“If we can’t hear people screaming in agony, how can we hear at all?”
— Henry Miller
I was digging through old blog posts recently and found a post that deserves a reboot. The topic of the post in question was Henry Miller’s book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which features some really great music writing, specifically in praise of French-born composer Edgard Varèse.
“Some men, and Varèse is one of them, are like dynamite,” wrote Miller. “That alone, I suppose, is sufficient to explain why they are handled with such caution and shyness.”
Below are some other excerpts that are really worth reading (emphases mine):
The function of the artist, who is only one type of creator, is to wake us up. The artists stimulate our imagination. (“Imagination is the last word,” says Varèse. ) They open up for us portions of reality, unlatch the doors which we habitually keep shut. They disturb us, some more than others. Some, like, Varèse, remind me of those Russians who are trained to go forth singled-handed and meet the invading tanks. They seem so puny and defenseless, but when they hit the mark they cause inestimable havoc. We have good reason to fear them, those of us who are asleep. They bring the light that kills as well as illumines. They are lone figures armed only with ideas, sometimes with just one idea, who blast away whole epochs in which we are enwrapped like mummies.
Miller cites a “contemporary” at one point, writing:
…Western classical music has given practically all of its attention to the frame-work of music, what it calls musical form. It has forgotten to study the laws of Sonal Energy, to intuit music in terms of actual sound-entities, in terms of energy which is life. It has thus evolved most splendid abstract frames in which no painting is to be seen. Therefore the Oriental musicians often say that our music is a music of holes. Our notes are edges of intervals, of empty abysses. The melodies jump from edge to edge. It neither flies nor glides. It has hardly any contact with the living earth. It is a music of mummies, of preserved and stuffed animals which look alive enough perhaps, yet are dead and motionless.
Varèse wants to bring about a veritable cosmic disturbance. If he could control the ether waves and blast everything off the map with one turn of the dial I think he would die in ecstasy. When he talks about his new work and what he is trying to achieve, when he mentions the earth and its inert, drugged inhabitants, you can see him trying to get hold of it by the tail and swing it around his head. He wants to set it spinning like a top. He wants to speed up the murdering, the buggering, the swindling, and have done with it once and for all.
All our words are dead. Magic is dead. God is dead. The dead are piling around us. Soon they will choke the rivers, fill the seas, flood the valleys and the plains. Perhaps only in the desert will man be able to breathe without being asphyxiated by the stench of death. Varèse, you have put me in a dilemma. All I can do is to append a footnote to your new opus. Here goes then…Let the chorus represent the survivors. Let the Gobi Desert be the place of refuge. Around the rim of the desert let the skulls pile up in a formidable barricade…
Some Varèse recordings:
The thing that prompted my revisiting of the Miller/Varèse post was this article (“Iannis Xenakis: Musical Sorcery Using Mathematical Totems”), which brought me further down the rabbit hole into an Iannis Xenakis profile by Tom Service at The Guardian, which states:
…what happens when you hear his music goes beyond even the sensation of teeming natural phenomena or landscapes transmuted into music. Listen to this piece – Synaphaï – for piano and orchestra. You’ll hear a piano part of mind-bending complexity, which has the unique distinction, as far as I’m aware, of having a separate stave for each finger. You did read that right: Xenakis uses 10 staves in this piece. You’ll hear clouds of minutely detailed orchestral sonority wrap around the solo part, like flocks of small birds mobbing an avaricious raptor; and you’ll hear a near-continuous rhythmic intensity and textural violence that takes your breath away. Hearing this piece is as awesome an experience as watching some life-changing natural spectacle. Synaphaï has all the teeming unpredictable power of a glacier, the thrilling complexity of shape and movement of a mass animal migration.
Some sample Xenakis recordings:
Also relevant: Krzysztof Penderecki‘s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” used to great effect in the atomic bomb sequence of Twin Peaks: The Return, Episode 8.