Edgard Varèse
Composer Sound Sculptor Visionary

28 April – 27 August 2006

Through the spring and summer of 2006, the Museum Tinguely, in collaboration with the Paul Sacher Foundation, presents an extensive exhibition entitled «Edgard Varèse – Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary» on the Franco-American composer Edgard Varèse (1883 – 1965).

Thus, on the occasion of the 100th birthday of their common founder, Paul Sacher, both institutions continue their cooperation that started in 1998/99 with the exhibition «Von Meisterhand: Zeichnungen, Partituren und Autographen aus der Morgan Library, New York» (Drawings, musical scores and autographs from the Morgan Library, New York). On this occasion, the Museum Tinguely was entrusted on behalf of the Paul Sacher Foundation with the presentation of priceless musical scores and drawings from the renowned library in New York and with the organization of a series of concerts and conferences.

The present exhibition project is devoted to one of the most ground-breaking composers of the Twentieth Century who nurtured close ties to numerous literary and artistic figures such as Antonin Artaud, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Le Corbusier, Man Ray or Luigi Russolo from whom he drew much inspiration.

Second to none, Varèse attempted to apply to musical composition the scientific principles he acquired through the engineering studies he had begun as a young man: « When you listen to music do you ever stop to realize that you are being subjected to a physical phenomenon? Not until the air between the listener's ear and the instrument has been disturbed does music occur … In order to anticipate the result, a composer must understand the mechanics of the instruments and must know just as much as possible about acoustics … I need an entirely new medium of expression: a sound producing machine (not a sound re-producing one). »

In 1916 already, after he had moved to New York, he was fascinated by the sounds produced by daily life in the city and sought to incorporate them advantageously in his compositions: « American music must speak its own language, and not be the result of a certain mummified European music. »

Originality was thus a significant factor to him – e.g. on the occasion of the foundation in 1921 with Carlos Salzedo of the International Composers’ Guild – and not appurtenance to a musical fraction: «The International Composers Guild disapproves of all ‹isms›; denies the existence of schools; recognizes only the individual. »

Already in the 1920s, but at the latest after composing his work Ionisation (1931) – one of the first works composed for a percussion ensemble – Varèse called for a revolution of instrumental means in order to create new sounds: « In music we composers are forced to use instruments that have not changed for two centuries. » And further: « The raw material of music is sound. That is what the «reverent approach» has made people forget – even composers. Today when science is equipped to help the composer realize what was never before possible – all that Beethoven dreamed, all that Berlioz gropingly imagined possible – the composer continues to be obsessed by traditions which are nothing but the limitations of his predecessors. Composers like anyone else today are delighted to use the many gadgets continually put on the market for our daily comfort. But when they hear sounds that no violins, wind instruments, or percussion of the orchestra can produce, it does not occur to them to demand those sounds for science.
Yet science is even now equipped to give them everything they may require … And here are the advantages I anticipate from such a machine: liberation from the arbitrary paralyzing tempered system; the possibility of obtaining any number of cycles or, if still desired, subdivisions of the octave, and consequently the formation of any desired scale; unsuspected range in low and high registers; new harmonic splendors obtainable from the use of subharmonic combinations now impossible; the possibility of obtaining any differential of timbre, of sound-combinations, and new dynamics far beyond the present human-powered orchestra; a sense of sound projection in space by the emission of sound in any part or in many parts of the hall as may be required by the score; cross rhythms unrelated to each other, treated simultaneously, or to use the old word, «contrapuntally», since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes, any subdivision of them, omission or fraction of them – all these in a given unit of measure of time which is humanly impossible to attain.»

In a late work, Varèse finally was able to realize these aims. Thus, in 1953/54, he completed his composition for orchestra Déserts by the insertion of tape-recorded «organized sounds»; and in 1958, following an invitation from Le Corbusier, he created his composition for tape-recorder Poème électronique as a contribution to the latter’s “Global Art Work” in the Philips Pavillon at the World Fair in Brussels.

Analogies with Jean Tinguely are obvious. Even Varèse’s philosophy and works were characterized by his enthusiasm for hitherto unusual materials drawn from daily life, by his image of the artist – along the lines of the engineer, by his search for new forms of expression that reflect the modified circumstances in an industrial society, by his concept of the global art work that includes the onlooker as a co-creator, and by his extreme non-conformism.

The exhibition presents Varèse’s estate that was recently acquired by the Paul Sacher Foundation supplemented by loans from collections worldwide: music and text manuscripts, letters, programs, paintings and photographs as well as examples of sounds that draw up a lively portrait of this fascinating composer who influenced entire generations of musicians.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a symposium and concerts as well as the presentation of numerous sound producing machines by Jean Tinguely and the sound installation instant city, 2003–2006, by Sibylle Hauert and Daniel Reichmuth in collaboration with Volker Böhm.