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With ‘Déserts,’ Varèse envisioned a purer world

On May 1, the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble presents a concert including Edgard Varèse’s 1954 “Déserts,” a characteristically extraordinary piece from the ever-experimental French-American composer, this one utilizing a groundbreaking combination: acoustic instruments and electronic sounds. Long in coming — the piece incorporates ideas gathered over decades for a sprawling, unfinished work called “Espace” — “Déserts” reestablished Varèse (best known for his 1931 percussion opus “Ionisation”) as an audacious, confrontational modernist. The Paris premiere elicited jeers and catcalls — all broadcast live over French radio. But, not for the first time, the scandal overshadowed Varèse’s humanist intentions.

Varèse, reflexively ambitious, originally envisioned “Déserts” as an immersive film-and-sound experience. In the late ’40s, he briefly interested actor Burgess Meredith in the project, to no avail. (The relationship did yield Varèse’s sole Broadway credit: a short dance number for Meredith’s failed 1950 production “Happy as Larry.”) A later treatment, intended for none other than Walt Disney, imagined montages of “sand deserts, lonely stretches of water anywhere, solitudes of snow, steep deserted gorges, abandoned roads, ghost towns” alongside images of galaxies and the moon. “I believe that the time is ripe for such an undertaking,” Varèse concluded.

The belief was not casual. Varèse had spent years working on “Espace,” which was to feature multiple choirs singing in their own languages in their own countries, linked together by radio. Looking for collaborators, Varèse approached novelist Henry Miller, who, in his florid, apocalyptic travelogue “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” recorded Varèse’s grand pitch: “Voices in the sky, as though magic, invisible hands were turning on and off the knobs of fantastic radios. . . . I want the epic impact of our epoch.”

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But Varèse also wanted “the feeling of the Gobi Desert” — hinting at both the transformation of “Espace” into “Déserts” and dimensions belying his reputation as simply a purveyor of abstract sound. Like Miller, Varèse was deeply, energetically pessimistic about a world increasingly saturated by money and conservative conformism. “When [Varèse] talks about his new work and what he is trying to achieve,” Miller wrote, “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.” The desert in “Déserts” is a place of radical purification.

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The premiere’s tumult depressed Varèse. But the earth’s inert inhabitants were always wary of such energies. As Miller mused: “Some men, and Varèse is one of them, are like dynamite.”

Matthew Guerrieri

The Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, conducted by Eric Hewitt, performs music by Ron Nelson, Andy Vores, Edgard Varèse, and others, May 1 at 8 p.m. in the Boston Conservatory Theater (admission is free; www.boston
conservatory.edu).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.