where the performance took place in a structure specially designed for the occasion by Xenakis,who was then best known as an architect.  Sound operating in many dimensions, structurally held together in myriad,intricate patterns.  Poème électronique is unique, and an excellent key to understanding the music of Xenakis's and Boulez. Read more here about Xenaki's designs for realising this piece. 

The evening concert in the Barbican Hall will be conducted by Sakari Oramo, with the BBC SO, the BBC Singers and Alison Bell.  Featured are the "big" works, Arcana, Nocturnal, Étude pour Espace, Déserts, Tuning up  and  Amériques.  The afternoon concert in Milton Court with the Guildhall New Music Ensemble features Un Grand Sommeil Noir, Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre , Intégrales , Ionisation, Density 21.5  and Dance for Burgess. Though Varèse is extremely influential, his output isn't huge, so the two concerts, cover nearly all he wrote, except alas, the amazing Equatorial.  The two benchmark recordings are the sets by Pierre Boulez and Riccardo Chailly, quite different yet both authoritative, though I keep returning to Boulez who brings out the quirkiness in the music more.incisively.  

Arcana is the biggest of Varèse's works, and relatively accessible.  It's scored for massive forces-   roughly 120 players altogether,  68 strings, 20 woodwinds, 20 brass and a phalanx of percussionists playing 40 different instruments from timpani to castanets.  Every performance is a feat of logistics, so it doesn't get done as often as it should be.  It's also extremely visual : watching is very much part of the experience.  It's not every day you see rows of trumpets and trombones, some muted, some not playing together, or 8 horns raised heavenwards. Arcana is big, but its bigness springs from its musical function. Arcana proceeds like a gigantic beast, its component parts articulated to move in stately formation, groups of instruments impacting on each other in constantly varying combinations. I've never quite been sure what Varèse  meant by its title, but I've often imagined it as a mythical creature brought to life by arcane spells and incantations.

Even more thrilling, Amériques, featuring klaxon and dramatic percussion effects - a collage of found sound and formal,  which represented a breakthrough in modern music.  Pretty shocking, considering it was first written between 1918 and 1921.  I don't know if Oramo and the BBCSO will be doing Déserts as a multi media event, though I hope so, since when I've experienced it before: the link between visuals and sound can be very rewarding.  The afternoon concert isn't as high profile but the music is superb. I'm particularly fond of Ionization, Octandre, and Intégrales. 

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