Remembering and forgetting Varèse

The Lincoln Center Varèse concerts are this week; Alex Ross has various links and video of Varèse as a silent film actor. (I’m afraid I found the ICE theatrical trailer pretty dopey.)

These concerts remind me of being a student at Columbia at the time of the Varese centennial, and, as we were all Chou Wen-Chung students, being roped into working on an all-Varese concert. There was a panel discussion earlier in the day – all these elderly folks, I think Otto Luening and Meyer Schapiro among them – reminiscing about Varèse. Or, actually, talking about all kinds of things except Varèse. (The panel was called “Remembering Varèse”, but fellow student Paul Moravec referred to it as ‘Forgetting Varèse”.) The climax of the panel was when it was time for Varèse’s widow Louise to speak. Finally, we thought, this will be the real thing, the profound insight, the key to understanding the man and the artist. Louise leaned toward the microphone and said:
“There was never a dull moment.”
And that was all she said.
I notice that the Lincoln Center programs omit one very rare piece. Varèse actually composed three electronic works – everybody knows the Poéme and Deserts, but he also did some electronic music for a film by Thomas Bouchard called Around and About Joan Miro. The music was for a portion of the film called Procession at Verges. I only know about this because we projected the relevant portion of the film at that all-Varese concert at Columbia, along with some home movies of Varèse talking with Carl Ruggles. Ruggles sounded like Jimmy Cagney playing a gangster (“I thought Walt Whitman was the greatest American poet, see?”) while Varèse sounded like, well, like somebody doing an imitation of a cosmopolitan boulevardier.
(The image above is of Calder’s wire sculpture of Varese)

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