Varèse studied with d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum and with Widor at the Paris Conservatoire, then moved to Berlin, where he met Strauss and Busoni. In 1915 he emigrated to New York; nearly all his early compositions disappeared at this stage. His creative output therefore effectively begins with Amériques for large orchestra (1921), which sets out to discover new worlds of sound.
In 1921 he and Carlos Salzedo founded the International Composers’ Guild, which gave the first performances of several of his works for small ensemble, these prominently featuring wind and percussion. They include Hyperprism (1923), Octandre (1923) and Intégrales (1925). Arcana (1927), which returns to the large orchestra and extended form with perfected technique, brought this most productive period to an end.
There followed a five-year stay in Paris (1928-33), during which he wrote Ionisation for percussion orchestra (1931), the first European work to dispense almost entirely with pitched sounds. The flute solo Densité 21.5 (1936) was then his last completed work for nearly two decades.
During this time he taught sporadically and also made plans for Espace, which was to have involved simultaneous radio broadcasts from around the globe. Then, with electronic music at last a real possibility owing to the development of the tape recorder, he produced Déserts for wind, percussion and tape (1954). Le Corbusier was commissioned by Philips to present a pavilion at the 1958 World Fair and insisted (against the sponsors’ resistance) on working with Varèse, who developed his Poème électronique for the venue, where it was heard by an estimated two million people. Using 400 speakers dispersed throughout the interior, Varèse created a sound and space installation geared towards experiencing sound as it moves through space. Received with mixed reviews, this piece challenged audience expectations and traditional means of composing, breathing life into electronic synthesis and presentation. His last years were devoted to projects on themes of night and death, including the unfinished Nocturnal for voices and chamber orchestra (1961).