There have been many times in my 50 years on this planet when I have felt like a slack-jawed rube, but the feeling doesn’t usually last long enough to leave a mark. I know enough things that the ledger feels balanced; I don’t worry that someone else knows more than me about, say, cryptocurrency or oncology, because those are not things I need to know about, and I know enough about the things I do need to know about — jazz, metal, and written English, mostly — and more than some.
Classical music (and I use that term in a broad sense, to signify anything orchestral or chamber-ish that is likely to make the listener feel under-dressed) is an area where I feel my ignorance is impossible to paper over. When I write about, say, an Anna Thorvaldsdóttir album, I can only convey the visceral effect it’s had on me — I lack the historical knowledge to properly contextualize it. Now, I believe that a certain amount of decontextualization can be key to appreciating a work of art; you have to be able to take it on its own terms, which inevitably means ignoring a lot of what surrounds it. So unless the artist specifically states in a work’s title that it’s a response to something else, or operating within a particular tradition for Reasons, I’ll just listen, and focus on the kinds of things I focus on — the rhythmic pulse, or a particularly exciting sound or moment.
But I want to know more. So I strive to educate myself, when I have time. Mostly this takes the form of buying box sets. I have quite a few that are devoted to the work of individual composers: Elliott Carter, Henryk Goreçki, Steve Reich, Jean Sibelius, Gustav Mahler, Edgard Varèse, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Dmitri Shostakovich, Bernard Parmegiani, Éliane Radigue and others. I also have a couple of boxes featuring works by multiple composers. Adventures In Sound, a 3CD set from 2018, gathers three albums from the mid ’60s — Adventures In Sound, New Directions In Music, and Electronic Music For The Mind And Body — which offer pieces by Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Henry, Gyorgy Ligeti, John Cage, Xenakis, Varèse, and Pierre Boulez. I also have a 10CD set, Masterworks Of The 20th Century, that includes works by Harry Partch, Toru Takemitsu, Charles Ives, George Crumb, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, Luigi Nono, and Luciano Berio, in addition to many of the composers previously named.
My latest acquisition is Composer, Conductor, Enigma, a 4CD set from Cherry Red that gathers many early works by Pierre Boulez, including Sonatine for Flute and Piano, Polyphonie X for Ensemble, Le Marteau sans Maître, and Pli Selon Pli. But the third and fourth discs also contain recordings of Boulez conducting pieces by Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, Varèse, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Nono, and Berio.
Last week, New York Times opinion columnist John McWhorter wrote a piece for the paper’s website (it’s for subscribers only, so I’m not gonna link to it) where he complained that classical music isn’t pretty enough, often enough, for his liking. (He likes show tunes and romantic melodies. Which is fine.) But funnily enough, he singled out Boulez, writing:
The composer Pierre Boulez once declared, “Any musician who has not experienced — I do not say understood, but, in all exactness, experienced — the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is useless” — “dodecaphonic” meaning 12-tone and “useless” meaning you, the rube.
The thing is, though, if you search up that quote you’ll find that it’s incomplete; the very next sentence was “For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.” Which is kind of crucial, right? Boulez was as doubtful of serialism (aka “12-tone music”) as an orthodoxy as anyone else! In the very same piece McWhorter quoted so selectively, Boulez critiques “specialists playing at initiate ceremonies for fearful beginners” who “have adopted the serial system, whether in the comfortable belief that nothing but vulgar ruse exists outside that orthodoxy or with the intention of erecting a salutary guardrail.” He says they “give themselves over, as a group or individually, to frenetic arithmetic masturbation [emphasis mine]…they have forgotten to go beyond the elementary stage of arithmetic. Do not ask them for anything more: they know how to count up to twelve and in multiples of twelve.”
Later, he goes after the McWhorters of his time, who he categorizes as “the sentimental” and says, “They want music above everything, or at least what they proclaim to be music: they do not want to lose sight of lyricism (who will ever penetrate the mystery of the concepts covered by that vague word?)…They want to lock up all of history after monophony.”
So Boulez was already convinced sixty years ago if not more that serialism was a necessary experiment, but not in any sense the end of the line, aesthetically speaking, and that view didn’t change; if anything, it hardened. In a 1993 interview, he said:
For me, serialism was a short period, in the early fifties. It was a kind of approach to the language, a consequence from what we saw in Schoenberg, and in Webern especially. Webern very particularly, because his serialism is the most simple to analyze and to grasp. And therefore we went further — just to the point of absurdity, even — to see how it was possible to organize language in another way. But this period, a very experimental and abstract period, was just for a few years. It was between, let’s say, 1951 and 1953 or 1954; because when I began to work on Le Marteau sans Maître, I was already beginning to go beyond this point, to try to make the discipline very flexible. If you have too strict a discipline, it kills your ideas, because you cannot put them anywhere. On the contrary, if you have a much more flexible discipline, your ideas can find their way. I think that there was the fight, after something very strict, to find a kind of invention which was very flexible.
Serialism itself was, for me and for my generation, very helpful because it gave a very strict discipline; and then after that, one can go everywhere. I suppose that’s exactly like, in the classical language, writing very strict counterpoint. It offers very strict constraints; it forces you to find a solution where you think there is no solution. After you have done that, you have a flexibility and a richness of invention which you could not have learned anywhere else.
And yet, for so many he is fixed in time as an embodiment of serialism. Even this box does that, containing as it does only his early 1950s work, including pieces he later withdrew out of artistic dissatisfaction. Having listened to it, though, I find that as with the work of so many avant-gardists, from Ornette Coleman (whose early quartet recordings, so shocking in 1959, now seem written for small children) to Xenakis (whose electroacoustic music has long since been rendered quaint by acts ranging from Autechre to Merzbow), it’s hard to understand how anyone could ever have failed to hear the beauty in it.
Sure, it’s atonal, but that doesn’t mean it’s noisy. The solo piano piece Sonate No. 2 has that “cat walking down the keyboard” quality that’s, if anything, overly familiar at this point. But it’s still pretty, in a disjointed kind of way. And since it’s the first thing you hear, your auditory palate is prepared for pretty much everything that follows, some of which is fantastic.
Polyphonie X was assembled between the end of 1950 and the summer of 1951. It had its origins in a much larger idea; Boulez wrote to Cage in 1950, describing a piece of chamber music for 49 instruments divided into subgroups: “a collection of 14 or 21 polyphonies (maybe more), I don’t know yet, very long in duration.” Interestingly, it would have been up to the conductor to select from these sections, in effect constructing the piece during the performance. But when he was asked to prepare something for the 1951 Donaueschingen Festival, Boulez reduced the piece to a 15-minute, three-movement work for just 18 musicians, divided into seven groups of between two and four players each. It’s unclear why that structure matters, though, since the piece features horns and strings playing simultaneously throughout most of its running time.
It’s a serialist piece, so I guess (again: slack-jawed rube) it’s only meant to combine sounds in interesting ways, with no implied or intended emotional resonance, but the way the jagged strings intersect with the low, groaning horns and occasional elephantine cries, with tempos shifting from a creepy horror-movie crawl to a sudden staccato rush, all adds up to something with a fair amount of power.
Le Marteau sans Maître is also included in the box. It’s possibly Boulez’s best known work, a nine-movement piece running a little over a half hour, scored for voice, viola, guitar, alto flute, and a variety of percussion instruments including vibraphones, gongs, bongos, and cymbals. A female singer (Marie-Thérèse Cahn) performs three poems by Surrealist writer René Char; the ensemble accompanies her, and performs instrumental extrapolations of the music they played while backing Char. There are no melodies to hang onto, no chords or structural through-lines, only a long parade of individual, atomized moments. Some of those are diverting, but they vanish as soon as you hear them. I can’t imagine how many times you would have to listen to a piece like this to be able to recall it in any detail. The alto flute, the gong strikes, and the persistent shimmering vibes mostly remind me of the soundtracks to Road Runner cartoons. I’m not even reminded of Frank Zappa, though I’m sure this piece was one of the reasons he became so addicted to mallet percussion in his own work.
The last disc and a half of Composer, Conductor, Enigma features recordings of Boulez conducting music by other composers: Berio’s Serenata 1 for Flute and Fourteen Instruments; Nono’s Incontri, for Twenty-Four Instruments; Schoenberg’s Septet in E Flat Major; Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte for Ten Instruments; Stravinsky’s Concertino for Twelve Instruments and Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Varèse’s Intégrales for Orchestra and Percussion; and Webern’s Symphonie, Op. 21. I won’t say much about these, but there’s a nice little violin break about six and a half minutes into the Stockhausen piece, and some of the harp work is pretty choice, too.
Here’s the thing: It’s impossible for me or anyone else to judge this music by the standards of its time. No even halfway informed listener can ever again be as innocent of Boulez’s devices and methods as the audience in 1951 was. We have had 70 additional years of avant-garde music since Polyphonie X premiered; if you’re the kind of person predisposed to listen to it now, it will sound like any number of other modern compositions, or pieces filed under avant-garde or “free” jazz. There are moments, particularly in the first movement, that are quite pretty, and nothing that’s deliberately ugly. Listeners have been so thoroughly indoctrinated into an attitude of postmodernism and collage — entire works are composed of nothing but references (to styles, to genres, to previous works) stacked and juxtaposed — that it’s possible to hear the parts that sound like other familiar works, even if the resemblance is mere coincidence, and take pleasure in that familiarity alone. And like I said, most of this stuff is pretty. John McWhorter might not think so, but anyone who’s ever enjoyed an improvised music performance based on the “no, after you” principle (as opposed to the “1-2-3 everybody go!” principle) almost certainly will.
I’m glad I have this box in my house. I may not return to it very often, but it’ll be there when I need it. Get yourself one, if you’re so inclined.