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Edgard Varése - Ionisation Analysis

Edgard Varèse - Ionisation


On first listening Ionisation gives the impression of a percussion piece that conveys sections within an underlining rhythmic pattern but at the same time slightly disjointed. In Varèse we see a new type of composer, someone who invariably fought the grain, trying to adapt new directions into his work. Ionisation offers an excellent perspective on this seemingly diverse and at times radical way of working and thinking.


A new electrical insight

Varèse is primarily a composer whose style is somewhat different in his approach to other composers of his time. This is displayed within his composition Ionisation that is written for thirteen players, each with their own unique system. Varèse introduces his compositional approach within the first two bars of the score with the use of two bass drums proceeding one another. These are intended to mask the developing gong sound that is struck on the last of three strikes of the bass drum.

The bass drums timbre is placed in the lower half of the audible register. The gong moves slowly in the opposite direction as its decay gives a perception of rising, until its dynamic level fades with a wide reverberant feeling. This is because looking at the spectrum analysis

Varèse Ionisation Wavelab view looking at the Bass Drum isolated

Varèse Ionisation Wavelab wave view of the Gong

Bass Drum 1a Gong 2a

Varèse Ionisation Wavelab view of composition from an audio analytical perspective the Bass Drum

Varèse Ionisation Wavelab view of composition from an audio analytical perspective the Gong

Bass Drum 1b Gong 2b

(image 1a, 2a) shows that even when the bass drum is at its highest dynamic level; its frequency response never exceeds 640 Hz, whereas the gong on the right shows a more middle range starting point. By the time it is finish it has exceeded the threshold of the bass drum reaching as high as 1.4 kHz. Watching this process in real time (images 1b, 2b), shows that the decay of the gong falls back into the frequency range of the bass drum, indicating that had the gong been hit simultaneously with the first or second bass drum, the gong's decay would not be heard. The gong's decay can also be seen to be smoothing the decay of the bass drum, while at the same time achieving a perception of pitch articulation.

Listening to the entire piece begins to suggest that some of the instruments have a thematic role to play. There is also the suggestion of repeating of parts. If in its entirety it shows signs of periodic repetition, it can be suggested that some degree of structural order is taking place explained as thus.

From the scores opening, a clear movement from a low starting frequency position to a reversed position is then contrasted by the introduction of a solo snare drum (tambor millitare). With this instrument a dramatic move on the frequency scale is heard. There is also a noticeable change in the overall velocity, being heard more forte than the high dynamic crescendo of the previous bars.

From bar nine the overall timbre is kept constant in rhythmic progression and velocity. Therefore the introduction of the 'lions roar' (string drum) can be seen in several ways, as either an ending to a section, or the starting of a new section. The score places the lions roar at the end of a bar, indicating that the drum is acting as an ending to the section rather than a start of a new section. Bar thirteen shows a sudden change in dynamic level, this change goes completely against the previous four bars, furthering the case for the string drum being the ending of section two.

Analysing the instruments used in this dynamic change shows a very characteristic scoring to that of the first three bars of section one, with both the gong and bass drum timbres working together in an almost identical scoring, however this time the emphasis is placed on the dynamic level (achieved with the scoring of extra notes). These are also complemented by another of the main thematic parts, being that of the siren. Looking at the whole score the introduction of the siren is seen numerous times suggesting that it has a main thematic part to play. This is also true for the tambour militaire.

When for the first time the sleigh bells are heard at bar eighteen, a clear trading or complementing of timbre takes place between the castanets and snare. These also take on a degree of Verticalization with both the tambourine and the sleigh bells, sharing near identical parts. The sleigh bells however are given less noted parts to play. Viewing the score seems to indicate that the tambourine is the leading/dominate part. However the alternative view seems more plausible, that the tambourine is acting as part of a synthetic decay to the sleigh bells. The exchange is brought to an end at bar eighteen, with a quartet of notes given to the tambour militaire, scored on the final beat of the bar. This notation is not that dissimilar to the end of bar eight, only this time marked with mf rather than p. Also in this section bars twenty-one and twenty-two are not dissimilar to bars ten and eleven.

With an established view that bar eight was the last bar of the first section, it could be presumed that the tambour militaire was signaling an ending of another section, as the following bars show very little resemblance in timbre to the second section, other than the first two bars. However it must not be disregarded that the two bars that proceed may actually be a separate section.

Establishing at this point that the piece is divided up into sections it seems appropriate to give individual names for these sections derived from their sound content and notation. This is not melodic music; it is also scored for only percussion instruments (with the exception to the pianos that will be covered later), eliminating harmony. What is seen is a score that is concerned with not only individual instruments, but also the overall timbre qualities produced by the use of one or more of these instruments, suggesting within music a texture that is created through the use of many or individual sounds. The style of notation throughout also suggests that a horizontal structure is in place this is further complemented by sounds that are perceived to evolve from one another in a germinal fashion; the first three bars analyzed have already shown this. So it seems acceptable to label each of the sections as textures. With this established it may also now be considered that Texture III is a juxtaposing of Texture I and Texture II, as well as having its own individual aspect. As will be the case for the rest of the score, the need for renaming or the creating of new textures is needed when new elements are added to previous textures.

The logic in bars twenty one and twenty twos scoring is heard when at bar twenty three begins a dramatic change that adds slur to the feel of overall timbre. Musically there is linear elaborations taking place, however as none of the instruments used are of the tonal nature, the individual instruments must perform these actions by use of their frequency position. Between bars twenty-three and twenty-seven the first elaborations take place with guiro, bongos, maracas, castanets, tarole and tambour militaire creating the sense of pitch movement. The sleigh bells and the tambourine in this texture offer a sustaining of the timbre, whilst the elaborations take place. The ending of the first elaboration also gives a clear indication to the motives of the texture as the three wood blocks are played simultaneously from high to low, bar twenty eight sees the beginning of the second part of the elaborations. The score gives less noted parts to the instruments that are used in the first part of the elaborations, allowing now for the gong and tam-tams to trade places with the sleigh bells and tambourine to become the sustaining element of the texture. The sustaining of the texture is paramount to the deception of elaborations taking place, without its inclusion there would be gaps that in non pitched instruments would cause momentary parts of silence. In percussion music this would be perceived by the listener as rhythmic breaks.

As the second of the elaborations begins a swapping of parts between the bongos and bass drum moves the overall pitch up, avoiding any timbre clashes by reducing the note count on the tambour militaire. The exchange between the tambour militaire and side drum in bar twenty-two is explored further in the second part of the elaborations, repeating bars twenty-three and twenty four but with a reduced note count. The guiro is also scored in this way however in the second part of the elaboration the guiro shares the role of sustaining the texture with both the tam-tams and gong. The gong is not used in the first part due to the inclusion of the bass drum, its removal at the start of the second part of the elaborations allows the gong to become a sustain element. The return of the bass drum sees both the gong and tam-tams removed to allow the inclusion of the high siren, also reintroducing the guiro as the sustain part to the texture. For the first time the high siren is used without the second siren, indicating that timbre positioning is playing an important part in the composer's thinking. The inclusion of the second low siren would have invariably coloured parts played by the two bass drums. The removal of the bass drum therefore indicates that the composer is not only concerned with the overall timbre but also the structural order of the piece, organizing sounds rather than just the repeating of parts (full or reduced) Preparations for the next texture is scored in bars thirty-six and thirty-seven with the two bass drums and side drum performing in tandem, creating what could be described as a chord within percussion. This may explain the inclusion of the siren as it continues the movement needed for elaborations to continue.

Bar thirty-eight sees the start of the new texture with the concept of elaborations being removed in place of verticalization of parts, scored in triplet of notes. These are placed in a three, two, one pattern over a period of three bars. This produces a dramatic change in the dynamic level causing bursts of colour to emerge as the instruments play simultaneously. The result could be considered as an attempt to create chords within percussion music. As most of the instruments used have little sustaining qualities Varèse's decision to use triplets of notes could have been to ensure the change was sudden enough not to be perceived as rhythmic break points.

segment from the original score of Varese's Ionisation
Example 3

The black and blue lines in example 3 highlight the first three chords of the texture. To achieve the perception of moving from one tone to another, Varèse has used the high bongos and wood block's on the first note of the triplets (highlighted black) alternating to the low bongos and woodblocks on the second scored notes (highlighted blue) the third chord is a repeat of the first chord with the exception to the bongos high and wood block high being removed. The tarole drum plays the role of sustaining element to the texture, this motif is a repeating of the pattern that is used in Texture III at bars eighteen and nineteen, this pattern is also distributed within this texture between the tambour militaire (playing the first four notes) and the tarole drum. The cymbals of player ten is also a repeated pattern from Texture III that was originally scored for the sleigh bells. Although not the same instruments what this shows is Varèse inserting rhythmic elements from Texture III into the Verticalization Texture whilst being aware of the frequency position of the sound. Using the originally scored sleigh bells in this texture may well have given the impression that a sustaining element had been introduced. With Varèse already using a high count of metallic instruments this sound may have been drowned out by the other metallic sounds (cymbal tambourine and cowbell) had it took the role of sustaining. Although within the Verticalization texture bar forty-three gives the perception of a return to elaborations. The wooden blocks are played once on each of the three blocks creating a feeling of melody, changing back at the next bar to the Verticalization of the distributed notes, this time scored in groups of quadruplets rather than the use of triplets that start this texture. With the increase in notes Varèse has effectively doubled some of the perceived chords whilst at the same time removing the cowbells which now plays its own separate chord. The result of this notation gives the impression that an arpeggio is taking place. A change in the sustaining instruments also takes place at this bar with the tarole now joining in as part of the arpeggio while the string drum and tambourine take on its role. The cymbal of player ten could also be seen as part of the sustaining of the timbre, playing a single note at the start of each of the following four bars, however it clearly returns to the role of Verticalization at bar forty-eight. The sudden change in instruments used at bar fifty-one suggests that the Verticalization texture has ended.

Bars fifty-one to fifty-five show clear similarities to the opening texture with the exception of the anvils being present indicating a new texture. The anvils are also scored in such a way that if all the notes were played on only one anvil, an almost identical rhythmic pattern to that of bars eighteen and nineteen would be produced. Other than the exclusion of the two bass drums and the added parts to the triangle, the following texture is therefore nothing more than a reduced version of Texture I with broken and divided elements of Texture III giving a texture that can be labeled Texture I version II. Had Varèse divided elements of Texture I amongst other instruments, the title Texture IV would have been needed.
Bar fifty-six reintroduces the motif scored for the tarole drum in Texture III, bar fifty-five however it has a quadruplet of notes that is normally scored for the tambour militaire, only this time they are assigned to the two snares of player nine (tarole, relaxed snare). This scoring could therefore signal an ending to the texture, if this is true then for the first time in the score one texture has merge with another texture, as the siren is continued until the end of bar fifty-six.

The next ten bars show all the sonority elements of Textures I version II and Texture III, the wood blocks and anvils are also scored in the same style as the Linear elaborations, suggesting that another section of elaborations has started. The overall timbre has also moved within this texture, with additional scoring to the metallic instruments (gong, tam-tams and anvils). As with all previous textures, this texture also includes a sustaining element to the overall timbre, in this case the role of sustain is given to the triangle and the guiro.

Analysing the note structure of Edgard Varèse's Ionisation
Example 4

Example 4 shows how elaborations can be perceived to be taking place in this texture. The black line shows the effect of elaborations taking place over the different instruments while the red line indicates the sustaining instruments. The change from a middle range frequency of the sustaining instrument (Guiro) to a high frequency position is needed to enable the smooth transition between the different stages of the elaborations. Using the guiro throughout as the sustaining instrument would leave parts where the movement was too dramatic and may well lead to a feeling of rhythm and not that of elaborations. Therefore the different frequency positions of each of the instruments used allows the composer to move freely between different levels of the hearing register. When taking into considering that a C, an octave below middle C has a frequency of 130 Hz and a C, two octaves above middle C has a frequency of 1.46 kHz it seems plausible to consider that the instruments used in this percussion piece are acting in the same way, although in theory they have no fixed pitch.

Bar sixty-five suggests that the texture is coming to an end with elaborations between the instruments ending in favour of scoring in a vertical way. Bar sixty-sixty also suggests the beginning of a new texture as the overall timbre has now moved from a high metallic sound to a very low timbre. This timbre change is due to the extensive note count placed on all three bass drums (player 1 & player 3). Theses note are also placed in a vertical position, with the castanets and tambourine both being given almost identical parts. Bar sixty-seven gives the impression and scoring that suggest elaborations are taking place once more. However in the following bar returns an almost identical notation to that of bar sixty-six. One way of looking at this could be to consider that this is not a new texture and that Verticalization of textures is happening for one bar before returning to elaborations for another bar. An alternative view could be that this is a further texture related to elaborations.

Using example 5 the melody needed for elaborations (or the perception as this is percussion) is highlighted in black with the elaborations following immediately after. The highlighted orange circle shows a motif that has appeared many times in the composition (in this almost isolated part it seems to go against the other parts) in both its present form and in a fragmented way spread across several instruments. Musically this could be an episodic figure taking place with an elaboration of the pattern following immediately after (blue circle). This part could also been seen as a subject.

three segment seperated from the original score of Varèse's Ionisation
Example 5

The highlighted green area is not only the ending to this texture but a preparation for the texture that follows. The darker green area shows the final of the elaborations taking place, until reaching the crescendo (light green area). At this point in the score, Varèse has used a quaver rest; this is to compensate for the reverberation time of the instruments used in this final crescendo of elaborations. The same approach is also used in the final bar of this texture with the exception of the siren. The siren in this texture could also been seen in the same light as the perceived effect of the bass drum and gong (examples 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b) adding a pitch movement to the timbre as the texture finishes.

Bars seventy-five to ninety-one (the final bar) suggest not only a new texture but a texture that will bring the piece to an end. The introduction of this texture once again uses the sonority qualities of the metallic instruments of Texture I whilst using the rhythmic attributes of Texture II. Included for the first time is the use of two pianos (one grand, one free standing). The piano of player thirteen is unequally scored in such a way that it has required the composer to introduce unique markings. The most striking point about this scoring is where the composer has placed the notes. As the piano has a lot of harmonic qualities, it could be argued that this piece is not solely percussion. However the notes that are to be played are placed in the bass clef and go no higher than the middle C, they are also played with the forearm allowing the performer to hit simultaneously as many of the notes scored as possible. Had Varèse used individual notes then harmony would have invariably filtered through. What the composer is actually aiming for is a perception of infinite pitch with the individual harmonics produced by the piano being muffled and interlaced with each other, eliminating any possibility of tonal relations being made. The scoring for the piano also brings the instrument into a new light whereas before it would only be considered for its harmonic qualities (melody and solo music). The other important addition to this texture is the use of the tubular chimes just as with piano any individual notes played could confuse the score, suggesting possible harmony or melody. As it is Varèse has used the tubular chimes in conjunction with the sonority properties of the pianos, allowing for a constant sound to be created in the middle to low parts of the hearing register. The first use allows their own unique timbre to be heard over the other instruments, however their last inclusion after a bar rest (bar eight-nine) see vertical scoring. The reason for this is to prevent the short attacks of the chimes from being heard allowing its timbre to interlace with the piano, the result gives the impression of a cadence taking place. The piece ends from this point with a fermata adding the perception of fading to the ending.


Electronic manipulation techniques have become common place in the audio sequencer environment. However when Varèse first began to score Ionisation such equipment had not even been conceived. This information tells us that Varèse was a futurist, in music a futurist could be considered as someone who moves the art form forward in directions that are not always clear. Only when others move forward with these ideas and realize the potentials from such diverse working practices does it become apparent that someone was ahead of their time. In Varèse's case even though he did not conceive the idea of using electronics in music he was without doubt an innovative character that used the skills common today to compose at a time when acoustic composition was not used.
No doubt Varèse confused himself at times in a quest for what he called organized sound, taking his individual ideas and composing them in his way, no matter what anyone else thought. The result in this piece alone has produced a carefully crafted piece of sound. One could imagine Varèse as an architect seeing all possible sounds/noise in a sculptural way, chipping away parts that are not needed until arriving at the sound required.


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