This single movement piece is scored for symphony orchestra, including two harps and a large percussion section which contains unusual instruments such as a siren and a whip. It’s a dramatic work, with large contrasts in dynamics, intense crescendos and sudden mood changes. The siren creates a particularly spooky effect and Varèse uses pitch bend and glissandos in some of the more traditional instruments too. I can hear Eastern sounding melodies in places, and in others the harmony is chromatic and dissonant.
The beginning of the piece is mysterious, with a solo melody on the alto flute. It soon becomes much more energetic, with the percussion section a noticeable driving force throughout.
My own personal definition of music at the beginning of this course was that it needed to include at least one of the three building blocks – rhythm, melody and harmony. While this piece is in some ways challenging the definition, it does actually use all three constructs (albeit not necessarily at the same time!). In places the rhythm plays a central role to the character of the piece, and it has frequent tempo and time signature changes.
This is a very familiar piece and I have heard it played in a live concert several times – I always find it mesmerising. The ostinato rhythm on the snare drum creates an almost hypnotic effect, and drives the piece continually forward. The piece gradually builds up very simply but effectively in both texture and dynamics as other instruments join in with the accompaniment. The solo line is passed between different instruments, with each one given a slightly different interpretation – for example the saxophone plays it with a characteristic slide up to the top note. Starting from a quiet, modest beginning, it ends with a rich, majestic sound, with the accented, syncopated rhythms emphasised to full effect.