Listening to instruments in the orchestra – Percussion

Posted on March 27, 2012


Edgard Varèse – Ionisation

Ionisation is a composition for an ensemble playing exclusively percussion instruments. It involves a great number of instruments with different tone colour, playing various rhythms combined without any obvious structure. It was written in the early thirties of the twentieth century, and it seems to me that the composer was inspired by the revolutionary discoveries in the field of physics of this era – the impact of high energy particles on the atoms. When these phenomena are examined using a sound or light generator (a Geiger-Müller counter or smoke ionisation chamber) the subatomic impacts occur randomly. In nature we can observe ionisation in the high altitude atmosphere in the form of Northern Light, which is a good example of random phenomena eliciting fascination in people looking at them.

Ionisation is a musical experiment which doesn’t follow a defined tonal structure and the different sounds occur apparently randomly. However, the composition is not exclusively conceptual, it doesn’t sound “sterile”, and it maintains a strong sensual quality. The multitudes of percussion instruments with different timbre create an effect of richness and surprise, providing stimulation at each level of the auditory frequency range. Musical instruments that are usually not heard in the same context such as siren, cowbell, snare drums, tam-tams, castanets and many others evoke a great variety of associations. The interplay of the different rhythms gradually build up emotional tension. Something interesting is always going on somewhere, and there is an intensive sense of motion and progression as the different instruments are joining in successively, leading to a cathartic ending.

Posted in: Part 1