the present day composer… (listening, day 3 – part 2)

“The present day composer refuses to die!” – Edgard Varese, 20th century composer. Chopped and channeled by Frank Zappa, another 20th century composer.

I have no idea why Varese said that, or why it was important. Was he rebelling against what a composer “should” be, or affirming that composition was alive and well?

This I do know: he helped make music a bigger tent. The proof is in a best-of I own, The Varese Album. A few decades back, Varese was seen as a chilly, modern composer, (though I don’t think he had much truck with the serialist orthodoxy of the mid-century) but listening through the album now he’s almost…charming.

“Ionisation” sounds like one of the parts from which a really good hip-hop track is assembled; “Density 21.5”  and “Integrales” could be stirred into a pot of late 60s, early 70s avant jazz with not a lot of people the wiser. Even the more outre “Poeme Electronique” isn”t hard to handle – it’s like John Zorn’s quick cut collages of the mid-80s, stuff like “Spillane” and the whole of The Big Gundown.

I suppose that speaks to the high seriousness of that era of jazz, but also that Varese had a really good idea of what makes for interesting music. Nothing about it is a chore; there’s melody to follow and asides that could come from a Sondheim score. In fact, I hear hints of lots of different musicians in these recordings, which suggests how wide his influence was. Maybe, instead of talking about the composer refusing to die, his epigram should be “I got there first.”


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