Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Richard Kramer

Subject Categories

Aesthetics | History | Music


Contact, Edgard Varese, Modernism, Modernity, Siren, Temporality


The writings of composer Edgard Varese have long been celebrated for their often ecstatic, optimistic proclamations about the future of music. With manifesto-like brio, they put forth a vision of radically new instruments and sounds, delineate the parameters for spatially oriented composition, and initiate the discourse of what would become electronic music. Yet just as important for understanding Varese is the other side of the coin: a thematics of failure concerning the music of the present--a failure of old instruments to transcend their limitations, a failure of technique to achieve certain compositional ideals, and a failure of music to connect listeners adequately to the vital current of the times.

This dissertation explores the connection of Varese's visions of transcendence, together with his continual refrain of art's metaphysical failure, to one of modernism's utopian and impossible demands: that the artwork somehow seize upon or make contact with modernity itself--that it be, in the words of Rimbaud, "absolutely modern." In Varese's case, this will mean a desire--stemming partially from the sense of always being left behind by the coursing temporality of post-war modernity--for works (and through them, listeners) to enter into an intimate communion with the modern world, providing a kind of unmediated contact with the creative-destructive drive of the new.

Chapter 1 will explore this desire by way of Varese's interest in the siren, whose continuous parabolic curves will come to symbolize an unmediated realm of the musical real beckoning just beyond the clumsy reach of the tempered scale. In chapter 2, Varèse's desired immediacy will take the form of the absolute present, which the artwork will attempt to apprehend both through its collaboration with science and through what Varese will call its necessary "permanent revolution." In chapter 3, immediacy will be explored by way of Varese's highly physical, at times violent, notion of sound, which will become a means of making actual contact with the listener's body while dissolving the barriers separating them from modernity's coursing vital stream.