(After quite a long intermission – which had its reasons, although expounding them would be both an imposition and a bore – henceforth I should now be able to devote sufficient time once again to this endeavor. The lengthy text which follows, was envisioned when I began it, some weeks back, as rather more compact than it has turned out to be; but the topics dealt with were resistant, and given that it had to be something fit to recommence with, after a while I decided to allow them and myself a free hand. Throughout this essay the reader will note more than the usual number of dates, locations, and references, which, although at first they might yield some confusion, are actually provided that one find one’s way more easily across a terrain which may appear quite unfamiliar. This expanse of historical material it seemed necessary to include in order to situate properly some of the work, thought, and place of one composer in particular who during a long career removed himself about as far as he could from all tradition.)
A bit more than a month ago, under the aegis of the Holland Festival, a tribute was paid to Pierre Boulez (perhaps also in honor of his ninetieth year), his work “Répons” (in its third version) being given what was to the best of my knowledge its Dutch premiere. Twice it was played, in the enormous circular building on the Westergasfabriek complex where gas was once stored, by the Ensemble intercontemporain, the group he founded in the 1970s and for which he had first written the work some years later, positioned at the center of the space with the several soloists who’d been engaged for the performance stationed at points around the perimeter, while the audience was apportioned into quadrants in between, and then seated anew for the second of the two performances exactly ninety degrees further on, being shifted a quarter-turn to the left relative to all the musicians. A simple and effective expedient this proved to be, for a work devoted so obviously to the very experience of space, opening thus another route through it to the attentive audience. And indeed, how different everything did resonate, the second time around! One change of location and the whole room was hardly the same.
At certain moments during the second performance, and precisely by virtue of the repetition, some musical influences upon the composer’s work which usually are rarely mentioned, if ever at all, could be heard rather clearly – or so they registered in my ears, at least: here a bar or two of film music à la Hitchcock, there some notes reminiscent of pieces by Ornette Coleman (an artist who will be greatly missed) seemed to shimmer through. Yes, along with much else these other works too are comprised in the space, or better, the spaces which Boulez’ own winds about, in active response to them.
The composer himself, alas, could not attend the Amsterdam event in person, let alone conduct the ensemble himself, as was his wont – but his original insight into the work remains incisive. He has pinpointed its special kinetic rapport with space: for, as Boulez has remarked of it, an experience of “Répons” should proceed like the visitor’s stroll down the spiral ramp in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The gait one adopts while doing so – it is selected in answer to that unique architectural arrangement of space; and by analogy, then, some similar disposition ought evidently to guide the audience (seated though it is) in its virtual movement around the room while the musicians are at work delimiting it aurally.
Hence here the listeners are responding to music which itself is already a response. So, if these very terms contain anything beyond a misleading sedimentation of metaphor, one may well proceed to ask: to what, exactly, does it respond? The answer to this question does then seem to be: to spaces which, in some sense of the verb, speak. And thus their “speech” would represent the factum brutum prior to any possible acoustic encounter with them – although whether in this or that instance what they say will be heard at all, is another matter entirely.
In lieu of Boulez himself, the task of conducting “Répons” was assumed by the Ensemble’s current artistic director, Matthias Pintscher, and he discharged it well.
Boulez’ notion – or else, if one prefers, the notion which “Répons” can elicit from a listener – that spaces themselves are anything but mute, and indeed may each harbor something like an intelligence capable of expression, attests evidently to his rather close kinship with an earlier and equally if not more path-breaking composer, namely, Edgard Varèse, whose body of work was honored similarly under the auspices of the Holland Festival some years ago. And it is not exactly a wonder to find that the Ensemble intercontemporain, once again with Pintscher conducting, has posted on its Soundcloud page a live recording by Radio France of a performance of Varèse’s “Amériques” it did, conjointly with the Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris, in the Philharmonie in that city a few months back. The sound of their version is very clear, and so I should like to present it here.
Rendered with a crisp precision in this performance is the locus of musical modernism itself – the modern metropolis as an acoustic environment, a region extended chaotically and yet built up in accordance with pre-established topographical regularities. In both respects, one may reasonably assume that the locale which served as the model for Varèse, was his own adopted home, New York. From beginning to end, “Amériques” draws again and again upon the sonorities of that city, and even incorporates them into itself whole. To this characteristic of Varèse’s composition the musicians and the conductor (Pintscher, it may be noted, shuttles between Paris and New York) are conscientiously attentive, and the results sparkle.
With how much fidelity is the listener given to hear the vehicles, signalized by the numerous sirens, racing down the avenues during some emergency! Or the dissonances of crowds in the streets, with uproar, panic, and riots always latent on the scene, while many of the participants itch for the slightest excuse?
That the composer’s creative imagination was driven by his great curiosity concerning space, seems to me to incontrovertible, but more tenuous and in need of substantiation is the idea that it was attuned to the metropolitan streets first and foremost, and indeed to those built according to a rectilinear plan, the consistent urban grid characteristic of Manhattan. Well, one could do worse than to consult Varèse’s own recollection of how he first became interested in the spatiality of sound – for the most potent of the terms in which he spoke of it do themselves seem like indices of any New York street.
In a newspaper interview occasioned by his recent lecture in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Varèse recalled the early experience which first prompted him to inquire into the relations between space and sound. (“Varese Envisions ‘Space’ Symphonies,” New York Times (December 6, 1936), p. N7.) It was in his Paris years, during a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the Salle Pleyel, that the activity or energy within space – considering how new the thought was, these terms should be understood as being merely initial approximations – was disclosed to him in something like an acoustic epiphany. “Probably because the hall happened to be over-resonant, I became conscious of an entirely new effect produced by this familiar music,” he told the interviewer, almost as though that experience had come to him amidst a clairvoyant (clairaudient?) trance or in a dream. “I seemed to feel the music detaching itself and projecting itself in space.” Hence the great familiarity of this piece of music had been set aside, for all at once the dimension of spatiality behind the music, so often overlooked, was brought into the foreground of attention, registering in ears now attuning themselves to its propulsive or even to its force-full nature. Orchestral music heard suddenly as being a sort of projectile – this feeling was primary and not mainly the derivate of some sophisticated conceptual analogy, as may become evident if one stops for a moment to consider Varèse’s experience and its ramifications, while heeding carefully the meanings of the very words with which he conveyed it, and especially those marked by that interesting prefix pro-.
The encounter in the Salle Pleyel had transpired decades before, and so one should not discount the possibility of retroactive adjustments or updatings having entered into Varèse’s recollection of it during the interval; yet to take him at his word, it may even have been the case that it was in that very moment that his subsequent relocation to New York was decided, the event predestining it that his later career would be continued there and in the quite different arrangements of space en Amérique.
Not for nothing did he state that the feeling which came upon him during that concert was an instance of the one “given us by certain blocks of sound” – where these blocks may well be akin to the urban variety, namely, the compact street-long conglomerations of architecture met with in a city like New York. Or, if this interpretation of his choice of word seems to be too fanciful, one should consider the fuller description of those sound-units which he then proceeded to offer: “Probably I should call them beams of sound, since the feeling is akin to that aroused by beams of light sent forth by a powerful searchlight. For the ear – just as for the eye – it gives a sense of prolongation, a journey into space.” The metaphor is quite precise, for what kind of light-source did these last remarks refer to most particularly, if not to the headlights of automobiles in motion? And where, after all, would the greatest number of them have been found – vehicles in whose emblematic modernity a great promise was embodied? The answer is rather obvious. (This promise, for its part, played perhaps more than a minor role in having prompted Varèse to traverse the ocean to begin with – exactly one hundred years ago – and to start his musical career afresh in the United States.)
Reflect for a moment, if you will, on these beams or blocks of sound … Even today, nearly eighty years after Varèse’s interview, his two ideas reverberate with the long rows of buildings and the linear thoroughfares that are such effective conduits of the intense lights and angular noises in New York.
Their character as just such conduits is made palpable to the eyes perhaps nowhere more intensely than on the screens at cinemas, quite possibly during the years of silent film even to a higher degree than in the sound-era which followed, for after all, they were not all that silent back then: one should not forget the music which very often was performed or played as an accompaniment in the cinema’s first three decades, as a means of underscoring the visual drama. (A case in point, where the scenes were already set up as though to invite music to accompany them: King Vidor’s The Crowd, from 1928.) For its part, Varèse’s “Amériques” – a composition devised, one may well claim, according to a cinematic pattern – conveys to the audience’s ears the same point about this spatial characteristic of the city streets.
Here the mise en scène – and the sirens one hears, repeatedly throughout the work, rushing forward and passing by, also help to define this setting – announces to the listener the main passages which follow, written as they were to comprise numerous sonic depictions of urban life, tumult, and danger. The Ensemble intercontemporain’s performance of “Amériques” presents these scenes with a sharp verisimilitude.
The existential uncertainties of the metropolis (whether they be actual, imminent, or imaginary in nature, matters little in this context) were to a great extent the topic of “Amériques” – but their importance for Varèse’s composition does not end there. In addition to providing the themes, they had a large share in energizing him and his musical creativity to begin with. Varèse himself was well aware of their role in this respect, to judge from what he confided in another newspaper interview, this one conducted more than thirty years after the other, on the occasion of an exhibition devoted to him and his work by the Music Division of the New York Public Library. (“Library Honors Edgar Varese,” Village Voice (December 4, 1957), p. 3.) Although his remark reads on a first parsing as though it were nothing more than an impromptu utterance, as disposable as the paper on which it was printed, upon further reflection it too begins to seem weighty and dense – briefer, but just as much a well-considered statement as his comments three decades before had been.
Evidently the interviewer had asked him for his thoughts about New York City, and – thankfully! – found the remark interesting enough to quote. “It allows you to work,” was Varèse’s laconic reply, where allows probably meant something like encourages or incites. “The thing I do not like is what people call activities. What one finds here is not activity, but agitation. Much agitation.” Hence in this metropolitan environment, once the notion of activity is set aside, a close relation or even an intrinsic connection between the general agitation and an individual’s inclination towards work can be discerned, one which would remain more obscure elsewhere. Accordingly, one could plausibly conclude, this whole condition was a question to which Varèse had given considerable thought during his years there, if not even earlier as well.
And indeed, if that is the case, he did so not as some “theoretical” sideline or private hobby, but right at the heart of his own projects as a composer. (This would of itself suffice to justify the introduction of his statements here.) For one has good reason to suspect that this musical activity (if that word is still at all serviceable) was well-suited to be an experimental laboratory where the yoking together of energetic action (that is, in Varèse’s terms, agitation) and the predisposition to conscientious effort (or, as he said, work), a nexus which seems to typify the individuals in the modern world in nearly all their endeavors, could be examined carefully – when at the outset there is, not a solid guarantee, but at least some modicum of assurance that with the results of this inquiry something worthwhile would be revealed, more or less veridically, and also a degree of certainty that the investigation might be undertaken in relative safety on the observers’ part. In a composition such as “Amériques,” for example, what the audience has been given to hear are sets of sonic representations, arranged in a quasi-cinematic manner, of the innumerable people, the denizens of the modern metropolis, who manifest that predilection for the effort called work as their second nature, amidst that great agitation wherein, as happens frequently, they encounter one another on the city streets or within other of its public spaces, while all of this is rendered into sound from a certain safe distance, as though by means of devices like the wide shots in feature films.
Just because Varèse did not neglect or overlook the intricate realities of danger, imperilment, and fear in the paradigmatic modern metropolis, as these tend to bestow a shape and a tone upon life as it usually is lived there, he found himself able, as in “Amériques,” with both fidelity and finesse to transcribe that tangled nexus of work and agitation into an orchestral music which, when performed as it deserves to be, has diminished in its pertinence or impertinence not a whit since it was first written, nearly one hundred years ago.
Yes, there are more than a few cheeky moments throughout “Amériques” – and this feature of the composition is not incidental.
Difficult though it may be to analyze adequately the nexus of agitation and work in the everyday life of the metropolis (and, increasingly, in the conditions of modern life generally), given how tangled this skein has gotten, Varèse does seem to have attempted something like just such an analysis in the medium of music. With what success, is a question that remains open, of course; but in order to furnish a point of reference, or else for the sake of a comparison, I should like to bring in a few observations pertaining to this very topic, drawn from another and far more ponderous source. Now, just because they are so complicated, even if the paths traced by them are by now no longer exactly untrodden, the following excursion will be rather lengthy. For this importunity I should like to ask the reader’s indulgence in advance.
At one point in an important essay written during the period of his philosophical career in which his major aim was to tell the story of what he called “Seinsgeschichte,” providing an account of its various epochs, as he envisioned them and their fateful succession, Martin Heidegger took care to recapitulate the transformations undergone at the outset of the modern age by the very understanding of what thinking itself is.
(For my part, I’d like to say clearly that I shall merely rehearse the account given in Heidegger’s essay, and do not mean to suggest that I accept it entirely or for the most part. Moreover, it should also be noted that his essay began life as a lecture, and that the textual adjustments it underwent before its much later appearance in print are evidently – substantial. My remarks pertain solely to one small portion of the published version, taken from a section which may even in fact have been added only just prior to the publication; therefore, although for the purposes of the discussion I’ll take him at his word as regards the dating, I also refer interested readers to the critical account of the alterations and their significance given in an article by Sidonie Kellerer, a professor of philosophy at the Universität Siegen (“Heideggers Maske: «Die Zeit des Weltbildes» – Metamorphose eines Textes,” Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte (Munich: C. H. Beck), vol. V, no. 2 (Summer 2011), pp. 109-20).)
According to Heidegger’s summary (see the ninth Zusatz to “Die Zeit des Weltbildes” (1938), included in the 1950 anthology Holzwege), with Descartes and his new metaphysics of the mind as a thinking substance posed over against all other substances, the latter conceived under the denominator of their extension in space and thus understood to be of an entirely different kind, the two great desiderata of the modern age, namely, the calculability of all things and the conversion of knowledge into certainty, were expressed by philosophy for the first time. In accordance with this breakthrough, thoughts were re-conceived as being representations, that is, in contradistinction to the older notions of the εἴδη and the ἰδέαι, as inherently calculative and as seeking the maximum of certainty with regard to that which they represent. “Denken ist vor-stellen, vorstellender Bezug zum Vorgestellten (idea als perceptio),” wrote Heidegger of Descartes’ novel conception of what thinking does: it is defined as an intrinsically calculative act of the mind, and as such a fit counterpart to the calculating conduct that was becoming ever more routine, more and more unavoidable in the most important zones of modern life (in science and in commerce, to name but two). “Vorstellen meint hier: von sich her etwas vor sich stellen und das Gestellte als ein solches sicherstellen. Dieses Sicherstellen muß ein Berechnen sein, weil nur die Berechenbarkeit gewährleistet, im voraus und ständig des Vorzustellenden gewiß zu sein.” This certainty itself does not remain static, but involves any number of energetic acts vis-à-vis that which is represented by the mind, acts whereby the latter reassures itself implicitly of its own powers, not least the superior power of imposing upon all those other substances some sort of uniformity, simply by virtue of its ability to represent them to itself as objects and as such as susceptible to being compressed together within one single representation – a mental image akin to a picture. “Vor-stellen ist vor-gehende, meisternde Ver-gegen-ständlichung. Das Vor-stellen treibt so alles in die Einheit des so Gegenständigen zusammen. Das Vorstellen ist coagitatio.”
In accordance with this rewriting, Descartes’ formula (see his Principia philosophiæ, pt. I, VII: “ego cogito, ergo sum”) would actually have been something like an emphatic or indeed suspiciously over-emphatic declaration: Insofar as I remain capable of arranging things as objects and thus of assembling them together in my mental representations, I can continue to assure myself that I exist! Then, however, from Heidegger’s own summary in this Zusatz, it would seem to follow that once the mind embraces representation as its main mode of thinking, the procedure’s character of being an effort which it itself cannot afford to neglect for very long, lest its own power suffer from the disuse, will become more and more obvious to it, and thus the mind begins to find itself in a position where, whether it wants to or not, it must again and again approach and handle itself as though it too were mainly an object to be calculated, ascertained, collected. Arrived at this juncture, suddenly the entire profile of self-knowledge is altered. Henceforth, in general, the attainment of that knowledge cannot but be preceded by acts the mind has carried out upon itself, in order to configure itself into a perceptible form such that it may be known, i.e., represent itself to itself. And so it will be the case that performing these reflexive mental acts would require of the mind a considerable amount of work, while quite possibly affecting it with some agitation as well – for it may well be that by stirring itself up, it will succeed in raising the impetus it would have need of when it conducts the inquiry.
(Please note that Varèse’s two terms are introduced here again purposefully, as I don’t want to forget the raison d’être of the excursus, which is to cast a cross-light upon his brief but weighty remark.)
Heidegger’s account is thought-provoking (however much or little one may be inclined to accept it), and he too did not discard it, as amounting to nothing more than a provisional summary – no, some years afterwards, he recurred to the same theme, in order to treat it again, this time a bit more fully, and now explicitly with reference to the elevation of the will in the modern age as the most important power of the mind.
In “Nietzsches Wort »Gott ist tot«,” an essay which was written in 1943, and likewise published later in Holzwege, he suggested in effect that Descartes, though obviously without having coined anything like the term, had already had in view that basic determination of existence which the later philosopher was to call the “Wille zur Macht,” and that the contours of Descartes’ thought would be clarified best when this “will” were introduced into the analysis explicitly. If the thinking power of the mind became with Descartes above all its capacity of representation, as Heidegger had claimed a few years before, now he insisted in addition that “die Repräsentation ist hier keineswegs eine nachträgliche Darstellung, sondern die aus ihr bestimmte Präsenz ist die Weise, in welcher und als welche der Wille zur Macht ist.” This ante-version or forerunner of Nietzsche’s “Wille zur Macht,” in other words, is a result, and being a result it exists most potently whenever the mind has already represented something and in so doing transformed the thing represented into an object that can be calculated, depicted, manipulated, or collected, as the case may be, such that the mind re-confirmed to itself the present superiority of its own power of representation in the process – even though this is a process which, given the increasingly total eclipse of other modes in which the human being might live, must be repeated again and again by the mind if it too is to endure.
Consequently, the “Macht” which this “Wille” seeks to accrue for itself (and over itself) is a kind of knowledge of itself, or better, of the subject whose will it is, whereby the very existence of this knowledge is a signal that the subjectivity of this subject has already been configured to be representable, as finding itself to be one amongst many agglomerations of calculable objects or properties. So, according to Heidegger, on the one hand, “innerhalb der neuzeitlichen Metaphysik das Sein des Seienden” has defined itself “als Wille und damit als das Sich-wollen,” while on the other, “das Sichwollen aber in sich schon das Sich-selbst-wissen ist” – and thus he precipitated his readers into considerable perplexity. Which power of the mind, according to him, has actually made itself primary in the modern age and henceforth holds sway over the subject as a whole? He himself seemed to harbor some doubt about the answer – or perhaps he meant to highlight this state of conceptual confusion as such, and as a corollary, to imply that the will can most thoroughly dominate the rest precisely when it keeps itself in the background, as it were, operating secretively off-scene, or else as need be by putting on the cunning disguise of cognition, representation, or thought.
For, Heidegger contended, as in this respect no essential change had supervened since Descartes, the thinking subject still moves about in the space defined according to the requirements of mental representation, and lives ensconced in the configuration of being which he was the first to put into words. No less now than at the outset of the modern age, according to Heidegger, it remains the case that “[d]as Seiende (subiectum) präsentiert sich, und zwar ihm selbst in der Weise des ego cogito. Dieses Sichpräsentieren, die Re-präsentation (Vor-stellung), ist das Sein des Seienden qua subiectum. Das Sich-selbst-wissen wird zum Subjekt schlechthin.”
Yet if that is so, where then is the capacity which, as Heidegger alleged, had been raised to be the dominant power of the mind during the modern age, namely, the will?
At this juncture it is conspicuous by its absence.
Accordingly, Heidegger’s previous formulation which I quoted before, to the effect that the presence defined by the act of mental representation is the way in which and as which the will to power is, i.e., has its share of being, now appears – merely two paragraphs later! – to have been phrased poorly or hastily, at the very least, while Heidegger himself seems to have recognized his own lapse, though of course without acknowledging it. Without calling any attention to the correction, he proceeded to reverse himself and to identify, not the result of the act of representation, but rather the very act of representing as comprising the primary locus of the will. This he did, silently cancelling his earlier remark, in a passage which, as it is inimitably Heideggerian, and moreover, seems to tremor near the edge of a slight delirium, I shall quote en bloc.
“Im Sich-selbst-wissen versammelt sich alles Wissen und dessen Wißbares. Es ist Versammlung von Wissen, wie das Gebirge die Versammlung der Berge. Die Subjektivität des Subjekts ist als solche Versammlung co-agitatio (cogitatio), die conscientia, das Ge-wissen, conscience. Die co-agitatio aber ist in sich schon velle, wollen. Mit der Subjektität des Subjekts kommt als deren Wesen der Wille zum Vorschein.”
In these five sentences (they may each call to mind the sound of fingers tapping on a desk) Heidegger outlined a provisional solution of the problem. To summarize it: which contents are assembled together in the consciousness of this or that subjectivity, is determined by representational thinking, but that they are assembled there, and also how this is done – these more basic or primary operations pertain to the subject’s underlying subject-ness (which Heidegger, in an abstract neologism as unlovely in his own language as its counterpart would be in English, called its “Subjektität”), and are the sole prerogative of the modern will.
That with these sentences Heidegger himself believed he was offering a provisional solution to the enigma of the modern will, may be gleaned from his essay’s next move. For after one further sentence which added nothing, being mere literary padding, he began a new paragraph – and directed his attention elsewhere.
At this point Heidegger veered back to the topic he already had broached in the other essay five years earlier, namely, the question of the certainty which is made the criterion of truth during the age of representational thinking. The subject which thinks representationally, Heidegger now asserted, cannot be, should it fail continually in some manner to render itself assured about itself, its power of representation, and that which is represented by it. “Zur Subjektität gehört als die erste Wesensbestimmung,” he insisted, “daß das vorstellende Subjekt seiner selbst und d. h. stets auch seines Vorgestellten als eines solchen sich versichert. Gemäß solcher Versicherung hat die Wahrheit des Seienden als die Gewißheit den Charakter der Sicherheit (certitudo).”
The precise mood, both grammatical and tonal, of these claims of Heidegger’s, phrased as they were in such an oddly official language, really ought to be examined closely, for they might well be saying something more than they seem to at first – but to do so here would lead me too far astray. In lieu thereof, I’d simply like to suggest that with these two remarks in 1943, Heidegger was recurring to his effort in the 1938 essay to define Cartesian certainty more precisely as being assurance, or better, surety, a quantum which representational thinking seeks to ensure for itself but which, not least by virtue of the very attention thus paid to it, could be rendered unsure with much more serious consequences than in earlier ages, given all that has been made to depend on it.
Without exaggerating all that much, the foremost implication of his two remarks can be elucidated as follows: the continual self-reassurance which must accompany the subject that thinks representationally – if it is to exist for long – in every one of its endeavors, all the calculating, depicting, collecting, etc., it undertakes, both conceptually and practically, is also made a more and more onerous task by the ever greater general ascendancy of this very same representational thinking.
Manifold accretions of uncertainty as the pre-eminent consequence, are met with nowhere else more obviously than in the modern metropolis, and hence this would seem to be the location where the sway of the representational thinking which abetted the gradual transformation of the world into a collection of pictures or images, as Heidegger insisted, is exerted most intensely.
Grave uncertainty – here I should like to attempt a definition of my own – can arise when the collisions of one “mens co-agitans et co-agitata” against another increase in number, frequency, violence beyond some definite point, a threshold whose actual moment of occurrence, however, will remain unforeseeable, imponderable, incalculable in advance. But even before that point would be reached in any particular instance, the general agitation raised by those collisions will already be pronounced (while also pointing towards, as though it were a harbinger, that even more extreme possibility), and moreover, insofar as the subject which thinks representationally must continue to do so in order to endure, the agitations are quite unlikely of their own accord ever to abate very far, nor indeed for very long.
Meanwhile, the general condition of agitation – now turning back to Varèse’s usage of the word – with its propensity for escalating into outright conflict, will most likely heighten the inclination of individuals, and residents of the metropolis most of all, towards effort and indeed towards work – likewise in something like his sense – which is a mode of practical endeavor comprising various procedures whereby things are treated as and transformed into objects, in ways similar enough to the operations which representational thinking may involve, as to bring one to suspect that both processes might actually be intricately intertwined.
As for the concept of the will, it does not appear in Varèse’s remark as quoted – represented – by the interviewer in 1957; that is true. Yet is there not perhaps some way in which the essential operations of the will, in the shape it assumes during the modern age, as Heidegger proposed, albeit provisionally, in his two essays: namely, to supply the energy by which things are made into objects and then into mental representations assembled together within a consciousness, and to yield the self-reassurance which the subject of representational thinking always has need of if it is to continue to be – weren’t these dual operations which are intrinsic to the modern will, at least in Heidegger’s account of it, already rendered into sound in some manner and thus given to discerning audiences to overhear in “Amériques,” the composition which Varèse had finalized three decades before, in 1927? Yes, to my ears, it sounds as though they were.
How they were introduced into the music, in one or two representative instances, I shall now attempt to describe.
Of prime importance in this connection is a characteristic of “Amériques” which I mentioned earlier: its quasi-cinematic construction. Listening intently as the work progresses, one may well feel as though one is following the scenes of a feature film passing by on the screen – and not just any film, but one where the placement of the camera varies, at some moments locating the audience a bit off to the side of the action, as though we were bystanders to it, at others situating us in a rather closer proximity to it, or even directly within it, amongst the protagonists. Accordingly, this music does comprise an analogue to the point of view of the dramatic cinema, the latter being a device which helps to delimit the definite scenes in a film and, so to speak, to pre-apportion the variegated attitudes that the audience will then be invited to adopt during each of them – that is, the entire gamut of responses to be aroused in the film-goers, from great antipathy all the way to strong sympathy or even to complete identification. (Whether in any particular instance one will choose to accept this invitation from the film’s side, and if so, with what manner of acceptance, is of course a different question.) Therefore, especially when the composition places us, the listeners, close by or even right next to its scenes of action (these scenes in which Varèse did so well represent the metropolis and its agitations), we are likely to infer both that “Amériques” is teeming with people, and that we are observing all that is happening from over the shoulders of one or more of the protagonists. How the latter perceive the metropolitan spectacle as it is going on around themselves – that too, consequently, is part of what this music evidently is giving us to hear.
So, thus situated at this interesting angle, by means of Varèse’s sonic likenesses we are given a chance to observe representational thinking in action, in the midst of an urban surfeit of agitation, objects, and images, and perhaps in addition – for those whom his music does strongly affect – an opportunity to examine this mode of thinking from the inside as well.
Around the 12:54 or 12:55 mark in the performance of the work by the Ensemble intercontemporain, when one has listened to the whole a number of times, the beginning of a discrete segment may be discerned, one which is demarcated by a shift in the audience’s implicit acoustic vantage-point (the compositional device analogous to the cinema’s point of view), and continuing for three-quarters of a minute, brought to a close at 13:40 by another such change of position. What this segment presents, is the repeated use of a phrase in a static manner, conjointly with an array of other instrumental sounds, so as to accentuate something like a momentary immobility, an abrupt pausing – a compositional tactic which is one of the signatures of Varèse’s style, as some musicologists have suggested. (On this point, with reference to “Amériques” specifically, see Dieter A. Nanz, Edgard Varèse: Die Orchesterwerke (Berlin: Lukas Verlag, 2003), pt. II, p. 305.) Our inference while this musical “Moment der Stasis” (as Nanz terms it) is occurring, might well be that here a protagonist is standing still and scanning the urban scene before him, transforming a number of disparate objects into a horde of images and then assembling these within a single representation – a perceptual and mental montage, one could call this twofold operation, yielding an interior panorama in which the elapsing of time has so little a share that this whole interval might seem to be fixed in a sort of present tense, the very condition of presence which representational thinking seeks, according to Heidegger.
This energetic three-quarters of a minute of music, for its part, can readily be understood as depicting some kind of tumult or political event in the city streets under the watchful eyes of the forces of the law – in the shape of deployments of police officers, for instance. Nothing has yet been undertaken, nor any clash actually flaring up, but no one on the scene of this agitation fails to consider what could happen next, and accordingly the atmosphere is electric with expectancy; one additional jolt and … !
Here the music of each instrument, or else of each section of the orchestra, seems to represent a different participant in what is not quite yet, but is certainly poised to become, a mêlée in the streets.
All of this action is followed warily by the bystander whose evaluative vantage-point also seems to be ours, and thus we are well-situated to observe representational thinking from the inside, including those indispensable operations of the will without which, in Heidegger’s account, it would not continue to be.
With regard to this musical episode as a whole, there is still the task of ensuring that none of the various images which are being conjoined together into one single representation in this bystander’s mind, would come to overwhelm or to obscure any of the others (for such a result is all along a definite possibility); and hence, should one want to hear something analogous to the will in its operations (assuming that analoga for it are actually conceivable), what one ought to listen for is the aural evidence of some balance being maintained amongst these mental images. The tempo and the volume of the individual instruments, in this context where the set of instructions offered by a written score is at its least dispositive, are especially significant, insofar as here a finesse of musical restraint could convey to the audience some sense of just such a modicum of order or arrangement being actively upheld vis-à-vis the images assembled into that bystander’s mental panorama. Evidently, then, in their recording of “Amériques” the sensitive co-operation between Pintscher, the Ensemble, and the Orchestre du Conservatoire achieves two things: it bestows an audible shape upon one of the composition’s own intentions, an intention which otherwise would remain at most half-implicit on the pages of the score, while also (as Varèse himself would say) allowing the performance to exemplify the inner workings of the modern will, the “co-agitatio” that is (per Heidegger’s provisional analysis) its exclusive prerogative.
Similar to this segment of three-quarters of a minute, but lengthier and rather more full, is the culmination of the work, which, in my estimation, begins around the 19:05 mark and runs through to the end. Here, one may fairly say, the mêlée which the earlier scene had announced as an imminent possibility, now explodes, the location probably having shifted in the meanwhile to one of the city’s larger squares. Although this time, consequently, from a somewhat farther distance, it sounds as though the scene is once again being watched carefully by one or more bystanders, whose vantage-point the audience has been invited implicitly to share. From this spot, therefore, we too are witnesses to the upheaval; just as before, the distribution of the sounds presents the scene to us as a collection of images assembled into one single representation, and so once more it seems plausible to infer that the power maintaining some order amongst them, is the will.
Because this later passage is longer and fuller than the earlier one, and/or because it is, not really the culmination, but rather the fulmination of the entire piece, the urban scene it represents seems to be very much more agitated, while its own “co-agitatio” is imbued with a considerably greater energy. Moreover, as there is no sound of anything subsiding right before the end, the usual obvious indication of orchestral closure during the moments when a symphony is rounded-off, evidently “Amériques” meant to leave the listeners in suspense, and the crisp precision of the performance and the eschewal of after-echo in the recording, bring this intention to expression as well.
This last scene of “Amériques” is also punctuated more often by the hiss of the sirens, and to some extent these too enter into the composition in the manner of mental images, collected alongside all the others in a representation by and for the bystander or bystanders. But on the other hand, they are understood to do so from afar, and hence one cannot claim that they also are present there in medias res, at least in anything like the same sense of the term presence – the quantum by defining which the modern will or indeed the will to power was said by Heidegger to exert itself and to be, thus at the same time offering an indispensable existential reassurance to the subject of representational thinking.
The acoustic dimension, it seems, is much better suited than the visual to convey the imminent approach of risks, threats, or dangers, from out of a distance advancing towards us (and then, if we are fortunate, receding as quickly away). How so? Precisely because through it the latter are conveyed and not represented. Therefore, once the ears transmit signals such as these to the mind, which does nearly instantaneously rise to recognize them, the ways in which the human being is then likely to be disposed to respond and to act on its own behalf, when they are proximate, in order to save itself, will evince quite a different character. Under such circumstances, the whole Man is to move together, and to distance himself from the peril, a sudden halt must first be called to the representational thinking in which the mind was engaged or entranced. To what inner power would this task fall? As it is a matter of an imperative act, would it not be the individual’s will, which thus commences in extremis to discharge another of its several responsibilities?
(Granted, on each of the preceding points I’m speaking very generally and passing over untold numbers of exceptions – but just so long as these remain the exception, some stratum of the common security will be preserved.)
Even in the modern age, the human will cannot so easily be reduced to the point where it could afford only one kind of security to the subject whose will it is.
If the acoustic dimension is fit – or attuned – by virtue of its own nature to register the entire range of different distances, doing so with greater precision than its ocular counterpart can hope to muster, then the critical account of representation which Heidegger’s two essays took pains to sketch out, wherein the paradigm is constituted by visual phenomena, does itself seem to be remarkably one-sided. To reach the results he did, however provisional these may or may not have been, so much that is relevant was simply ausgeblendet in advance! And perhaps those results are compromised beyond repair: that is quite possible, the many protestations of the Heidegger-Versteher notwithstanding. Or at the very least, the train of thought I’ve summarized is evidently in great need of some amendment: this is a caution which any Heideggerians attempting to export this analysis of his tout entière to the sphere of sound, in order to comprehend the latter and its vicissitudes during the modern age, would do well to remember.
Although I myself would rather not dwell any longer on these bits of his two essays and their implications, preferring instead to hasten back to Varèse, his compositions, and his writings, one further round of commentary does seem unavoidable, I’m afraid, if only for the sake of speaking conscientiously of Heidegger’s shadow-side.
(At this juncture, for those readers who are interested not only in Heidegger himself and his case but in the difficulties currently besetting his Gesamtausgabe as well, a recent article by Adam Soboczynski in Die Zeit may be recommended.)
Why did this other capacity of the will – to shut down representational thinking whenever exigent circumstances should warrant the suspension – not figure in the analysis offered by these passages in Heidegger’s two essays?
During the earlier period of his philosophical career in the 1920s, and above all in his main work Sein und Zeit, he inquired again and again into the kind of being which constantly finds itself thrown into existence in such a manner that its own facticity already indicates to it, whether explicitly or implicitly, that between it and itself there is always some distance. Accordingly, space too was a constant topic for him, along with the ways in which that sort of being (a being which the Heidegger of those years called “Dasein,” taking that ordinary German word very literally indeed) would orientate itself in and move about through it – and in this connection, however carefully he avoided using the term, one of his primary concerns was rather obviously the individual human will in the states in which it tended to find itself within the most modern of all modern conditions, in the metropolis.
As evidence for my contention, there is one passage in particular which stands out. It hails from Heidegger’s account (Sein und Zeit, siebzehnte Auflage, §29) of the mode of being which he termed “Befindlichkeit” – therewith pressing into service another of the language’s ordinary words, meaning usually something like a sensitive mood or a rather self-involved state of mind, but turning it inside-out in order to refer to the existential posture in which, when assumed by “Dasein” deliberately, the latter would attain the greatest awareness of the spatiality inherent to the kind of being that it itself is.
Because the three sentences comprising this passage are neither too long nor unnecessarily over-complex, I should now like to quote it whole.
“Seiendes vom Charakter des Daseins ist sein Da in der Weise, daß es sich, ob ausdrücklich oder nicht, in seiner Geworfenheit befindet. In der Befindlichkeit ist das Dasein immer schon vor es selbst gebracht, es hat sich immer schon gefunden, nicht als wahrnehmendes Sich-vor-finden, sondern als gestimmtes Sichbefinden. Als Seiendes, das seinem Sein überantwortet ist, bleibt es auch dem überantwortet, daß es sich immer schon gefunden haben muß – gefunden in einem Finden, das nicht so sehr einem direkten Suchen, sondern einem Fliehen entspringt.”
That last remark is the crux. The flight to whose primary existential significance Heidegger drew his readers’ attention – by what would it be actuated if not the human will recoiling from something which it very strongly does not want? Now, how is this unwanted something likely to be detected in the first instance? By the ears far more readily than by the eyes. Indeed, generally speaking, the dimension of audibility takes precedence whenever “Befindlichkeit” holds sway – for these moments, one surmises, come only infrequently. Thus, he insisted, during such a period an existence is aware of the distance that it itself is, not in the more common mode of perception, but by virtue of a sort of concurrent tuning of itself, conscientiously performed. And similarly it would be in a pre-eminently acoustic encounter that “Dasein” had found itself, as Heidegger suggested, and likewise with the even earlier moment in which it first fled from something else.
Indeed, throughout all of Sein und Zeit it is not only the labyrinthine reality of space which seems to have been one of his main preoccupations, but the intrinsic complexities of sound as well. Implicit as the setting of these inquiries, their “Horizont” as Heidegger himself would have said (§69), is the modern metropolis; and the subtle stagings whereby it shimmers through in the background should not be forgotten – if one really wants to comprehend his book properly.
During the next period in his career, however, Heidegger’s interests would narrow substantially in their scope, at least insofar as he chose to express them in print.
Space continued to figure in his thinking when he set himself the task of recounting his “Seinsgeschichte,” Heidegger’s overarching aim in that next period, but now it was no longer the spatiality inherent to “Dasein” which seems most to have interested him. What most appealed to him instead was the space delimited by truth as the latter had been defined by a few thinkers throughout the different ages of that history, and most lastingly, according to Heidegger, by Plato, whose notion of ἀλήθεια he very often glossed during this period of his career as “Unverborgenheit,” that is, an active de-concealing of something in a place correlate to just this act, opened up for it in particular, whereby at the very same time much else was obscured. To such a location as demarcated by Plato, Heidegger returned again and again in later chapters of his recounting of the “Seinsgeschichte,” at times for the sake of contrast, in order to throw the very different thoughts of some other thinkers into sharper relief, at times so as to discern the inconspicuous or hidden role which still was played, in the thinking of those who seem most antithetical to Platonic philosophizing, by that original outline of the place of truth.
Thus, in Heidegger’s 1943 essay, at the point when he spoke of the way in which the modern will to power is – without offering an explicit clarification of whether he was referring to Nietzsche or to Descartes or to both – he did not end there. Rather, he proceeded to circumscribe what he called the truth of this will to power. According to Heidegger, the latter’s mode of being “ist zugleich die Art, in der er sich selbst in das Unverborgene seiner selbst stellt. Darin aber beruht seine Wahrheit.” Its “Wahrheit,” therefore, occurs within a specific location, a space that encourages acts which dispense with concealment, as though in a reprise of the older Platonic “ἀλήθεια,” and this antecedent dimension of truth which stood behind the thoughts of even the modern thinkers, was itself what Heidegger had set out to expose. “Die Wahrheit, nach der jetzt gefragt wird,” he insisted, “ist demnach nicht jene, die der Wille zur Macht selbst als die notwendige Bedingung des Seienden als eines Seienden setzt, sondern diejenige, in der schon der Bedingungen-setzende Wille zur Macht als solcher west.”
So it seems Heidegger, in 1943, suspected the will to power of extending itself within something like a space – albeit one akin only to a very limited degree to the space through which modern human existence actually moves about, the spatiality he had indeed inquired into back in the 1920s, most searchingly in Sein und Zeit.
Along similar lines, in the 1938 essay, too, space is not ignored as a topic, yet it was a severely truncated kind of space with which Heidegger dealt. (The very title of the text, “Die Zeit des Weltbildes,” as opposed to what one more nearly would have expected, namely, “Das Zeitalter des Weltbildes,” may already alert the reader that in it the topic of space, where space is taken in the primary sense of the term and not as a source of metaphors, will play quite a minor role.)
In 1938, by way of distinguishing the procedures of representational thinking à la Descartes from the older θεωρία, Heidegger had this to say: “Das Vorstellen ist nicht mehr das Vernehmen des Anwesenden, in dessen Unverborgenheit das Vernehmen selbst gehört und zwar als eine eigene Art von Anwesen zum unverborgenen Anwesenden.” No, the presences revealed by Cartesian perception are of quite another sort, Heidegger was right, that seems to be the case – but even so, their disclosure does take place in a space whose affinities to the domain of ἀλήθεια, and whose divergences from the real spaces of modern human existence, remain considerable. One has good reason, therefore, to doubt the veracity of his claim that the so-called Zeit des Weltbildes holds all of us moderns in thrall. And actually, Heidegger’s very proposal to that effect may itself have been devised by him to serve as something like a Platonic myth.
If, with the task he set himself of recounting his “Seinsgeschichte,” Heidegger found himself required to turn back so fully to Plato, it may begin to explain why his previous focus on space was narrowed down – or else how it shrank and was transformed, while his earlier concern with sound nearly vanished altogether. And much more specifically: what also may then become a bit more explicable, in the passages from his two essays which I’ve cited, is the absence there of any indication of another capacity inherent to the human will, such that it, as I surmised, could spring into action during situations of danger to the subject – on Heidegger’s part a considerable oversight. (Merely an inadvertent omission? That remains to be seen.)
Evidently Heidegger’s basic attitude towards the public realm as such underwent a substantial change as he entered into that new period of his career, circa 1930. During the 1920s his self-positioning had been considerably more open, in a word, and this cautious openness had the upper hand throughout the constructive philosophizing in Sein und Zeit; but then the winds shifted and, in response to the vicissitudes of those years, he may have seen himself pushed to adopt something like the older Platonic stance vis-à-vis political life altogether: superior condescension as an inward posture.
Thus it could have happened that, for better or for worse, Heidegger came to embrace the mental reservations which were summarized very well by Pascal in a famous pensée (the 331st in Léon Brunschvicg’s edition (Œuvres, vol. XIII (Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1921), p. 250)). When the philosophers of antiquity such as Plato had involved themselves in political affairs, he affirmed, they did so light-heartedly and even a bit in jest, for such involvement remained for them “la partie la moins philosophe et la moins sérieuse de leur vie,” whereas “la plus philosophe était de vivre simplement et tranquillement.” In simple tranquillity: hence it was to bolster the shelter they had found in their βίος θεωρητικός that they turned their attention briefly to the βίος πολιτικός; so whenever “ils ont écrit de politique, c’était comme pour régler un hôpital de fous,” an undertaking requiring of them certain precautions if they were to address those inmates effectively, “et s’ils ont fait semblant d’en parler comme d’une grande chose, c’est qu’ils savaient que les fous à qui ils parlaient pensent être rois et empereurs.” Such politic stratagems were they to employ, faced with the loudmouths whom privately they deemed mad or bad, and thus in their public role those philosophers “entraient dans leurs principes pour modérer leur folie au moins mal qu’il se pouvait.”
Now, mental reservations of such a sort did not prevent Plato from journeying a number of times to Syracuse in order to advise the tyrants there – indeed, they may have helped to prompt him to go. And if one were so inclined, one might wonder whether Heidegger’s political involvements were motivated by somewhat similar considerations with regard to the political realm as such. Yet to attribute such a rationale to him would already amount to a very charitable explanation of his conduct in 1933 and afterwards, far more charitable than he himself deserves – here I use the present tense advisedly, for his case, as the recent publication of the Schwarze Hefte has again underscored, is anything but closed.
On my own behalf, before proceeding any further, I should like to state (for whatever it’s worth) that I have never been convinced by the numerous attempts to uncover already in Heidegger’s works of the 1920s even the beginnings of the trains of thought which come to prominence so reprehensibly in some of his publications during the 1930s and later – not to mention his other public involvements – let alone the clichés, prejudices, and hatreds he entrusted to his notebooks. Upon his opus, Sein und Zeit, whatever else one might say about its strengths and its weaknesses, nothing of all that rubbish casts a retroactive shadow, even now, in my opinion.
The next decade, the 1930s, really did bring about a major change in him and – what is of greater relevance here – his philosophical profile, it seems to me. Hodological turns of phrase and metaphors began to abound in his writings, occurring there more and more frequently, one might even infer, as his philosophical interest in the real spaces of modern existence receded: throughout this period of his career, to take him at his word, he envisioned his thought traversing Holzwege which his readers had never before espied, and posting Wegmarken behind itself for their benefit. And so in Heidegger’s new attitude one might perhaps discern something of the inward insouciance which, Pascal suggested, had secretly accompanied the foremost philosophers of antiquity when they undertook to play some role in the madhouse of political life.
On the other hand, there remains a disturbing proximity to acknowledge. Namely, the obvious nearness of some of the themes Heidegger spun out in public during those years, and above all his suspicion that representational thinking, by virtue of its intrinsic determination to calculate and collect everything it can, has taken control of the modern world entirely, to those passages in his notebooks wherein a blatant paranoia is exhibited – the one demarcated by words like Machenschaften, Geist der Rache, and Weltjudentum. These grotesque thoughts he reserved during his own lifetime for himself and his own inner circle, then, are displaying themselves today as offering something like a cartographic legend for at least some of the untrod paths Heidegger prided himself on having opened up in the public presentations of the various chapters of his “Seinsgeschichte.” Hence the thought-terrain of his inquiries during that period, far from being especially new, to a high degree had instead been plotted out well in advance, pre-arranged in its contours by a few persistent topoi. Those published results, Heidegger’s synoptic 1938 essay in particular, always seemed eerily predictable, and now one can begin to say why: any subsequent editorial alterations notwithstanding, their author, within the shelter of his private thinking, had fallen victim to the idées fixes of the “oldest hatred” – anti-semitism. (A malignancy which, to everyone’s misfortune, is currently emboldening itself once again.)
No, in my opinion, Heidegger cannot plausibly be excused as though in his conduct in 1933 and later he had attempted to follow the example of Pascal’s Plato. Nor can beneficence be attributed to him as a motive. His case was nearly the opposite, as he himself came close to admitting outright, in one uninhibited entry in his notebooks (Gesamtausgabe, vol. 94: Überlegungen II-VI, ed. Peter Trawny (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2014), III, no. 206, p. 194): “Der Nationalsozialismus ist ein barbarisches Prinzip. Das ist sein Wesentliches und seine mögliche Größe. Die Gefahr ist nicht er selbst – sondern daß er verharmlost wird in eine Predigt des Wahren, Guten und Schönen (so an einem Schulungsabend).” He might as well have jotted down: the more the National Socialist regime does its worst, the better it will be. And told himself to suggest this very point in public in the times to come whenever and however he could – yet to do so with a cunning subtlety, not by clear words but through “Winke.”
With Plato’s own temperate self-justifications, of course, a reckless incitement such as Heidegger envisioned himself undertaking, beyond the bounds of any responsibility, has nearly nothing in common. His motivation in all this, on the contrary, very likely partook of the overwhelming frivolity of the intellectual élite (or those who deemed themselves such) between the World Wars, as dissected unreservedly by Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism, pt. 3, chap. 10, II, “The Temporary Alliance Between the Mob and the Elite”).
But to remain with Pascal’s pensée: had Heidegger himself, if only in the confident privacy of his notebooks, become even more unhinged than were many of the “fous” whom he addressed from time to time in public during those years?
This question is not posed rhetorically – for were there not perhaps significant inner connections between the representational thinking Heidegger denounced in his published essays, on the one side, and the vicious paranoia of some of the private thoughts in his notebooks, on the other?
Not wanting to extend the discussion of Heidegger and his failings much further, however, here I’ll mention only a few points which might bear upon an answer to this question.
1. Representational thinking, as Heidegger anatomized it in the passages I’ve been discussing from his two essays, takes visual perception as its paradigm, and must constantly be enacted over and over if its subject’s continued existence is to be assured. In both respects the account he provides of it refers to Descartes as the innovator of modern philosophy – and so one might well turn back to the passage where he introduced the phantasmic hypothesis of an evil spirit who had established all the appearances of the world precisely in order to deceive him (Meditationes de prima philosophia, I: “Supponam igitur non optimum Deum fontem veritatis, sed genium aliquem malignum, eundemque summè potentum, & callidum, omnem suam industriam in eo posuisse, ut me falleret”). The very idea of such an exceedingly energetic, industrious, and ill-disposed being, Descartes then proceeded to deny, but nonetheless this hypothetical personage seems to have haunted his thinking subsequently: and so, if the new “cogitatio” he was attempting to define were the iterative act of the mind he thought it to be, would such a paranoid conception not have had to be exorcised likewise, that is, again and again?
2. Hence representational thinking, in its Cartesian definition, may bring with it a new necessity of intra-mental self-discipline, a novel kind of house-keeping or indeed hygiene for, by, and in the mind – while yet by its very nature rendering the latter effort all the more difficult to sustain. Did Heidegger, when he sought to think Descartes’ “ego cogito” through from the inside, somehow overlook this grave consequence, and fail to implement certain intellectual precautions on his own behalf? Had he perhaps exposed himself unwittingly, not so much to some paranoid ideas in particular, but rather to an antecedent inclination of the modern mind towards the condition of paranoia as such?
3. If only because representational thinking à la Descartes is essentially both visual and iterative, it will tend once practiced past a certain point to become a need of the mind, an activity which the latter itself can no longer do without; thereupon it soon begins to impinge on the mind’s other modes of taking thought, in effect pushing them out or crowding them from the scene, as more and more images are assembled in the consciousness, all requiring the mind to pay some quantum of attention to them, in return for which it is reassured in one respect, energized and agitated in another: then is it quite so surprising, during the period in which Heidegger experimented with Cartesian thought by situating his own mind right in medias perceptionum, that his publications were frequently marked by an aggrieved undertone, while he would at times burst into a loud rage in his private writings?
When, in his 1938 essay, after specifying the essential difference between the much older sense of what actually took place when a truth was revealed, and the modern understanding of intellectual perception in its operations, as inaugurated by Descartes, Heidegger went even further – or let himself get carried away – and characterized that difference with a sudden barrage of imagery, as though he himself were all at once caught up in a momentary flashback or a hallucination. The sentences themselves rush on and yet jerk about; in them notes of disapproval clash with a conspicuous fascination: thus I shall simply quote it all in its delirious entirety.
“Das Vorstellen ist nicht mehr das Sich-entbergen für …, sondern das Ergreifen und Begreifen von … Nicht das Anwesende waltet sondern der Angriff herrscht. Das Vorstellen ist jetzt gemäß der neuen Freiheit ein von sich aus Vorgehen in den erst zu sichernden Bezirk des Gesicherten. Das Seiende ist nicht mehr das Anwesende, sondern das im Vorstellen erst entgegen Gestellte, Gegen-ständige.”
Phrased in such wild terms, here the interior strife otherwise contained within representational thinking in its Cartesian version – in which form it may constitute the underlying cause for the latter’s tendency towards paranoia – is let out.
According to this passage of Heidegger’s, the subject of representational thinking perceives all things according to one fundamental law: the attack. Hostility is its driving force, and above all towards/against itself. It represents itself to itself as though it were at war with itself, the distance between it and itself becomes a battlefield traversed in quick raids, for somewhere – but where exactly? – the enemy is hidden. It will not show itself; it must be represented and rendered safe: but precisely that is what it seeks to evade. Thus does this subject’s freedom propel it one way, its security beckon to it to take another. Then the agitations of its irresolute self-consciousness, jolting it to and fro, will practically guarantee that the subject which thinks representationally can never capture itself for very long. And finally – to round off this picture of Descartes’ “ego cogito” in action – in flailing about so, from repercussion to repercussion, the main by-product will be a burst of energy.
Throughout Heidegger’s 1938 essay, constructed it seems as a phantasmagoria of just such pictures of philosophical developments in the modern age, one of the topics was indeed the space correlate to the subject of representational thinking; but, in keeping with the implicit “horizon” of his explorations of the “Seinsgeschichte” generally, whenever he described that space the latter had been defined narrowly, indeed, too narrowly, already in advance. Although it certainly no longer comprised the simple and tranquil environs where, Pascal said, the thinkers of antiquity had spent the most philosophical part of their lives, nonetheless in Heidegger’s account that space was essentially private in character – and in effect one soundproofed on all sides.
If a case of paranoia (or some similar disturbance of mind) is ever a self-inflicted condition, the most basic proximate cause for its outbreak might be a prolonged exposure to a surfeit of visual perceptions or impressions without the dimension of significant sound that should accompany them, really or virtually: those who see everything while lacking a sonic key by which they would rightly understand anything, may turn in their disorientation to concoct all manner of unbalanced or outlandish “explanations” instead. (On this point I am generalizing from a few remarks of Georg Simmel’s (see the “Exkurs über die Soziologie der Sinne” in his Soziologie: Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, chap. IX) – although perhaps stretching the ideas farther than they can bear.)
The subject of representational thinking as Descartes had conceived of it, and thus at times Heidegger as well, may have found itself in just such a quandary: this point one could infer from his phantasmagoric essay.
And yet all of this was set at a far remove from the real spaces of modern and especially metropolitan existence (the existence which had indeed delimited the “horizon” of Heidegger’s inquiries during the previous period of his career) – even if that peculiarly suspicious cast of mind does come to infiltrate those spaces over the course of time. Another and more adequate understanding, as regards the eminence in modernity of the calculative thinking that seeks the maximum of certainty for itself (and is rewarded or reprimanded thereafter by surety’s withdrawal), would quite likely have followed, had so much attention been paid not to the formulations of Descartes’ “cogitatio,” but rather to the disposition of the mind that his contemporary Hobbes termed “reason” (Leviathan, pt. 1, chap. V) as it grew ever more powerful and indispensable within “society” (pt. 1, chap. XIII), that is, in Hobbes’ definition the newly ascendant realm where private interests were pursued in public by those whom only their fear of one another, their anticipatory distrust of each other’s intentions (Elementa philosophica de cive, chap. I, sec. 2), intentions of which they all would be made aware by introspection into or an inward reading of their own (Leviathan, Introduction), had pushed and held together there to begin with. And should Heidegger, in some alternate universe, have opted to explore these other works nimbly and with an open mind, perhaps as a prophylactic side-benefit he would never have found himself amidst, or inflicted upon himself, the now not so private vices he confided to his notebooks.
Well, flights of fancy aside – in any event, much more acutely than Descartes, it was Hobbes who first discerned and analyzed the beginnings of a new configuration of private and public spaces, under the sway of common fears which delivered the indications of their power not only by sight but also, and perhaps even more significantly, by sound.
At this point, finally, I can return to “Amériques.”
Varèse composed this piece of music as though it were cinema. And not just any sort of cinema! Scene for scene, in its inner arrangements it was already virtually a sound-film – this at a time when the silent era had not even yet reached its end. A moving picture in sound of New York as the paradigmatic metropolis: that was the setting for the action, the several events in the streets which were whisked past our ears. Earlier I described in a bit of detail their staging and their content, as I’ve heard and understood them; now, in a more general way, I should add that these spaces which the work represents to us seem to be a domain that, at one and the same time, is public in character and yet serves largely as a stage for private lives. This is an urban environment which was built up from the start according to the requirements of modern society more or less as first defined by Hobbes – as being founded precariously upon the mutual opposition of private interests – the society wherein the public pursuit of private interest does not so much subordinate every action to the accumulation of wealth (although this latter motive certainly may seem to play the largest role), so much as it ensures, at an even more fundamental level, that nearly all undertakings will be assessed in the terms of success or failure, thereby imposing in advance a specific form upon most endeavors, at the behest of those inner evaluative dispositions which Hobbes called precellence and comparison (Elementa philosophica de cive, chap. I, sec. 2).
City-dwellers leading nothing more nor less than their private lives within the public space of the metropolis – where specifically in “Amériques” is this development given listeners to hear (as though it were simultaneously flashing by on a screen before our eyes)?
From the very beginning of the music, the sense that it is a narration, is pronounced, as a few instruments start up softly, in an establishing passage with their sound focused at one spot, in the middle of a room otherwise empty of life. Swiftly then it begins, this rapid quasi-cinematic compression of “shots” (their start-times are marked here as precisely as I can by the clock). Someone is waking up and stumbling out of bed (0:38) – trying to shake off his drowsiness (0:45) – a long day’s ahead and already he’s trying to think about what he has to do (0:51) – realizing how soon he will have to be at work (0:57) – though concentrating on anything is hard (1:01) – in New York it’s summertime and even with the window open the heat overwhelms everything (1:12) – he straightens himself up, running his mind once again over all that he has to deal with during the day ahead (1:23) – the telephone rings and rings but he’s not a second to spare now for it (1:55) – his haste and inner tension are palpable and rising (2:18) – through the window the sounds down in the street, while at other moments muffled or almost extinguished, do burst in, when as now their source is near or right before it (2:23) – so the sirens start to stream into the apartment as one police-car after another races by at full speed outside (2:26) – almost as though they’re also a signal that it’s time to head off to work (2:49) – out his door he goes (2:54) – down a flight of stairs (3:01) – onto the street (3:05) – and into the urban maelstrom (3:08).
To be sure, this intro will in all likelihood present different facets of itself to each individual listener; my transcription of its scenes is probably going to diverge substantially from others’, should they undertake to itemize their perceptions: but such variations aside, the main point, I think, is that this music, as though it were a story, one narrated selectively by the arrangements of a quasi-cinematic montage, follows closely behind a city-dweller through his ordinary adventures, his small private odyssey within the urban environment during some unity of time, in the course of not even a full day but more probably a number of hours.
If the foregoing account of the music seems at all plausible, then the intro to “Amériques” will indeed orientate the listeners’ notion of what it is that they are hearing throughout the rest of the piece. Thus it would serve as the key to the tale told by Varèse’s composition: the peregrinations of a New Yorker from the first hours of a day starting like any other. And during the virtually visual evocation of this metropolitan environment which follows the intro, tracing some of the paths he takes through the city streets and marking some of the stopping-points along the way, a listener may well comprehend that the music could render it so well precisely because, from its very beginnings, it was as though established to be, not so much a backdrop for various kinds of self-display, drawing this or that kind of attention to themselves there, as simply a setting within which, in the broadest terms, private interests were pursued further, its nominally public character notwithstanding.
So: the intro of “Amériques” offers a key to the interpretation of the rest. From amongst the several operations which may reasonably be expected of an audience or a solitary listener, therefore, Varèse evidently wished to emphasize two in particular, interpretation and orientation, and to bring them very close together, or even to suggest that, in relation to his own works, they are in effect one and the same.
Around a decade after he completed the revision of “Amériques,” Varèse set out on the lecture circuit, and, having accepted an invitation from the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs, he delivered the talk which I mentioned earlier, on August 23, 1936, at the Mary Austin House, in Santa Fe. (Decades afterwards, the text was edited by Varèse’s later student Chou Wen-chung and excerpted in a compilation entitled “The Liberation of Sound,” which is included in the anthology Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, expanded edition, ed. Elliott Schwartz, Barney Childs, and Jim Fox (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), pp. 195-208.) Even though it was in fact entitled “Music and the Times,” in the course of it the composer made certain to comment upon the possibilities opened up by contemporary technology to those who would explore the nexus between space and sound. One passage, in which the composer appears to be speaking above all of his own compositions, is especially relevant in the present context, and so I shall quote it whole (p. 197).
“Today with the technical means that exist and are easily adaptable, the differentiation of the various masses and different planes as well as these beams of sound, could be made discernible to the listener by means of certain acoustical arrangements. Moreover, such an acoustical arrangement would permit the delimitation of what I call ‘zones of intensities.’ These zones would be differentiated by various timbres or colors and different loudnesses. Through such a physical process these zones would appear of different colors and of different magnitude, in different perspectives for our perception. The role of color or timbre would be completely changed from being incidental, anecdotal, sensual or picturesque; it would become an agent of delineation, like the different colors on a map separating different areas, and an integral part of form. These zones would be felt as isolated, and the hitherto unobtainable non-blending (or at least the sensation of non-blending) would become possible.”
Even over a distance of eight decades, Varèse’s programmatic statement remains a very clear, very distinct summary of what orchestral music was becoming able to do, with the assistance of the new sound technology (and moved as well by the achievements of the cinema’s by then fully audiovisual art), and thus of what it henceforth ought to seek to do, if it wanted to keep pace with the age.
The sounds of the orchestras, said Varèse in so many words, are themselves already virtually spatial in their mutual arrangements; in their aggregate state they can comprise masses, planes, and the beams which I commented on before: as such they practically offer themselves to a composer whose overarching interest is in space itself, its delineations, articulations, and interstices. Yet, at the very same time, it will be precisely to the extent that the separate parts played by the various instruments are isolated from one another, every one of them as though intent upon nothing more nor less than its own pursuits, and thus placed into ever-changing oppositions over against each other, that the whole composition can attain the maximum of musical energy. Zur Kraft wird daher der Raum! – that realization or some one like it, to infer from his remarks, will become possible once composers make ample use of the new technologies of sound.
If the separations between the instruments upon which Varèse evidently insisted, are meant to contribute the force which brings the music together as a whole, while, simultaneously, it is their sharply defined roles within that whole which also keep the parts they play at a remove from one another, then the orchestra itself in its very constitution resembles the metropolis as he envisioned it (in the brief remarks reported in the 1957 interview no less than in “Amériques” in its ultimate version in 1927): a collectivity not distracted but actually energized and propelled to work by all the various agitations occurring again and again within it.
That is one side of the metamorphoses orchestral music might undergo, by virtue of the new technologies. Another was pointed out by Varèse in his 1936 lecture when he spoke of the zones which the different instruments would be enabled to define. Perhaps then my sense of “Amériques” as having been constructed quasi-cinematically, relates to a work which was actually something of a special case, and so the idea should not be extrapolated over-hastily to all his pieces generally, for they might indeed, in contrast, more properly be understood as cartographic in kind – map-music. Composition as cartography: the conception is strikingly open-ended, but it does seem to presuppose that the listeners must learn to read any work composed in such a vein, if they want to explore it at all. As a consequence, when the listeners attempt to fathom works like these, interpretation and orientation will be concurrent operations, or even are collated into a single procedure.
Not only within the music itself, therefore, but also amongst the audience, trying as actively as it can to follow the performance of one of Varèse’s works, the “Moment der Stasis” (as Nanz would say) will be a frequent occurrence: a virtual cessation of movement, whereby an individual listener, if he so chooses, can apprehend the vantage-point at which the music is situating him. Most often, of course, and this is the challenge at these times, such stationary moments will already have gone even before one has recognized that they are there, or were.
In his 1936 lecture, when he spoke of the space which orchestral music would now increasingly be able to demarcate, Varèse evidently meant what he said. The notion of dimension, too – a word so susceptible to misuse! – was with him no mere metaphor. The demarcation of zones in the compositions, an objective which became possible to carry out thanks to the new sound technologies, required numerous calculations to be made, where the measurements would be taken according to certain dimensions. These dimensions, however, Varèse thought of in quite another sense than the 3+1 of the usual conception of space and time. “We have actually three dimensions in music,” he insisted (p. 197), “horizontal, vertical, and dynamic swelling or decreasing.” In other words, none of the contemporary sound technology was ever needed for the symphonic music composed out of those three perennial dimensions, all the works which are indeed and do remain the mainstays of the classical repertoire; but with the new technical inventions the field of orchestral endeavors could itself expand, and concomitantly, Varèse went on to remark, “I shall add a fourth, sound projection – that feeling that sound is leaving us with no hope of being reflected back, a feeling akin to that aroused by beams of light sent forth by a powerful searchlight – for the ear as for the eye, that sense of projection, of a journey into space.”
At this juncture, an obvious next step would be to shift the focus onto Varèse’s great curiosity regarding the sciences of his time, and especially contemporary physics – an interest which it seems some of the physicists reciprocated – but I shall refrain from doing so. (The present text is already ethereal enough, no doubt, and really should not venture into outer space as a topic. Nonetheless, in order to whet the reader’s intellectual appetite, an essay by the musicologist Anne C. Shreffler may be mentioned: “Varèse and the Technological Sublime; or, How Ionisation Went Nuclear,” included in the anthology assembled under the auspices of the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, ed. Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), pp. 290-97.)
Instead I’d like to dwell for just a moment on that new fourth dimension as described by Varèse – for it was evidently a long-standing concern of his. His early epiphany during the concert in the Salle Pleyel, as he recounted it in the 1936 interview (which I spoke about earlier), was phrased in very similar terms. And yet in the lecture he touched on what seems to be the essential feature of this new dimension, whereas it was conspicuously absent from his statement as quoted by the interviewer: namely, the projection into space of some sound, as the new technologies enable us to hear this launching taking place, at the same time conveys to us an indication that it will never return, in the absence of anything in its path against which it would strike and then be, as he put it, “reflected back” towards us. Hence, if one wants to express this sound’s forlorn situation in the terms of cartography, Varèse’s fourth dimension would recede unendingly away in every direction of the compass from whatever spot it was at which the music had happened to set a listener down. True, space of this kind would still have a center – but how very tiny, how very lost it would be, sited amidst such an emptiness without echo!
(Recall the frightening lines in Pascal’s famous pensée! (In Brunschvicg’s edition (Œuvres, vol. XII, p. 73) it is the seventy-second.) By way of fulfilling his editorial role, Brunschvicg appended to them a few sentences from a work by Louis Couturat (see De l’Infini mathématique (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1896), pt. I, bk. IV, chap. IV, p. 298 f.) – a text which I also ought to quote here in passing, since it is one of those the young Varèse could readily have perused. According to Couturat, Pascal’s “formule paradoxale, si choquante pour le bon sens,” shows itself upon examination to have been geometrically and scientifically quite inspired. Having once examined it, the geometers (and, by implication, the physicists) will comprehend that “[l]e centre du plan est partout, car l’origine est un point quelconque pris à volonté dans le fini du plan ; la circonférence du plan n’est nulle part, car si on l’imagine dans le fini, on suppose le plan limité, ce qui est contraire à son idée ; et si on la conçoit rejetée à l’infini, ce n’est plus une circonférence : c’est une droite ou un point. Ainsi le plan infini est, à certains égards, analogue à un point, c’est pour ainsi dire un point immense ; et en effet, le point inétendu et le plan infini se ressemblent par certains côtés. Chacun d’eux constitue une unité, l’un par son indivisibilité, l’autre par sa totalité.” Although here Couturat dealt with planes rather than volumes, merely a small further step of thought was required, and an observer during the fin de siècle could realize how perversely mobile each of these two unities is – as such both retreat away as they are approached by the mind and its scientific instruments – thus would one have found oneself carried already into the space of the next century’s theoretical physics.)
So, in the context of his itemization of these four musical dimensions, too, one may surmise, the typical metropolitan city-dweller, ensconced in his private pursuits even while out and about in public, was a figure very near the forefront of Varèse’s thinking. For those dimensions, taken together, constitute the grid by, through, and with which an orchestral work such as his can represent a map of modern society and the atomized lives tracing their long lonely courses amongst the zones of which it is made, unmade, remade, continually anew.
Quite possibly such an individual urban existence, as errant as it was arid, represented something like a primary datum for Varèse throughout his entire career. His 1936 lecture, at any rate, took up a number of positions round the topic, firing off several shots at the times along the way. Amongst the other questions he touched upon, evidently he was thinking about the typical character of that existence – comprising not least an increasing impoverishment of the mind and its culture – as being a condition which the age sought to hide as far as it could, hypocritically, but which in fact was in urgent need of honest acknowledgement, for everyone’s sake. However bad this general condition had already grown in itself, by the middle of the 1930s, the concerted effort to conceal it was worse, for it actually permitted the insidious debility to spread further, and hence the clock was rapidly ticking down: this idea seems to have provided more than a little of the special impetus that is palpable, even today, eighty years afterwards, when one reads or re-reads the text of his remarks.
“We cannot, even if we would, live much longer by tradition,” averred Varèse, nearly as his first word (p. 196) – and already today’s reader may gather that the composer’s aversion to tradition as such ran deep. A striking general avowal in any case, and especially from someone whose profession was orchestral music! Not so very clear at the outset, however, is what precisely the term itself referred to, as used by him. Was this seeming oversight perhaps nothing of the kind, having been in fact deliberate on his part? Did he extend an implicit invitation to the public to whom he spoke to ask themselves how it had happened that they all, more and more, whether they wanted to or not, would need to confront the obsolescence of tradition? Well, by no means could this have been anything like an easy query to respond to, back in the 1930s; whereas now, circa 2015, the very question which apparently he prompted them to inquire into, may itself come across as being more than obsolescent – putting the point mildly – and then again, mustn’t one doubt whether we today are generally in much of a position even to construe it as it deserves to be? Yet nonetheless, I should like to submit, had he refrained from posing it, not only in this 1936 lecture but actually under this or that guise throughout his career, in the end Varèse’s entire œuvre would have taken quite another, a less considerable, less coherent, and less commendable shape than it did.
What, then, might the composer have meant when he objected to tradition?
One like-sounding declaration was put down on paper by Franz Marc, sometime early in 1915, while a conscript at the front. Prompted by what exactly we cannot know, the painter compressed his thought into one sentence, the thirty-first of “Die 100 Aphorismen: Das zweite Gesicht,” which Varèse certainly could have been acquainted with and appreciated. (This particular aphorism was included in the posthumous collection of his work (Briefe, Aufzeichnungen und Aphorismen (Berlin: Paul Cassirer, 1920), vol. I, p. 127).) In this remark, as one might expect, bold tones of sarcasm and irony are not lacking. “Traditionen sind eine schöne Sache,” Marc admitted, “aber nur das Traditionen-schaffen, nicht von Traditionen leben.”
Marc’s meaning can be unfolded as follows. Traditions have something beautiful about them – as though they are at their best simply accoutrements, while much more often they serve merely to divert attention from things that are anything but beautiful. Beautiful in the strong sense of the word is only the brief creative act, whereas the traditions which would then spring up as the progeny, have next to no share in it, and actually were hardly what that act aimed at. As such, when considered in terms of beauty, their characters are at best neutral; while, on the contrary, the enterprise of living according to, by, and off of traditions, is an ugly thing indeed.
All that is the first unfolding of the aphorism – but there is more. For, on the other hand, the tradition-creating act will be utterly sterile if no traditions are brought into being by it. Would one then ever undertake it in the first place, for its own sake, without reference to those consequences, as it were? That seems nearly inconceivable; but if the progenitor does also think in advance of the traditions he is in the process of creating, while nonetheless reserving the beauty in the act for himself as his sole possession, the inheritors, to the extent that they abide in that role, will be left to lead hideous lives. Of course, they could quit this impasse if they themselves were to create traditions – but with that move the same problem would recur once again. (Nor should one forget that upon the sheer number of “traditions” extant at any given moment, there simply must be some practical upper limit.)
The tradition-creating act, albeit beautiful, now also discloses a cunning and calculating visage. One starts to recognize how two-faced it actually is. Rather often its unique beauty may even be horrible to behold.
In Marc’s one sentence, tradition, as the bequest, preservation, and inheritance of something from generation to generation – it is, in the first instance, quite literally, an act of handing-down – had its seamy side exposed. The existence of traditions requires of the generations that vis-à-vis one another they assume certain attitudes, which once may have been noble and praiseworthy, but to whose present state of decay the aphorism (rightly understood) alerted the reader.
As Marc intuited, something had gone terribly awry within tradition itself. What was wrong, and how did it come about? – to return to Varèse and the question he seems to have asked himself, and placed before them who had the ears to hear it.
To frame the briefest of answers (there is no room here for anything more) and one which Varèse himself might not have found too aberrant: modern society, a new formation detected and analyzed early on by Hobbes with the requisite acuity and foresight, whose driving force was the opposition of private interests posed one against another, as it took shape gradually began to undermine the older principles of a durable political organization, of which tradition so construed was by no means the least important, setting them further and further aside in such a manner that when, at a later point in this history, a deliberate defense of the very principle of tradition was mounted, the resistance did even abet the further corrosion of the latter from within.
Again in very schematic terms: the environment of the metropolitan city-dweller, the typical denizen of society as charted by Hobbes, is constituted in an entirely different manner than was that older fixed abode within the stability of tradition which had been offered to its adherents. As the modern kind of urban space expanded more and more, the typical dispositions of its inhabitants also aggrandizing themselves in the process, the continuum of traditional life would furnish ever less guidance whenever one attempted to orientate oneself in the public realm.
Once modern society had established itself beyond a certain point, disorientation – the increasing difficulty in orientating oneself in that realm and in moving dexterously about while within it – became a political question of the first order. Nor were those who sought to comprehend this change, the better historians of the nineteenth century first and foremost, spared the condition – they found themselves buffeted about by analogous perplexities as they strove to illuminate an age so absolutely new.
Of those historians, none conveyed more lucidly how difficult it had become to understand the transformations they saw taking place all around themselves, and then to draw up a map of the contemporary situation, than Tocqueville. While his foremost theme was the changes brought about in political life with the rise of modern society, he knew to apply his mind to the upheavals effected in other areas as well. The effort was all the more pressing, at a moment when the records of the past themselves seemed to be falling silent, providing to the impartial understanding no examples of anything even remotely similar, no signposts, no merestones, no fixed points of reference.
One sobering passage of his (De la Démocratie en Amérique, vol. II, pt. IV, chap. VIII) laid out eloquently the new predicament confronting the citizen and the historian alike. As such Tocqueville’s statement deserves to be quoted whole: “Quoique la révolution qui s’opère dans l’état social, les lois, les idées, les sentiments des hommes, soit encore bien loin d’être terminée, déjà on ne saurait comparer ses œuvres avec rien de ce qui s’est vu précédemment dans le monde. Je remonte de siècle en siècle jusqu’à l’antiquité la plus reculée ; je n’aperçois rien qui ressemble a ce qui est sous mes yeux. Le passé n’éclairant plus l’avenir, l’esprit marche dans les ténèbres.”
Most obviously in the United States, but evidently in France as well, as Tocqueville viewed the problem during those years, under the new conditions the deliberate act of orientating oneself in space, both practically and intellectually, was becoming ever more difficult to carry out. To be sure, at that historical moment ca. 1835, a full century before Varèse delivered his lecture, tradition still exerted itself as a countervailing power; and so it is hardly surprising to observe the historian, when he narrowed the scope of his inquiry to his own country alone, also insisting that “la révolution” had not burst asunder all continuity there, the most obvious appearances notwithstanding. Some immaterial items in particular continued to be handed down – certain ideas, sentiments, habitudes – as Tocqueville did not fail to mention, for otherwise he would have had no threads by which to trace a course back through the past, and then his study of the previous half-century of French history could never have commenced to begin with.
Indeed, Tocqueville’s first sketch of his undertaking set out from just this point. An essay he composed towards the end of 1835 and early the next year, “État social et politique de la France, avant et depuis 1789” (it was written originally at the request of John Stuart Mill for the London and Westminster Review, where it appeared in the April 1836 issue (London: John Macrone) in an unsigned English version, in fact quite a liberal paraphrase, the work of Mill himself), opened as follows: “Des liens invisibles mais presque tout-puissants attachent les idées d’un siècle a celles du siècle qui l’a précédé.” Now, the existence of these “liens” between the ideas of the present generation and those of its predecessors, Tocqueville regarded as evidence that tradition still remained a power to be reckoned with, throughout that fifty-year span of time in French history. Of course, there too it was in retreat, beset more and more as modern society established itself; for contemporary France too this the historian took as a given, and accordingly, what especially interested him was the alteration being brought about in tradition itself. The nature of the relationship between the generations, he realized, was no longer the same. “Une génération a beau déclarer la guerre aux générations antérieures, il est plus facile de les combattre, que de ne point leur ressembler.” Even here, something essential was still being handed down from the earlier to the later one: namely, the set of “idées” which define its profile and in so doing preserve the likeness between the generations. Yet this contact took place in the midst of a furious enmity; and Tocqueville, for his part, found it very thought-provoking to see tradition itself being whittled down into a peculiarly mimetic procedure, of the sort whereby a pair of enemies do come to resemble each other by virtue of the hostilities in which they engage. Thought-provoking – and perhaps somewhat frightening as well, for if one listens intently to his very next sentence, a faint trembling may be overheard. “On ne saurait donc parler d’une nation, à une époque donnée, sans dire ce qu’elle a été un demi-siècle auparavant,” he claimed, and justified this precaution as being “surtout nécessaire lorsqu’il s’agit d’un peuple qui, pendant les cinquante dernières années, a été dans un état presque continuel de révolution.”
If only for the sake of fulfilling the historian’s responsibilities conscientiously, in order to describe the whole scene from without, sine ira et studio, Tocqueville had to worry that his own ideas might in fact, though without his really noticing, predispose him in a contrary direction, affiliating him unawares to this or that side, to the detriment of his work’s perspicacity and independence.
Since, however, my main concern here is to comprehend what Varèse meant by the tradition he so clearly had come to distrust, I have no need to say very much more about Tocqueville the historian. The outline he drew of the condition of the isolated individual in modern society, is as clear as one could wish; while the intimation of a serious ailment inflicted under the given circumstances upon the principle of tradition itself, may be pursued quite far, if one wants to.
Yet it is significant that Tocqueville’s two statements date from the milieu of the 1830s, that is, from early in his career. Their great sensitivity owed perhaps not a little to the very newness of his subject, the presentation of unprecedented questions and topics as it was undertaken by an author whose accomplishments were just beginning to attain recognition. Much later on, possibly by virtue of all the time and attention he had spent in the meantime on his research, possibly for other reasons as well, one does not seem to encounter anything like those insights again; what the reader meets with instead is an avowal that tradition, or some power of a like efficacy, played and even continued to play a much greater role in all that recent history than was usually acknowledged: as though, the further his inquiry had been taken, the more did Tocqueville uncover tradition still at work, operating behind the backs of the people whom he studied and directing them in their endeavors. Once passed beyond a certain limit – to exaggerate slightly what then transpired – wherever the historian looked, this or that “tradition” was mainly what peered back at him.
At the outset of the major work he never lived to finish (L’Ancien régime et la révolution, Avant-propos), one comes across the following remark: “Il y a un grand nombre de lois et d’habitudes politiques de l’ancien régime qui disparaissent ainsi tout à coup en 1789 et qui se remontrent quelques années après, comme certains fleuves s’enfoncent dans la terre pour reparaître un peu plus loin, faisant voir les mêmes eaux à de nouveaux rivages.” Now, even those readers whose basic approach is not that of cautious skepticism, may find it difficult to take this sentence quite seriously: the notion that numerous laws and common practices did not so much vanish as go underground (flowing onwards like a subterranean river!) until, as though by a mysterious reinstatement of tradition, they emerged once more to water the fields of political life, is simply very convenient, to put the point mildly. Hence his remark, far from having clarified anything real at all, itself becomes a piece of evidence, an indication of a common tendency amongst historians to regard the objects of their researches in a specific manner, construing them in advance as if their own inmost intention were to enter into tradition, and during all that time they had mainly been awaiting the chance to do so. What Tocqueville’s passage discloses, even malgré lui-même, therefore, is a déformation professionnelle des historiens, a preliminary (or subliminal) acquiescence to the principle of tradition as such, which we all, however professionally or otherwise we may happen to be involved with history, ought to regard warily.
Sharper than Tocqueville’s late remark, and actually closely attuned to his much more important early statement, is a sarcastic pronouncement by a contemporary French author who cannot reasonably be called a historian, Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly. Around the middle of the 1840s, in the capital, he was well-positioned to see how the sphere within which the principle of tradition still held good, kept on shrinking – indeed, by then one of its best bulwarks, namely, les mœurs, could hardly be relied upon any longer, and had even passed under the control of the other side. “On retrouve Herculanum sous la cendre,” the Parisian wit exclaimed in one of his essays (Du Dandysme et de Georges Brummell, chap. VI), “mais quelques années sur les mœurs d’une société l’ensevelissent mieux que toute la poussière des volcans.” Whereas tradition once stood as a guarantor of the durability and the continuity of a body politic, modern society led another kind of existence entirely, instantiating itself instead continually from moment to moment (much as Descartes’ thinking substance upheld itself in being). With its ascendancy, as Barbey d’Aurevilly noted, mainly one certainty alone would be left intact: merely a brief period of time was needed for this society without precedent to efface the traces of its previous self, so malleable had even its mœurs become.
All at once, to amplify his point, la modernité had taken hold in Paris: a centre of modern society ruled by that arbitrary despot, fashion, the city which was paving the way for its changes to occur in the blink of an eye, as Barbey d’Aurevilly himself knew well. How nearly impossible a task all this would leave behind, for later historians to sift through, if the best of them would even dare to undertake it! To speak without irony of tradition in this connection would have been nearly perverse, already in the 1840s; and all the more so only a few years later, during the Second Empire, for, amongst the vast construction sites that Paris would soon comprise, it was ever more the case that, much as Tocqueville had already witnessed amidst everything transpiring across the Atlantic, “l’esprit marche dans les ténèbres.”
With this, probably enough has been said to convey at least some idea of what I imagine had led Varèse to caution his audience so emphatically against any sort of recourse to tradition.
Whatever remained of it, one gathers, stood in his view in the way of an honest confrontation with the impoverishment of mind brought on by modern society – hence it amounted to a sort of diversion which, given the circumstances of the 1930s generally, was showing itself to be increasingly pernicious. Frivolity (earlier I referred to the predilection for it of the intellectual élite between the Wars) was actually quite a widespread problem during those years, assuming any number of forms, even within his own field of endeavor; and thus there was ever so much which Varèse had good reason to react against implicitly when he forecast tradition’s complete demise.
Given this antipathy on the one side, it is not especially strange that Varèse, in the very same lecture, should have characterized the present-day state of his field in nearly opposite terms. According to him (p. 198), “we are at a new primitive stage in music today” – and this reality, or else this imminent possibility, he seemed to welcome.
His idea was not that the times were ripe for an entirely new tradition to be created and handed down; no, that was not the point at all. The present had to be confronted without the help of any tradition, in music and in other spheres of endeavor, if the conditions brought about by modern society were to be approached as they were, for better and for worse, rather than in the falsified and distorted form they would assume whenever one persisted in viewing them sub specie traditionis. And as for the remnants of tradition which still played an active role within organized musical life at its most serious and creative, one needed to recognize how obstructive they continued to be.
A composition such as “Amériques” – to return to a work wherein Varèse implemented a decided rejection of musical tradition – declares its own relative disinterest in older elaborations of harmony, in favor of the more elementary (the composer himself would probably have said: primitive) harmonies between the tones which the various instruments could produce. This inclination was stressed by one of his peers, Henry Cowell, in an early article analyzing the composer’s procedures (“The Music of Edgar Varèse,” Modern Music (New York: League of Composers), vol. 7, no. 2 (January-February 1928), pp. 9-19), as being one amongst a number of compositional practices which distinguished him from most or indeed all of his contemporaries. “Just as harmonic combinations of sound qualities are emphasized above harmony itself,” wrote Cowell (p. 10), “one finds that dynamic nuances on the same note, or repeated tones, often take the place of melody,” and at times, indeed, melody is dispensed with altogether. Now, what did the composer aim to accomplish by paring down the commonly available means so thoroughly? Cowell formulated the main consequence as follows (p. 11): “Removing from the listener’s ear that which it is accustomed to follow most closely, sometime almost to the exclusion of everything else, naturally induces a keener awareness of other musical elements such as rhythm and dynamics.” Such a “keener awareness” amongst the listeners is one of the sensitivities which “Amériques” sought to foster (even though those to whom Varèse’s work does not appeal, might dissent from the verb to foster and say instead, to force them back upon), setting out to meet this goal all the more deliberately insofar as those other sonic “elements” embody music from its more spatial side, and hence were accorded major roles in a composition which had chosen to ally itself with some of the cinema’s experiments (montage in particular) – while also proceeding to eschew, it is fair to say, the traditions of orchestral music and indeed to locate itself outside the domain of tradition as such.
Fidelity to the individual sounds was one of Varèse’s main reasons for his stance, noted Cowell, and in scoring his own works he went to great lengths to indicate the exact qualities which the musicians should strive to lend each of them in performance. In comparison to those of most other composers, his scores abounded in expression marks applied to the separate notes, and in his view such detailed instructions were nearly a sine qua non of the whole endeavor. Composers who supplied them only haphazardly, or neglected them in the main, were on occasion the object of his contempt, Cowell reported (p. 12), and of those falling in this category he did not hesitate to say, “They do not know how they wish their music to sound.” Instead they handed their works over to others, or, in other words, to the repetitions of tradition, leaving it to the recipients to determine the precise sound to be given to all those constituents of the music. A peculiar uncertainty on those composers’ part, and a strange carelessness, both of which they justified implicitly by an unwarranted trust that the subsequent heritage would handle the bequest satisfactorily: this common attitude, it seems to me, was what Varèse simply could not stand.
Lest one imagine that his expressions of antipathy represented merely the tantrum of a musical enfant terrible, I should add that the exactitude of sonic quality he demanded was brought a bit further into the realm of possibility with each additional refinement of the new sound technologies during those years. The techniques for increasingly faithful reproduction of the tones of the instruments, were beginning to open a way for those so inclined to circumvent tradition entirely; handing a work of orchestral music down, with all the variegated insecurities attendant upon that transaction, was henceforth not the only conceivable mode of passing it on, for in the form of a recording on electromagnetic tape a composer could with relative ease simply leave it or the relevant part of it behind, once the work was done to his satisfaction: and Varèse’s conscientious attention to the minutiæ of the separate notes in his scores, as recounted by Cowell, already anticipates how composers might soon simply leap over whatever there remained of the principle of tradition, as a no-longer insuperable obstacle.
A transmission of a composer’s intentions beyond the limitations imposed up until then by the usual operations of tradition: this is a very disconcerting thought! And likewise with the new vantage-point that these technologies were clearing away vis-à-vis the history of music itself – not only the regard for musical works gone by, but also the nervous anticipation of the history of those which one day will have arrived (as though in a tacit admission of the future’s primacy in the underlying order of time). At least to begin with, here too, no less than within the precincts of modern society generally, minds would have found themselves wandering in obscurity, those of the professional music historians not excepted!
On the other hand, given that a practical alternative to the principle of tradition was rapidly becoming an option for the composer, the actual procedures comprised in it (as the handing-down from generation to generation of the works, the instruments, and the paraphernalia of music) could be studied from the outside, with greater impartiality and acuity than previously had been possible. In consequence, from that moment onward, music’s past could be approached by listeners aware of the vagaries that the intercessions of tradition had instilled into the sounds themselves – those whose ears were open enough to notice sonic phenomena which others literally had never heard in this or that piece of it before. So surprising might be the map they’d then draw up, once they lit out for the territory, heeding the new technology and having quit tradition’s school.
A revolution in acoustic perception was being brought about by the new technologies, and this change, during that incipient phase at least, manifested itself most palpably in the rapport to the elements of past music: more readily than before, they could be heard apart from the various adjustments made to them subsequently in the course of tradition, and thus they were less definitively past than they once had been, situated anew, if not now within the present period strictly speaking, at least considerably less distant from it than in earlier ages.
Increasing exactitude as the new possibility for acoustic perception, was an idea at the forefront of Varèse’s thinking about music not only in the later decades but right throughout his career, one may well surmise; this consequence of the technological advancements could have spawned his intuition that there was a layer of significance in works of music which their nominal creators had not put there, an antecedent dimension of meaning lodged in the very sounds of which they were made: and with the assistance of the new technology, to complete the thought, such deposits of sense might, with some skill and luck, be raised into audible perceptibility.
Varèse, as he recounted in several of his lectures, credited an early reading of Josef Hoëné Wronski’s essay “Philosophie absolue de la musique” with the notion that significance or sense could be found in the individual sounds of which pieces of music were comprised. (An extract of that essay had been published during the Second Empire, by Camille Durutte in the introduction to his tome Esthétique musicale: Technie, ou Lois générales du système harmonique (Paris: Mallet-Bachelier and E. Girod; and Metz: Typographie de Rousseau-Pallez, 1855), pp. v-xvii.) One formula in particular attracted his attention – Hoëné Wronski (p. vii) had written of “la corporification de l’intelligence dans les sons” – and even though by this phrase the author most likely had referred to that which a composer would have more or less deliberately put into the work, Varèse for his part took it to describe not a transitive but rather a self-reflexive operation, as though those sounds themselves were, grammatically speaking, both the subject and the object of Hoëné Wronski’s sentence, whereby the works of music would serve as their instruments. Thus each sound would itself be the sonic self-embodiment of some significant intention, quite apart from all the meaning which might be superimposed upon them by the conscious creativity of human music.
Think what one will of such a conception – in the era of the new technologies its plausibility would have grown, by virtue of the hitherto unheard signification which the latter seemed poised to uncover amongst the sounds.
The notion that individual sounds might be imbued with something like autonomy, already in themselves, does seem to inform Varèse’s early declaration regarding the musical instruments he wished to bring into being. “Je rêve les instruments obéissants à la pensée,” he announced in a brief text entitled “Que la musique sonne” (it was published in Francis Picabia’s periodical 391 (New York), no. 5 (June 1917), a couple of years after Varèse arrived there) – obedient to thought, yet by no means necessarily to his own thought! Quite possibly here too he was recalling that “corporification de l’intelligence,” the otherwise unremarked self-embodiments of mind in particular sounds, which it would be the achievement of such instruments as he dreamt of to express. When, once invented, they were put to the test, then it could happen that, “avec l’apport d’une floraison de timbres insoupçonnés,” those devices “se prêtent aux combinaisons qu’il me plaira de leur imposer et se plient a l’exigence de mon rythme intérieur” – the inner rhythm of the composer’s mind (or soul) which, while he himself could not possibly claim to know it definitively, would at least, in contrast to those other anonymous deposits of intelligence in the sounds themselves, be recognizably his and his alone.
“A composer knows about as little as anyone else,” he would insist decades afterwards, “where the substance of his work comes from.” (That was the position Varèse took towards the end of the “Autobiographical Remarks” he delivered at Princeton University on September 4, 1959, of which Wen-chung included an excerpt in his compilation, under the title “Rhythm, Form, and Content,” and I have cited it (p. 204) from this source. As for the original typescript, it is in the collection of the Paul Sacher Stiftung.)
From the very beginnings of his career onwards, Varèse, it is safe (?) to say, really did see himself as journeying into the spaces of the sounds, a region otherwise nearly unexplored.
The instruments which he anticipated in 1917, of course, could also be the devices to whose invention the great strides taken by the technology, during the years ahead, would contribute.
It was no accident when Varèse chose to speak in this early statement of his inward rhythm, rather than of melody or harmony, in either the singular or the plural. What had he had in mind by this term? Well, with it he may have referred not to an inner datum or concomitant of his consciousness, a continuously-produced result or by-product of his musically active mind, but to a more primary force of inner cohesion, perhaps even an intrinsic power without which the mind could not possibly hope to turn to good use all of its own – to recall his felicitous word from the 1957 interview – agitations.
Late in his career, in the 1959 Princeton lecture, he offered a brief summary (p. 202) of what rhythm does. “Rhythm is the element in music that gives life to the work and holds it together,” said Varèse, as though to underscore the fissiparous tendencies within the elements of which a piece of music is composed, inclining if unchecked to fall apart of their own accord. “It is the element of stability, the generator of form” – with this claim the composer recurred implicitly to his axiom that musical forms are results, the shapes assumed by the compositions as they crystallize: thus what rhythm does, is to exert the requisite quantum of pressure upon them prior to their completion. However, is not the rhythm in a work, once finished and formed, itself also a result – and if so, from what and from where would it stem? Now, according to Varèse, in his own works “rhythm derives from the simultaneous interplay of unrelated elements that intervene at calculated, but not regular, time-lapses.” Hence the rhythm in them is a derivation: the obvious conclusion, therefore, is that it derived from nothing other than the force he had mentioned several decades before, his “rythme intérieur.” Can one infer that it, accordingly, was in Varèse’s opinion the basic guarantor of coherence in its domain, within the musical part of the mind? If that is right, then it, however irregular in its operation it may seem to be, is intrinsically a calculative power positioned over against all the intra-mental constituents of music, and as such this interior power of rhythm, in contradistinction to the actual rhythm evident in works of music, would actively engender “a succession of alternate and opposite or correlative states” – thus going some ways towards meeting that “definition of rhythm in physics and philosophy” which Varèse commended to his audience.
As an inward power of the composer’s mind, by virtue of the rythme intérieur those inner sonic elements would be positioned and assembled by it in just such successions, modulating in consequence the agitation within itself and thus maximizing its predilection for work.
Here, it is not too much to say, Varèse seemed to delineate what a full-fledged rhythmic thinking might be, and how it might proceed vis-à-vis the disparate elements it comes across, wherever it should happen to find them, whether sheltered within its own interiority, out amidst the bustle of the world, or at any spot somewhere in between.
Was Varèse (he an exact contemporary of Kafka and Karl Jaspers) all along primarily a thinker? Had his main reason for distancing himself from tradition been the experimental thinking by, with, and about rhythm which he practiced throughout his life instead?
A rhythmic mode of thought, when conceived as Varèse seemed to understand it, will necessarily partake of calculation – of the mathematical, quantitative, and instrumental procedures for dealing with things, which are as easy to denounce in theory as they are hard to avoid in practice. For a rhythmic thinking like this, neither could there be a way to get around those procedures, nor, what is more important, would any overwhelming urge to abandon them be felt. Much as I suggested before in the case of his “Amériques,” the field of operation proper to this mode of thought remains modern society, at least for the time being, and especially its crystallization in the paradigmatic metropolis, the immense location whose grid was arranged as though its aim were indeed to facilitate any number of the successions of alternate and opposite or correlative states of which he spoke in 1959.
Some years further on, talking with Gunther Schuller (who himself recently passed away – see “Conversation with Varèse,” Perspectives of New Music (New York: Fromm Music Foundation), vol. 3, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1965), pp. 32-37), the composer, as though to suggest that the implicit setting of his musical endeavors had always been modern society, the type of society constructed out of untold numbers of interests in mutual opposition against one another, mentioned in passing one of his own early formative experiences. During his childhood visits to Burgundy, recounted Varèse (p. 34), he had admired the “pure structural architecture” of the masons there, they whose “every stone had to fit and balance with every other,” working with a precision he himself would emulate as best he could, a few years later. Thus inspired, already in 1905, in one of his first pieces, Varèse remembered, “I wanted to find a way to project in music the concept of calculated or controlled gravitation, how one element pushing on the other stabilizes the total structure, thus using the material elements at the same time in opposition to and in support of one another.” Now, of what else would a music like his have been the rendering, and indeed a rhythmic one, if not modern society in its purest expression, as realized in the innumerable interactions of opposites comprising the immense metropolis?
So, it seems to me, surroundings such as the largest cities constitute the native element of this Varèsean mode of thought. From that urban source, by one detour or another, the disparate sounds originate which it, should it happen to be a composer’s thinking, will in turn compress and present in actual works of music. Thus the very agitation wherein it finds itself and makes its home, is conveyed rhythmically along with the rest of those sonic materials, into an audible form.
Even before it ever arrived there – in Varèse’s own career, one hundred years ago, in New York – this mode of rhythmic thought was already attuned to the big-city constructions of significant noise. These, and the manifold uncertainties of modernity generally, it will be quite well-positioned to handle, with more or less the right degree of composure and distance, keeping its wits about it and not falling prey to this or that mental debility, and especially not the paranoia which threatens to afflict the representational thinking of the modern age (as it was exposed and attacked by Heidegger, who seems to have known it from the inside).
It was Varèse’s own specifically rhythmic thinking, one might suspect, which sharpened his feeling for the not exactly unintended but yet inadvertent humor of the incessant alterations in the metropolis, and thus enabled “Amériques,” for instance, to be as cheeky as it at times comes across as being. For the composer’s mode of thought had contributed more than a little to his deliberate rejection of tradition – not least in relieving him of the concern with having his works enter into it in their turn, an attitude which in itself is rather inconducive to musical risk-taking or even to letting the music out to have a bit of fun. This nexus was I believe what he himself was pointing out, at the end of his conversation with Schuller (p. 37), when the composer insisted, half in jest, half seriously, that “I don’t care about reaching the public as much as I care about reaching certain musical-acoustical phenomena,” for his main goal all along was always “to disturb the atmosphere – because, after all, sound is only an atmospheric disturbance!” To this insouciant notion of sound he had no need to add: though not to humorless ears made timid by the musical tradition!
To reach certain musical-acoustical phenomena was what he most wanted to do: this amusing double entendre should not be overlooked. Could there have been a moment of earnestness in it, perhaps? Was Varèse in some sense actually aiming to address them, more than the concert-going audiences? If so, it would accord well with the conception he drew out of, and/or had projected into, Hoëné Wronski’s single phrase.
Perhaps his witty last word, for its part, was not merely a shallow passing remark. Did he mean to suggest that the atmospheres of disturbance he wished his music to convey, had in fact been brought about by heeding those disturbances of atmosphere otherwise called sounds? Were that the case, it might clarify something one hears every so often throughout his works, namely, their flashes of humor – at times when the sirens in “Amériques” break in the interruption is both unexpected and funny – for such brief lighter moments too were derived from his intent listening to those agitations of the air.
Most striking of all, in his last round with Schuller, Varèse laid stress upon the idea that their audiences were to some degree only the incidental recipients of his works, being not so much the intended listeners as by-standers simply afforded an opportunity to overhear them. Whether from this opportunity a longer acquaintance would develop afterwards, was neither the composer’s main concern, nor (if the personification is at all plausible) what his works themselves hoped for. In Varèse’s own case, all of them (a second such personification) had their hands full as they sought to ensure that the musicians not diverge too far in the performance from the way the whole ought to sound.
With regard to the eventual performance of the works, Varèse entertained some reservations about the fidelity which the musicians would observe. During a conversation he and his friend, the painter L. Alcopley (the pseudonym of Alfred L. Copley) held in January, 1963, and published five years later (“Edgard Varèse on Music and Art: A Conversation Between Varèse and Alcopley,” Leonardo (Oxford: Pergamon Press), vol. 1, no. 2 (April 1968), pp. 187-95), he expressed them forthrightly – phrasing his point quite generally, assuming perhaps that the time had come for a laconic word or two on the subject. Professional musicians, said Varèse (p. 187), “are, after all, actors (I include conductors) before an audience and therefore tempted to show off.” Quite a harsh assessment, this, on a first perusal, and so one might be inclined to dismiss the remark altogether, as being yet one more instance of the age-old theatrical prejudice; but precisely because he put his objection in such categorical terms, it also leads one to recall his principled aversion to the musical tradition as such. The vagaries induced in the sounds of which works of classical music are composed, not simply as they are handed down from generation to generation, but also, by virtue of the concomitant of this process, namely, the carelessness of many of the composers themselves, during the constitutive stage when the compositions were created in the first place – this was the sorry state of affairs pointed out by Varèse which I mentioned earlier – now, these imprecisions of sound are not the end of the problem.
On the contrary, one major result of all that sonic vagary can be a great latitude accorded to the performers – in other words, the very condition of histrionic license he skewered in 1963 – allocated to them especially whenever those composers who lacked an exact idea of the sound they wanted, as Cowell recalled Varèse having said some forty years earlier, did bequeath to posterity scores that were insufficiently instructive and hence open to all manner of interpretation. And then this unfortunate freedom (as he saw it) may very well become endemic, solidifying into something like a venerable institution in its own right, just because it, amongst its other functions, can readily serve as a convenient safety-valve for any dissatisfactions that happen to arise within the ranks of the performers.
If the sharp remark Varèse confided to Alcopley is approached from this angle, probably it will seem not nearly so strange and off-putting as it looked at first.
Also worthy of note is the emphasis his comment laid upon the distance between the work of music in performance and those who are performing it. Much as with his rapport to the audience as such – if he was indeed concerned more to “reach” not it but rather the sounds themselves – here too Varèse could have regarded all the performers as being in some sense incidental to his purpose, in contradistinction to the work itself. If that is so, pieces of music were made by him not for the one, nor for the other, and least of all for tradition: what he had in mind instead, was an idea of musical works whose mode of construction would predispose them to be transmitted in an entirely different way.
With this I’d like to turn, finally, to address one well-known statement that at first seems positively mystifying, coming from him, yet which the foregoing may help to clarify.
“When new instruments will allow me to write music as I conceive it,” Varèse declared in his 1936 lecture, the resultant works would seek to express the great energies inside space itself. (Whenever his compositions accomplish this to a satisfactory degree, one might add, they will poke fun at the old notion that space is the most inert thing of all, raising a laugh or two at the stupid prejudice underneath that tenacious idea.) “Certain transmutations taking place on certain planes will seem to be projected onto other planes, moving at different speeds and at different angles. There will no longer be the old conception of melody or interplay of melodies. The entire work will be a melodic totality. The entire work will flow as a river flows.”
Of course, today’s reader could construe these four last sentences, like much else in his 1936 lecture, simply as presaging the full-fledged sonic environments Varèse sought to construct later in his career; but the onrush of spatial imagery, metaphors, and similes in it, I think, actually referred to something else – namely, to the tradition he had denounced a few minutes before, at the outset of the talk.
Let me take these four sentences in order, each individually.
1. The first of them is a more compressed yet also more complete statement of his conception of a musical composition whose structure will unfold like a zonal map: for in his works to come the evident delineations of volumes were to manifest themselves through all the dimensions he went on to mention, and would never be laid out upon some surface to consult, as a literally flat schematic representation. While the “transmutations” on the various “planes” should appear to the ears as being “projected” from one towards another (an acoustic bombardment?), these sonorous movements ought to avoid conveying the misimpression that some unification is taking place in the course of it all. Hence the isolate condition of these separate elements and the absence of any indistinctions amongst them, shall continue to be observed.
2. With this second sentence, implicitly he was summing up the many interactions taking place between the disparate sounds, while identifying outright the obvious result of all their concurrent tumult: a work such as he would envision it (at least as long as its elaboration remained true to his own aim) could not possibly comprise any “melody or interplay of melodies” in the usual sense of the term, that is, as established throughout the musical tradition. Well, what was the “conception” of melody which prevailed there, according to him? Without saying it in so many words, or indeed having had much need to do so, by this he was referring to the elements of a typical composition in whose performance the musicians might most emphatically indulge their inclination to show off (as he said to Alcopley, nearly thirty years later), especially whenever the composers had failed to supply detailed instructions in the scores, and in whose reception the audiences might take the pleasure that they had come for (even in lieu of anything else) – on both sides he discerned an insidious corruption of melody with which the tradition itself, by that late stage, was tacitly d’accord.
3. Instead of such a partial conception, in his third sentence he turned his attention towards the musical composition as a whole. Soon it would, indeed must become a “melodic totality,” and, to the extent that some of the extant musical instruments are still given parts to play in it, the score of a work of this new kind will be delivered fully annotated, equipped with the precise instructions applied to the individual notes which were in his view so unfortunately neglected. Musicians, in consequence, will be given much narrower grounds for their theatrical predilections: that is, both less scope as well as less reason for those small acts of self-assertion which, if they achieved anything, may actually have eased the way for them to acquiesce to the principle of tradition in general and to the existing order of the orchestra in particular. And, regarding the pleasure provided to audiences by the melodies, which still did much to reconcile them (when such assistance were required) to their allotted place within the system of tradition, after an “entire work” becomes one great melody, likewise less of it will be offered – or rather, henceforth the nature of the pleasure taken in the music will also change altogether. It becomes rather an all-or-nothing proposition: henceforth, the composition as a whole will be pleasurable, or it will not be.
4. By the fourth and last sentence, most likely he was speaking of a number of “flows” at once: of the way in which the work would advance towards its end, to be sure, but also of the quick fidelity with which the musicians (assuming that there continue to be parts for them to play) will perform it, and of the cool appreciation with which listeners ought to receive it. Melodically-rhythmically this “river” will wind along – which would not prevent the music from swelling at times into a resounding torrent, nor from pausing in a short standstill at others, its surface then sparkling with any number of bright shimmers. As for the performers and the audiences, staying afloat in this music’s currents will be enough of a challenge; while it is ongoing, the diversions they knew from the tradition are left behind. Could then a work of music such as this possibly be overtaken in its turn by tradition? – no, the idea is precluded in advance. Its channel was dug to bring it elsewhere; it shall reach another sea.
This account, I hope, has shown how his remark, when examined more closely, is not nearly as mysterious as it seemed to be at first, even though one may have anticipated finding that it would pertain to something other than the question of tradition.
The further one reflects upon Varèse’s position, the bolder will it seem – a perception which of course need not signify assent – just as one should expect from a man confident or foolhardy enough to say more than once what he did in his conversation with Alcopley (p. 195): “Contrary to general belief, an artist is never ahead of his time, but most people are always far behind.”
To conclude: the works to which Varèse gave a shape throughout his career, wherever they happen to end up, were made not for tradition and its familiar world of accolades, orchestras, audiences. Deriving their significance from another source, they flow for their own sake alone, although this, of course, does not prevent anyone from plunging into them, now and again, if one’s strokes are swift enough.