Friday, January 15, 2010

Marky's song #22: Edgard Varèse – “Ionisation”

Hey, don’t think I’m not cognizant of the order I’m doing these. The “twenty-one, only son” gag was an unexpected neat trick, but I’m looking for balance in my entries. I don’t want to overload the system with one or two styles of music – even if that presents an extra challenge since there are certain genres I listen to a lot more than others. I don’t want to be flattered with claims that I listen to everything. For that matter, I don’t want to be challenged on it, either. Stone cold fact: I don’t... mainly because I don’t have enough time. If I'd allow myself to get away with it, I would have made this one #21.5 (based on this piece.) But I simply couldn’t sacrifice my integrity that way – yes, I can hear you laughing – so we move on as expected.

My initial interest in modern classical originally centered around three people: John Cage, Charles Ives and Edgard Varèse. Since then, I’ve pretty much lost all interest in Cage, mainly due to his experiments with chance music. Chance music, different from free improv, is dull to my ears because it takes the creative process away from not only the composer, but the performer as well. However, I still have a huge interest in Ives and Varèse. I’ve already done an entry about an Ives piece, now it’s Varèse’s turn. Varèse is probably known best for “Poème électronique”, my first exposure to electronic music as classical composition, but the majority of his works are for ‘acoustic’ ensembles.

For the record, “Ionisation” is not chance music, nor is it improvisation. No way, bro, this is straight up scored for 13 percussionists. I feel it’s necessary to point that out, given the sometimes well-deserved reputation avant-garde music has for disrespecting established rules - even something fundamental like 'notes go on staff paper.' I won’t give you a full list of instruments used, but they span both traditional and non-traditional orchestral instrumentation. All sorts of non-standard percussive sounds can be heard.

Also notable about this piece is that it’s cited by Frank Zappa as the initial inspiration for him to pursue music as a career. Zappa even convinced his mother to let him call Varèse as a fifteenth birthday present. Varèse was not at home and Zappa wound up talking to with Varèse's wife instead, but obviously that was no deterrent. Zappa albums such as Uncle Meat and even Jazz From Hell show a strong Varèse influence with regard to how sound is organized and the embracement of modern technology to enhance the composition process.

The editing of this video makes it fun to watch, though reading through the comments leads me to believe that some of the instruments are not exactly as Varèse intended. (Wait, why am I wasting time reading YouTube comments?)


The reference to a lack of time in paragraph one is prescient. Now that I'm in grad school, time becomes an ever-more-precious commodity. I will try to update regularly and keep adding new songs, but I ask for understanding should entries occur at a less frequent pace.


  1. 如果你批評他人。你就沒有時間付出愛.........................

  2. I agree with aa.

    I also want to commend you for turning me on to a very odd composer. What a strange concept -- to perform that piece live. Now it could be done w/ a computer.

  3. Never question the wisdom of aa.

    I should have included that the date of the piece was 1931.