Varèse: You can’t go home again

Seattle Symphony's performance in Portland, minus the tapes, feels like something essential's missing

A couple of months ago I was walking past the Schnitz and saw a poster for the Oregon Symphony season. I had a quick look and spotted a listing for the Seattle Symphony, and a program that included Edgard Varèse’s Déserts, music I first heard in the composer’s studio in the spring of 1955, a few months following its premiere in Paris.

The premiere, at the Théȃtre des Champs Élysees the previous December, had caused quite a ruckus – not quite the riot triggered by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 in the same theater, but Varése, a family friend, had been delighted to tell my mother that audience members had been so upset, they had torn out some of the seats in the theater.

Edgard Varèse. Date and photographer unknown. Wikimedia Commons

Edgard Varèse. Date and photographer unknown. Wikimedia Commons

Varèse invited my parents and me and Jane Belo, who had been married for a while to Colin McPhee, a composer who had studied with Varèse briefly, to come to his Sullivan Street studio to hear the music he had wanted to make for decades, but could not, until technology caught up with his imagination. Déserts is scored for percussion, brass and winds, with three interpolations of taped sounds, and from the first note to the last it was so overwhelmingly lonely, it fed my adolescent soul.

Thirty seconds into the piece, I began to cry. And the more I cried, the happier Varèse looked. As a somewhat brainy, non-academically inclined girl of the hideous Fifties, when we were supposed to look pretty and smile sweetly at our strutting male age-mates, and keep our brains concealed in class by keeping our mouths tightly shut, which I declined to do, I felt like an outsider. Hell, I was an outsider, and that was a pretty lonely place to be.

Varèse, then seventy-two, certainly knew what that felt like: he had been an outsider for decades in the cutthroat world of modern music in New York, where he had emigrated from France in 1915. Critics loathed his work and called it noise; musicians didn’t want to play it. At one point, Varèse, in despair, destroyed his early work and stopped composing altogether. Déserts, made possible by the invention of magnetic tape, said it all.

So sixty years later, I wanted to know if this music would still make me cry, and I wanted to hear it played live. I have a recording made in the Seventies by Robert Craft (Boswell to Stravinsky’s Johnson) conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and over the years I have played it quite a bit, but at the end of the day, it’s canned music.


Ludovic Morlot conducted the Seattle Symphony in Portland Sunday.

Ludovic Morlot conducted the Seattle Symphony in Portland Sunday.

Varèse composed Déserts in such a way that it could be performed with the three electronic interpolations of piercing, knocking, manipulated sounds, or without them. Ludovic Morlot, conductor of the Seattle Symphony, chose to play it straight. The orchestra gave a committed performance, and I enjoyed it, but without the electronic sound, it did not make me feel very much, except pleasure in the rhythms and blasts (Varèse called them farts) of the brass.

Maybe I no longer feel like an outsider, maybe I’m a grownup, and just maybe, without those physiologically manipulative sounds, Déserts is about something else. The piece that moved me most on that program was John Luther AdamsBecome Ocean, commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, vast waves of sound that take the listener on a journey of isolation. A very cold one.

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