If you’ve read the first version of my online book (the
second link goes to the current version), you might remember “Mark,” a jazz fan
who sometimes buys classical CDs — especially piano music — and gets baffled by
what he sees in the Tower Records classical department. (He goes to the
downtown Tower branch in
Last week, he told me he’d bought two classical CDs:
Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin, and playing Debussy
and Boulez. (Probably the DG CD of Debussy
class=SpellE>étudesand the Boulez Second Sonata.) Mark doesn’t
know anything about new classical music, but he told me with a big smile that
he loved the Boulez piece. “It’s
really out!” he said.
That’s a wonderful reaction. “Out” means “really wild, not
ordinary, goes way beyond the things music usually does.” Mark didn’t have any
trouble with that. As I said to him, “You’re already used to music that sounds
like that, because you’ve listened to Cecil Taylor and Ornette.”
He readily agreed.
But many (most?) classical listeners get thrown by Boulez, because
they don’t have a category like “out” in their minds, and wouldn’t enjoy “out”
music even if they did. This is another example of the walls classical music
builds to keep out the outside world.
And here’s something even more troublesome — even the people
who like Boulez and other atonal/serial new music don’t have the “out” category
in their minds. Just look at how Boulez has been written about (along with Milton
Babbitt, and so many others). He writes Important
music, which has to be heard soberly. You can’t say, “Hey, that’s wild!”
class=GramE>Even though Boulez’s idiom is pretty far from everyday musical experience.
class=GramE>Even though Boulez’s idiom is pretty far from everyday musical
But then this is generally true about the sober, orthodox,
supportive reaction to almost any atonal music. Schoenberg, for instance, is
touted as a disciplined composer whose atonal idiom evolved in the inevitable
course of history. It’s not fashionable, to put it mildly, to ask what
aesthetic the idiom might embody, what the sheer sound of the music might mean.
And so the mainstream classical audience says, “Yuck! Dissonance!” and the intellectual
in-crowd says, “Oh, no, it’s limpid and wonderful” — and no one, just possibly,
talks about how this music really sounds.