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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving Shape to an Explosion: Sasha Waltz with Edgard Varèse

Continu. Photo courtesy of Alastair Muir
By Robert Jackson Wood

Sasha Waltz has a penchant for the spectacularly unnerving. In Gezeitenat BAM in 2010, dancers navigated a flame-licked bunker at the end of the world. The earth tore itself apart underfoot, threatening to swallow the dancers whole.

In Körper, at BAM in 2007, concrete walls towered as in some dystopian underground airlock. Human beings became strange inertial things, writhing in naked piles, pressed against glass.

In her latest work at BAM, Continu—playing the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House December 4 and 5—the world is no calmer. A volatile hymn to the creative-destructive potentials of desire, it begins by “giv[ing] shape to an explosion,” in Waltz's words, an “original violence” that is one and the same with conception itself.

And yet in place of the end-times pyrotechnics of Gezeiten and the concrete dystopia of Körper is a rather different recipe for the foreboding: a bare stage, along with the music of Edgard Varèse (among others).

Edgard Varèse
The choice is inspired. An uncompromising modernist who piled notes into towers of crushing, yet somehow exultant, dissonances, Varèse wrote music that often seemed to embody the creative-destructive vital urge of modernity itself. As likely to be inspired by 16th-century alchemy as he was by quantum physics, he was a kind of mad scientist for whom notes were atoms that, when collided correctly, could yield all manner of musical-metaphysical fissions. In the sprawling orchestral work Arcana, the focal point of Continu, notes surge upwards into the ether, as though, by their own escape velocity, they might break free from the condition of music altogether.

None of this is lost on Waltz. At the beginning of Continu, individuals break free from groups, seeking their own kind of transcendent actualization, only to be reabsorbed into the roiling mass. The catalyst, in Waltz’s words, is a primordial "wanting" “that “cuts a path and breaks the limits." The insatiable metabolism of desire, fed by what stands in its way: Varèse surely would have approved.

A Sonic Modernity

Among the things that conspired to create Varèse’s cacophonous sound world, war, city life, and scientific discovery were the most formative. Varèse moved to New York in 1915 after a brief period of service in World War I, a conflict whose deafening soundscape was as unprecedented as its global scale. An impression was clearly made on the young composer; listen for the eerie parabola of an air raid siren, hand-cranked by a percussionist, throughout Arcana in the first part of Continu.

Then there was the battleground of the city itself. Hardly the sleepy town of Varèse’s youth in the Burgundy region of France, New York in the teens and 20s was a place where sound had become something invasive, forcing its way into private spaces by the skyscraping machinery of a rising metropolis. A shrill C-sharp, incessantly repeated through Varèse’s composition Hyperprism, turned out to be the exact pitch of another siren that had repeatedly cut its own path into his Greenwich Village apartment at night.
Times Square in the 1920s 

Of this experience of vulnerability that came with living in the ascendant Gotham, critic Paul Rosenfeld would write: “You were trapped. You were in the black shadows of skyscrapers; held amid the masonry of this raw city world as in a jail; chained to its lumbering chariot and about to be dragged to Gehenna in its wake.”

But in Varèse’s music, Rosenfeld felt, lumbering chariot had become exhilarating joy ride:
Following a hearing of these pieces, the streets are full of jangly echoes. The taxi squeaking to a halt at the crossroad recalls a theme. Timbres and motives are sounded by police whistles, bark and moan of motor horns and fire sirens, mooing of great sea cows steering through harbor and river, chatter of drills in the garishly lit fifty-foot excavations. You walk, ride, fly through a world of steel and glass and concrete, by rasping, blasting, threatening machinery become strangely humanized and fraternal; yourself freshly receptive and good humored. A thousand insignificant sensations have suddenly become interesting, full of character and meaning; gathered in out of isolation and disharmony and remoteness; revealed integral parts of some homogenous organism breathing, roaring, and flowing about.

The Sound of Physics and Physical Sound

Varèse's music transformed the forsaken city into something with a pulse. As such, it had fulfilled the demand, made by Varèse's dear friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, that art continually strive to renew the appearance of nature. The concrete jungle wasn't exempt.   

Varèse in the studio
But it wasn’t artists who inspired Varèse; it was scientists. Einstein’s recently formulated special theory of relativity, multidimensional theory, quantum mechanics—all of these things had done more in Varèse’s mind to renew the appearance of nature than had the anemic scores being written in his day. Thus, we find him speaking of a fourth dimension in sound, crystal formations in sound, projected sonic geometries, and processes of musical ionization as musical analogs to those paradigm-shifting discoveries. As for the tools he would need to achieve them, they would be new instruments, ideally electronic, capable of playing any frequency and volume at the service of the creator’s whim. “I dream of instruments obedient to my thought,” Varese wrote, instruments that would "lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm.”

We remember Waltz's "original violence" that "cuts a path and breaks through the limits." In many ways, Varèse’s volatile sonic experiments in an age of polite neoclassicisms turned out to be exactly this. If Waltz's language seems a bit dramatic, consider a later Varèse: “I imagined myself to be a diabolic Parisfal,”he wrote, “searching not for the Holy Grail but for a bomb that would blow wide open the musical world and let in sounds—all sounds…” Varèse gave shape to his own figurative explosions that, in a Waltzian mode, seem to be the precondition for creativity itself.

Or maybe not so figurative. In a New York Times interview from 1937, Varèse professed a desire for his music to not only be heard but to do no less than "hit the hearer on the back of the neck." Again, Waltz gets it. Her explanation for a rare moment of respite in Continu: "silence is essential in order not to knock out the audience.”

But no need to bring a helmet. What Varèse's violent rhetoric betrayed, as much as anything, was a desire to rouse listeners from the complacent, half-asleep listening habits associated with the 19th century concert hall in order to connect them with something more vital, if not that "homogenous organism, breathing, roaring, and flowing about.” Music was to hitch itself to Rosenfeld's lumbering chariot and take the listener along for the journey.

Move Like the Electrons Move

Waltz's Continu.
Waltz, on the movement in the first part of Continu: "[it] is, to me, a state of possession which spreads throughout the group like a virus.” We can imagine Varèse seeing the inexorable current of a science-driven modernity as possessor, underwriting every convulsive twist and turn of her dancers' bodies. But what might Varèse have expected from choreography more specifically?

An encounter with Martha Graham provides clues. In 1929, Graham approached Varèse’s wife Louise, a famous translator of works by Rimbaud, about possibly working with her husband. By December of 1931, some semblance of a collaboration was underway. Varèse had just finished his work Ionisation (parts of which are also featured in Continu) and, in a letter to his friend Carlos Salzedo, expressed frustration that the famous flamenco dancer Vicente Escudero wasn’t up to the task of interpreting it. He “cannot grasp my idea—too Spanish, for Ionisation represents today and the mysteries of American skies.”

Martha Graham in 1933, by Edward Steichen
Varèse’s solution was to provide that idea in a more direct way—and this time to the eager, and thoroughly American, Graham. In the same letter to Salzedo, Varèse quotes a lengthy description of the atomic process of ionization on which the work was based before instructing Salzedo to share it with Graham in hopes of inspiring her choreographic choices:

The battering of the particles by one another [...] cause electrons to be broken off and set free [...] For each individual [electron] the freedom is only temporary, because it will presently be captured by some other mutilated atom, but meanwhile other electrons will have broken off somewhere else to take its place in the free population.

Replace electrons escaping their orbits with individuals escaping groups and you have an apt description of much of Continu. Science has become the social, but the drama of fleeting freedom has remained.

Of his preference for science over more overtly humanist sources of inspiration, Varèse once said that there was “more musical fertility in the contemplation of the stars [...] and the high poetry of certain mathematical expositions than in the most sublime gossip of human passions.” And yet, as Varèse would have also acknowledged, behind every scientific discovery was a very human, passionate scientist, whose insatiable curiosity the composer could not have identified with more. “Too little consideration is given to the human point of view [of my music],” Varèse confessed to Emile Vuillermoz, “the spiritual essence above the scientific and mechanical.” On at least one occasion, those humans were his loving wife, transfigured into a seraph, and a husband possessed by a maelstrom of a dream:
The two Fanfares I dreamed [for Arcana]—I was on a boat that was turning around and around—in the middle of the ocean—spinning around in great circles. In the distance I could see a lighthouse, a very high—and on the top an angel—and the angel was you—a trumpet in each hand. Alternating projections of different colors: red, green, yellow, blue—and you were playing Fanfare No.1, trumpet in right hand. Then suddenly the sky became incandescent—blinding—you raised your left hand to your mouth and the Fanfare 2 blared. And the boat kept turning and spinning—and the alternation of projections and incandescence became more frequent—intensified—and the fanfares more nervous—impatient…and then—merde—I woke up.
Listen for the fanfares, cacaphony, explosions, and ionizations when Continu comes to BAM December 4—5.

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