A Case Study in Interpretation: Density 21.5 (Part 2 of 3)

May 5, 2011

Part 2: Interpretation and Analysis
(See Part 1 here)

We left off last time with the charge that Varese’s composition is somehow inherently stiff and inhuman in its expression.  Concomitant with this is the notion that Laura Pou’s very human and expressive performance of this piece is somehow against the spirit of Varese’s score. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the original commentator is correct that there are a large number of “mechanical” performances of the piece.  Let’s also assume that this “mechanical” quality is something pejorative (What about Antheil, Nancarrow, Kraftwerk?). Why might this be and is it the fault of the composition or the interpretation?  To answer those questions we will need to study the score in close detail and see what it does and does not suggest to the performer.  In examining the music, we will look at tempo indications, surface rhythms, and the piece’s structural relationship between rhythm and meter.

The work’s opening tempo indication is the most likely source of the notion that this composition is inherently “mechanical.”  The initial marking of quarter note equals 72 is followed by the instruction “Always strictly in time – follow metronomic indications.”  This seems to be a straightforward statement: do not deviate from the tempo. It makes sense that a conscientious  performer would interpret that statement in an uncompromising manner that might strike a hypothetical listener as “mechanical.”  But what does “strict” really mean in this context?  What constitutes deviation?

In comparison to other scores of its time, one of the interesting things about Density 21.5 is that it does not give any sort of character indication alongside its metronome marking.  Perhaps this is something that also encourages a “mechanical” understanding of the music.  Varese indicates a strict pulse with no prescribed character – that seems a bit like a description of a machine – consistant motion and no affect.  It would be a mistake, however, to understand this music as being affectless and the close details of the composition give the performer much of the information that’s needed in order to construct an evocative, moving, and humanistic performance.

Density 21.5 – measures 1 – 14 (click to zoom in)


Although the pulse rate referenced by the performer is “strict” the surface of the music seems designed precisely to avoid presenting the listener with a sense of strictly defined musical time
. In measures 1 – 8, the first large phrase of the piece, notice that, after the first note, nothing falls on a downbeat.  Furthermore, important moments – such as the beginning of the second sub-phrase at m. 2, beat 4 or the beginning of the ascent in m. 6 – always happen at places in the measure that are different from the placement of any previous important moments. The passage does present a clear sense of pulse  but the music’s sense of meter is deliberately obscured throughout mm. 1 – 8. Similarly, the uneven back-and-forth between duple and triple subdivisions obscures any sense of rhythmic consistency at levels faster than the quarter note.

An important change happens beginning with m. 9, when Varese starts to emphasize the downbeat quite heavily. Although I would like to focus primarily on rhythmic details, one of the strengths of Density 21.5 is the way in which Varese’s approaches to pitch, rhythm, tempo, affect, etc. aren’t easily separable from each other. Therefore, in order to understand why the meter suddenly becomes emphasized at m. 9 (aside from a drive towards variety), we need to momentarily look at what is happening in the composition’s handling of pitch and motive.

Looking back, mm. 1 – 3 trace out a three note chromatic ascent from F to G.  F is emphasized due to its position as the first note, F# is emphasized due to its duration, and G is emphasized by its position as the final note of the sub-phrase.  This three-note ascent is varied and restated in 3 – 4.  Although this ascent is simple to see on the page, (and generally easy to hear for a structurally oriented listener) not every performance will recognize/emphasize this shape and not every listener will readily perceive it.  For example, the piano dynamic of the first G’s attack may, in combination with the leap, obscure its motivic connection to the previous F#. In the same way that the pulse is clear, but the meter is not, the emphasis on F, F#, and G is clear, but the notes’ motivic identity as a chromatic ascent is obscured by a variety of ornamentations and dynamic indications.

Mm. 9 – 12, then, parallel the opening, but bring the previously obscured metric and motivic elements forward.  The three-note chromatic ascent is transposed to begin on Db and the notes that fall on the downbeats are: Db, Db, D, D.  Like G before it, D# concludes the sub-phrase.

Synthesizing these technical observations into a qualitative assessment of the piece, we are describing a music that has a shifting, hazy, slightly obscure and ever changing surface through which different layers of content can move forward and backward in the listener’s perception from phrase to phrase.

Think about those words: hazy, obscure, shifting, layered.  Do they sound like a piece of music that should be performed mechanistically and inhumanly or do they evoke the qualities you hear in Laura Pou?

If you agree that the notes of this piece encourage a rich, nuanced, and subtle interpretive approach, then you may be asking yourself how this reconciles with the mechanistic inferences we’ve drawn from the tempo marking.  Come back for part 3.

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One Response to “A Case Study in Interpretation: Density 21.5 (Part 2 of 3)”


  1. […] on Edgard Varese’s Density 21.5, specifically as performed by Laura Pou. As we illustrated in Part 2, a close analysis of the score’s micro-details suggests that, contrary to some opinions, Density […]


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