Déserts (1950–1954) is a piece by Edgard Varèse for 14 winds (brass and woodwinds), 5 percussion players, 1 piano, and electronic tape. The piece is scored for 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets (one doubling E-flat clarinet and one doubling bass clarinet), 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, and a percussion section of 5 players:
- timpani, vibraphone, cymbals, tenor drum, claves
- glockenspiel, snare, field, and tenor drums, 2 timbales or tom-toms, cymbals, cencerro, tambourine, Chinese blocks
- bass drums, cymbals, field and tenor drums, cencerro, guiro, claves, tambourine, chimes
- vibraphone, 3 gongs, lathes, guiro, tambourine
- xylophone, chinese blocks, wooden drums, guiro, claves, maracas, lathes
Percussion instruments are exploited for their resonant potential, rather than used solely as accompaniment. According to Varèse, the title of the piece regards "not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude."
All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.
The piece was created as a soundtrack to a modernist film. According to "Blue" Gene Tyranny, "It is now recognized as an exceptional example of truly humanistic music." It "has been described… as atonal, athematic,… amotivic," and its orchestration has "been labeled subtle." As Paul Griffiths describes:
The plan of Déserts, unprecedented, was that electronic and orchestral music should be brought face to face: three sequences of 'organized sound' on tape are interpolated into a composition for an orchestra of wind, piano, and percussion. Babbitt has drawn attention to the subtlety with which Varèse assembles timbres from his ensemble, and indeed much of the scoring suggests an almost Webernian care for timbre-melody—something quite new in Varèse's music, the instruments being used for example, to vary the color of the sustained pitches that are stations of polarity in the musical progress.
With electronic sections based upon factory sounds and percussion instruments, Varèse began composition in 1953 (or 1952) upon the anonymous gift of an Ampex tape recorder, worked further on the piece at Pierre Schaeffer's studio at Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, and revised it at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. The electronic sections were composed later, and the piece may be performed without them, reducing its length by seven minutes.
The first performance of the combined orchestral and tape sound composition was given at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on December 2, 1954, with Hermann Scherchen conducting and Pierre Henry in charge of the tape part. This performance was part of an ORTF broadcast concert, in front of a totally unprepared and mainly conservative audience, with Déserts wedged between pieces by Mozart and Tchaikovsky. It received a vitriolic reaction from both the audience and the press. Igor Stravinsky was complimentary of the piece, speaking favourably of the piece's "form based on patterns of recurrence and incidence". Moreover, he appreciated the attempt to combine live instrumental music with electronic recording and considered it "the most valuable development in Varèse's later music."
- "Blue" Gene Tyranny (2010). "Déserts for brass, percussion, piano & tape", AllMusic.com.
- Sitsky, Larry (2002). Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: a Biocritical Sourcebook, p.533. ISBN 978-0-313-29689-5.
- Charbonnier, Georges (1970). Entretiens avec Edgard Varese, p.156. Paris. Cited in Griffiths (1995), p.129.
- Charbonnier, Georges (1970). Entretiens avec Edgard Varese, p.156. Paris. Cited in Griffiths (1995), p.140.
- Griffiths, Paul (1995). Modern Music and After, p.129. ISBN 978-0-19-816511-8.
- Craft, Robert; Stravinsky, Igor (1982). Dialogues. University of California Press. p. 111. ISBN 0520046501.
- "Varese: Deserts", UMWindOrchestra.com.