This is, in many ways, one of the landmarks of 20th century music. Frank Zappa cites this piece by Edgard Varese as one of his most important influences, and it's easy to hear why. It's often claimed that Ionisation as originally realized was the first sort of large-scale piece strictly for a percussion ensemble. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly the first such piece in the literature whose organization is largely timbral in character, rather than around melody, rhythm or tonal centers. Varese's career featured many attempts to explore the potential for organizing music in great sheets of sound, including some of the first music composed for electronic instruments and tape.

As a sidelight, in the early 1980's I was fortunate to attend a symposium at CSU Fresno of the legendary Nicholas Slonimsky, the original conductor of the first performance of Varese's piece and (somewhat comically) a good friend and musical sounding board for the much-younger Zappa, who held Slonimsky in awe.

As well he should. You can read the wikipedia article I referenced in get a vague feeling for his immense talents, but you should've seen the looks in the recital hall when he did his favorite party stunt: conducting in multiple key signatures simultaneously. Now, I can do a hemiola (6/8 and 3/4), and I've been known to beat cut time and in three at the same time (it's a simple repeating pattern), but Slonimsky was beating 4/4 and 7/8, 5/4 and 7/4, etc. It was funny, and unnerving watching this completely charming octagenarian do this, and you could hear the gasps from all the music majors present.

Now the story is that this was more than a pre-rehearsed stunt, that in social circles he would encouarge others to pick the meters and then attempt to pull it off on the cuff, and more often than not he succeeded. Now I don't know if that's completely true, but it's the kind of story that's fun to tell. It reminds me of something that one of my profs said about Morton Feldman and tone rows . . .

and tone rows

sworn to DNA

toe sword wars

draws on sonar

. . . .but I digress.

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