Norman Lebrecht on shifting sound worlds
In a French interview, the old maitre, 88, says he removed certain pieces from the box ‘for good reason’. That’s selling ‘em. Read him here.
88 since March 26th.
That was an unusually interesting question re: whether the field would be open for followers to complete Boulez’ scores much in the way that Lulu act III had been assembled. PB wastes no time in saying no !
BOULEZ GREATLY OVERRATED
Who will buy that box & enjoy him/herself on a lonely evening with a welcoming glass at hand? No music lovers, to be sure. Boulez wrote sonic art, and often very nice sonic art, but not music. It is very decorative sound art, a form of updated, sophisticated ‘musique d’ameublement’ as initiated by Eric Satie at the beginning of the last century, and reminding one of the modern but inoffensive ‘art’ that adorns hotel lobbies of the more expensive kind, meant to provide an up-to-date atmosphere for the guests without irritating them.
It is a product of 20C materialist modernism born from the misconceived idea that there is something like ‘progress’ in music. There is not. Boulez’ conducting is also greatly overrated: often sloppy, and almost always without the ‘breathing’ that music, especially orchestral music, requires. Well, a book could be written about the misconceptions surrounding Boulez and his advocacy of modernism. They will merely become a curious footnote in music history.
“Who will buy that box & enjoy him/herself on a lonely evening with a welcoming glass at hand? ”
Me, for one. Boulez’s music is simply terrific.
You are a sonic art lover. Good for you…. and for PB!
All your incoherent waffle about “sonic art” and differentiating it from “real music”, it’s sounding all a bit obsessional to me and only confirms the accusation below that you bear a grudge.
At the end of the day, I and — judging by some of the other comments here — plenty of others disagree with you.
And the fact that we so doesn’t make us all conventional conformists.
In fact, judging by the audio excerpts on your website, it is your music that sounds pretty conventional and conformist to me.
But it’s OK. We get it. John Borstlap doesn’t like Pierre Boulez.
We can deal with that.
I’m sure Mr. Boulez won’t be losing any sleep over it.
But can YOU deal with the fact that there may be people in this world who don’t like YOUR music?
If you’re suing a Dutch arts body over it, doesn’t seem like you can.
Where does this angry blurb come from? Maybe something that got stuck in the mind in an unpleasant way? Something that somehow might be true? And therefore the messenger has to be shot down? Come on… grow up!
This is a great site with lots of interesting news, information, reports, funny subjects, all related to music, which we all love. Disagreements are normal & acceptable, that is part of music life. I would think it were interesting to formulate, as prompted by the news of the Boulez Box, something that so many music lovers, and performers for that matter, know by experience. It is a basic thing. It is not true that the musical as a whole (whatever that may mean) celebrates Boulez as a great composer or great conductor. There are many professionals of high standing who have a low opinion of him, but don’t bother to express it. Music lovers who are very very skeptic about Boulez should know why their instincts tell them something that may be based upon reality.
Of course I have no problem with people finding my own music ‘bad’ or ‘conventional’ or ‘underdeveloped’ or whatever, as there are many people on the other side who have the opposite opinion. Many people whom I respect, find Boulez boring, undedeveloped, unmusical, etc. etc., so what? But I don’t claim that I write sonic art, I operate in the other field. Sonic people should remain in their own field as well.
What is always surprising is that sometimes in discussions, when parties have no longer real arguments to lay on the table, they begin to attack their ‘opponent’ personally, which does not contribute to the subject at all. Discussions are not meant to produce a ‘winner’ but to throw light upon a subject. I am sure Norman would agree with this. I have no problem with people who are under the impression that Boulez is a great composer of music, but why could one not object to such opinion, which seems truly conventional? Sitting through Pli selon Pli bores me to smithereens, but no doubt other people feel energized, rejuvenated, excited, and fully up-to-date again, and feel a profound satisfaction about being alive, and their higher faculties inspired with new energies. But my experience tells me that this does not have to do with music.
The anger, Mr Borstlap, comes from the fact that, far from being able to tolerate a different opinion to your own as you pretend, you dismiss anyone who disagrees with you as stupid or unintelligent and of being of a “conformist and conventional mindset”.
If disagreements are “normal and acceptable”, then why do you suffer no opinions but your own and dismiss everything else as rubbish?
Because most of these arguments are merely a reflection of conventional thought, and when this is pointed-out this does not mean intolerance. How to deal with nonsense? That will always be a difficult subject.
I herewith sincerely apologize if I have, by accident, shown-up the nonsensical nature of the criticism that came my way.
I don’t want to get into your evaluation of Boulez’ compositions, but I find your characterization of his conducting equally original. I can still see how someone might claim that it is “almost always without the ‘breathing’ that music, especially orchestral music, requires”, even though I don’t share this sentiment. Boulez obviously is much more interested in an extraordinary degree of clarity and lucidity than in romantic sentiment on the one hand or anything like “Klangrede” on the other, and that might result in a way of interpretation which will not satisfy everyone alike. He is also wise enough to restrict himself to a repertoire that apparently means something to him, and personally I always found him great with the pieces he conducts. But to call his conducting “sloppy” seems absurdly hilarious to me. I know no other conductor with whom I never ever had the feeling that something could or should be any faster or slower than he does it, at least during the time I’m listening to his performance. Of course, there are always good alternatives, but this seems not really to be the case as long as his conducting lasts. This earned him the nickname “Mr. Right Tempo” in our family. Sloppy? You must be kidding!
Well, the reputation of PB that he is so precise and clear, is one thing, but quite often he either is sloppy or the orchestra cannot follow him, that is always a possibility of course. But we deal here not with some subjective property of personal taste. The question is: is a musical work the score, or is it the performance? There are things that are impossible to notate, but can as yet be understood by a musically litterate performer, and these things are psychological aspects: breathing, slight variations in tempo, etc. Professional conductors know all about it and this has nothing to do with ‘romantic approaches’, ANY music has these subjective properties because that is the only way of making music to ‘say’ things.
I have seen / heard PB conducting the complete Firebird music, and his emanation on the rostrum is merely matter-of-fact and with the result that the players don’t get the drive, the stimulus to let this music sparkle. It sounds as a factual reading of the notes without the dimension of glitter, atmosphere, in short: where the music is about. Maybe this is the reason that it sometimes sounds sloppy, because there is no ‘spirit’ that holds the players firmly together, no intensity (there is a difference between volume and intensity). Also the modern repertoire B conducts often sounds already in itself irregular, quasi-sloppy, and who is to tell that the music is well-performed, especially when it is unfamiliar music? In the cases of PB having it all very clear and precise: PB is a sonic artists who thinks that all the notes you see in the score, have to be evenly clearly heard. But that is different with different types of repertoire. He has, for instance, no idea what Debussy’s music really is; his recording of Jeux is very clear indeed but also stiff, and never comes ‘off the ground’ as is obviously the intention of the music. In Debussy, Wagner, and quite some other types of music, there is foreground, middle ground, background tecture and they must be dealt with in different ways. Another example of bad conducting by PB is a recording of Ravel’s left hand concerto which begins with a sound layer consisting of arpeggied fourths, which stems from a tradition of textural background figures in which you are not supposed to hear the separate notes, but a generalized chord that ‘moves’. But PB makes great effort to make the separate notes audible thereby destroying the musical effect. And so on and so forth….. And not to speak of his bad conducting of Wagner’s Ring in 1976. He wants to ‘cleanse’ traditional scores from layers of pumped-up performance tradition, but that deos not mean you delete musical expression and breathing altogether.
Oh well, now I can see that Boulez has really no idea about music whatsoever. Thanks for enlighten me finally after almost four decades of active professional orchestra playing. Maybe it is not too late yet for me to see the light which seem to shine so clearly over you …
Should read “enlightening”, of course.
But really, when you were in the midst of performing a Boulezbian orchestral piece, did you feel your musical abilities – i.e. the psychological, expressive, spiritual faculties, and the techniques which render phrasing etc. effective – stimulated by counting like hell and suddenly burst into a complicated upwards run or acoustical confetti? I greatly admire orchestral players who are able to put aside an entire performance culture and subject to purely sonic acrobatics, for the fun of the sonic listener.
Maybe this story explains something: once I had a talk with an orchestral programmer who had been appointed to a traditional orchestra, but had before been the programmer of a well-known specialist modern music ensemble which specialized in the then fashionable avantgarde: Boulez, Xenakis, Berio, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough and the like. In his orchestral job he began to programm Xenakis and Boulez and was much disturbed by the strong, negative reactions from the musicians, whom he thought just conservative. But then he began to understand that the difference was not something on a time line, but a difference of performing culture, since playing an instrument is not just about producing prescribed tones, but absorbing a whole culture with numerous associations and a long history. From that moment onwards, he found finally his satisfaction in programming music, together with the conductors, which related to the orchestral performance culture, since there are also pieces from the 20C which were contemporary with Boulez et al but part of the orchestral tradition: Shostakovich, to name an example. And that is not conservative.
“Boulezbian” – love it. Totally serial girl-on-girl.
Which is more than can be said of John Borstlap.
… but Borstlap may be right — about both the “sonic art” and the non-breathing conducting — even if he is less famous and loses his interesting lawsuit!
In 200 years’ time, will anyone have heard of Boulez or be listening to his works? Heaven knows.
But will anyone have heard of John Borstlap or be listening to his works?
We can only judge from today’s perspective and here the different achievements of the two composers simply don’t compare.
Boulez is feted all across the musical world not only as a composer, but also as a conductor.
John Borstlap isn’t.
In 2010, to mark his 85th birthday, none other than the Vienna Philharmonic — not exactly pioneers in the contemporary music scene — paid tribute to Boulez and invited him to conduct them in his own special mini-series of concerts.
Which top-league orchestra has ever paid a similar honour to John Borstlap?
It’s the complete works of Boulez that Deutsche Grammophon — an entirely commercial enterprise — has chosen to release.
Where are the recordings of any, let alone the complete works of Borstlap?
Boulez founded the Ensemble Intercontemporain, one of the world’s very best ensembles for contemporary music, whose skill and musicianship cannot be denied even if you don’t like the music they play.
Where is an ensemble of a similar calibre that Borstlap has had any hand in setting up?
And if John Borstlap’s criterion for art is that you should be able to enjoy it with a glass of wine on a lonely evening, then that sheds a more illuminating light on him and his “art” than on Boulez’s, I’m afraid.
All this is very amusing… the old trick of personalizing arguments so that they can be rendered ‘harmless’. Also it betrays a very conventional and conformist mindset; 2 + 2 = 5 because THEY say so. A short look into the history of the last century shows that mass consensusses can exist, and endure, against all evidence of common sense and morality. Could it not be, perhaps, that the work of JB, like that of collegues like Bacri, Matthews etc. are in the very same stage as Boulez’ work in the fifties and sixties, i.e. a pioneering stage? The beginning of an unconventional trajectory, and as yet not generally accepted? Like unconventional new ways of thinking about contemporary music by Schönberg c.s. at the beginning of the last century, or Debussy’s in his time, or Ravel’s, Stravinsky’s etc. etc.? Who is to tell? The author of this, in itself really welcome, comment – since it reveals so much about the cult of conformism that surrounds musical modernism – seems to give authority to the opinions of established institutions which could well be misunderstandings. Well-known orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic can make mistakes of judgement as any institution or anybody, and the best thing one can do is to try to find-out reality for oneself. Boulez was a product of historical tragedy, and not the avantgarde liberator from the ‘suffocating clutches’ of tradition, which simply went-on to florish, ohne Herr Boulez.
With the wine, I used what is called a metaphor, to stress the importance of the listener in the relationship between composer, performer and listener. They are all part of the same cultural system, and if you write-out one of them, as people like Boulez did, the interrelatedness is damaged. Cultural traditions are fragile things, which have to be renewed all the time as a whole, not merely one of the elements.
As for conformism, it might be appropriate to mention Oscar Wilde’s remark: ‘When many people do agree with me, I get the feeling that I must somehow be wrong’.
Oh dear. I hope your music is less verbose –and makes more sense — than your writing, although I fear it isn’t and doesn’t.
*=who is John Borstlap ?
A man with both a grudge and a lawsuit. See here :
It is an easy cop-out to use the term ‘grudge’: if anybody had a ‘grudge’, then it was the ‘arch fathers’ of modernism in the fifites & sixties, who fulminated against ‘traditional concert life’ because it did not accept modernism as part of its performance culture. Read the writings of Boulez, Xenakis, et al. Since modernism has meanwhile been institutionalized in its own circuits, contemporary composers who try to restore something of the European tradition, and successfully so (to mention only the European ones: Nicolas Bacri and Richard Dubugnon in France, David Matthews in England, Alex Smelkov in Russia and quite some younger composers in the UK), operate in the very performance culture which did not accept modernism. This is a new kind of ‘renewal’ which happens outside the conventional modern music circuits – fortunately! And it poses a ‘threat’ to the modern music establishment, because it is accepted in regular concert practice. The conventional ‘modern music circuits’ are much dependent upon state subsidies, and in Holland have even formed something like a monopolizing control system, with the funding of new music as its weapon. Not so difficult to see.
Before using those incorrect terms, it would be wholeheartedly recommended to read something about these things.
“Read the writings of Boulez, Xenakis, et al.”
but you’re making the mistake of lumping together two very different composers.
The former i’ve always found rather dogmatic in his writings and speech, the latter soft-spoken and anything but closed. This is reflected in their music.
The connection is that they both treat sound as pure sound and not as the means to an end: music. They both think that music consists of the material level of music only, hence ‘sonic art’. The one focussing on detail (B) the other on generalities (X).
I reckon when you get to the grand old age of 88, you are entitled to be a bit picky about your compositions.
==BOULEZ GREATLY OVERRATED
Isn’t the internet a wonderul thing ? You can say any old rubbish.
But couldn’t you say that Boulez’ works are something like ‘old rubbish’? It is a product of a time capsule when utopian thinking and quasi-scientific progressiveness were the fashion.
** …reminding one of the modern but inoffensive ‘art’ that adorns hotel lobbies of the more expensive
** kind, meant to provide an up-to-date atmosphere for the guests without irritating them
Huh ? Are we talking about the same Boulez here ? There’s not some Laurence Boulez (muzak creator) you’re getting confused with ? There is some HARD music in PB’s output ! Just think of first book of structures, Domaines for Clarinet and the finale of 2nd sonata.
Yes, I agree – the HARD in terms of LOUD, like a big spalsh of violent paint on an abstract-expressionist canvas. These HARD, LOUD notes are mainly to be found in the early works though, and one has to ask oneself: are they merely acoustically loud, or strong in expressive terms? And this question depends upon another one: what do we mean with ‘expression’? It has always struck me that the early Boulez made violent gestures, but when you listen to them again & again & again, you hear through them and they appear to be empty in terms of expression. If we talk about music as an art form, we expect that it is capable of saying something, and mere volume is not enough.
As Salvador Dali once said: since the invention of gunpowder enerything that did not make a big bang went unobserved. But the ‘big bangs’ of the first bars of Beethoven’s Eroica, in spite of the piece being pushed into canonic status, become expressive elements because of the musical narrative following them, putting them into a wider context than the loud noise in itself. With Boulez, nothing of the kind ever happens because his ‘language’ does not allow for it, he had other fish to fry.
Has John Borstlap (whose merits both as a composer and a litigant I cannot address here, since I have no knowledge whatsoever about either of them) ever been in a hotel lobby ?
Don’t misunderstand me, I would LOVE it if hotels were playing Repons or Rituel instead of the usual insipid muzak !
But dismissing Boulez as a kind of elevator music composer is perhaps the most bizarre claim ever made on this blog.
Thank you for the compliment…. I meant, of course, that Boulez’ works do not say things as really great music does, so that real musical attention is ‘turned-on’. Boulez turns-on acoustical attention, which is OK for sonic art, but please don’t call it music.
And yes, I have seen some hotel lobbies sporting ‘modern art’ on the walls which always made me think of Boulez, some of Morton Feldman (which I like, really, as sonic art). You have to visit the type of hotels that want to express a modernist, up-to-date and expensive image, but in the same time don’t want guests complaining at the counter because they got a bit ill from the Francis Bacon in the hall.
Of course you never define the difference between what you call “sonic art” and supposedly “real” music. Defining “sonic art” as “any kind of atonal or avant-garde music” or “any kind of music John Borstlap does not like” is clearly begging the question.
This is not the location for lectures…. but, in short, let me explain the obvious: the difference between music and sonic art can be found in the way the notes are related to each other. In music, all notes in a work relate to each other according to the resonance which is made possible by the harmonic series. Since the relationships of the harmonic series can be HEARD (the difference between an octave and a second can be heard even by an unmusical person, because it is a natural phenomenon). In sonic art, it is not the audible relationships between notes which count, but the ‘pure sound’ in itself, unrelated to some structure that is based upon the harmonic series. The order in serial music (which is, I think, obviously a form of sonic art) is based upon an order which exists on paper but not in the listening experience. This deletes the dimension of expression, because that is only possible in a context where notes audibly relate to each other. There is also sonic art which is not serially ordered, but there, as in serial music, the interest is in the textures and colors, acoustical gestures, contrasts in mass, dynamics and the like, i.e. the material properties of sound. In music, there is also all these things, PLUS the relationships between the notes which, for the listener, bind the whole together. These relationships are not material in themselves…. hence their capacities of relating to the human emotions, which are not material either – in the sense ‘pure sound’ is material.
Er… in serial music, there are relationship between notes, as far as I can tell ! Oh right, it’s all about the “listening experience” ! It does not sound ordered, does it ? Then, by “relationship” you mean “tonal — or, I assume, modal — relationship towards a fundamental note”, which gets ust back to a question-begging definition of “sonic art” as “non-tonal (or non-modal) music” aka “any music J. Borstlap does not like”.
Let’s be serious : how about polytonality ? late-Bartok poly-modality ? How about your listening experience of that ? Does Debussy’s whole tone scale provide you with an ordered “listening experience”, although it has no obvious fundamental note ?
Which gets us back, of course, to the real question : what the f(beep)k is “listening experience”, if not something quite subjective ? Then, who the f(beep)k are you to regulate our listening experiences ?
You should stop personalizing the matter if you are interested in a discussion about the subject, and maybe just calm down a bit (listening to Boulez’ “Pli selon Pli” is a good tranquilizer). Boulez is interesting because in his work, the problem of contemporary music in the last century reveals itself so clearly.
I did not use the term ‘tonality’, exactly because of the associations and numerous misunderstandings… as your comment shows. Which is allright as well.
The order in serial music is separated from the harmonic series; the tone rows are designed to avoid tonal associations, because tonal associations are hierarchic in nature while Schönberg wanted a system that would fill-up the chromatic field, as a homogenized continuum. In that context there is no longer difference between consonance and dissonance, which are tonal concepts and hence, hierarchical. Berg tried to write music with tone rows that included bits of tonal material, which works against the system. I think he was too musical to throw-away tonality altogether – he excused himself to Schönberg (!) with saying that he needed tonality for his stage works.
The term ‘tonality’ can refer to a tonal system, but it is better to use it for the hierarchical ‘attraction’ between notes which can create relationships. This ‘attraction’ is a natural phenomenon…. an integral part of the physical thing which is sound. (This is no personal opinion but an objective, scientific fact.) Tonal tone systems are human constructs based upon that natural ‘attraction’, like the modal system, the major-minor system, the octotonic mode, Messiaen’s modes, the whole tone modus, and the like. Tonality does not necessarily always need a fundamental tone, like the whole tone scale which is – because of its strongly limited scope – more something like a chord: all tones are related to each other. Bartok’s polymodality, like Milhaud’s bitonality, is fully tonal: either the ‘rubbing’ of two tone centres creates the expressive effect, or the whole can be heard as one continuum, as something tonal in a wider sense than a simple triad. If ‘tonality’ is used for the tone systems, discussions get into trouble; but when it is used as the natural phenomenon of relationships, the subject becomes much clearer.
Indeed the listening experience is subjective, but that does not mean it cannot have objective implications. You can argue the difference between tonal relationships and the use of tones which tries to avoid these, as the Boulezbian universe always attempted to do. Read his ‘Orientations’, an English translation of Boulez’ writings over several decades (Harvard University Press, 1986). That would reveal how unnecessary your *beeps* were…. and distracting from the subject: Boulez.
I am very sorry, but all this sounds like first-year musical analysis class.
Harmonic series stem from a fundamental note. Hence the ordering effect. Your only way out is to say that the whole-tone scales (as well as, I suppose, most other modes of limited transposition) are chords. Nice, but why not treat schoenbergian series alike ? If I superpose different modes of limited transposition, there won’t be much more consonances to be found than in the Variations for Orchestra.
I quite understand your point about “natural hierarchical attractions”. It’s just a tad problematic once you extrapolate outside of Western music. What about quarter-tone modes (such as some Arabic and Indian scales) ? 5 equal-tones scales (like in some parts of central Africa) ? and so forth… Are these examples of “natural hierarchical attraction”? Are the concepts of “dissonance” and “consonance” even relevant in such contexts ?
What about strictly rythmic music (such as the Aka pygmies’ music; or a drums solo by Max Roach…) ?
Re Boulez. Dogmatic writer in the 1960′s. We are now in the 2010′s. It’s always annoying when one tries to revive a 50 year-old debate.
There we go again….. Before beginning to denigrate opinions you don’t agree with and / or don’t understand, it would be advisable to first think. (Your reaction could equally be called naive, basic, etc. etc. but what’s the point? It is about the subject here.)
The whole tone modus is an exception and that says nothing about tonal ordering in itself. All other modi are hierarchical, i.e. the tones have different relationships to the fundamental tone. The tone row in the dodecaphonic system however, is equalized, with the purpose to remove hierarchies in the series. Read Schoenberg.
The ‘natural at’traction’ is a fundamental property in ALL music traditions, also in non-Western cultures. The quarter tone modifications in Arabic music prove the point: there is a strong fundamental tone, often with an added fifth, and the vocal line embellishes, circulates, pulls at, confirms, deviates from the very strong pull to the fundamental tone, and these deviations in quarter tones are ornamentations. The fact that Arabic music is monophonic stresses the fact of the tonal basis: you can only embellish, circle around the octave-fifth relationship in an audible way if there is only ONE voice doing that against a stable background. If there are 2, 3 or 4 voices doing that at different places, the result is chaos. Also the modi with different distances are mere different ways of filling-out of the octave, but also hierarchically, like the Western scales. In both type of systems the tonal pull is structurally present. In Bartok’s 2nd Violin concerto, he uses quarter tone ornamentations at places where there is a stable fundamental tone and no polyphony, as in Arabic music – to keep it audible.
The same goes for 5-tone scales: they are hierarchical and the tones are related to a fundamental tone.
And of course notions of ‘dissonance’ and ‘consonance’ are relevant, these are aesthetic effects and only possible where there is a tonal context. That is why in Boulez there is no dissonance, because all notes and sounds are equalized, neutralized. You can actually clearly HEAR it and that defines the property of sonic art. Purely rhythmic music is not music but sonic art, nothing wrong with it. It is only a material aspect of music, and it can be very interesting, exciting etc, etc. but it is, in comparison to music, a restricted art form. Well, that should be clear to anybody? WIthout denying it’s value?
And then: nobody is ‘trying to revive a debate that is 50 years old’. The point is, that the work of Boulez has been institutionalized as music in a musical context, in a musical tradition, while it is a separate art form: sonic art. It does not belong in a musical context and THIS is the reason that audiences don’t accept it as music, and – at most – politely wait until it’s got over with. It is fed to them as music and that is a very contemporary problem, in 2013, exactly because orchestras like the Vienna Phil feel under pressure to conform to academic and utopian misconceptions. There are lots of people, also academics, who know this is a negative development, but find it hard to find the arguments to criticize it.
And that is why the issue of a Boulez box as music, has an absurd quality about it. In the visual arts, there a the museums for the traditional art collections and for contemporary art. Why is it separated? Because these are two fundamentally different cultures. That should also be much more clear in music life. Music here, sonic art there, and Boulez definitely belongs to the sphere of sonic art.
This is going to be my last exchange with Mr. Borstlap on this matter. I apologize for polluting this blog with my comments.
I am sorry I sounded dismissive, it was not my intention. However, in all your development you have not disproved my claim that by ‘sonic art’ you mean “any non-tonal music”, however comprehensive your concept of “tonal” may be. Had you lived 5 centuries ago, you would most probably have considered any music using an augmented fourth to be “sonic art”.
Now, I understand that your key demarcation criterion is the presence or absence of a fundamental note (I maintain that the presence of a fundamental note in most modes of limited transposition is quite contingent; they could very well do without. But this is a matter for another debate). Why not ? I quite agree with you that there must be some order; although I do not think that order or hierarchy stem only from a fundamental. To say e.g. that every tone of the chromatic scale is “equalized” in Schonberg’s works shows a very superficial knowledge of his music. There are of course elements of hierarchisation in Schonberg’s music (though not the good old tonique-dominante); the late and much regretted Charles Rosen has written a whole book about it. Idem about the alleged lack of expression in Schonberg’s music. Uh….Sorry ?? (If I were to resort to an argument ab auctoritate, I would remind you of Leonard Bernsteins comments on “Schonberg, the last Romantic”).
It is quite useful to find scarecrows. Boulez is a used one I am afraid. Oh yes, I forgot, he is “institutionalized” (maybe *you* should be institutionalized — sorry I couldn’t resist the pun). Well, maybe you should check out who is the current holder of the Chaire de création artistique at the Collège de France… If there is an institutionalized musical school in France, it surely is the neo-tonal movement.
As for the state of mind of the audience, I am sorry, but what you say is rubbish. I many concerts I have seen executives, whose firm was sponsoring the concert and who were accordingly invited, yawn throughout a Mozart or Beethoven symphony, and politely wait until it’s over. I am sure large parts of the audience do the same during a performance of Cummings ist der Dichter. But you should not disparage the not so few of us who happen to enjoy some works of contemporary music.
OK… a last refutation… for the fun of it. Charles Rosen was in many respects a modernist, had things right, had things wrong, and the twisted thinking to extract some musical justification from late Schoenberg is not immune to criticism. The very idea of the twelve-tone system was to replace the ‘tonal system’- i.e. the major-minor system of academic Germanic tradition – by a different order which could not so easily be ‘corrupted’ by ‘over-use’ and ‘vulgarisation’. Schoenberg’s thinking bristles with misconceptions, like the one that chords can become exhausted by over-use, or that a dissonance can be emancipated. Indeed Schoenberg was a hyper-romantic, a man of genius, but this romanticism led him to extreme positions which crossed some fundamental boundaries, those of the art form itself. You can hear in the late works, like the pianonconcerto, the urge to ‘say’ something in music which, at the same time, is frustrated – worked against – by the surface of the music where the ‘ordering’ happens, there is a conflict in it, a ‘soul imprisoned’, and hence the effect of presenting all the wrong notes Brahms had so carefully left-out. What you hear is not expression, but a repressed expressionism, at most.
I have once seen a ‘modern score’ with dislocated and unconnected notes under the heading of ‘Molto espressivo’ for which the note text did not give any material. This is inviting the performer to fake the end result, to dress-up empty notes with the performer’s suggetiveness, and then you get Pollini, I assume, attempting to make music of sonic art. It is comparable with sitting on the keyboard of a piano ‘espressivo’, but it is not really sophisticated as music.
I am not disparaging the people who enjoy contemporary music, I criticize the presentation of sonic art being a form of music, with all the normal musical properties, and with good reason. There is a difference between enjoying a work and presenting it as something that it is not.
By the way, I am not alone in spotting the difference between music and sonic art: almost ALL great performers of music talk about their profession in psychological terms, about music as an art capable of expressing a world of emotional experience, and not as merely a sound surface, however sophisticated. Conductors work hard at the sound surface because it is a means to an end: the power of music to communicate interior experience. Sonic art is of a quite different nature and especially Boulez has made that VERY clear in his writings.
Amusingly, almost all I say in this blog is based upon Boulez’ writings, only the conclusion is different from his own.
So, to sum what you’ve been saying in your different entries here:
Boulez is wrong, the Vienna Philharmonic is wrong, Maurizio Pollini is wrong, Deutsche Grammophon is wrong, Charles Rosen is wrong, not to mention huge swathes of other musicians, musicologists, conductors and theorists working throughout most of the 20th century.
They’re all wrong.
And only one person has it right and that’s John Borstlap, right?
That’s so good to know.
Sorry, but that is absurd. Why should one have to agree with certain consensusses if one thinks they are not right? (Did not Norman Lebrecht himself break a taboo of a general consensus with his ‘The Maestro Myth’ and ‘Who Killed Classical Music’?) Again, think of Wilde’s saying: “If many people do agree with me, I get the feeling that somehow I must be wrong.” That is more than just a joke, it means that thought which is shared by many people is not THEREFORE a garantee that it must be right. Look into the history of the last century, full of collective mania, and see what disasters they brought. It seems that many readers of this blog tend to accept a conventional consensus of Boulez as a Great Composer while that has not at all been established, in contrary. I feel sorry for the Vienna Phil that they feel so threatened by the pressures which regularly land on them: they don’t like women in their midst, they hardly appoint Asians or blacks, the orchestra was fascist in the war, etc. etc. so they try to show themselves to be the ‘good boy’ in the class. This says much more about intolerance of modern, tolerant society than about their estimation of Boulez as music.
And then, you know, there are MANY people out there in music life who have not the slightest respect for Boulez, modernism, or anything so denying musical culture as it developed over the ages. That is not conservatism but understanding the primitivism which is at the heart of the modernist cultural project, of which Party Leader PB was one of the arch fathers. It is good that it has now become history.
Whoa. What sort of bizarre argument is that: the Vienna Philharmonic feels itself bullied into playing Boulez because it feels guilty about its stance towards women and non-whites and because of its Nazi past?
This is getting way too weird for me. I’m gonna call it a day.
The floor is all yours, Mr Borstlap.
Thank you… that gives a bit more space. If you had followed all the accusations the Vienna Phil had and has to cope with, you would understand that making the link is not so weird as it may seem. On a recent US tour of the orchestra there was an avelanche of protests in the newspapers and blogosphere, based upon a wide range of misunderstandings and PC-intolerance. It seemed that they could only redeem themselves by replacing all their players by black lesbians and give the orchestra a new name as to disconnect from their past. Their programming Boulez (and Widmann, and other sonicists) functions, like German new music in the fifites and sixties, as ‘proof’ that they are now part of democratic, tolerant, free, Western culture. Embracing Boulez means the irrefutable proof that the orchestra has left their nazi past behind, and the irony is that instead they welcomed a comparable mentality in again, in the guise of sonic art.
Dear Mr. Borstlap,
Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligently argued perspective, which is brave since you seem to hold a minority opinion here. I had always thought Boulez was pretty divisive, bur this blog seems to attract only Boulezians… weird…and you are being attacked in a vicious and personal way (really where is the moderator in situations like this??) that suggests people are defensive about the mere suggestion that Boulez could be overrated, which just happens to lend you ever more credibility.
Spot on. Sonic art, like Boulez’, is – for many people – a means to imagine oneself up-to-date and fully connected to progressive trends in the arts, like the mentioned hotel lobby art, while one can also enjoy Boulez for what it is, which is sophisticated soundscapes with great decorative qualities as a metaphor of postwar utopian ideologies.
A precision regarding squirrel’s comment. I am certainly not a “Boulezian”, assuming there exists such a thing. I disagree with Boulez about many things (I do not think there is such a thing as progress in music, since progress itself is a very dubious notion); I do not like everything he composed, and, oh my God, I even like some pieces by Britten, Shostakovitch, Dutilleux and Lutoslawski (shame on me!)*; I like jazz (including avant-garde jazz) that Boulez utterly despises in a quasi Adornian way. So I am definitely not a Boulezian. But I acknowledge that Boulez is one of the (many) great composers of the XXth century.
I only object to arbitrary dichotomies and to IDEOLOGICAL arguments against someone’s music. One thing is not to like Boulez’s music, which is everyone’s right. Another thing is to dismiss it as non-music, or as some kind of entartete Kunst. Boulez was surely wrong in politicizing music in the 60′s (the fact that he now conducts works of his then arch-enemies, such as Jolivet, clearly shows that he has put a lot of water in his wine, as we say in France); but it is clear that Mr Borstlap is doing the same thing, by dismissing any aesthetic choice diverging from his own taste or theoretical standards as rubbish.
* Although I assume Britten, Shostakvitch, Dutilleux and Lutoslawski are doing sonic art as well according to Mr Borstlap criteria.
According to common sense criteria of sonic art, Shostakovich is fully, wholeheartedly, generously tonal music, as Britten is. Duti and Luto balance on the edge, sometimes it is sonic art, sometimes music (where the notes do relate to each other, however vaguely and indirectly).
Just for the record: I never denigrated sonic art. I objected to the presentation of sonic art AS MUSIC, if we define music as an art form in which pitches form an interrelated whole, that is: in an audible sense. Sonic art could be compared to photography in relation to painting: it has some properties in common with painting but is a fundamentally different art form. Sonic art is a new art form, based upon ‘pure sound’. Read the writings of the modernist arch fathers: they cannot stop talking about the objectivity and purety of sound as such.
Hit and miss? More miss than hit?
I think Boulez is fortunate to have lived long enough to have such an honor as this edition but also to say which works he would rather not have included. I’m sure most composers have pieces that they would not want representing them. Both Polyphonie X and Poésie pour pouvoir are decent works but not his best.
I could be wrong but I also got the impression that he has said all he can with composing, which is too bad. Personally, I was hoping he would have made more progress on orchestrating Notations.
There was a tantalising interview a few years ago where PB said he had many ideas for the completion of Eclats Multiples. It would be wonderful if that happened.
a picture of Boulez just yesterday
Oh dear! Boulez looks so ill and frail – almost the proverbial shadow of himself. Let’s hope his health improves.
It would be unfortunate for any composer, past or present, to be the victim of a “definitive” set of recordings. The beauty of music is its transience. There no ideal interpretation except for what exists in the live context of fleeting moments of time. A composition is a vessel with which performers meld their own identity in a state of perpetual re-discovery.
In the spirit of these excellent and profound statements, I would like to say that although I had always highly respected Pierre Boulez as a conductor, theoretist and composer (more or less in that order), it wasn’t until I heard a recital by Maurizio Pollini in Zurich where he played the 2nd piano sonata of Boulez — by memory! — that I gleaned some of his greatness as a composer. Pollini made it sound as if I were listening to something by Mozart, had he lived into the 21st century.
For me, it was a definitive performance … but not in the sense that there would be no use to have it performed by anyone else in the future. On the contrary, his interpretation opened up new horizons for this kind of music.
That is really interesting. I know of a musicologist who insisted that the piano works of Boulez were comparable with the music of Schumann, Chopin and the other lions of 19C piano composers, because like them, Boulez wanted to express something, and it just had to be played as if it were music of the 19th century. However, this is in gross contradition to Boulez’ writings, from which you can easily conclude that ‘expression’ was not on his agenda, but structure, representation of an idea, music as an imitation of science, like exploring the sound phenomenon – but expression? No way. It is no coincidence that the institute he set-up: IRCAM, has a quasi-scientific name: Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (or, as mentioned in circles who wholeheartedly dislike all IRCAM stands for: Institute for the Retrograde Cultivation of Abominable Musicians).
There are players who try to put into Schoenberg’s twisted twelve-tone piano pieces the world of emotion that normallly is found in Brahms or Beethoven. But is that really part of the intention of the author?
Given Pollini’s beautiful playing, I’m sure he made something really fascinating out of B’s piece. But I would like to claim that what you probably heard in reality, was not Boulez at all, but Pollini’s attempt to make these unrelated notes sound LIKE music, by covering the textures with gestures borrowed from the other art form where they are organically imbedded in the musical idea. Playing Boulez like music is contrary to his intentions.
“There are players who try to put into Schoenberg’s twisted twelve-tone piano pieces the world of emotion that normallly is found in Brahms or Beethoven. But is that really part of the intention of the author?”
Here is a well-known quote from Schoenberg:
“There is nothing I long for more intensely,” he once said, “than to be taken for a better sort of Tchaikovsky. People should know my tunes and whistle them.”
As to Pollini and Boulez, I’m sure you won’t find any pianist in the world who was more intent on (and capable of) fulfilling the composer’s intentions than Maurizio Pollini. I’m also fairly sure that he studied it with the composer and knows what his intentions are.
The Schoenberg quote I really find utterly hilarious…. Imagine audiences optimistically leaving the concert hall humming a tone row. I always thought it must be a joke, like the one where he said that his music was not modern, but was merely performed badly.
As for Pollini: we don’t know whether Pollini played for Boulez. If he did, did they agree on ‘interpretation’? And if so, did they understand each other? And what if PB had thought that it were better to let Pollini have it his own way than not having him playing his work, which would mean a chance on exposure? I know that Joanna MacGregor, the famous English pianist who is one of the VERY FEW pianists who often plays ‘difficult, complex modern pieces’, just grabs what she can when she plays Birtwistle – missing many more notes than the occasional mistake, giving a different version of the text, really; and the composer never complains – either because he can’t hear it or he is so happy with SOMEONE playing this stuff that he deem it better to keep quiet about the ‘mistakes’. A third suspicion is that the notes really don’t matter, since it is the gestures and the general impression that counts. I know from an opera singer who substituted on short notice for a singer who got ill in a modernist production in France, that she sang quite different notes all the time in rehearsel where the composer was present, who was happy with everything all the time. She admitted that afterwards, she felt depressed since nobody seemed to care about the notes which she had so desperately attempted to get right in a short stretch of time and had not been capable to achieve. Voila.
Normally, I find Mr. Borstlap’s anti-modernist standpoint rather one dimensional, but with all the piling on I have to admire his courage to state a contrary view. He’s absurdly mistaken to attack Boulez as merely a sonic artist who doesn’t write music. On the other hand, by American perspectives, Europe is seen as frozen in rather orthodox modernist perspectives.
Modernism of the Boulezian style began to be strongly attacked in the States in the mid 80s. Uptown composers embraced a kind of neo-Romanticism (for a lack of a better term) and the downtown embraced popular idioms surrounding rock music. Mr. Borstlap’s views would not be so controversial in the States – for better or worse.
It’s too bad that he brings opprobrium upon himself by overstating his himself with almost clichéd polemic because meaningful challenges to Europe’s predominate modernism would be worth discussion. In that sense, a more generous spirit might encourage him to express himself in more thoughtful terms. It could lead to dialog that would be meaningful and creative.
I accept the moral correction by Mr Osborne with humility…. and lowered head… And I think generosity of spirit should not merely be exercised in the musical field, but generously distributed over all human endeavors, so that we are no longer hindered by hierarchical thinking and narrow-minded opinions which seem to imply that there are distinctions that are worth exploring. That may also mean to welcome Islamist attempts to restore their beautiful culture, and pardon criminals for their subjective intentions for which they should no longer be imprisoned. We should extend our generosity to the incompetent, the lazy, the ignorant, the authoritarian, the elitist, in truly Christian fashion. Also we should be more generous to incompetent dentists, however we may suffer from their flaws. Surely the people in the former Soviet Union were ultra-generous to their government. And as for culture: why not invite rappers to the Kennedy Center, the Met or Carnegie Hall? Would that not be more generous than cultivating the restricted and narrowminded repertoire by dead white males from times with suppressing governments? And so on and so forth.
In American music life, there is more mental space than in Europe because in Europe people first THINK what should be the case before actually explore.
But seriously: it seems to me that generosity of spirit should not be confused with cultural relativism and dissolving of boundaries, distinctions, and observations of reality that can be rationally argued. That would be the opposite of ‘generosity of spirit’.
” . . .meaningful challenges to Europe’s predominate modernism would be worth discussion.”
Yer darn tootin!
The fact that his defenders outnumber Mr. Borstlap here should not be taken for evidence that the Boulez box is going to jump off the shelves. Without passing judgment on PB’s greatness, he is the apex of the aesthetic politics of midcentury institutional modernism. There is no reason why his fans should’t continue to be fans. But the style seems to have petered out; it’s much less taught and supported (at least in the states). Certainly Boulez’s clearly announced project to destroy the past has been undermined by his activity as an establishment conductor. What power-tripping ego lies behind that iron-clad secretiveness we can only imagine.
“It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All the art of the past must be destroyed.”
“Any composer who has not felt – I do not say understand – but felt the necessity of the dodecaphonic language, is USELESS.”
“I think that music must be hysteria and collective spells, violently of the present.”
“History as it is made by great composers is not a history of conservation but of destruction – even while cherishing what is being destroyed.”
Well-known sayings by PB which show the mentality that caused the Second World War in the first place. And this is merely the top of the ice berg that most people don’t know.
The wife of the ardent fascist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle supported Herr Boulez after the war, about which Boulez said that “the Germans virtually brought high culture to France”, as if France had been a developing country. If Herr Boulez had got his way, the old city centre of Paris would have been demolished by Le Corbusier and replaced by square tower blocks: nice, objective things like the sonic surfaces of his own works. The aggression towards the music of the past was born from hatred towards the infinitely more capable ‘competition’ of the older repertoire, to which Boulez could never stand comparison. This is the truth which is revealed if the delusion of progressiveness is overcome and the work proper is considered and compared without the time line as a measure stick. Postwar modernism was a product of the war, not a reaction against it, as it was presented at the time. Even nowadays, in Europe modernism is often seen as a demonstration of Western freedom and democracy, while in reality it is masked totalitarian indoctrination, as can be seen in the institutionalisation. The acceptance of modernism is the result of ideology, not of master works; the traditional performance culture has turned into a museum culture BECAUSE modernism could not find a place there.
No, the Boulez Box is not heading for a successful future…. but will find a place on the shelf of 20C curiosa.
Now we see that Mr. Borstlap is not only out to reform music, but also to put criminals, communists, Islam, university liberals, and creeping socialism in their proper place. Like Allan Bloom in the 80s, he warns us of the evils that range from the Weimar Republic to those damned hippies of the 60s to the corrupting spawn of postmodernism. The evil decadence of dodecaphony is just the tip of Western culture’s fateful collapse!
Boys and girls…
Don’t you have anything better to do than to endlessly quibble about Mr. Boulez and his box?
then do it.
I did! Is that not enough?
It’s worth mentioning, in view of Robert Hairgrove’s intense reaction to Pollini’s performance of the Boulez sonata in Zurich, that two live Pollini performances of that work are freely available on Youtube. The clicks prove that this music has very limited appeal — indeed, most people who try the first movement fail to go on to the second.
The short-lived triumph of Boulezian modernism was entirely the product of the manipulation of non-musical institutional bureaucracies.
you seem to have a pathenogenic need always to have the last word.
Unfortunately, you don’t seem to realise that nobody is listening.
You’re talking to an empty room.
And your “music” is being played in an empty hall.
We’ve all gone on elsewhere and left you behind.
Oh, the irony.
“pathological” is of course what I mean to say.
Well, I’m glad to see that didn’t get personal. There are words in Dutch to describe the comments above, but since this is polite (mostly) company, I won’t use them.
Anyone know if they’ve built female loos at IRCAM yet?
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