Last night at Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Festival's two-part Varèse festival opened with a slew of sensationally precise performances by the International Contemporary Ensemble, So Percussion, and Musica Sacra, all under the direction of Steven Schick. I had the score of Déserts with me, and was astounded by the degree to which every detail came to life. (Tully's super-bright acoustics certainly helped.) Claire Chase, ICE's director and the soloist in Density 21.5, got a hero's welcome from a sold-out house. Some tickets remain for Part 2 tonight: Alan Gilbert leading the New York Philharmonic in Amériques, Arcana, and other large-ensemble works.
Yesterday, ICE posted one more bit of material on its richly stocked Varèse blog: audio snippets of a series of 1957 jazz improvisation sessions that Varèse attended and to some extent directed. Earle Brown organized these sessions, in collaboration with Teo Macero; in a subsequent interview with the Varèse scholar Olivia Mattis, Brown described how Varèse supplied the musicians with graphic charts that gave rough indications of pitch, dynamics, and rhythm while allowing considerable leeway for improvisation. (One such chart can be seen above.) The sessions took place at the Greenwich House Music School; Macero, Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Hall Overton, Frank Rehak, Ed Shaughnessy, and, it seems, Charles Mingus were among the players. The recordings surfaced somewhat mysteriously on the Internet last year, but they seem authentic. The composer can be heard speaking to the musicians between takes.
Back in the nineteen-twenties, Varèse made scathing remarks about jazz, but with the advent of bebop his ears pricked up. In an interview reprinted in Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve's excellent oral history Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington, Varèse had a touching reminiscence of Charlie Parker, who might have become a Varèse pupil if he had lived a little longer:
With jazz, the ones who could have been good become very conventional. I heard the man who was playing—what was his name? He died. He was a god of music in that field. He played a kind of saxophone—Charlie Parker. At that time he lived in New York. He followed me on the street, and he said he wanted to be with us. The day I left I said, "We'll get together. I'll take you for my pupil." Then I had to catch my boat. It's when I went to Europe for Déserts. And Charlie Parker died in '55, in March. Oh, he was so nice, and so modest, and he had such a tone. You could not know if it was an angelic double bass, a saxophone, or a bass clarinet. Then one day I was in that big hall there on 14th Street, the Cooper Union. Somebody said, "I want to meet you." She was the widow of Charlie Parker. She said, "He was always talking about you, so I know all about you." And that man was a great star. He wanted to study music and thought I had something for him.