Now That’s What I Call Not Music 2!

More adventures in audience reaction to variations on the “noise orchestra,” in this case a 1923 work by Edgard Varèse, composer and practicioner of what he termed “organized sound.” What’s interesting to me is how these works seem simultaneously intellectual and anti-intellectual—that is, conceptually daring (breaking down and building up the very idea of what it means to listen, and what listeners are supposed to notice, both in and out of the concert hall) but at the same time not particularly substantial (except perhaps in terms of decibels) once the novelty has worn off.

Hyperprism was performed again in November by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with a siren borrowed from a local fire company. The Philadelphia premiere went “splendidly,” according to the conductor; “practically all the audience remained to hear it.” Olin Downes, music critic for the New York Times, could only describe it as a medley of “election night, a menagerie or two, and a catastrophe in a boiler factory,” but others were more willing to accept the piece on its own terms. The Herald-Tribune‘s Lawrence Gilman thought the work “a riotous and zestful playing with timbres, rhythms, sonorities.” While the audience “tittered a bit” during the performance, after its conclusion they “burst into the heartiest, most spontaneous applause we have ever heard given to an ultra-modern work.”

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