Show Don’t Tell
“After 55 years, Le marteau sans maître is still a drag,” wrote Steve Metcalf not long ago on NewMusicBox. Here’s what I want to know: Does it often happen that Metcalf arrives at a concert to find that someone sneaked Le Marteau onto the program without his knowledge? Where does he live, that local ensembles are programming Le Marteau left and right? (By the way, how’s the real estate market in this magical land?) In short, in what sense can Boulez’s hammer be considered a drag? Le marteau, as I experience it, is a rainbow-hued timbregasm. It’s a well-paced, dynamic, and extremely pretty setting of a surreal and wooly text. Given that hardly anybody ever plays the damn thing anymore, I can’t imagine what’s so irritating about it. Or can I?
I suspect it’s not the piece itself (insofar as one can talk about “a piece itself”) that bothers most people, deep down, but rather the piece’s canonization. Fair enough. It sucks when the world seems to have decided that something you don’t like is Very Important. However, after searching three nearby study anthologies for a score and the Naxos Music Library for a complete recording all in vain, I must conclude that Le marteau‘s sanctification is pretty half-hearted: It’s a piece that people of Metcalf’s generation were told, probably with little or faulty explanation, was Very Important. Absent substantial and convincing evidence to support this claim, it’s not hard to see how the idea of Le marteau could indeed become a drag, the handprint of The Man on your shoulder, trying to get you to walk in his prescribed direction. As that generation has taken positions of influence in the world of new music, it’s harder and harder for them to make the effort to care about pieces like Le marteau. Why should they? Even though serial music never dominated the American concert stage, it’s fair to say that at one time the prestigious end of the American academy was indeed home to a nontrivial population of serialists. But the fact that these composer/pedagogues may have been more invested in being right, in winning the Cold War, in unworlding and positivizing the production of “art” than in making meaningful culture—that fact doesn’t mean that it’s responsible to sweep postwar serial music under the rug and breathe a sigh of relief that nobody gives a shit about it anymore.
It goes without saying that no one hearing Le marteau is obliged to care about the composer’s process of pitch multiplication, his schematic formal construction, or the accolades he received from his peers. These aren’t reasons to invest oneself in a piece of music, and nobody in his or her right mind would expect a listener to swoon to a gesture in Le marteau because of its common tones under transposition.
I’m not trying to dog Metcalf here. If, like him, I had to make my point in 25 words rather than the 500 to which I’m accustomed, I have no doubt that my grill would be swarming with even more objectors than I usually confront. But I do want to speak up in defense of Le marteau: It’s a piece that deserves a better discourse than it’s received, even from its proponents.