Analysis of ‘Déserts’

I: Introduction

Déserts is a 1950-1954 piece by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, scored for fourteen winds (brass and woodwinds), five percussion players (including tympani, xylophone, snare drum, and woodblocks), one piano, and magnetic tape. Deserts, according to Varèse, refer to “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude.”

He elaborated by saying that what he meant by deserts are these: “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

The piece was originally meant to be the soundtrack to a modernist film that was never finished, a film of images of the deserts of the Earth, the underwater sea, and outer space, but most importantly, the deserts of the human mind: his loneliness and alienation, especially after the terrors of the decade that preceded Déserts‘s composition: concentration camps, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, etc.

The piece is divided into seven sections, an alternation of four “Episodes” of music performed live by the ensemble of winds, piano, and percussion, with one of three “Interpolations” of magnetic tape recordings coming between each pair of “Episodes.” So Déserts is structured thus:

1st Episode
1st Interpolation of Organized Sound
2nd Episode
2nd Interpolation
3rd Episode
3rd Interpolation
4th Episode

Déserts is one of Varèse’s most radical pieces of music (and that says a lot, given the already experimental nature of the music he’d already composed before the 1950s). For in this piece, he introduces the use of pre-recorded sounds, a result of an anonymous gift of a tape recorder, which revived his musical inspiration, allowing him to compose music that would further advance its frontiers and experimental potential.

Until the 1950s, Varèse had been frustrated with the limitations of the technology of the time to produce the kind of new music he’d wanted to create. He was tiring of using the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the string section, which he’d used only sparingly (Amériques, Arcana, Offrandes, or the double bass in Octandre). The use of two ondes Martenots (or theremins, depending on the version) in Ecuatorial was something of an advance, but he needed more.

Hence, when Varèse should have been at the height of his creative powers, he actually composed very little, that is, in the 1940s. There was an ambitious idea, Etude pour Espace, that was never finished (<this arrangement of part of Espace was done in 2009). There was the Dance for Burgess (i.e., for Burgess Meredith), and Tuning Up (which was only sketched by Varèse, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1998).

But the totally new sound possibilities given to him through the tape recorder gift brought Varèse back. He regained his Muse, and created not only Déserts, but also Poème electronique in 1957-1958, for magnetic tape exclusively.

To understand Déserts, one must understand Varèse’s music in general, and for the uninitiated, such a general understanding is especially urgent, given how daunting this music will sound when heard for the first time. Frank Zappa was one of Varèse’s biggest and most famous fans, and he himself (also a composer and conductor of orchestral music) admitted that he couldn’t give “any structural insights or academic suppositions” as to how Varèse’s music works or why he liked it. As a teen, Zappa liked it simply for how ‘weird’ it sounded. Varèse’s music, Zappa says, is “completely unique.” If a fan like Zappa couldn’t explain Varèse’s music, the uninitiated will need insights far more desperately.

So I’ll try my best to give those insights myself.

II: Varèse’s Musical Language

To begin by painting with large brushstrokes, Varèse’s music is characterized by huge, dissonant sonorities and an extensive use of percussion, which isn’t generally used to punctuate rhythm, but rather to exploit and explore all the varieties of timbre it can provide. The dissonant sonorities are usually given through stentorian horns and shrill, sustained notes on woodwinds.

Varèse radically redefined music to mean “organized sound,” with a foreword-looking disregard for traditional notions of flowing, lyrical melodies, tonality, classical forms (sonata-allegro, binary, ternary, rondo, etc.), rhythm, or conventional groupings of instruments. Those huge, dissonant sonorities that I described above have come to be termed “sound masses.”

These sound masses of loud, dissonant brass and woodwinds tend to be contrasted with softer sections of individual, or small groupings of, percussion instruments (snare drum rolls, the quick tapping back and forth between differently pitched wood blocks, etc.) or solo woodwinds (flute, piccolo, or clarinet) playing long, sustained notes before the next loud, dissonant outburst. This shifting, from the softer passages of individual instruments to the large, loud groupings of horns and woodwinds, has been compared to natural processes of crystallization.

Varèse had an interest in science, and this interest naturally had an influence on how he chose to structure his compositions. So in the softer passages, the individual sounds can be likened to atoms and molecules; and the large, dissonant sound masses can be likened to the solids, the crystals formed out of those atoms and molecules. Smaller groupings of instruments can be seen to represent the middle phases of the solidifying process.

Varèse conceived of music as “sound as living matter.” So when we hear the crystallization of his sound masses, we can think of them as his intention to create living beings, so to speak. We should remember this when we look into Déserts specifically, a work about deserts of the mind, of people who are alone.

The basic parameters of Varèse’s music are duration, intensity, frequency, and timbre (sometimes space is considered, as in Espace, though the full exploitation of spatial effects in music has been the domain of such successors of Varèse as Karlheinz Stockhausen: listen to a live performance of Gruppen to get my point). For Varèse, these four parameters are all given equal importance.

Duration for Varèse isn’t subservient to traditional notions of rhythm or metre. One doesn’t usually tap one’s foot to Varèse. Instead, duration is more about holding notes at varying, sustained lengths. A note may be held, or repeated in short dots of sound, over a period of many seconds, rather than played to a beat–be this the regular beat of conventional music, or the asymmetric rhythms of, say, Stravinsky. As with the other three parameters, Varèse’s use of duration is generally divorced from conventional notions of ‘expressivity,’ which is not to say that his music lacks expressiveness, but rather that Varèse expresses himself in an entirely different way from the expression of the past.

Intensity for Varèse is his use of soft and loud dynamics. Interestingly, changes in dynamics on an instrument also result in changes in that instrument’s timbre. Don’t assume Varèse never toyed with the interrelation between intensity and timbre.

Frequency for Varèse is much more than just pitch. Sounds can be anything from the lowest to the highest frequencies, not necessarily with definite pitches. Sounds are made up of complex wave forms with multiple frequencies (i.e., the fundamental and overtone series), not just a single wave form. So in frequency, just as in intensity, we can find an overlap with timbre, something Varèse was deeply interested in exploiting to the maximum.

But frequency in terms of pitch alone in Varèse’s music leaves plenty to elaborate on. There is melody in Varèse–not nearly as much as in the music of his contemporaries, much less than that of those before him–but there is some. Varèse’s use of melody is unconventional, of course, using wide leaps and such dissonant intervals as minor 9ths, major 7ths, and minor 2nds. He also sometimes made use of the idée fixe, as in Arcana and Amériques.

Harmonically, Varèse’s music is obviously not tonal. It isn’t necessarily always atonal, either, though. There are ever-so-brief occasions when a melody or harmonic combination may seem tonic…then a cluster of dissonances will remind us we’re listening to Varèse. Consider the opening clarinet melody in Intégrales, which sounds like the 3rd, 7th, and upper tonic notes of a dominant 7th chord; then dissonances in the brass and woodwinds quickly dispel the aural illusion.

The fact is that Varèse didn’t conform to any harmonic system, traditional or non-traditional: not tonality, not Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone system, not Bartók‘s axis system, not Messiaen‘s modes of limited transposition, not the polytonality of Stravinsky or Milhaud–nothing remotely like any of these. Varèse seemed to be content to let the notes fall in any old way, because he’d always been more interested in frequency as an expression of timbre than of pitch. His use of sirens, as representations of a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament, should help us better to know how to think about his choices of pitch, rather than any use of scales or chords.

And finally, we come to what was perhaps Varèse’s favourite musical parameter, timbre. His fascination with timbre is why he used such an extensive number of percussion instruments in his works. Recall that one of Varèse’s most famous pieces, Ionisation, is to be played only by percussionists; these instruments are supplemented by such noisemakers as high and low sirens, two anvils, and a whip. Piano is also used, but not in its conventional, melodic way: it’s used as just another percussion instrument.

In his Densité 21,5 for solo platinum flute, again, though we hear monophonic melody throughout, the focus is on intensity and timbre. He was exploiting all the sound possibilities to be produced on the instrument, including tapping effects on the low finger keys about a third of the way into the piece.

Finally, as can be heard in Poème électronique and the three interpolations of organized sound in Déserts, Varèse uses electronically altered sound recordings on tape as an example of his love of exploiting timbre to maximum effect. Always remember that for Varèse, music is the organization of sound. Don’t listen for pretty, lyrical melodies (though that sort of thing can appear from time to time in his work–there is, after all, that one early work of his, written in a Romantic idiom, that he didn’t destroy, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano); listen instead for fascinating and imaginative manipulations of sound.

III: Déserts

Varèse’s discussion, in the above quotes, of deserts on the earth, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar space, etc., all seem to be metaphors for the deserts of the lonely human mind. On some level, this being alone could be manifested in the solitude of hermits and mystics; but the connotations of deserts suggest emptiness, lifelessness, purposeless stasis, and a sadness from being alone. The mystic’s solitude could be seen as an attempt to escape that sadness.

I will attempt, in my personal interpretation of Déserts, to find symbolism for this loneliness, as well as for mystical attempts to attain peace, in the musical structure of the piece. To begin with, note how there is no integration of the ensemble playing with the three interpolations of musique concrète. Such a division between these two ways of producing organized sound symbolically suggests a mutual alienation between people…and there’s nothing like alienation to provoke feelings of loneliness.

Déserts is probably Varèse’s most radical example of experimental music, of a break from almost every conceivable notion of tradition in music. Apart from the by-now-typical unorthodox instrumentation (no string section, extensive percussion as an integral part of the soundscape), as well as the introduction of tape recordings, he breaks even further with tradition here.

There is virtually no melody in this piece, except for a few ever so brief moments of rising and falling notes, including the lead-ups to those discordant fanfares, as Samuel Andreyev so aptly calls them. If melody is musical line, that is, curvy contours of notes going up and down in diatonic or chromatic steps or leaps, then the musical lines in Déserts were mostly drawn with a ruler, so to speak. We constantly get notes sustained or repeated in one pitch. Once again, his main interest is exploring timbre, durations, and intensities, not musical themes in the conventional sense.

Granted, there are a number of moments in the piece when we hear a woodwind or brass instrument play an alternation of notes a half-step from each other, going up and down several times (for example, the B-flat clarinet in bar 205). There are also two moments, in bars 45-46 and later in bars 50-58, when notes of an octatonic scale are heard in two separate transitions: first, G, B-flat, C-sharp, D, B-natural, and F; then, A-flat, G, and B-flat. But such moments as these are far more the exception than the rule in Déserts.

So, with single notes sustained or repeated on individual instruments making up most of the thematic material (except for the percussion sections and the fanfares, which will be dealt with later), we can see in each of these individual notes a symbol of aloneness.

Added to these lonely notes is a number of mirror chords, that is, chords whose notes reflect the same intervallic relationships among them. One example occurs in the first twenty bars of Déserts: in the bass clef, there is a stack of perfect fifths–D, A, and E; then, in the treble clef, there’s another stack of perfect fifths–F, C, and G. These six notes are static, unmoving during the beginning, except for the later addition of a B-flat, a B-natural, and a C-sharp. The diatonic mirror chord–opening the piece with Fs and Gs in the tubular bells (or chimes), xylophone, piano, piccolo, and B-flat clarinet, and later adding the other notes–symbolizes the lonely person looking in a mirror, seeing only himself instead of looking at others.

IV: Conscious vs Unconscious Varèse

Now, Varèse’s musical philosophy was such that one didn’t need to compose pieces with traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, or conventional orchestration to move one’s listeners emotionally. Nonetheless, there’s the listener’s perspective on the matter as well as that of the composer, and the latter cannot realistically be expected to be oblivious to the attitude of the former.

Varèse may have consciously been dismissive of the idea that only conventional musical arrangements will move the listener in the desired, intended way; but there’s conscious intent and unconscious intent, too. Varèse may have been consciously unruffled by the vehemently negative reactions to his works when premiered before conservative audiences (and Déserts received one of those sadly typical responses); but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t at least unconsciously affected by that negativity.

There must have been something in his unconscious mind reacting with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the rejections he was getting from his audiences during those early performances of his work. Such mutual feelings of alienation between composer and audience, however unconscious and repressed for him, must have come out in its culmination in Déserts, through its extreme experimentation, even by Varèse’s standards, in its paucity of melody and gentle lyricism. He as an avant-gardist must have been in a mental desert of his own, which influenced how he wrote the piece.

Those sound masses of loud, dissonant fanfares are his crystallizations of “sound as living matter.” They are the children he’s sired, so to speak. They come into being between the quieter sections (for the most part), and therefore each sound mass, as a ‘living being,’ stands alone, in solitude, in a state of loneliness, surrounded by relative quiet on either side in musical time, a relative silence suggesting desolation. The fanfares are loud, dissonant sound masses because, experiencing the birth trauma of their crystallization, they’re screaming in pain. Existence is pain, as the Buddha observed.

Varèse surely didn’t consciously have this meaning for the sound masses; they’re just ‘organized sounds.’ Indeed, he once said that his music doesn’t tell any kind of story or have any kind of programmatic meaning; it’s just his music. Still, my interpretation, or something at least similar to it, surely is what the listener is imagining when hearing the sound masses in Déserts. Varèse, having grown accustomed to violent reactions against his musical experimentation, must have been sensitive to, and been anticipating, such reactions. All the same, he persisted in composing as he did, not just for the sake of experimenting, as he consciously conceived it, but as I suspect, unconsciously as an act of defiance against his conservative critics. This must, at least in part, have been what he meant when he famously said, “the present day composer refuses to die.”

V: Mystical Varèse

The quieter sections for percussion, especially those at the end of the third and fourth episodes, give a most vivid sense of loneliness and isolation, the deserts of desolation. On the other hand, there are also moments that seem to allude to a sense of mystical solitude, an urge to rise to a higher spiritual plane of existence. This surely is what the All Music Guide means when it says of Déserts, “The orchestra part expresses the gradual advance of mankind toward spiritual sunlight.” I’ve noticed several passages that suggest such an interpretation.

First, there are the opening tubular bells in F and G. They suggest church bells, ringing to summon the faithful but lonely to enter and receive edification. Then, there’s the association one can make of those horn fanfares with the arrival of the nobility. Their dissonance suggests pain, as I mentioned above, yet pain and suffering are also ennobling.

Finally, there’s the slow, gradual ascent of the following notes (mentioned in this video at about 12:05), buried in the first mirror chord mentioned above and the first two fanfares: C-sharp, D, E-flat, E-natural, F, F-sharp, and G. The burying of these rising notes symbolizes the mystery of spiritual ascent. In fact, the video linked above also mentions (at about 11:45) this chromatic rising as within the second fanfare, whose pitches are also all rising together.

Added to this idea of rising spiritually is how certain instrumentation, especially at the beginning, all play the same notes (if in different octaves), and at the same time, or at similar times. I’m thinking of the opening F and G notes in the tubular bells, xylophone, piano, B-flat clarinet and piccolo. Later, in bars 48-49 (see 15:26 of this video), we hear trombones and tympani playing major third intervals together (D-flat and F) in 5/4 time. This playing of the same notes by different instruments, when understood in relation to the notion of spiritual ascendance, can be seen to symbolize compassion and sympathy, which Schopenhauer deemed to be the basis of all morality.

VI: the Interpolations

The three musique concrète sections make use of sounds derived from factory noises and percussion instruments. The electronic alterations of these sounds seem to consist of a heavy use of reverb, echo, and distortion.

The sounds can be described, for the most part, as abrasive, percussive, and glissading. All three interpolations have at least a few manifestations of all three of these kinds of sounds, while the first has predominantly abrasive sounds, the second has more of the percussive kind than the other two sounds, and the third has more glissandi than the other two. A considerable number of abrasive sounds can be heard in all three interpolations, even if that sound isn’t always dominant.

That many of the sounds are derived from factory noises is thematically significant, given the context that Déserts is about the ‘deserts of the mind,’ a world of being alone. I mentioned alienation above, which is an especially modern problem considering the experience of workers in the world of industrial capitalism. Think of all those lonely, alienated workers in factories: hearing factory noises in Déserts is thus poignantly appropriate.

The abrasiveness of the sounds in all three interpolations, especially the first, is also significant in terms of what it can be seen to symbolize. The scratching, scraping, screeching metallic sounds evoke the harsh life of the factory worker, compounding his lonely misery. Such observations make me understand Varèse’s use of dissonance as more than just a transcending of the limitations of conventional harmony: the discords of the instrumental music shriek pain, just as these scraping sounds do in the interpolations.

The abrasive sounds are drawn out and sustained; when the instruments return in the second episode, we hear an abundance of sustained, dissonant combinations of notes played on the woodwinds and brass. So the second episode begins with a continuation of sustained, harsh sounds; this continuation of sustained harshness from the first interpolation to the second episode suggests the emotional effect of factory life on all the lonely people, whom I’ve described above as being symbolized by the crystallizations of loud, screaming fanfares of brass and woodwinds. Indeed, the loudness is sustained for quite a while in the first half of the second episode, before a substantial moment of relative quiet. That pain from factory life persists in one’s mind.

The second interpolation starts with much of the abrasive sound of the first, before the percussive sounds predominate. These sounds, presumably electronically altered xylophone and wood blocks, among other instruments, suggest again the toil of the workers hammering nails, anvils, etc. So we have a continuation of the theme of the plight of the lonely worker. These hammering sounds are carried on in the beginning of the third episode by the percussionists, with loud banging on the tympani, then later tapping on the xylophone.

The third interpolation seems, to a great extent, to be a fusion of the abrasive, percussive, and glissading sound effects, these last of the three coming more into prominence later on. The electronically altered glissandi seem like screams and wails of pain and suffering, the pain of the factory worker who is alienated from his work, from his coworkers, and from his species-essence. The very use of the then-new technology of magnetic tape, to produce harsh sound effects, is itself symbolic of how new technology can be, and often is, used to cause suffering, as in factories, with bombs, and modern surveillance.

VII: Conclusion

The fourth and final episode has a few more screams of fanfare pain in between moments of relative quiet, those quiet moments representing, as I mentioned above, isolating spaces between each crystallization of a lonely person shouting in agony. This continuation of ‘screams’ from the third interpolation and the fourth episode again suggests the emotional effect of factory life on the workers.

The piece ends with a long passage of quiet, using soft, sustained notes in the woodwinds and brass with intervals reminding us of the opening ninths and fifths in the first episode. These similarities between the beginning and ending of Déserts mean that the work has come full circle: the attempt to overcome the static, purposeless, lonely life through mysticism and religiosity seems to have failed (i.e., no chiming tubular bells are to be heard at the end–no ‘church’ to give guidance to the lonely).

This sustained softness, of relative silence, emphasizes the sense of aloneness, the empty deserts of the mind. Varèse composed Déserts not long after the devastation of WWII, so its horrors would not have been far from his thoughts. During this time, he complained about the conformist, conservative, money-oriented world he was living in.

These themes of loneliness, emptiness, and alienation make Déserts an especially relevant piece of music for our times in the 2020s, when we’re all being made to wear masks, practice social distancing, endure lockdowns, receive vaccinations that many fear haven’t been sufficiently tested, and–as many suspect–aren’t effective against new variants, and to risk losing our work and our homes. Whether one supports or is opposed to these new measures is irrelevant to my point, which is that the controversy is dividing us and alienating us from each other even more. Late stage capitalism is a desert all of its own.

May music like Déserts, Varèse’s appeal for a purer world, inspire us all to end our loneliness, and come back together as a global, human community.

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