Monday, August 28, 2017

Varèse's Ionisation

The visionary composer Edgard Varèse completed "Ionisation," perhaps the first masterpiece of percussion ensemble literature, in 1931. It was premiered in 1933 and recorded the following year, making it the first Varèse composition to be issued on records. It's a fiendishly difficult piece, especially so for the orchestral percussionists of the time. Conductor Nicolas Slonimsky recalled, "We engaged the percussion players from the New York Philharmonic, but it soon became clear that they could never master the rhythms. In desperation, we appealed to fellow composers to take over the task; to them the Varèsian asymmetry was child’s play." So Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, Wallingford Reigger, William Schuman, and Varèse himself (on sirens) were among the percussionists in the Columbia studios.

Recording technology and record manufacturing techniques of the time couldn't do justice to the subtleties of "Ionisation." In addition, my copy of the original Columbia "royal blue" record is somewhat worn. I've cleaned up clicks, pops, and surface noise to the extent I could without compromising the sound of the instruments. The six-minute piece was split across two sides of the original record; I've joined them, but the "seam" is apparent. While I have heard more precise and eloquent performances of this groundbreaking piece, I love the spirit of this first recording, which shines through the limitations of the record.

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