Monday, April 20, 2015

Neglecting Boulez

Pierre Boulez is one of the few remaining iconic figures of 20th century modernism. My most recent post on him is here, where I talk about his list of ten important pieces of 20th century music. Boulez' stance is that of high modernism, which I have also talked about a lot. While recognizing that some great music, like the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Bartók, has been written in this style, my sense is that things went rather astray after the Second World War when "progressive" music took rather a radical turn with composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Possibly the most influential composer of this generation was and is Pierre Boulez, who celebrates his 90th birthday this year.

One of the acts that gave him considerable notoriety in his early career was an essay he wrote titled "Schoenberg est mort" ("Schoenberg is dead") published in 1952, just a year after his death. You can find a summary of its main points here. For Boulez, Schoenberg was just not radical enough, and retained too many features of pre-serial music. Anton Webern instead was to be the model for post-war composers. It is very tempting, of course, to wait for the suitable moment and then write an essay titled "Boulez est mort", but two wrongs don't make a right! Notice that it was as much for his polemics as for his compositions that Boulez became known. Later on he was better-known to the general public in his role as conductor than as composer. Indeed, he expiated his sins regarding Schoenberg (and Bartók, about whom he also was rather unkind, and for the same reasons) by making definitive recordings of much of their music. If you want really outstanding and accurate recordings of Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Debussy and others, those of Pierre Boulez are the ones to look for. Many of these have been reissued in inexpensive boxes (that devoted to Schoenberg has eleven CDs) quite recently.

However, in this even-numbered birthday year, Alex Ross notes that, in America at least, the music of Boulez is oddly neglected:
Mark Swed, in the LA Timesrecently noted a shortage of American orchestral tributes to Pierre Boulez in his ninetieth-birthday year. The New York Philharmonic, Boulez's former base, programmed nothing by him this season; likewise the LA Phil. Instead, as Swed observed, on Boulez's birthday both orchestras were playing works by John Adams.
Ouch! Mind you, the neglect is not total:
this Sunday in New York, David Robertson and the Juilliard Orchestra will perform Boulez's Rituel and the Originel from “…explosante-fixe…," alongside Debussy’s Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" and Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Winds.
That looks like an interesting program; one I would like to attend. Let's try and recreate it here with the aid of YouTube. First, Rituel, a hommage to Bruno Maderna:

Next, Originel from explosante-fixe:

A good piece to pair with that might be the DebussyPrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Here is Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra:

And finally, that very unusual piece by Stravinsky, the Symphonies of Winds. Here is Boulez conducting a 1985 live performance:

I have to admit that I am of two minds here. Obviously the long-term influence of Boulez and evaluation of his music is still very much up in the air. Perhaps a hundred years from now the 20th century can be weighed more judiciously, just as the 19th century is in the process of being weighed today. But it seems clear that, in the short term, the lighter-weight minimalism of John Adams, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich has a much higher profile in the classical music world--even though the last two of these had to put together their own ensembles to play their music in the early days.

Boulez has accused more traditional composers, like Shostakovich, of "playing with clichés" because of their use of tonality and rhythmic and melodic gestures that resemble those of tonal music. But he does not seem to realize that the rhythmic and melodic gestures that we often find in his music, take for example the flute solo at the beginning of Originel, also can start to sound like clichés--clichés of high modernism. The rapid flurries of arpeggiations ending with a mid-range trill, the jerky rhythms, the leaping from one end of the range to another, all these things are heard over and over again in the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Ferneyhough and others of that generation. Are they not now, along with the continuing dissonance, a cliché? Certainly to my ears, which is one reason why I find it hard to love that music. But maybe we just need another hundred years...


Ken Fasano said...

Perhaps "Schoenberg est mort" is a double entendre - Schoenberg's aesthetic is dead; but also "Le roi est mort, vive le roi!" As a student Boulez had few scores of Webern available - op. 5, none of the serial works. His earliest model was Berg. So "Schoenberg est mort" is not such a simple statement.

Bryan Townsend said...

I haven't read the original article for, oh, a very long time. But the summary at the link I posted gives a very different account. I used that link instead of a link to the original article because I had difficulty finding it. But few things regarding Boulez are simple!

Marc Puckett said...

"... The rapid flurries of arpeggiations ending with a mid-range trill, the jerky rhythms, the leaping from one end of the range to another, all these things are heard over and over again in the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Ferneyhough and others of that generation. Are they not now, along with the continuing dissonance, a cliché?"

Went to a flute recital last night; he's taking his MM. Asha Srinivasan, Kalevi Aho, JP Merz, Daniel Miller, Shulamit Ran.

The Merz (two piccolos, actually) and Miller both employ 'interactive electronics'; the flutist commissioned the Miller, as a matter of fact, so when the 'electronics' malfunctioned he was presumably the first to know. The "flurries and leaping", ahem, were mostly confined to these. Who are the youngest of the five composers on the program-- which may or may not be suggestive or indicative of anything.

The flutist-- Sam Golter-- certainly seemed to me to be master of his instrument; I thought the percussion effects (foot beating, clicking with his mouth) required in... I suspect it was the Miller but... were not really successful aspects of the work, although G. performed these well, too, so far as I could tell.

Bryan Townsend said...

The kind of music I usually call "high modernism", which is characterized by extended techniques, pointillist textures, intricate pulseless rhythms, dissonance, lack of melody and general complexity is a style I think was at its peak from 1950 with the earlier works of Boulez and Babbitt to around 1970. At that point we start seeing the minimalism of Reich and Glass really start to have an influence. But there are composers, especially ones associated with academia, that still write this kind of music. They just don't get performed a lot outside of new music festivals like Cabrillo and master's recitals like the one you attended. In public concerts by orchestras and chamber groups you are much more likely to hear Philip Glass and John Adams than any of the high modernists. There are exceptions, of course...

Marc Puckett said...

Fascinating, really, specially for someone like me who had really just not paid attention to the distinctions, tsk, and tended to mix up 'them' all up, with one or two exceptions. Am looking forward to listening to the Robertson/Juilliard O. program you've assembled! this afternoon.

Am only starting the Fallacious essay but was thinking about it etc last night. The commissioned piece is called Contrails and the composer's note begins by baldly asserting an untruth-- 'contrail' has a specific meaning, so far as I know, and that isn't 'evidence left after something passes by', which I couldn't quite get past, although I read it to the end. Of course this note was online and so accessible to me only after I heard the piece: which was (in my apprehension) a series of more or less pleasant sounds (the flute) occluded by noises (the 'interacting electronics') supplied by assistants at a console below the stage and in the sound control booth above my head. I doubt that attending more closely to the written manifesto will enable me to hear better the... mechanics? of the audible music, why the flute goes here and here but not there etc etc. And knowing that the 'i. e.' is intended to be this or do that certainly helps allay my impatience with it, but I doubt such knowledge would ever challenge my original judgment. But perhaps....

Bryan Townsend said...

And then there is the "poietic fallacy" for which we have Richard Taruskin to thank:

"An analysis that is concerned with the sending of the message, hence with its devising, is a poietic analysis (from the Greek poiein, 'to make', but distinguished by the unusual spelling from 'poetic' to avoid confusion with the more ordinary usages.) An analysis that is concerned with the receiving is an esthesic analysis (from the Greek aisthesis, 'perception' similarly distinguished from 'aesthectic.')" (Richard Taruskin. from "Poetic Fallacy',The Musical Times, Spring 145, Vol. 145, No. 1886. pp. 10-11.)"

From an aesthetic point of view, while it may be interesting to know something about how a piece of music was constructed, at the end of the day, the important thing is what you can hear.

Marc Puckett said...

Indeed yes-- you discussed this Taruskin not more than a fortnight ago, well, not too long ago. In neither that essay nor in the W/B, on single readings, did I notice anything substantive that I disagreed with. Hmm, hmm. I suspect I have stumbled into the recognition that my habitual ways of thinking about music are not quite as sound as they should be. This is not very surprising to me, really, for a number of reasons. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I did mention it about a month ago, but the locus classicus regarding the poietic fallacy on this blog is this post from 2013, which I think you might enjoy: