198478l I remember hearing Ionisation for the first time in 10th grade. Zappa had crowed about Varèse and I must've picked that up somewhere. I was baffled. I bought the Robert Craft recording with the awesome Miro knockoff on the cover, all scratched to hell. There was a punk-rockness I felt that was way more powerful than anything I felt from Black Flag, fIREHOSE or Minor Threat (huge groups for me). This was ME, MINE, a sound only I knew. It was so noisy and disorganized to me initially, I was overloaded. I wish I could re-experience it now. "By brute force, I will understand this," I thought echoing in my mind Varèse's call to arms: "the present day composer refuses to die." I spun it another time, maybe 4 complete listens before I caved and put on something else. I tried repeatedly to penetrate the fog, only to identify favorite moments, the overall structure still elusive. Call in the big guns. Meg Dezell, powerful shaman whose father toured with Brubeck, heard my plea for guidance. My orchestra teacher raised her eyebrows and chuckled, "that's pretty difficult stuff. Not my thing at all, but there's a score in the Norton Anthology." She produced the tome I'd buy 3 years later for Music 101 at Shoreline Community College. "Try to count the beats in the bars as you listen." Bam. That's all I needed to hear. When you hear a young person's curious questions, hang out and answer them simply. This advice from my teacher was pivotal for me, a key unlocking every score I'd tried to follow. Varese had a beat, the rhythm was his blanket. Listen for the rhythm, identifying the layers, and you're halfway there. The next step's all about witnessing the counterpoints played by these layers (objects) and identifying how they make you feel, what they have you see.

One thought on “Ionisation

  1. Hi Ben,

    A pleasure to read how you first became interested in EV, my experience was similar in some ways. By the time I was listening to Zappa I’d already got into a lot of the avant-garde improvising musicians from the 60s and late 50s, Coltrane, Coleman, Mingus, Taylor, etc. So I followed Zappa’s advice, bought some records (I think one was the same LP you have pictured) , and dove in. I loved his sound worlds, but at that time if you’d shown me a score I would have stared at it dumbly. I was an untutored rock & roller who’d discovered core blues, the wonderful forementioned improvisors of the 60s, and the Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat. Fortunately a local music teacher guided my attention through various 20th century (and other) works – he was a fine English horn player, flutist, and conductor, I remember him playing Density 21.5 for me in his apartment, he explained how Varese used the flute and only a few notes to create such a magical piece. Btw, you probably know how those late 60s/early 70s saw the release of so much great contemporary material, especially the Nonesuch releases. I’m not much into trips down memory lanes, but those days were formative for my taste in modern music, and I get a kick out of reading how other people formed their own interests in it.

    And now back to the regularly scheduled holiday season. :)


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