For the last two and a half weeks, while I’ve been occupied with desparately trying to keep up with all the my work that I could, while learning far more that I ever hoped or wanted to know about plastic surgery on jury duty, I’ve also been reading about Varese–Malcolm MacDonald’s book and Edgard Varese: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, a sort of coffee-table scholarly catalog of a big exhibition of Varese material owned by the Sacher Foundation.
The book reprints the letter that Frank Zappa, at the age of 16, wrote to Varese. Zappa had already made contact with Varese by calling him up, but he was on the east coast–Baltimore, in fact–and was hoping to visit the master. Unfortunately for music history, Varese was just about to leave for Holland and the meeting never took place. The letter is really rich and wonderful. My favorite bits are, first of all, the statement that “I have been composing for two years now, utilizing a strict twelve-tone technique, producing effects that are reminiscent of Anton Webern,” and, most, “I became more and more interested in you and your music. I began to go to the library and take out books on modern music, to learn all I could about Edgard Varese. It got to be my best subject (your life) and I began to writing my reports and term papers on you at school. At one time when my history teacher asked us to write about an American that has really done something for the U.S.A. I wrote on you and the Pan American Composers League [sic] and the New Symphony. I failed. The teacher had never heard of you and said I made the whole thing up. Silly but true. That was in my Sophomore year at school.”
I was also really interested to see, in a letter from Ligeti, who was writing to ask Varese to write a letter supporting his effort to emigrate to the United States (a letter which Varese never answered, apparently), the statement, “…I published a textbook of classical harmony and a book of examples and analysis of classical harmony (both are used in the Budapest Music Academy and other music schools in Hungary).” I had never heard anything about a textbook on classical harmony by Ligeti. It would be something really worth looking at. I wonder if anybody knows anything about it. Even if it’s in Hungarian, the examples would be really interesting.
I hadn’t previously known much, or anything, about Varese’s life, and I’ve been struck that he seemed to have know just about everybody of any importance in music in the first two thirds of the twentieth century and lots of other people basides. It occurred to me that one could make a variant of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon featuring Varese. Except it wouldn’t take all that many degrees. With Varese as the only link one could connect Busoni with Zappa, Widor with Earle Brown, or von Hofmannsthal with Henry Miller. With one more link one could connect Chalipan with either Frank Sinatra or Captain Beefheart. Also with one additional link, one could connect von Hofmannsthal with Adam West (an idea whose silliness for some reason tickles me quite a bit–for that matter connecting Varese with Adam West is silly enough).