Thursday, 7 January 2016

Notes on Boulez

‘The history of music proceeds from Bach, through Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, and then via Schoenberg and Webern to Stockhausen and me. All else is irrelevant.’ (Boulez) More of this type of culture-warfare can be found in ‘Orientations’, Harvard University Press 1986. It is the core idea of modernism: music history as one single line from the past into the future, and ‘progressive’ works marking the various stages of development. Comparable with totalitarian world views which rest on exclusion and streamlining. So, Wagner’s Tristan counts, but not his Meistersinger. Mahler counts because of his one foot into the neighbouring territory of ‘atonalism’. Debussy’s ‘explorations’ count as far as they predict postwar sonicism, as in a couple of bars in Jeux. And so on….

There is no ‘historic line’. All music has been written by individuals, reacting to other individuals’ work, randomly, being them in earlier periods or contemporaries. Such ‘historic routes’ are mere projections into the past and with modernism, a political tool to defend an indefensible position. The most you can say about music history is that there has been a ‘river’, which is a musical tradition, which has spread itself during the 19th and 20th century into a wide ‘delta’.
Preparing a meeting with critics.

One does not have to dislike B's works, or: all of his works, to understand his many misconceptions. I like PB’s Notations quite much, especially as conducted by Manfred Honeck:

The piece has a bit of ‘oldfashioned’ style for PB, harking back to expressionistic Schoenberg and his two pupils. It is an orchestral version of an early piano work….. nostalgia of old age? Regrettably, it is not music - though at various moments ALMOST music. Imagine what these gestures and sound patterns could have been if part of a musical vision, i.e. a vision where the notes make meaningful and expressive sense in themselves, so much so that the narrative also makes musical sense if played in a piano reduction (as with Debussy’s La Mer, which is still an entirely logical and expressive narrative in its 2-piano version, with all orchestral colour removed). Here, the notes are the result of sound colouring, they could as easily have been very different notes. It seems to me that a work where the notes are that arbitrary, cannot be considered a musical work. But as sound art, it is very interesting, sometimes.

 All the activity of PB's work merely happens on the sonic surface. It is sophisticated sound art, or 'structuralism' if you wish. The entire dimension of psychology and expression is not there, the dimension which creates an 'inner space' in music and which is only possible by using tonal relationships. Music is an art which has developed over the ages into a subtle and complex instrument to communicate emotional states and nuances. The idea at the time (postwar W-Europe) was to begin from scratch and arrive at a pure art, without the irritating appendix of 'expression'. People like PB clearly formulated this ideal many times at many occasions, read 'Orientations'. People with underdeveloped or absent emotional musicality loved this stuff, because their inadequacies could be sported as assets; hence the very many 'atonal modernist composers', mostly entirely ignored by the central performance culture. With modernism, all the efforts went into rational structuring, which means: a materialistic approach. In real music, ALL structuring is a means to an end: a musical vision. With atonal modernism, the vision is the structured sonic surface itself, thus: a new art was born, separate from music.

With Messiaen and the piano tuner. How to proceed after the demise of tradition?

Dr Mark Berry, a devout Boulezbian, said: ‘PB was the conscience of new music’. An utterly ridiculous remark. At most, he was the conscience of sonic art. Also: ‘new music’ is a term rather meaningless because dependent upon context. Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder was new music in 1948 when they were written (still a cornerstone in the repertoire). With hindsight, those songs have shown more life than Le Marteau sans Maitre (1954-55) which sounds now very dated.

‘The Hammer without a Master’ – how appropriate a title for PB’s entire oeuvre.

What ‘new music’ meant, in various contexts and at various times in different circles, can be studied in the impressive and very interesting musicological research ‘Two Centuries in One’: 

Here, a couple of quite shocking revelations about postwar new music will be found, especially about the falsification of 20C music history, to which PB has wholeheartedly contributed. History is not merely description of what at certain times and places changed, but should also include the things that continued to exist. 20C music history as generally presented by the usual books, is a distortion, influenced by ideology, not by objective inquiry and research. Imagine the history of cooking written from a vegetarian perspective.

I heard from French musicians that he was sometimes referred to as ‘notre nouveau Saint-Saëns’. But SS was an allround musician of great musical talent. Even Debussy, who was very critical of SS, had to admit at a rehearsel for a concert in Amsterdam in 1914, led by Gustave Doret, that the symphony by SS which was being prepared, was well-made. Maybe the factor common to both was the intention to strive after 'objectivity', to exclude the subjective personality of the composer from the work. But yet, SS's music is often directly expressive and communicative as in his impressive opera 'Samson et Delilah'.
Inside 'Répons'.

It is utterly apalling to try to exercise ‘power’ in music life, instead of letting people be free to like and to think what they want. PB’s ‘idealism’ made him actively try to get Dutilleux out of the way, who was so much more musical than he. PB could have stopped at offering his opinions and let other people make sense of them. In the eighties I had an interesting conversation with producer Yves Prin of Radio France who insisted to give attention to Dutilleux, against the wind blowing from the IRCAM bunker; on the wall a big poster with Dutilleux’ friendly and somewhat anxious face. ‘We don’t like the Boulez ideology here at all’, he insisted. Composers needing power games to achieve their ends, do that out of a deep-seated insecurity about their work – why would it be necessary? Because music life is ‘too bourgeois’? It did, in the end, not prevent it from recognizing Dutilleux, and fortunately concert life calmly continued to perform the repertoire of really musical composers, old and new.

I’m sorry to say but PB will eventually end-up in an extensive and curious footnote in music history, and he will not become part of the regular repertoire of music: he may remain a touch stone of sonic art, as presented in the margins of music life: specialized festivals, specialized ensembles giving pleasure to specialized minority audiences, nothing wrong with that. But only if there is still some money around for such things.

After a particularly jolly performance of 'Tombeau'.

For people who think PB had already long ago entered history and that his ideas have become outdated, there is the recent ‘affaire Ducros’:

This was the result of the emergence in France of Boulezbianism as a kind of politbureau pressure. Nowadays, fortunately, they have younger composers like Nicolas Bacri, Karol Beffa, Guillaume Connesson and Richard Dubugnon who revive the multifarious and inspired music life of prewar France when the country still was an international hub of musical creativity and inspiration.

Boulez' house. On the left, the 12 steps of the chromatic scale towards the sublime, as pointed to by the pyramid on the right.

Stravinsky strongly criticized Boulez’ recordings of the Sacre, especially the passages which were sloppily done. I don’t think he was a good conductor…. PB tried to perform an orchestral score as clearly as possible and advocated ignoring biographical and historical circumstances and context, which isolates the notes from tradition and real life. His approach was always structuralist and dry and often merely dull. He tried to play the notes, and not what is in between or behind or underneath the notes. An overreaction to over-romanticized performing styles.

Somewhere in 2008 or 2009 I had an interesting conversation with Gergiev about new music in Russia, about the loads of new Russian scores he is regularly sent. Many of them are explosions of wild dissonance and complexities, covering pages so large that they have to be turned by two people at a time. After composers were liberated from obligatory traditionalism, they felt they had to catch-up with the west to ‘develop’, to ‘modernize’. But Gergiev was perplexed rather than interested, as it seemed because of the unrealistic writing. Soviet Russia put a living thing, tradition, into a cage for political purposes, but it still survived there, and we have Shostakovich as a result – in spite of the cage. Now that Russian music is free, composers chose another cage, out of free will, like in the west. They want to follow the 'newest' and the 'most advanced' and look to composers like Boulez, who meanwhile has become an old hat and his life work completely outdated, without redeeming musical features, in the West.

PB had his own way of doing things.

The quite general irritation in music life about PB is not merely about his work, but about an ideology he did his best to spread at the expense of ideas of freedom, variety, diversity. Someone who set-out, because of his lack of understanding music life, to do such damage to a fragile culture, invites strong reactions. If he had quietly composed (like Dutilleux), and conducted his stuff, and wrote about it in purely technical and aesthetic terms, his work would have been one of the postwar possibilities, he would have been appreciated for his further development of sonic art as an alternative to music for people who got tired of ‘expression’, ‘pathos’, ‘spirituality’, ‘the human heart’ and the like, and wanted to be refreshed by pure sound and its intricate and often very interesting patterns. For nervous, anxious people, or people suffering from insomnia, pieces like Pli selon Pli offer balm to what has remained of their soul. But it has been his stubborn attacks upon musical culture and his insisting upon a historicist view of 20C music history, which is ENTIRELY wrong, and which is – by the way – currently being revised in academia (begun by Richard Taruskin in his monumental History of Music), which still needs to be peeled away – because there are still many people in charge of 'contemporary music' who do really believe that stuff.

I cannot resist the temptation to mention again the absurdist Darmstadt ‘piece’ that is the result of ignorant people taking the type of ideology of PB seriously and ‘develop’ it further down the line:

Is this going 'too far'? Destroying violins as a 'happening'.... what is the connection with Boulez' work? Well, if you do away with the value framework of a living tradition, any sound material can be considered material for new works. If combined with the ideology of progress, you have to transcend boundaries and limitations all the time, to keep the 'revolution' going. Every stage in this process requires unheard-of things. Eventually, there is nothing left to transcend, and then theatrical gestures remain as a means of 'newness' and 'transgression of boundaries', and then, destruction as such becomes acceptable, especially of 'the violin', the symbol of an old, 'worn-out' tradition. And then you get people like this 'composer' who, in Darmstadt of course, tries to keep the spirit of nonconformism alive.

A good example of 'giving teeth to the philistines'.

Boulez's home with the four pots with the parameters: pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre.

B’s infatuation with Bayreuth was because of his identification with Wagner, cultivating the illusion that also he was such a historic musical figure of importance and meaning. His Ring was, to many people and I am among them, mediocre at best, too fast, and not giving space for the singers to breath, and the lines lacking the singing, expressive quality that Wagner always insisted he wanted. In conducting, and especially Wagner, there is a difference between volume and intensity and for PB only the first seemed to exist. PB wanted to ‘cleanse’ Wagner’s music from the traditional dust of overblown pathos, a good idea, but he exaggerated into the opposite direction. 

Daniel Barenboim: “Pierre Boulez has radically changed music itself as well as its reception in society.” This totalitarian utterance suggests that ‘music’ is a thing, a communal project, which can be changed by the people in charge of it at will. Was PB in charge of music? Again a historicist projection of a streamlined music history, entirely in contradiction with reality, product of postwar modernist ideology which wanted to defend a fragile position.

Coaching his ballet 'Pli selon Pli'.

An appropriate way of remembering PB seems to me, paraphrasing Heinrich Heine: "As long as he lived, he was immortal."

Later addendum:

There are still people around in music life, running its institutions, who really do believe the stuff PB spread around, and who fall for its totalitarian pretensions (PB: "I am a 300% leninist"):

Boulez was beyond a game-changer, a musician who had emphatically and indelibly shifted the way we perceive art, a person beyond being merely an influence: an absolute icon of quality and precision and musical excellence whose intellegence, wisdom and passion set down a critical marker in the evolution of European culture. Mary Miller, general and artistic director of Bergen National Opera. Poor Norway! 1)


In times of confusion and cultural chaos, something that seems to offer security, clarity, control, and Truth, is for some people a great source of compensation. In the same way totalitarian regimes are preferred by populations in times of distress, as we have seen in history and still can see outside Europe. And such regimes fear freedom, pluralism and intelligence.

A corner in PB's home which he always tried to avoid to look at, but always knew was there.

A piled-up collection of serious misconceptions was ventilated at PB's funeral service held in Paris:

Laurent Bayle, president of the Philharmonie de Paris, recalled Boulez’ creative achievements including Boulez’ lifelong disdain for ‘les invalides de la nostalgie’. The most moving and evocative homage was delivered ex tempore by the architect Renzo Piano, recalling Boulez’ lifelong search for beauty: ‘Beauty will save the world’.

We see that among PB’s creative achievements can now be found the disdain for the nostalgic invalids, with which will have been meant the poor people who still hold the music of the past in some respect, while we are supposed to know that those old white males from utterly un-modern times have nothing to say to us, we who are so happy listening to the Hammer Without a Master, living in a glass and steel skyscraper in La Défense. Quite remarkable that the president of the Philharmonie de Paris is thus disqualifying what is mostly going-on in his own building, where the core repertoire is regularly performed by the Orchestre de Paris.

Of mr Piano’s sense of beauty we know enough:

Centre Pompidou, Paris

An extension in a 19C quarter

Office buildings in Rotterdam (in the middle: R Piano)

The idea that beauty might save the world, is a beautiful one. Unfortunately PB and his friends were/are people least qualitied to put such idea in practice.

Sometimes one thinks: the world gets what it deserves.


Addendum 27/3/16:

A player from the Chicago Symphony speaks-out, with a following discussion demonstrating that postwar modernism is still an open wound, in one way or another:  

If this player had expressed his views during PB's life time, he probably would have been fired from the orchestra.


1) In case readers have forgotten what 'Leninism' means, I quote from an article in Lapham's Quarterly:

'In his “Hanging Order” telegram of August 11, 1918, Lenin instructed communists to execute refractory peasants by public hanging: “This needs to be accomplished in such a way that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know, and scream out.” From its beginning and throughout much of its existence, the Soviet state relied on fear for its hold on power. The show trials of the 1930s continued a Bolshevik pedagogy that inculcated obedience by way of spectacular terror.'


  1. Very amusing. Pierre Boulez a "footnote".
    What's your prediction for yourself, Mr. Borstlap?
    Good luck to you!

    1. A thorough revision of 20C music history is underway, begun with Richard Taruskin's 'History of Western Music' (OUP), demonstrating the entirely wrong approach of established music histories of the last half century which project an ideological vision upon the past. What is music history? The music which is actually written and performed, or which is written and rejected by the performance culture? Historical narratives change according to increased insight. Read the arguments.... check the facts.....

    2. It's about time the myth-making which passes for analysis was exposed. You're doing a great job!!

    3. Thank you.... Richard Taruskin has already sawed a couple of legs from under the mythological tabernacle in his History of Western Music (OUP). Also, Herbert Pauls (Canadian musicologist) did a marvellous job by his extensive and thorough research: