Varèse's Ionization - the Percussion Revolutionby Pierre Grondines
/ July 1, 2000
"My goal has always been to liberate sound and open up music to the whole world of sounds," said composer Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), summing up his life's work. Varèse, who launched the percussion revolution, was a pupil of Roussel, d'Indy, and Widor. By the 1920s he had become a veritable guru of twentieth-century musical creation. Some dozen of his compositions are groundbreaking works, among them Ionization (1931), the first score in western music composed for percussion ensemble. Not only did it herald the liberation of the percussion section from its traditional supportive role; it was a turning point in musical vocabulary. To fully appreciate the importance of Ionization, we need to look briefly at the function of percussion instruments in the orchestra.
Reinforcement, evocation, and colour
From Bach to Brahms, the job of the percussion section in the orchestra had basically been to reinforce the accents already present in the musical exchange among the other instruments. (Beethoven, however, was able to transcend this limitation.) In opera or program (i.e. descriptive) music, percussion occasionally performed an evocative or descriptive role. Think of the bells in the 1812 Overture, the Basque drum in Roman Carnival, or the anvil in Il Trovatore. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the percussion section was expected to provide colour as well. The highly refined, luxuriant music of composers such as Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, and Ravel was enriched by the use of celesta, glockenspiel, tam-tam, rattle, and xylophone.
Giant strides in percussion
Beginning in 1910, at a time when percussion instruments in the orchestra experienced unprecedented development, composers began using these instruments in response to influences as diverse as Slavic folklore or the freewheeling use of the drum set in ragtime groups. Take, for example, The Soldier's Tale (Stravinsky, 1918), which finishes with an astonishing drum solo, or Choéphores (Milhaud, 1916) which, like The Wedding (Stravinsky, 1923), combines voice and an all-percussion ensemble. The andante of Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 1 (1926) also gives the percussion section a high profile. All these great strides forward, astonishing as they may have been, were just the beginning. A new world of sound would soon open for percussion instruments.
Genesis of Ionization
Varèse worked on Ionization from 1929 to 1931 during a five-year stay in his native France. (He had settled in the United States in 1915). The Parisian public was taken aback by the vigour and harshness of the music produced by this former disciple of the Schola cantorum. The current vogue was for the neoclassical sonatas and concertos of Milhaud, Poulenc, and Stravinsky. They were considered sufficiently modernistic but less wild and more palatable than tumultuous pieces like Varèse's Intégrales (1925), described by a contemporary critic as "cold metal that twists and screams with fire and rhythm!"
Despite being composed entirely in France, Ionization's première took place in New York on March 6, 1933. Varèse's great supporter, Nicolas Slonimski, conducted. The radical, innovative nature of the work was such that the New York Philharmonic percussionists who were approached to perform Ionization soon proved unable to cope with the work, and typesetters had to be called in to complete the task! In 1934, the work became widely accessible through a successful 78 rpm issued by Columbia Records.
From cymbals to sirens
Ionization is composed for 13 musicians playing some 40 instruments. In addition to drums, cymbals, gongs and tam-tams of all sizes, the work requires triangles, claves, Chinese blocks, a whip, miniature bells, and the famous "lion's roar" drum. Varèse added two hand-cranked sirens borrowed from the New York Fire Department. Three other instruments appear only in the last bars of the work: a piano (tone or note-clusters played by hitting the keyboard with the forearms), a glockenspiel, and bells.
Nearly all the percussion instruments used in Ionization generate indefinite pitch, so that most of their vibrations can't be clearly identified as a D or a G, for example. It's hard to tell whether a cymbal is striking an F or an E, or something in between. The fire sirens (which Varèse also used in other works) slide through an infinite series of frequencies without ever resting on any in particular. Working before the advent of electronic instruments, Varèse felt that only the siren could produce the long, perfectly smooth parabolic or hyperbolic curves that he wanted. These kinds of sound shapes are further evidence of Varèse's break with traditional scale theory dating from the time of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier. Varèse deplored the fact that traditional scales were perceived as containing the entire universe of sound. "We have to enrich our musical alphabet," he urged.
Sound-masses in collision
For the first time in the history of western music, orchestral percussion instruments were liberated from their supportive role. Varèse gave percussion a new and special mission. The rhythms of Ionization refer to no folkloric or exotic source and are intended to be heard as defining trajectories, masses, and tone-clusters of various densities. There is something almost visual about the music of Varèse, which features bodies of sound that, to quote the composer, "metamorphose continually, changing direction and speed, attracted or repelled by various forces." If one were to try to find some connection between his music and the work of one of his sculptor or painter friends - Calder, Giacometti, Gleize, or Léger, among others - then perhaps the signs and fantastic objects in Miró's canvasses would provide the most appropriate comparison.
A revolutionary step
The revolutionary nature of Ionization placed Varèse in a class apart from most other musicians of his generation. His preoccupations heralded those of composers born after 1920. His spatial conception of music anticipated the electro-acoustic music that emerged in the 1950s, involving taped recordings broadcast on loudspeakers that projected sound-masses moving in space. His predilection for sounds outside the traditional scales was shared by electro-acoustic musicians, continually experimenting with new intervals. Varèse was also inspired by the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis (born 1922), who believed even more enthusiastically than Varèse in the idea of an "art-science." The rather workaday sound-curves provided by the hand-cranked sirens of Ionization seem to have paved the way for the strictly calculated glissandos of the orchestral work Metastasis (1954). Ionization was a brilliant confirmation of percussion as an independent musical medium. It demonstrated how powerfully a genuine musical idea can be expressed in new sounds. Ionization's revolutionary approach directly influenced the development, in the last half of the twentieth century, of a large repertoire for percussion (or mixed ensemble with percussion) by composers such as Cage (Construction in Metal, 1939), Stockhausen (Kreuzspiel, 1951; Zyklus, 1960), Barraqué (Chant après chant, 1966), Xenakis, (Persephassa, 1969; Psappha, 1976), as well as Canadian composers Morel (Rythmologue, 1970), Garant (Circuits I, 1972), and Boudreau (Les Sept Jours, 1977).
Pierre Grondines is a musicologist and choral conductor. He teaches at the Conservatoire de musique de Québec.
[Translated by Jane Brierley]