The music of Edgar Varèse (1883-1965) has always held a fascination for me because of its combined angularity and lyricism. It epitomises a new music of the twentieth century, a century in which industrialisation and mechanisation of a brave new modern world, influenced artists’ perceptions and imaginations. One piece in particular, Octandre (1923) for seven wind players and a double bass, has become, over the years, very close to my musical heart. I have performed it many times and often thought the opening oboe solo had a richness of expression that I could extend and elaborate.


During my jazz studies I wrote a piece called Varèse Sketches (for oboe, piano, bass and drums) in which I began to analyse the intervallic relationships and extend the language into a form with improvisation. In Sounding Out Varèse I have taken this process a step further by creating an open form improvisation for either an ensemble or a solo instrument. Both pieces are a response to the musical language and beauty of the Varèse melody and include two contrasting sections. They both open with slow rhapsodic improvisations that are restricted to the intervals of the original melody with their transpositions and extensions. This keeps the improvisation structured and close to the musical language of Varèse. It is a place with space to be expressive. The other section is a cathartic response to this lyricism with the licence to extend the melody freely into a landscape more foreign (possibly with extended techniques), faster and higher in energy, a sort of stepping stone moment to another world of brave new music.


It is very much to be encouraged that the pace of the improvisations allows the performers to determine the length of the form and, depending on how the music materialises, how the overall piece comes to life.