Edgard Varese

Ionisation (1929-31)

Dedicated to Nicolas Slonimsky

Scored for 13 performers: crash cyms, GC; gong, 2 tam-tams; 2 bongos, side dm, 2 GC laid flat; tamb mil, side dm; high siren, string dm; low siren, slap stick, guiro; 3 Chinese blocks, claves, triangle; snare dm, maracas; tarole, snare dm, sustained cym; cym, sleighbells, tubular bells; guiro, cast, celesta; tamb, anvils, grand tam-tam; slapstick, triangle, sleighbells, piano.

Published 1934 by Max Eschig; 1958 by Ricordi


Edgard Varese's Ionisation is credited with being the first Western work for percussion alone, having no basis in folklore. As such, the implications of the work (from the standpoint of when the piece was written) questioned the meaning of the word music, as it was understood in the Western world. Viewed historically, it is actually a return to a very ancient Eastern tradition of percussion music, particularly in the aspect of timbre. Eastern concepts of sound and Western formal concepts of structure and logic merge, resulting in a musical entity which is universal.

Bruitism, a genre of musical composition consisting of noises, comes from the aesthetic of Italian Futurism, which is explained in Luigi Russolo's manifesto Arte dei Rumoni; however, Varese actually refuted the Futurist noise/machine ideal: "Italian futurists, why have you slavishly produced only what is commonplace and boring in the bustle of our daily lives?..."

Varese's concept was that of the "process of atomic charge as electrons are liberated and molecules are ionized" (Slonimsky, Music Since1900). While the piece is expressed in what appears to be a sonata-type form, an insight into Varese's musical thought can be obtained by understanding his conception of the growth and interaction of sound masses in space through developmental techniques such as expansion, projection, penetration, interaction and transmutation. This concept was later quite important in influencing the theories of Boulez and Stockhausen in the1950's. Chou Wen-Chung (PNM, 1966) explains:

Sound-masses seem to emerge out of the expansion of an idea.... into the sonic space. The sense of projection of sound-masses obviously depends on the source location of the emission as well as the independent movement of each sound-mass as opposed to the other. When such sound-masses collide, the interaction tends to bring about penetration, during which certain attributes of one sound-mass are transformed to another, thus causing transmutation to take place and changing the attributes of each sound-mass.

When considering scientific events which were transpiring during the 1950's regarding "splitting the atom" and also general critical acceptance of Ionisation during this same time, Varese's theories, which merge musical and scientific thought, seem rather remarkable, as they were conceived more than 20 years earlier! In this regard, the inclusion of sirens in Ionisation as aural representations of parabola and hyperbole is indeed significant, and further brings us back to the question of Eastern thought and aesthetics: the "continuous flow" of time and space is well represented by the sirens!

Slonimsky's analysis, in his Music Since 1900, suggests a realization of extra-musical ideas: the ionization of molecules and process of atomic charge. Given Slonimsky's well-documented close relationship with Varese during the 1930's, his account of the piece might actually be from Varese, and in any case, when considering the transcripts from Varese's lectures, Slonimsky's account seems to be derived from Varese's ideas. Slonimsky suggests a Classical Sonata form, with the

"main subject suggesting a cosmic-ray bombardment introduced by an extra-terrestrial rhythmic figure on the tambour militaire while two sirens slide in contrary motion over the whole spectrum of audible frequencies... .the second subject, of an ominously lyrical nature, reflecting in palpitating rhythms, the asymmetrical interference pattern of heterodyne frequencies, the development section being marked by the appearance of heavy nuclear particles in the metal group (anvils, gongs...), as contrasted with the penetrating but light wood-and-membrane sonorities of the exposition..."

After a brief recapitulation, the coda is marked by

"...tubular chimes ringing as new atomic polymers are created and the residual thermal energy of vigorous cluster on the piano keyboard serving as a cadential ostinato."

Performance History and Reception

6 March 1933-premiered at Carnegie Hall in NYC at concert sponsored by the Pan-American Association of Composers, with Slonimsky conducting an ensemble that included composers and performers Carlos Salzedo, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston and William Schumann.

Paul Rosenfeld, in Musical Chronicle:

Ionisation, the wonderful, terrifying new composition by Edgar Varese appears to have been not at all fantastically named by its composer. By reason of their excessive hardness, excessive indeterminacy and other points of dissemblance from the more humanly vibrating sonorities of string and wind instruments, the tones of the forty-one percussion and friction pieces... .in themselves do suggest the life of the inanimate universe. The illusion, if illusion it be, of an analogy between the music and events or processes in the physiochemical fields, is re-enforced by the volumes of the extremely simplified, skeletalized form, which explosive, curiously timed and curiously responsive to one another, further suggest incandescent manifestations of material entities in space.... The new work is a complete if singular piece of music: as complete as any of the best of its prodigious elder brethren, Varese's compositions for mixed orchestra; to members of what will vulgarly be called Varese's clique.... (Oullette, 1966)

However, not everyone had as much insight about the piece as Rosenfeld, as an excerpt of a critique of the work indicates. Musical Courier:

Varese's latest effort... contains almost nothing of traditional tonal quality, being scored for various Gattling gun species of percussion, a dolorous and quaintly modulated siren, sleigh bells and an ingenious instrument that imitated the voice of an anguished bull....

April 1933-conducted by Slonimsky in Havana, Cuba

July 1933-conducted by Henry Cowell in San Francisco. The work was received more generously. Redfern Mason, of the San Francisco Examiner: "Atonal phantasmagoria. So striking. So novel and, at the same time, so beautiful that it catches your breath." The critic from the Los Angeles Times:

"Not one serious listener would have missed the impressiveness of this work in which form, expressed in phrasing and dynamics, was as finely followed as in one of the classic conceptions of a contrapuntal master. Moreover, the work is significant in its pure concern with the methodic possibilities of percussion instruments, heretofore regarded as incapable of such functioning. Emotional depths are touched by Ionisation as by a sculptural masterpiece of geometric abstraction."

15 April 1934-conducted by Slonimsky at New York's Town Hall. One critic from the New York Times wrote: "As for Mr. Varese's Ionisation, it suggested possibilities, but in itself it could hardly be called music."

4 June 1951-conducted by Scherchen at Darmstadt Festival. First broadcast performance in Britain.

1951-Ionisation was performed in several cities, including the Festival of Illinois. Regarding this particular performance, Virgil Thomson wrote:

The Varese Ionisation...I fancy, about to become a classic. This composer, once thought outrageously advanced, has of late been coming into general acceptance by musicians.

1953-conducted by Scherchen in Rome. Varese, in a letter to Dallapiccola:

In case he (Scherchen) has difficulty in obtaining some of the instruments the work requires, please advise him to approach some of the American jazz bands (they must abound in Rome) and he will certainly find what he needs.

Curt Sachs, in his book Rhythm and Tempo: "This... .is a truly extraordinary piece in extraordinary rhythms and counter-rhythms, and perhaps the greatest rhythmic inspirations ever materialized."

2 February 1957-conducted by Hermann Schencher at the Royal Festival Hall in London, England. First performance in England.

22 December 1960-conducted by Frederic Waldman at a concert given in Varese's honor at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

9 February 1983-conducted by Frank Zappa in San Francisco at a concert honoring Varese and Anton Webern

The Music

While thematic elements of rhythm and accent are certainly crucial to this work, the focus is upon the interplay of the sonorous aspects of percussion as structural elements. Vertical elements merge producing various densities of texture and timbre, while internal rhythmic and metric relationships as well as important changes in sonority articulate the form. Its own combination of instruments or range of sonority identifies each section. In addition to texture and timbre, dynamic considerations play an integral part of the piece corresponding to form. Structurally, Varese uses sound-mass and silence as well as rhythmic cells, which are alternated, overlapped and varied throughout the piece, providing a fluid continuity and unity while various resultant events provide contrast. Varese considers register, rhythm, instrumentation, deployment (linear or vertical) as well as the rate of change of events when using available musical space. As events are juxtaposed and amalgamated during an episodic process, new relationships are continually apparent, providing tension and release while maintaining a high level of interest and balance.


Chou, Wen-Chung. "Ionisation: The function of timbre in its formal and temporal organization," The New Worlds of Edgard Varese: A Symposium. Edited by Sherman Van Solkema. Brooklyn: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1979.

(This source of collected papers contains an analysis of Ionisation.)

_____________. "Open Rather Than Bounded." Perspectives of New Music. 5/1 (1966).

Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music. Edited by Elliott Schwartz and Barney Childs. New York: Holt. Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

Ouellette, Fernard. Edgard Varese. Translated by Derek Coltman. New York: The Orion Press, 1966.

Schuller, Gunther. "Conversation with Varese." Perspectives of New Music. 3/2 (1965).

Slonimsky, Nicolas. Music Since 1900. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.