Thursday, 16 August 2012

Edgard Varèse Inside Hollywood and Out

For all his smouldering looks, the composer Edgard Varèse never had the most fruitful relationship with the silver screen. Despite persistent attempts, he never wrote a feature soundtrack. Even today, while contemporaries like Bartok and Webern, responsible for equally forbidding bodies of work, can lay claim to a string of posthumous cinematic credits, only Woody Allen has found a use for Varèse. In the sombre Bergman tribute Another Woman, he matched the sweeping theremin and strident brass of Ecautorial to one of Gena Rowlands's more unsettling fantasy sequences. Adam Harvey, in his book about the music of Allen's films, makes a point of insisting that this must be a rare insistence of Allen using music "purely for its effect" and surely not because he enjoyed listening to the music himself.

But in the early twenties he did act, largely uncredited, in a number of silent films. Most notably, his heavy brow appeared in the role of a policeman, alongside John Barrymore, in John S. Robertson's (1920) Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. The musician Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, has cut scenes from the film to some of Varèse's own music and put it on YouTube. It gives you a startling idea of just how effective and expressionistic a soundtrack composer he might have been, had he ever been given the chance.

The composer's overtures to the studios reached their peak in the 1930s, a decade during which he seems to have completed more press interviews than actual musical works. Finally, having hawked his wares round the backlots and hobnobbed at as many parties as he could bear, at the end of the decade he even penned a manifesto of sorts, entitled 'Organised Sound for the Sound Film'and published in The Commonweal. Here  he wrote of music as an "art-science", with a brief mention of "all the recent laboratory discoveries which permit us to hope for the unconditional liberation of music" (hinting, perhaps, at what may have been his real motivation for working in cinema - the chance to investigate recent progress in graphical sound techniques). None of which seemed to do any good, however; until several years later, when an old acquaintance first met through The Commonweal's editor Walter Anderson, finally got back in touch. 

Boris Morros, Hollywood producer, music director, and Russian spy, was, in 1946, working on a romantic comedy called Carnegie Hall, involving the New York Symphony Orchestra and such notables as Leopold Stokowski and Artur Rubinstein. He asked Varèse to compose a short piece for a particular scene and the composer immediately began work on a kind of musical skit involving quotes from his own work and a few famous pieces from the repertoire emerging haphazardly out of a bed of improvisation around the note A.

Morros, a former Paramount music director and producer of Laurel and Hardy's Flying Deuces and Julien Duvivier's Tales of Manhattan, had been named as a KGB agent in a letter sent to J. Edgar Hoover three years earlier. In December of that same year, 1943, the writer Martha Dodd and her husband Alfred Stern met with Morros in order to invest $130,000 in a music publishing company that would serve as a front organisation for a Soviet spy ring.

By the time Morros got in touch with Varèse in 1946, things were perhaps not going so well for Morros. The Boris Morros Music Company had collapsed and the KGB had come increasingly to view its putative boss with suspicion. In June of 1945, after a series of minor indiscretions, the Soviet secret service had ordered Morros be deactivated, only for the latter to come back to them, a year or so later, with a suggestion to start up a film distribution venture - if they would just be willing to invest a few hundred thousand dollars. In fact, this proposal was an FBI sting operation, the Feds having approached Morros in early 1947 and recruited him as a double agent.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, Morros had cooled to the idea of hiring Varèse, a composer somewhat notorious for his never-completed so-called "Red Symphony", Espace. His music never appeared in Carnegie Hall (which went on to be quite a success) and the work he had begun for it remained unfinished. Until many years later, that is, when his student and protégé, Chou Wen-Chung completed a performing score for the piece which now holds a place amongst Varèse's complete works under the title, Tuning Up.