Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Landmarks (24)

Edgard Varèse: HYPERPRISM (1923) for nine wind instruments and percussion. Music was never more "modern" than it was in the "ultra-modern" 1920's* and the controversial issues around that modernism -- dissonance, noise, radical breaks in continuity, extremes of materials, intensity of expression -- have never really been settled in subsequent music history, but rather continue to percolate in-between bouts of more restrained music-making. Condensation is one of the prominent tropes in early modernism, but Varèse's condensation in HYPERPRISM is unrelated to that of the Viennese Schönberg and Webern, for whom condensation was a means of intensifying an expressive tradition. For Varèse condensation is rather a means of concentrating -- viewing through a prism, if you will -- a musical idiom that is assertively a- or even anti-traditional. (While Stravinsky's music is associated with the idea of "tonality by assertion", here we have an "atonicization by assertion"). HYPERPRISM is a miniature in terms of its elapsed duration, but not in terms of the resources required or its ambitions. The percussion section fills an unprecedented portion of the ensemble, the winds play at extremes of register and dynamics, and within the span of just four minutes the piece moves through a dozen distinct changes of tempo and character (it's tempting to speak of movements here). But for all the extremes, there are numerous subtleties, for example the opening c#', shared, rearticulated, recolored by the tenor trombone and horns, and in the percussion, the changes of scoring patterns and composite ensemble rhythms.
* As long as we're at it, if you consider Pulchinella, music was never more postmodern than in the 1920's!

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