classical music
contemporary classical

Varèse: Microcosms

Part of Classical Season 2019/20

Penetrate the essence of sound with works by the radically inventive 20th-century composer in the second concert of our dedicated weekend.

Edgard Varèse casts a long shadow on the music of the 20th century. His unfamiliar, futuristic yet deeply satisfying work was a major influence on composers from Frank Zappa to Harrison Birtwistle.

In the second of two concerts dedicated to his oeuvre, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group present a near-comprehensive selection of his imaginative music for ensembles.

Written for wind instruments and 17 forms of percussion, Intégrales predicts the advent of electronic sound. Varèse wrote of the piece: ‘I composed for acoustic means that did not exist yet, but which, I knew, could be realized and would be used sooner or later…’

He described the process of composition as an attempt to create ‘rays of sound’: ‘for the ear as for the eye, this phenomenon gives a feeling of prolongation, of travel in space.’’

Hyperprism is scored similarly for wind and percussion, including lion’s roar, sleigh bells and siren. Its first audience laughed throughout the performance, and there were reports of a fistfight between two listeners who disageed about the significance of the short piece. However, a 1923 review described it wonderingly as ‘lonely, incomparable, unique.’

Ionisation, one of the first pieces for percussion ensemble written for the concert hall, treats rhythm using a method inspired by the ionization of molecules, and continues Varèse’s exploration of the sounds of city life.

Composed in the early 1930s, Equatorial was the first piece to realise Varèse’s dream of combining instrumental and electronic sound. It features a bass voice or chorus, brass, organ, percussion and theremins, which the composer had built to his own specification (the piece was later revised for ondes-martenots). The text is from the sacred book of the Native American Quiché, who traced their heritage to the ancient Mayans.

The name Octandre refers to the eight stamens of a flower, in this work represented by an unusual combination of instruments which together produce extraordinary textures.

Varèse’s Deserts is written for wind, piano, percussion and tape, the result of the gift of an Ampex tape recorder, received by the composer from an anonymous donor.

The result is a breathtaking exploration into the nature of sound, through a focus on sustained chords and single pitches, captivating and unearthly.

It was originally imagined as the soundtrack to a film which would show the deserts on the surface of the earth, in the depths of the sea, between the stars and, most resonantly of all, in the human mind, in the form of the atrocities presented by the two world wars, such as concentration camps and the detonation of atomic bombs.

Density 21.5 opens the programme, distilling Varèse’s futuristic vision of sound into four minutes of unaccompanied flute.

Poème Électronique, composed when he was 75, was conceived for a pavilion designed by Le Corbusier at the 1958 Brussels’ World Fair, as part of an extravaganza of film, light and sound.

It makes use of technological possibilities that Varèse had long imagined, and its original performances relied on 400 loudspeakers.

Still an extraordinary listening experience, it is a masterpiece that was indubitably ahead of its time.

BCMG has successfully developed a loyal following that must be the envy of other ensembles.
The Telegraph
Gražinyte-Tyla seems to have that precious conductor’s knack of allowing players all the expressive freedom they want, while still being able to shape every aspect of a performance in exactly the way she wants.
The Guardian

Performers

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conductor

Repertoire

Varèse: Intégrales; Hyperprism; Ionisation; Ecuatorial; Octandre
Interval
Varèse: Déserts; Un grand sommeil noir; Density 21.5; Poème électronique; Etude pour Espace

Dates & times

10 May 2020
Approximate run time: 130 mins
Run times may vary, find out more

where

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Pricing

£15 - £35
Booking fee: £3.00 (Members £0.00)
£15, £25, £35

Concessions

25% off (limited availability)
Find out more about our Concessions policy