Plenty of great composers moved to the United States, but does anyone have a more striking story of immigration than the French-born Edgard Varese?
Hailed by his elders — including Debussy and Strauss — as Europe’s greatest young composer, with most of his life’s work stuck behind enemy lines in a German warehouse, Varese landed in New York on December 29, 1915. Rather than attempt to duplicate the music which had given Varese so much success in Paris and Berlin, the honorably discharged World War I veteran chose to look forward and “fight for the liberation of sound.”
The first piece that Varese finished in the U.S. was Ameriques, a 25-minute modernist masterpiece cramming a record number of percussion instruments into an orchestra, including sounds never before considered as musical: a siren, a steamboat whistle, a crow call. Ameriques elevated percussion instruments as equal musical partners to the string, wind, or brass sections, and dished up some of the most hair-raising dissonances ever heard in an orchestral work at the time.
Nearly a century later, Ameriques still has the power to shock and awe listeners. This weekend, a young Turkish immigrant artist, Refik Anadol, hopes to blow the minds of concertgoers with computer software that creates and projects videos on the interior surface of Walt Disney Concert Hall as the L.A. Philharmonic performs Varese’s rarely-heard score. Anadol’s video-creating software follows and responds precisely to Varese’s music.
In New York, Varese found inspiration in the skyline and sounds of the city. Anadol’s imagination is captured by downtown L.A., especially the Bradbury Building. “I’m a big fan of the movie Blade Runner,” Anadol said in a phone interview. “One of the first places I visited after arriving here was the Bradbury Building.”
Anadol’s artwork frequently incorporates urban architecture. In his work Quadrature, video and electronic music embellishments appear to make an Istanbul museum shift shapes, expand and contract, disassemble and reassemble.
Anadol has been a fan of Varese for the past four years, ever since discovering Poeme Electronique, the architectural/visual/musical project that Varese collaborated on with Le Corbusier for the 1958 World’s Fair. His biggest dream since coming to Los Angeles has been to work with the exterior of Walt Disney Concert Hall, hoping to project visualizations of Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting onto the hall’s curved surfaces. Architect Frank Gehry supported this vision, and Anadol was approved to move forward.
The project changed focus to indoors when the L.A. Philharmonic created its in/SIGHT series combining
music with videos. With his interest in Varese and his love of Walt Disney Concert Hall, Anadol was an ideal collaborator. He constructed a narrative “from Varese’s first steps in New York to his last thoughts on discovery, in the sky and the human mind,” Anadol said. It’s a departure from his earlier work, which was abstract. In the online video preview, New York’s skyline and individual buildings become part of the story.
Anadol received funding from Microsoft to assist with the new technology demanded by the project. The result is a technologically enabled kinesthesia in which music becomes image instantaneously.
“Despite [Amerique’s] huge dynamic range and massive orchestration, it’s essentially static music," says Esa-Pekka Salonen, who's conducting the work. "I think the metaphor could be like a city, say, New York, where if you walk in midtown, you walk past a skyscraper, then you come to a street corner, then you find a slice of a park…then a brownstone. There is movement, there is a narrative to all that. The objects don’t change. You move from one to the next.
“People think Varese is difficult to follow, but actually it isn’t, because these [musical] objects stay the same. You might look at the same thing from a different angle, but it’s still the same. You can retrace your steps in this music, even if you hear it for the first time. It might be dissonant… and the tunes are not necessarily catchy, but there’s excitement and dynamic in that. The music really behaves like an urban construction.”
Anadol’s video will be more than just architectural meditations. At one point, the software translates Salonen’s athletic conducting gestures into video projections which are precisely mapped onto the concert auditorium’s surface.
“I rarely use this word, but it’s ‘revolutionary,’” Salonen said. “I haven’t seen anything like this before.”
Anadol said he “loved the idea of tracing [Salonen’s] body motions” and incorporating that into the story. “It’s the future of performing arts, combining this motion with the performance space itself.”
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