Mark and Boulez

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 New York.)

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 études and 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!” Even though Boulez’s idiom is pretty far from everyday musical experience.

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.

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