Edgard Varèse was born in Paris. His initial training was in math and engineering, but in 1903, over the objections of his family, he began serious musical studies in Paris and Berlin. None of his works from this period survive, although by 1915, when he moved to New York, he had acquired notoriety as a boldly original composer and thinker. In New York, Varèse became a leading advocate for new music, organizing concerts and founding the International Composers’ Guild, the New Symphony Orchestra, and the Pan American Association of Composers. He considered the United States to be a place “symbolic of discoveries — new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men.”
Varèse was fascinated by the timbral aspect of music. In a 1915 interview he stated: “I refuse to submit myself only to sounds that have already been heard. What I am looking for are new technical mediums which can lend themselves to every expression of thought and can keep up with thought.” He defined music as “organized sound” and asserted “the right to make music with any and all sounds,” even those considered to be “noise.” He often tried to persuade scientists and technicians to help him invent new instruments, and actively sought funding for such research.
Varèse’s compositional output was small — twelve completed works and a handful of unfinished projects. But no two works are alike, each representing a unique solution in his search for ways to achieve the “liberation of sound.” For example, Ionisation (1931) is scored entirely for percussion instruments, which until the early 20th century were used primarily in orchestral music for rhythmic emphasis and dramatic or coloristic effects, such as cymbal crashes. In addition to a huge array of traditional orchestral percussion, Varèse’s score calls for instruments of non-Western origin as well as chains, sirens, and anvils. The piece unfolds as a succession of contrasting blocks and masses of sound. The title “ionization” suggests a connection between the interaction of electronically charged atoms or groups of atoms studied in physics and Varèse’s concept of music as “moving bodies of sound in space.” For his Poeme Electronique, Varèse recorded bells, sirens, the human voice, and other sounds which he manipulated electronically, created other sounds in a studio, and assembled them onto an 8-minute tape that played inside a futuristic building designed by the architect Le Corbusier for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair.