Boulez and Us

Greg Sandow
Greg Sandow
Photo by Melissa Richard


For a long time, I’ve found Pierre Boulez’s music pretty. Not his earliest works, his Sonatine for flute and piano, his hard-edged first two piano sonatas, or his startling, rigid Structures for two pianos (which he himself no longer seems to like). But starting with his 1955 Le marteau sans maître (not that I heard it then!) nearly every Boulez piece I’ve come across seems elegant and graceful to me—and very pretty.

So early this March, at a Boulez concert by the Ensemble Sospeso at Alice Tully Hall, I began wondering whether prettiness might be all that’s there. Or, to be more precise, I wondered what would happen if we thought of Boulez that way—as someone who writes pretty pieces, with nothing necessarily profound in them. Boulez himself was at the concert, and talked about his work. He noted that Éclat (one of his pieces on the program) features instruments—piano, harp, celesta, mandolin, guitar, cimbalom, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and tubular bells—that can’t sustain the notes they play. Instead, he said, they only offer sharp attacks, repeated notes, or trills. And these, he said—offering no further explanation—become the basis of Éclat‘s form.

Statements like that last one, I’ve noticed, can—at least in Boulez-friendly circles—make grown men and women weak with awe. But what does it mean? Maybe all it says is something very simple. The featured instruments make their sharp attacks; they trill; they play repeated notes. Sections of the piece are then built from sharp attacks, repeated notes, or trills. That’s not profound. Anyone can hear it, and any competent composer could write a piece like that.

Which made me wonder why experts say Boulez is so profound. So I consulted books. In one of them—Pierre Boulez: A Symposium, edited by William Glock—I found Susan Bradshaw saying (in an essay titled “The Instrumental and Vocal Music [Boulez's music, that is]“):

“[T]he musical grammar that Boulez perfected during the 1950s…[is] a creative achievement that, in effect, has altered the course of musical history: by using his articulate imagination to link the various strands of individual research carried out over the last fifty years, he has at the same time succeeded in establishing the basis of a mid-twentieth century lingua franca.”

To which I might reply that “in effect” is weasel wording; either Boulez changed the course of musical history or he didn’t. And of course he didn’t. He never established any “lingua franca”—any universal musical language—for composers, since there plainly hasn’t been one, not in the ‘50s, not in 1985, when Bradshaw wrote her essay, and certainly not now. Bradshaw can say she wishes that this weren’t true, and that Boulez had really set a standard, but what she wrote is, on its face, ridiculous. If we take it as a claim for Boulez’s profundity, it’s based on either wishful thinking, or a lie.

What else is in this book? A piece about Boulez’s piano music by Charles Rosen, a very acute thinker, though he does tend to micromanage musical analysis. And that’s what he does here:

“The dynamics [in measures eight through 10 of Boulez's first piano sonata] are strictly determined by the point of intersection of…two textures: the fff arrives with the first minor second of the piece (D-E flat)—not quite simultaneous, however—and the full simultaneity of the immediately following minor second (C-C sharp) is italicized by the sffz within the area still controlled by the triple forte.”

I would have liked to reproduce these measures, which would have made Rosen’s comments much easier to understand. But I can’t, because music publishers won’t let us do such things without permission, for which they often charge. That makes no sense to me. I can quote passages from essays on Boulez; if I review a book, I can quote excerpts from it. So why can’t I quote music?

But in simpler English, here’s what Rosen means. At the start of this sonata, there are two “textures,” unfolding simultaneously (though I’m not sure that “textures” is the proper word). One is a tone-cluster, implied because the first pitch-classes in the passage Rosen talks about are, in order of appearance, B flat, B, D, C sharp, and C. (Then F sharp, F, E, and, next, G sharp, G, A, B flat, C, and B). The other “texture” is the wide spacing of these notes as they actually appear in the piece, arrayed over seven octaves.

In measure 10, Rosen says, the two textures come together, because, for the first time in the piece, we successive pitches that might actually be part of a cluster, D and E flat in the octave just above middle C. Almost immediately afterward, the two textures come together even more strongly, when C and C sharp are played simultaneously. Boulez—and this is Rosen’s point—marks these two events as special, by making them louder than anything that’s come before.

(Here it might be nice to pause, and let you click a link that would play these measures for you. But I can’t do that, either, without permission. Which again makes no sense. Don’t music publishers and record labels benefit if people can encounter even tiny excerpts from their catalogues?)

But Rosen overstates his case. (Which fascinates me. Normally he’s the most precise of writers. And he’s unforgiving to others who don’t match his precision. Here, I think, he just got carried away—a telltale sign, perhaps, that his case isn’t as good as he wants to think it is.) These dynamics aren’t “strictly determined.” Why, for instance, does Boulez mark the D and E flat fff? Because the previous marking was ff, but why shouldn’t the previous indication have been just f, and the new one ff? And why are the special notes louder than anything that came before? They’d be just as notable if they were softer.

But then Boulez was a very young man when he wrote this piece. Maybe he liked making noise. In any case, I don’t think Rosen’s analysis tells us very much. It doesn’t tell us what the first sonata means, or what it feels like. It only demonstrates that Boulez thinks coherently when he composes—and on a level that could easily be unconscious, perhaps no more remarkable than the unconscious coherence we all have when (as Freud showed long ago) we make plays on words in slips of the tongue, or dreams.

(Boulez, I might add, shuddered at the thought of anything in music being “strictly determined.” In “…Near and Far,” one of the essays collected in his book Notes from an Apprenticeship, he wrote: “Let us preserve this inalienable freedom: the continuously longed-for joy of the irrational.” And also, in “Possibly…”: “[A]ny account [of composition] would be unsatisfactory which gave the act of writing the appearance of a well-kept or even impeccably precise book of accounts.”)

Finally—though I want to stop beating on Boulez’s acolytes—in the same book there’s an essay (“The Convergence of Two Poetic Systems”) by Célestin Délage, about Boulez and his favorite poet Mallarmé. Boulez set Mallarmé to music, first in his two Improvisations sur Mallarmé, and then in his largest work, Pli selon pli, where these two Improvisations return, with expanded orchestration.

In the first of them, Boulez chose a Mallarmé sonnet, written (despite its dense modernist language) in classic French sonnet form—14 lines of verse, divided (by its rhymes) as follows:

four lines
four lines

making an opening section of eight lines, and then

three lines
three lines

making a closing section of three lines.

In Boulez’s musical setting, Délage says,

“The form of the sonnet is entirely preserved in the music:
(1) through a very controlled organization of the spaces between the stanzas…
(2) through the treatment of the verse in the vocal part.”

(1) turns out to mean that the music divides into sections corresponding to the sections in the poetry. Between the four-line sections, the singing stops, and a vibraphone plays a fairly simple statement of the basic tone-row of the piece.

(2) means, among other things, that Boulez creates musical echoes of Mallarmé’s rhymes, by the none too startling device of giving words that rhyme more or less similar musical settings: the same pitches, the same intervals, the same contours, or related rhythms.

All of which makes me think:

First, that the sectional divisions Délage cites could just as well be called banal. Imagine inserting an instrumental interlude between sections of a poem! Who’d ever think of that? And couldn’t it be crude to mark that interlude with an explicit statement of the 12-note row?

And, second, that other, less famously profound [italics] composers do, in fact, do similar things. Out of curiosity, I got out a score of Lucia di Lammermoor. How, I wondered, would Donizetti handle rhymes in the soprano’s first aria? Much like Boulez. At times he sets rhyming words to nearly the same music:

(Should we ponder why the last note loses its dot?)

Or Donizetti will vary his treatment of rhymes, adding ornamentation:

This comes uncannily close to the Boulez examples Délage quotes, because they’re never exact, and here, too, the musical rhyme is subtle—it’s the rhythm and above all the contour of the two passages that are related, and the relationship is then obscured by ornamentation. But of course I wouldn’t insist on too close a parallel. Donizetti worked in a stable and universally accepted musical style, in which phrases tend to have similar contours and similar rhythms. Musical rhymes thus arise naturally, and can be easily varied, without much significance. Boulez invented his own musical idiom, and each piece is a brand-new construction, in which every detail means something.

The Improvisation, in any case, feels solid and mysterious—almost static, rooted in place, and yet unerringly paced—in ways no one would expect to find in a Donizetti aria. (That may have something to do with the stability of certain pitches, like a low D that crops up over and over in the first vocal phrase.) And Délage, to be fair, continues her analysis with many pages of fine detail.

But doesn’t her analysis take simple things in Boulez, and simply assume that they’re profound?


So what does this have to do with us—”us” being Americans involved in new music, in May 2001?

First, Boulez has lately been enthroned, at least in New York, as the most revered living Great Composer. That’s in part because of his position as composer in residence at Carnegie Hall, but also because of bleedthrough from his eminence as a conductor, because he’s available and (these days) amiable, and—to be fair—because he really is the senior figure who’s written pieces that, like Le marteau sans maître, have become unquestioned classics. But because Boulez also represents the modernism of a past generation—and because no one mentions this in praising him—we should ask just what his eminence is bringing us.

Second, the musical complexity that Boulez exemplifies is still, in many ways, a model for composers, even if not much serial music gets written lately. A composition student e-mailed me not long ago to ask if she should be allowed to write a piece in C minor. At her university, she thought—and this despite the upsurge in tonal music during the last 10 years—that music in a key got criticized as not serious enough. So (though these are old battles) it’s worth while asking what complexity might really be about. (Or, in Boulez’s case, whether anybody’s really saying that.)

And, third, despite everything I’ve said, I think Boulez has a lot to teach us. I should add here, that I often love his music—just the sound of it, but also hidden details; the chaste rapture of its melody; and all kinds of what I take to be irrationality, or whim, like his grace notes, a constant (ever-present, peacefully obsessive) feature of his style, which don’t seem “strictly determined,” or necessary in any simple or profound way. He just likes them. I think they’re joyfully irrational.

I also like Boulez’s rhythms, never regular, but always supple. I’m fascinated by musical speech that—in Le marteau,, the third movement (“L’artisanat furieux”), measures eight through 11, the vocal part, another passage I can’t quote—moves from durations measured in eighth notes to durations measured in dotted eighths, without losing any flow. (Though maybe what’s happening here is something like a fully-notated ritard, so maybe this is a simpler example than others I might have picked.)

And finally I like some of the visceral kicks of Le marteau‘s structure, though I’m not awed by the very famous way Boulez intercuts three different cycles of movements. (One cycle presents a piece with a separate prologue and epilogue; the second offers a piece with three “commentaries”; the third gives us piece and its “double,” or ornamented variation). We hear part of one cycle, then part of another, and the effect seems in many ways no more unusual than what you’d find in a thriller with successive chapters that, cinematically, follow different characters.

But I like how the structure can develop both momentum and closure. Some of the movements have a vocal part, and some don’t, and at first the vocal movements seem isolated, with an instrumental movements always coming before. But then the fifth and sixth movements both include the singer, and that alone, once you’ve got the piece in our gut, twists the music into overdrive.

And the last movement marks the finish of the work in many ways. It’s the longest movement. It brings the singer back, to repeat a text she’s sung before. Eventually she only hums, as if she’s stepped off into the distance. The layout of the music seems simpler, more transparent, less subject to sudden change. And, strongest of all, we hear, for the first time, the sound of three tam-tams, one of them deep, another very deep. Their sound, just taken by itself, seems, metaphorically, slower than everything that came before. (Here, perhaps, timbre evokes form in a truly profound way.) It creates a hushed amphitheater for the singer’s humming, and also for an alto flute, which quietly curves its way to the final ending (…more of an ellipsis, really, than a conclusion).

And, moving on, I should also sadly note that Boulez can be severe. If you read his older writings, and even current interviews, he attacks a lot of music. Brahms. Italian opera. Ives (an “amateur”). Milton Babbitt (“academic’). Henze. All American composers (Americans have no one “as good as Henze, and that is not setting your sights very high”). Shostakovich (third-rate Mahler). Schoenberg (he betrays his 12-tone system by recreating old forms). Neo-classic Stravinsky. Late Stravinsky (there’s nothing there that Webern hadn’t done before). And even things in Webern, who’s otherwise a favorite (he uses “specious” means—Boulez doesn’t say what they are—in some “transitional” works).

It’s true, of course, that most great composers strongly dislike certain music. They have taste, and sometimes also blinders (their blinders, of course, being part of the potent focus that makes them great). Boulez also likes to think dialectically, finding contradictions everywhere (he thinks, for instance, that Beethoven’s counterpoint, in his late works, doesn’t sit well with his harmony). But in the end, as far as I can see, the only composers who don’t trouble him are Bach and Debussy, and he seems oddly sad—so eager to create an utterly pure music of a kind never seen before, and completely consistent in both its theory and its content, that he even seems to doubt himself. It’s hardly a surprise that he has trouble composing, that he keeps revising everything he’s written.

And yet he can be an inspiration, first precisely because he is severe. “Anyone,” he once wrote, “who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of dodecaphonic language is USELESS.” (His caps.) We giggle at that now, but he touches on a deep, important truth.

We’ve been through a crucible, all of us in new music. Or at least the crucible—all the new departures of the 20th century—has burned us. If we haven’t felt the force of these departures, we’re living in the past. They change the way we hear; they change the way we write. I myself write tonal music, but Boulez speaks tome. In part because of him, I can’t compose the simplest progression without hearing banality in regular rhythms or simple phrasing, of the kind composers of the common-practice period would have written without a second thought. I find myself changing meter, or throwing simple harmony off-center with displaced rhythm, counterpoint that blurs the phrasing, open fifths or dissonance. Many of us might be writing tonally again, but not the way we used to. You can’t step in the same river twice. You can’t go home again.

And Boulez’s rigor sets a standard. (Though clearly not that standard Susan Bradshaw, with her “lingua franca,” had in mind.) His music is something. It has character. It stems, among much else, from a determination to do nothing that composers of the tonal past had done. Part of that was a compulsion to avoid anything that might sound sentimental. That, in turn, must surely stem from something in his character, a horror of exposed emotion. It can also seem extreme. When I interviewed him once, he said that tonal music only could express emotions of the past; we needed a new musical language for emotions of the present. But—as I failed to ask him—what are those new emotions? And what happened to the old ones? Does a contemporary mother, nursing her new-born child, feel something different from mothers of a hundred years ago? Or is she forced to express it differently?

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard those questions answered, or even asked. And yet I think they’re crucial for our music. What, exactly, is new music for? Why, without an audience devoted to it, should it even exist? What sets it apart from all the other music that we hear? What does it tell us that a pop song can’t, or a techno track, or Beethoven, or Buena Vista Social Club?

These questions have gotten more important, precisely because the old atonal styles no longer reign. Composers can do anything. Thank God! But then what, exactly, should we do? The last thing I’d want to do is write prescriptions here—artists are the ones who find the answers to artistic questions, and they do it with their work. But at the same time, I’m troubled by a lack of standards or debate.

For instance—and here I know I’ll get in trouble by naming names, but there’s no other way to do this—a lot of people, including me, were troubled by Garden of Light, Aaron Kernis’s big 1999 choral piece for Disney (who commissioned it) and the New York Philharmonic. It seemed a little blatant—or, as I wrote at the time, somewhat naïve and obvious, with too many climaxes. But comments on the work, both public and private, mostly raised just one large issue: Was Aaron somehow sabotaged by Disney’s commercial aesthetic? In my own review I suggested only that “classical composers, lacking a wide audience, aren’t used to making big, plain and highly public statements,” and ought to learn to do that.

But behind that lurks the question of what kind of public statements our music ought to make. Boulez has an answer. We don’t. We could go to the New York City Opera a couple of seasons ago, and hear Robert Beaser’s The Food of Love, which, no matter how expertly composed, struck me as inhabiting an emotional world not much different from Richard Strauss, though more contained, and less expressive. And Bob, I’m sure, found a synthesizer piece of mine called “Song” almost absurdly retro in its full-blown romanticism, when I played it at the Juilliard Composers’ Forum. But we don’t have any place where we debate these things. We’re too busy supporting just the idea of new music. We don’t—except for conservatives like Charles Wuorinen, screaming in understandable dismay—talk about what happens when composers once again write tonally. Do we, happily and with relief, express exactly what we hear in pop songs, Mahler, techno tracks, and Buena Vista Social Club? Is this some kind of liberation from austerity, a return to the life we share with everyone else? Or is it a step toward anonymity, a destruction of our birthright?

(And, while we’re there—what’s being expressed, and what destinations of the past are being revisited, when any of us write atonal stuff?)

For what it’s worth, David del Tredici has, to my ear, anyway, a new tonal language, even though his music talks—in terms of what we might call its linguistic elements—like music of the past. But it doesn’t walk that way. His song cycle in progress, This Solid Ground, which I heard on one of the Great Day in New York concerts in February, seemed completely new to me. A piano accompaniment, which could almost have come from many 19th century works, cradled a naked, helpless vocal part, sung in a raw, non-classical voice by John Kelly, a performance artist. Nostalgia seemed here to question itself, as if it yearned for a long-lost world as some kind of paradise of innocence, and at the same time showed how painfully impossible it is to return there.

(I’d love to see a technical analysis of this music. Is there anything concrete going on, that might correlate with what I hear?)

I also liked Carla Kihlstedt’s American Imbunche Songs, which Kihlstedt sang and played on her violin at the Music at the Academy series in January. An “imbunche,” she said in her program notes, is an entity in Chilean folklore, whose orifices are sown up. For her, that symbolized the characters she sang about, who in various ways are helpless. The music, I thought, in some ways echoed the bite of alternative rock, which also can be lost in irony and helplessness. But it bit more savagely, maybe because it never fell into any easy rock clichés, and maybe also because the discipline of making voice and violin “exactly mimic each other” (again I’m quoting from Kihlstedt’s notes) gave it something to grapple with.

These are only examples. I’m not saying these are better pieces than anything I’ve heard. But they spoke to me.

I think technical challenges can give music a powerful backbone. And in fact that’s one thing that could set new music apart from much else that we hear. Though I doubt we can invent any new musical languages—we (or others like us) spent all the 20th century doing that, and now we’re learning to inhabit all the ground that got cleared. When anything is possible, we have to choose from far too many possibilities. We need discipline for that. Boulez, far as he may be from most of us, provides a powerful example.