Content and Form in the Incantation of Ecuatorial by Edgard Varèse With New Proposals for Future Performance O. Ian Ávalos Associate Music Instructor, Santa Ana College This presentation will include an analysis of the incantation section in Ecuatorial using the analytical techniques and terminologies of Chou Wen-Chung, Jonathan W. Bernard, Milton Babbit, and Mitchell Freya. Their methods are based on Varèse’s thinking on his own music. This presentation will also briefly suggest an expanded analytical view of this work, one that examines its social, cultural, and historical significance. A thorough analysis and discussion of this work requires a view that places it in context with other Varèsian works, mainly Ameriques and Offrendes. A more effective analysis of this work is one that examines it in a broad context in comparison to one that solely examines its compositional process. Finally, I will propose the reuse of Varèse’s original idea of using amplified voice with alterations, and the use of Mayan or Pre-Hispanic percussion in potential future performances, to create a stronger sense of what this work is about. Ecuatorial by Edgard Varèse was composed from 1933 to 1934. Its composition was influenced by text from the Mayan book of genesis, the Popol Vuh. Varèse came in contact with a Guatemalan author in Paris, Miguel Ángel Asturias in 1930 who gave him a copy of his book Leyendas de Guatemala, which was a poetic adaptation of the Popol Vuh. Varèse then used this text along with some that he added himself. The work was debuted in New York’s Town Hall in 1934 under the direction of Nicolas Slonimsky. Varèse made attempts in this work to expand orchestration by calling for an amplified voice with alteration and ondes martenots. Varèse collaborated with Léon
Thérémin in 1933 to develop instruments that reached high pitch ranges for this specific work, which resulted in the creation of the instrument now called the Theremin or a variant of it.1 Varèse made use of extend vocal techniques with performance indications such as, sombre-mumbled, half sung-half spoken, and bouche fermée-nasal. He also made used of non- language words, hengh, hongh, whoo, and others for dramatic and incantation effects. In the remaining orchestration, the upper register consists of four trumpets, four trombones, piano, and organ. There is an extensive percussion section consisting of two timpani, snare, tam tam, and tenor drums. The remaining percussion consists of three bass drums, gong, cymbals, suspended cymbal, temple blocks, and tambourine. The significance of this percussion section will be discussed further on. The following is the influential text used for Ecuatorial. The text itself is suggestive of germination, creation. The words o formadores and o creadores invoke or call on, summon creators. These can be thought of as metaphors for composers. These words and the text of Ecuatorial have the restless energy that Varèse translated to music through his approach of treating music as energy.
Mitchell Freya, “Form and Expression in the VocalWorks of Edgard Varèse,” Contemporary Music Review 23, No. 2 (June 2004) p. 88. 1
The brackets in the previous example indicate text that was left out by Varèse. The italicized text is of Varèse’s own inclusion.
2 Vicente Ozanam, “Ecuatorial de Edgard Varèse y la dimensión de la material sonora,” In Músicas, sociedades, y relaciones de poder en America Latina. Mexico City: 2000. Edited by Gerard Borras.
Analytical Method: Bernard’s Varèsian Analysis with Room for New Interpretation Varèse explained that his music was not based on a system, therefore a new analytical method had to be applied to his music. One important reference for Varèsian analysis is Jonathan W. Bernard’s The Music of Edgard Varèse. Bernard’s method describes Varèse’s music in terms of blocks of sound, cubical music, skyscraper chords and the “geometry of sound.” This geometric approach to Varèsian analysis requires the use of a graph to visualize the spatial relationships of Varèsian structures. Chords in Varèsian analysis are referred to as segments or symmetrical structures. These terms are synonymous with pitch class sets in Schoenbergian analysis. It is crucially important to point out that Bernard was also careful in explaining that there were different Varèsian analytical methods developed by other scholars, and he showed debilitations and limitations in his own analytical methods. He explained that there were exceptions to his analytical methods and presented examples that defied his analytical guidelines.3 This leaves open the validity of applying a different analytical point of view and a different interpretation of Varèse’s musical processes in Ecuatorial. I will base mine on Bernard’s terminology but will also combine my interpretation of musical processes in the work. Varèsian analysis requires an explanation of its graphical method. One of the first steps before plotting relationships on the graph is a harmonic reduction of evident harmonic shapes. Only significant chord changes, or movements, permutations, are plotted, and not in every measure. Not every measure needs to be graphed because of instances where the same harmony or chord sounds through, or is “stretched” through 3
Jonathan W. Bernard, The Music of Edgard Varèse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
more than one measure. This is similar to Schenkerian analysis, where only significant harmonic points or structures are reduced and visualized. The second step is interpreting what the graph represents. Each cube in the graph equals one half step. Fundamental pitch range is indicated vertically on the left starting from C0 and going up to C8. Measure numbers are indicated on the top of the graph and not all measures are indicated, only those where significant harmonic activity occurs. This allows for a reduced visualization of the formal structure. Brackets are used to indicate “segments” which are chords larger than trichords. Segments can be tetrachords, hexachords, etc, or “aggregates” in Schoenbergian language, but not by strict Schoenbergian definition. They can also be thought of as pitch class sets but again, not by strict definition of Schoenbergian analysis. They are simply called segments in Varèsian analysis. Furthermore, a segment is categorized with two notes, each with orchestral range, for example B3 – G5. This segment consists of notes within B-G, but those are not included, only the two outermost notes of the segment. This contrasts with Schoenbergian analysis where every note of a chord or aggregate is visualized and assigned a number for example, [0, 2, 4]. Perhaps a combination of Varèsian and Schoenbergian numerical identification can be developed to indicate pitch and register, for example [04, 25, 46]. This method shows exactly where a pitch class set is spaced or orchestrated. Bernard’s identification of trichords is a main method used for analyzing harmonic textures. These chords are circled by use of an oval on the graph. Overlapping ovals indicate an internal structural relationship between the basic form of a trichord, and its derivatives.
An In Depth Analysis of the Incantation in Ecuatorial Ecuatorial was conceived as a futuristic work. The text itself is suggestive of restless forces and energy. The text is an invocation to the gods and so its intent is to summon the creators and the act of creation itself. Varèse captured this energy with the use of electronic instrumental scoring with the ondes martenots and the amplified and altered vocal bass part. Varèse created an electro-acoustic texture by combining and doubling the voice and one of the ondes martenots. One immediately evident characteristic of this work is the through-composition and setting of the text. No internal repetition of text or musical material exists which is true to Varèse’s dislike of repeated material and thematic material. There is no main melody or formal division in a traditional sense; it is set in order of the written text. There are musical pauses or spaces created in between some lines. These durations are created through techniques of pitch stasis; more on this will be presented further. There are also some instances of word painting like in the setting of the word extremidades, one measure before rehearsal fifteen. The incantation begins at rehearsal five on page fourteen of the G. Ricordi score.4 The vocal entrance is doubled by the upper onde on the text ¡Oh constructores, o formadores! Vosotros veis, vosotros escucháis. Development occurs subsequently through instrumentation on the expression Espíritu del cielo, espíritu de la tierra, dadnos nuestra descendencia, nuestra posteridad, this time with the lower onde doubling the voice. This instrumental doubling occurs until the text las verdes sendas (caminos) que vosotros nos dáis. The following text Que tranquilas, muy tranquilas estén las tribus, is 4
Edgard Varèse, Ecuatorial (New York: G. Ricordi & Co., 1961)
doubled in the organ part. A developmental pattern is thus revealed, showing instrumental variance on each new line of text. This pattern holds true further along, on page twenty-one on the text Que perfecta sea la vida, la existencia que nos dáis this time with the trombones doubling the vocal part. This instrumental doubling is intimately linked to registral structure. This registral space is influential on the formal structure itself. The remaining sonic material reacts to the incantation. Thus it is the incantation that drives the form forward. Here is a crucial point, the acoustic phenomena of the bass voice influences the instruments in the lower registers and the ondes, organ, and trombones create a cause and effect relationship among the upper registers. This proves the relationship between content and form. This cause and effect relationship will occur throughout the work. The analysis of the text setting continues on page eighteen on the words Que numerosos sean los verdes caminos, las verdes sendas que vosotros nos dáis. This segment of text is set to the natural spoken rhythm in a rapid manner with sixteenth notes. The percussion reacts to this flow similarly. At this point it is the percussion that doubles the voice. Immediately after the fore-mentioned text there is a musical response with trombones, trumpets, organ, and ondes (Ex. 1). The subsequent text, Que tranquilas, muy tranquilas estén las tribus, is answered by a restless percussive response and an equally restless piano figure at rehearsal seven. This hyperactive rhythmic motive drives the form forward until the next arrival of the incantation on the text, Que perfectas, muy perfectas sean las tribus, doubled by the trombones. This doubling continues on the subsequent text, Que perfecta sea la vida, la existencia que nos dáis (Ex. 2).
At this point a significant amount of the incantation has been stated and a contrasting, hyperactive musical response to all of the preceding incantation is clearly emphasized in 5/4 time. A brief period of stasis occurs here by use of blaring horn parts at ff and fff markings, which are held over while a timpani part performs tremolo. A 3/4 section is now introduced with hyperactive percussion parts setting up the next line of text. A temporary time signature shift into 5/4 occurs on the text O gigantes. The following text is set in 3/4 time, huella del relámpago, esplendor del relámpago and Gavilán. The text Gavilán is doubled by the upper onde as is indicated in the directions, colla voce. The musical energy born of the text “lightning” (relámpago) and “falcon” (Gavilán) is transferred to the percussion. This brings the form to the end of rehearsal seven. Rehearsal eight begins with hyperactive percussive parts reactive to the preceding text. This percussive response now introduces and accompanies the next lines of text, Maestros magos, dominadores, poderosos del cielo. The voice is doubled by the lower onde. The trombones and then trumpets react holding a sonority that leads to the next line of text. The hyperactive percussive figures remain constant through this moment and now accompany the text, Procreadores, engendradores, stated at a fff marking and accompanied by thicker chord textures doubling the voice in the organ part. The next line of text, Antiguo secreto, antigua ocultadora is stated with a piano dynamic marking in order to convey the meaning of the text, “ancient secret, ancient keeper of the secret.” The orchestration is sparse throughout the statement of this line of text. The next line of text, abuela del dia, abuela del alba, “grandmother of the day,
grandmother of the dawn,” is stated forte to contrast with the first line of text. This line is again doubled by the second onde with textural support by the organ and piano. These are instances of word painting through dynamic contrast. After the preceding text there is textural delay by use of the ondes that perform long tones and more hyperactive percussive figures that set up and anticipate the next line of text, Que la germincación se haga at rehearsal nine. The voice is left alone here, accompanied only by sparse pianissimo orchestral scoring, while the first onde rings through. Varèse indicates très nasal-percutant for this passage of text along with the first appearance of text of his own addition, hengh, hongh, and whoo shortly afterward. That specific text conveys a sense of enchantment at this point in the work, a dramatic calling and feeling of this moment of the incantation. A relaxed state is created next where the orchestra is dropped out but for a few pianissimo responses in the timpani and piano to the text, Salve belleza del dia, dadores del amarillo, del verde. The performance directions, “somber-mumbled” and “half sunghalf spoken” are given for the fore-mentioned line of text. The ondes ring through at a pianississimo marking (pppp). This same state of calm continues into rehearsal ten on the text, Ho, ha, dadores de hijas, de hijos. The performance indications “hummed-nasal” are set for this latter line of text. The dramatic expressions on the text hengh, hongh, and whoo appear again this time at a fortissimo dynamic marking followed by a more active percussive response. Another key relationship is revealed here, that of an elevated dynamic marking and its natural, energetic effect on the instrumentation. This fortissimo statement causes a reaction and development, thus driving the form forward. Here again is the relationship
between content and form, where the element of content is a dynamic marking in this example (Ex. 3). A speech-like setting of the text, Dad la vida, la existencia a mis hijos, a mi prole and Que no haga ni su desgracia ni su infortunio vuestra potencia, vuestra hechicerĂa now appears, accompanied by sparse accompaniment in the piano and percussion. The organ responds to this text at a pianissimo marking. An extended state of calm has now been exhausted at this point of the form and an extended state of pitch stasis will now occur at rehearsal eleven. A durational pitch stasis occurs here at rehearsal eleven by use of rapid motivic activity on a single pitch in the piano score, along with the use of flutter-tongue in the trumpet part (Ex. 4). The trombones and the ondes are marked triple forte to drive forward and ring out this stasis. Here then is a pitch stasis is created by combining rapid repetitive rhythm and dynamics. The rest of the orchestra now joins in on this stasis and the upper onde performs its part vibratissimo, revealing a restless energetic state here. The percussion shortly reacts to this preceding material through repetitive figures and is then accompanied by the piano. The preceding musical stasis ends and the voice returns on the text, Que buena sea la vida de vuestros sostenes, de vuestros nutridores, ante vuestras bocas, ante vuestros rostros. The organ now doubles the voice on the text, EspĂritus del cielo, espĂritus de la tierra and ho, oh, and ah. This use of non-language continues for the following sixteen measures until the arrival of the next line of text, Dad la vida. Musical space in between text is created for the next eleven measures after the words Dad la vida.
Here is the only section of the work where Varèse uses internal repetition of text. Dad la vida (give life) is repeated but the music setting of it is not. Here then is an emphasis on the idea of giving life, of generating life. Surely this text caused an organic growth within the work’s own form. Here again is another example of a relationship between content and form, where the textual content, the repetition of the text dad la vida, drives the form forward, essentially generating form. The text Dad la vida, meaning, “Give life,” is giving life (form) to the work (Ex. 5). Finally after emphasizing dad la vida, Varèse sets the remaining text, Oh fuerza envuelta en el cielo, en la tierra, en los cuatro ángulos, en las cuatro extremidades, en tanto exista el alba, en tanto exista la tribu. The last line of text is stated triple forte and the entire orchestra react similarly. After the last line of text there is a fifteen measure orchestral gradual reduction of instrumentation and dynamics that bring the work to an end, with only the upper onde left alone to ring out a fermata to a fade. In conclusion, it has taken an examination of the entire incantation section in Ecuatorial to see a relationship between the content and the form. A relationship exists between the each musical statement of the text and the forward motion created by it. The incantation is the driver, to speak in computational terms. The energy created and harnessed by the incantation is transferred over to the percussion parts. That energy then lies in the percussion and exists in a restless state, where there is more visible motivic activity and where motives are shorter and repetitive. This diminution of motivic gestures relate to the idea of contraction in Varèsian analysis. The text is the cause and the form is the end result, the effect. This cause and effect relationship between the text and the
accompanying sonic material also relates to Varèse’s idea of “one element pushing on another to stabilize the total structure.”5 Ecuatorial is a work deserving of further historical, cultural, and social study. The discovery of this work reveals a side to Varèse not commonly discussed in academic settings. The influence of Latin American authors is present in the works Offrendes based on a poem by the Chilean author Vicente Huidobro and another by the Mexican author Juan José Tablada, and Ecuatorial, that drew from Miguel Ángel Asturias’s poetic adaptation of the Popol Vuh. Another work that reveals Varèse’s cosmopolitan point of view is Ameriques (Américas), his first work performed in New York. Varèse could not have used a more appropriate title for his “American” debut. The appropriation of Varèse, calling him an American composer brings to question what the definition of American is. Varèse must be taken for everything that he is, not only what is desirable. Lastly, because the Mayan Popol Vuh influenced the composition of Ecuatorial, the inclusion of Mayan or Pre-Hispanic percussion in future performances suits this work very well, if not ideally. This proposal is nothing blasphemous or invalid; Silvestre Revueltas used this percussive configuration in the film score, La noche de los mayas in 1939. Varèse was In fact acquainted with Revueltas. A return to Varèse’s original intention of using an amplified and altered voice is now in order. Modern musical technology allows for this and this work calls for vocal technological manipulations; that is what Varèse wanted from the beginning. A quote from a critic from Trend magazine that reviewed the debut performance at New York’s Town Hall in 1934 follows:
Jonathan W. Bernard, The Music of Edgard Varèse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 40.
“No description could convey an idea of the unusual instrumental coloring achieved with this combination, or convince anyone, who has not heard it, of the primordial cataclysmic power of the work. Certain imperfections in the still new theremins marred the ensemble now and then and technical difficulties muddied an occasional passage. But these were faults in the performance and not in the conception, and will be eliminated in the course of time.”6
Fernand Ouellette, Edgard Varèse (New York, Da Capo Press, 1981), p. 123
APPENDIX I. MUSICAL EXAMPLES FROM ECUATORIAL Example 1: This segment of text is set to the natural spoken rhythm in a rapid manner with sixteenth notes. The percussion reacts to this flow similarly. At this point it is the percussion that doubles the voice. Immediately after the fore-mentioned text there is a musical response with trombones, trumpets, organ, and ondes.
Example 2: The subsequent text, Que tranquilas, muy tranquilas estĂŠn las tribus, is answered by a restless percussive response and an equally restless piano figure at rehearsal seven. This hyperactive rhythmic motive drives the form forward until the next arrival of the incantation on the text, Que perfectas, muy perfectas sean las tribus, doubled by the trombones.
Example 3: This fortissimo statement causes a reaction and development, thus driving the form forward. Notice the inactivity of the percussion at the entrance of the voice, followed by reaction after â€œwhoo.â€? Here again is the relationship between content and form, where the element of content is a dynamic marking in this example.
Example 4: A durational pitch stasis occurs here at rehearsal eleven by use of rapid motivic activity on a single pitch in the piano score, along with the use of flutter-tongue in the trumpet part. This is prolonged and developed by the inclusion of more instruments, still contributing to the stasis, in subsequent measures.
Example 5: Here is the only section of the work where Varèse uses internal repetition of text. Dad la vida (give life) is repeated but the music setting of it is not. Here then is an emphasis on the idea of giving life, of generating life. Surely this text caused an organic growth within the work’s own form. Here again is another example of a relationship between content and form, where the textual content, the repetition of the text dad la vida, drives the form forward, essentially generating form. The text Dad la vida, meaning, “Give life,” is giving life (form) to the work.
APPENDIX II. SOURCES Bernard, John Walter. A Theory of Pitch and Register for the Music of Edgard Varese. PhD dissertation, Yale University, 1977. Cox. “Thematic Interrelationships Between the Works of Varese”. The Music Review 49, no. 3 (1988), 205. Cross, Lowell. 1968. “Electronic music, 1948-1953.” Perspectives of New Music 7, (1) (Autumn - Winter): 32-65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832425. Goetz, Delia. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Maya. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950. Lichtenhahn, Ernst. “A New Primitiveness”: Varèse’s Ecuatorial in its Parisian Suroundings” In Edgard Varese; Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006. Marion Guck. 1984. A flow of energy: Density 21.5. Perspectives of New Music 23, (1) (Autumn - Winter): 334-47, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832924. Milton Babbitt. 1966. Edgard varèse: A few observations of his music. Perspectives of New Music 4, (2) (Spring - Summer): 14-22, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832209. Mitchell, Freya. “Form and Expression in the Vocal Works of Edgard Varese”. Contemporary Music Review 23, No. 2 (June 2004), 71-103. Ouellette, Fernand and Derek Coltman, trans. Edgard Varèse. New York: Da Capo Press, 1981. Ozanam, Vincent. “Ecuatorial, de Edgard Varèse y la dimension social de la material sonora”. In Musicas, sociedades, y relaciones de poder en America Latina. Mexico City: 2000. Salzman, Eric. 1964. Modern music in retrospect. Perspectives of New Music 2, (2) (Spring - Summer): 14-20, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832479. Schuller, Gunther, and Varèse. 1965. Conversation with varèse. Perspectives of New Music 3, (2) (Spring - Summer): 32-7, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832501. Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Tedman, Keith. Edgard Varese: Concepts of Organized Sound. PhD dissertation, Sussex University, 1982.
Varese, Edgard. 1984. Density 21.5 [excerpt of musical work]. Perspectives of New Music 23, (1) (Autumn - Winter): 296-7, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832920. Varese, Edgard, and Chou Wen-chung. 1966. The liberation of sound. Perspectives of New Music 5, (1) (Autumn - Winter): 11-9, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832385. Wen-Chung, Chou. 1966. Open rather than bounded. Perspectives of New Music 5, (1) (Autumn - Winter): 1-6, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832383. ______. 1966. A varese chronology. Perspectives of New Music 5, (1) (Autumn Winter): 7-10, http://www.jstor.org/stable/832384. VarĂ¨se, Edgard. Ecuatorial. New York: Ricordi, 1961.
APPENDIX III. A TRANSLATION OF ECUATORIAL
Published on May 3, 2010
Ecuatorial is a futuristic orchestral work influenced by text from the Mayan book of genesis, the Popol Vuh.