The Liberation of Sounds
Music by Edgard Varèse, Peter Eötvös and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
“A total shock” – Varèse’s Intégrales
Hardly another composer of the first half of the 20th century advocated more vehemently than Edgard Varèse a new way of thinking about sound and expanding the materials it utilizes. Although he was thoroughly conscious of tradition in many respects, he made no bones about the radicality of his approach: “I became a sort of diabolical Parsifal, searching not for the Holy Grail but for the bomb that would blow up the musical world and admit into the rubble all the sounds that – even today – have been called noise.” Starting in the early 1920s, his most important allies in carrying out this project were the percussion instruments with their infinite possibilities: “Some call them noisemakers; I call them sound producers.” Varèse was directing attention to the potential of an instrument section which, except for the timpani, had languished in the shadows for centuries in Western art music. Particularly its untuned representatives (e.g. drums, cymbals and triangle) had long been relegated chiefly to an ornamental or dramatic function. This was based on the conviction that its intense colours were nearly impossible to integrate into the sound of an orchestra and, moreover, would quickly fatigue the ear.
Intégrales, composed in 1924-25, calls for eleven wind and a whole arsenal of diverse percussion. This unusually constituted ensemble was designed not for homogeneity and blending but rather for contrast and differentiation.
“Teaching the drum to talk...” – Eötvösʼs Speaking Drums
Among the composers who have been fascinated by the physical power and energy of Varèse’s music is Peter Eötvös. In a 2006 essay on the French-American sound pioneer, the Hungarian quoted a remark from his writings that also seemed relevant to his own work: “The percussion must speak ... It must transmit its energy into the whole orchestra.” Six years later Eötvös began a work that would embody the idea of speaking percussion. He was inspired by the musical practices of jazz – musicians who accompany their playing with a type of Sprechgesang – and those of world music – the combining of speech and drums in India.
The basic idea of Speaking Drums is presented at the beginning in a kind of magic ritual, which is not without a certain comical quality. Following a forceful opening gesture – an accelerating drum roll produced not by the percussionist’s hand movement but by bouncing the drumsticks on the drumheads, causing them to vibrate – the soloist begins to teach the percussion to speak. The basis for the text is an experimental poem by Sándor Weöres (1913–1989), which mixes neologisms with actual Hungarian words: “panyigai panyigai panyigai ü panyigai ü” or “naur glainre iki vobe gollu vá”. Each of these first words is directly followed by a reply on the field drum or snare drum. They imitate the speech rhythm and word accentuation, transforming these into music. After the ball has bounced back and forth a few times, the soloist falls silent and the two drums carry on the speaking “dialogue” without the aid of the human voice. In the further course of this three-movement work, the interaction between words and sounds grows increasingly complex. At times language and playing are combined in synchronization, then brought back to virtuosic dialogue.
In Speaking Drums, the timbral variety and colour spectrum of the percussion universe can be experienced directly, along with their differentiated modes of application. The percussionists of the relatively small orchestra are already employing 19 different instruments, while the soloist’s extensive musical apparatus comprises more than 20 percussion instruments and, according to the score, is to be set up in front of the orchestra. The work demands from the soloist both extremely precise execution of the notated sounds and a high degree of improvisatory skill.
“Orchestrally conceived” through and through – Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade
Unlike Eötvös, who was already studying composition at the academy in Budapest by the age of 14, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a self-taught musician. After graduating from the College of Naval Cadets in St. Petersburg, he embarked on a military cruise lasting nearly three years.During his free time on board he read Berlioz’s influential treatise on instrumentation. Not until he was over 20 did the young naval officer finally decide to pursue a career in music. In 1871, he was invited to join the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory as professor of instrumentation and composition; he also led the orchestra class.
In his symphonic suite Sheherazade of 1888, Rimsky-Korsakovprovides an impressive demonstration of his art of instrumentation. The composer’s musical fantasy was stimulated by The Arabian Nights: a beautiful young woman, Sheherazade, evades certain execution by means of her storytelling gifts. For 1001 nights, she entertains Sultan Shahryar with wondrous tales. They are so gripping that, night after night, the merciless ruler postpones his vow to put Sheherazade to death the next morning until, finally, he renounces the barbaric resolution altogether.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical translation of this literary material is remarkably imaginative. It opens with a theme, presented by the strings, low wind and brass in unison, whose brusqueness and severity represent the pitiless Sultan. After a brief pause and some luminous high woodwind chords, we first hear the captivating voice of Sheherazade, embodied in the warm, expressive tones of a solo violin. In a free recitative, accompanied solely by harp chords, she leads her listeners into the maritime world of Sinbad the sailor, with whom the first movement is associated. This recitative-like passage serves as a “connecting thread” in the further course of the suite. For example, the solo violin also introduces, or interjects commentary into, the musical narratives of the inner movements.
The two protagonists confront one another again at the beginning of the virtuosic last movement. Two peremptory variants of the Sultan’s theme are each followed by the solo violin’s increasingly intensified reply. But in the further narratives – the musical evocation of an oriental street fair and a storm at sea – Sheherazade seems to succeed in placating the cruel ruler and finally changing his mind. In the movement’s slow coda, we hear the Sultan’s theme transformed – divested of all aggressiveness and severity – as the cellos play it pianissimo between the solo violin’s soaring cantilenas.