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TWELVE-TONE TECHNIQUE IN VARÈSE’S SKETCHES OF DÉSERTS EVELINE VERNOOIJ 1. INTRODUCTION ÉSERTS (1954) IS ONE OF EDGARD VARÈSE’S most emblematic compositions. The work was initially conceived as a utopian multimedia project involving both visual images and organized sound, but, unable to find the cinematographic support for this project, Déserts premiered on December 2, 1954 in Paris as a composition for wind instruments, piano, percussion, and magnetic tape. Despite a growing interest in the underlying structures of Déserts, many aspects of its pitch structure have proved elusive. Although previous analytical interpretations differ, they have all been based almost exclusively on the published score. This paper will present a different approach: by integrating source studies with interpretative analysis, the goal is to formulate an analytical approach based on evidence gathered from the composer’s working documents. The autograph and ideograph sources of Déserts, the majority of which are conserved at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel (Switzerland), not only constitute an indispensable source of information on the genesis of the work, but also reveal its abstract. The D 224 Perspectives of New Music developmental strategies found in the sketches and drafts of Déserts provide the theoretical framework for a new perspective on one of Varèse’s most significant works. The compositional process of the instrumental score of Déserts, from its first elaborations up to the published score, is documented by fifteen sketches, an autograph manuscript, a multi-layered draft on transparent paper (written by his assistant, Chou Wen-Chung), and six diazo prints with autograph corrections and accretions.1 The sketches, mainly short scores, belong to different stages of the compositional process: many are preliminary documents preceding the first complete draft of the score, others reveal a more advanced stage of composition and are contemporary to the subsequent diazo prints. The autograph manuscript represents the first complete draft of the score, which was then copied by Chou Wen-Chung onto transparent paper. The diazo prints are derived from different levels of editing of these transparencies . Each time, the corrections and accretions to a print were incorporated by Chou Wen-Chung in the diazo transparencies and a new print would follow, until the score had reached a version considered suitable for publication. The score of Déserts was deposited with Casa Ricordi in 1956, who published the work in 1959.2 The sketches, in particular, provide clues to the underlying structures of the orchestral score. The serial labels and order numbers found in several of the sketches reveal a hitherto unknown aspect of Varèse’s compositional procedures: the organization of pitch structure by means of twelve-tone operations. The abundance of twelve-tone row labels and order numbers in the sketches indicates that the composer systematically employed different row forms throughout the instrumental score of Déserts. The row forms signaled in the sketches provide a new perspective on Varèse’s late compositional technique. Autograph row labeling is not exclusive to the preparatory material for Déserts, the only work analyzed in this article, but can be found in the sketches for Etude pour Espace, Poème électronique, and Nocturnal as well. In spite of the large amount of row tables and musical fragments with series labels and order numbers in the composer’s preparatory material, previous studies of the source material of Varèse’s compositions have often minimized the extent of Varèse’s serial thought. Dieter Nanz, for instance, ignores the order numbers in the sketches for Déserts and speculates that the alphanumeric labels refer to some kind of pre-compositional classification of short musical figures.3 One example of such a figuration would be the major-third/minor-second trichord. Jonathan Bernard, on the other hand, focuses his attention solely on the order numbers.4 Bernard suggests that the series labels and order numbers simply provided Varèse with a convenient system Twelve-Tone Technique in Varèse’s Sketches of Déserts 225 for keeping track of the pitches he was using within each block of several measures. He excludes that Varèse was “following a real twelvetone practice,” because the composer systematically...


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pp. 223-241
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