Edgard Varèse’s Hyperprism

Notes by TŌN horn player Steven Harmon

A New Sound World
While the European musical establishment was being revolutionized by The Ballet Russe in Paris and the Second Viennese School in Vienna, Varèse was poised to start his own revolution upon his arrival in America. In an interview with the New York Telegraph, he revealed his vision: “Our musical alphabet must be enriched. We also need new instruments very badly. I have always felt the need for new mediums of expression in my work. I refuse to submit myself only to sounds that have already been heard.”

Hyperprism is one of a handful of Varèse’s most influential works, all written in a period between 1921 and 1925, all of which contributed to a notoriety comparable to that of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In just a handful of scores, most of them lasting only a few minutes, Varèse elevated rhythm to a new prominence, granted percussion instruments a role of unforeseen importance (and complexity), and developed a new sound world, dependent not on melody and harmony, but on timbre, texture, and dynamics.

The Reception
The original reception of Hyperprism was mixed. Writer Eric Salzman notes, “Hyperprism brought the audience to blows and Varèse to a new kind of fame. The music was violently attacked, but it also had its defenders.” One notable positive critique came from composer Charles Martin Loeffler: “It would be the negation of all the centuries of musical progress if I were to call this music. Nevertheless, this piece roused in me a sort of subconscious racial memory, something elemental that happened before the beginning of recorded time. It affected me as only music of the past has affected me.” Some of the more abusive criticism labeled the work as “shrieks from a zoo, the din of passing trains, the hammering of a drunken woodpecker, a thunderbolt striking a tinplate factory.”

The Music
While to a casual listener, Varèse’s music may come off more abrasive than agreeable, it has stuck around for nearly a century because of its innovative and evocative use of timbre, rhythm, and instrumentation. Hyperprism calls for nine wind players and seven to ten percussionists playing 20 instruments. Rather than relying on a key, the purpose of each note is derived primarily from its shape, length and timing. Robert P. Morgan Notes describes it well: “There are many passages in Varèse’s music in which the pitches appear to have lost their sense of linear direction, to have relinquished their tendency to form connections defined by stepwise motion. The pitches, one might say, don’t want to go anywhere.”

Hyperprism begins with an expansion around a single note, C-sharp. Repeated, varied, ornamented, the C-sharp gets passed around the ensemble. For a first time listener, focusing on the pitches at the center of each section and observing their manipulation may give some fiber to latch onto throughout the work. Varèse recalled, “With my physical ears I heard a sound that kept recurring in my dreams as a boy: a high whistling C-sharp. It came to me as I worked in my Westside apartment, where I could hear all the river sounds—the lonely foghorns, the shrill peremptory whistles—the whole wonderful river symphony which moved me more than anything ever had before.”