Boulez in progress

Paul Driver

Boulez has been the omnipresent conscience of post-war music. He has applied to his own music rigid criteria of method and historical validity, and revised many works again and again, often withdrawing them altogether. He has become a martyr figure somewhat after the fashion of Schoenberg, also self-appointed to a role of revolutionary innovator; the special prize Boulez has paid is not increasing isolation but creative sterility – compositions have flowed ever more slowly from his pen. (Répons, 1980, for ensemble and live electronics, is his only substantial piece in a decade, and it remains unfinished and experimental.) Boulez’s phenomenal scrupulosity has been directed outwards as well – in numerous lectures, articles, interviews, tirades (and part of a treatise) which have exerted wide and possibly dangerous influence over younger composers. These writings, though, have not all been readily accessible in English hitherto. While the scintillating volume of Conversations with Célestin Deliège (Eulenburg, 1976) and the refractory theoretical work Boulez on Music Today (Faber, 1971) are – or were – easily obtainable, the English translation of Boulez’s first book of essays, Notes of an Apprenticeship, published in New York by Knopf in 1968, remains exceptionally hard to find in this country. Now the second collection, Points de Repère, issued in France in 1981 (revised 1985), is available, in a rearranged format with a translation by the late Martin Cooper, under the title Orientations.

It is a pity that we do not have both collections freshly to hand, for any consideration of Boulez’s importance as a composer-writer needs to take into account the major items in Notes of an Apprenticeship. There is some overlap between Notes and Orientations. Relatively little in the new book matches the scale or temerity of the earlier pieces: it is more of a compilation of (perspicacious) sleeve-notes and the speeches of a sixty-year old smiling public man than the bewildering utterances of a musical firebrand. Yet there are a few stern challenges, and the essay (1963) on the third piano sonata (‘Sonate, que me veux-tu?’), along with the lecture (1961) on the Deuxième Improvisation sur Mallarmé, is of key theoretical interest.

Boulez follows in a long line of composer-writers: in France alone one thinks of Rameau, Berlioz, Debussy and Messiaen; Schumann, Weber and Wagner are great German examples, and Schoenberg is the great Austrian example of which Boulez is no doubt keenly aware. Among Boulez’s contemporaries, Stockhausen, Elliott Carter and John Cage are notably eloquent and prolific commentators on themselves. Boulez’s writing covers a considerable range: he is not just a theorist like Messiaen in Technique of My Musical Language or Hindemith in The Craft of Musical Composition, but also on occasion a critic like Berlioz, Debussy or Carter (though never a regular reviewer), a historian (everywhere a historian!), the practical, down-to-earth thinker that Schoenberg so often is, and a prose-poet in a rather lamentable post-Mallarmé, post-Surrealist mould of exclamation-without-capitalisation (such pieces as ‘Demythologising the conductor’, ‘Periform’, ‘Beethoven: Tell me’ and the tributes to Adorno, Steinecke and Varèse are fairly pretentious and irritating). His style can be both brilliant and verbose. He is often wordy and repetitious, and equally prone to compress more matter into a space than most readers are comfortable with, while his allusiveness, fondness for impenetrable quotations from Mallarmé and Claudel, his natural agility of mind, and the book’s enormous scope, make for a highly centripetal read. But amid pages of pure bafflement he can be simply coruscating, and he repeatedly evinces the French dandy’s aptitude for rhetorical flourish or caustic phraseology.

His fund of metaphors and analogies for illustrating musical thoughts is large: it is no trouble at all for him to bring in Turner’s painting of Windsor when talking about the dreamlike first presentation of Valhalla in the music of The Rheingold, or Cézanne’s landscapes when considering ‘ideas of mystery, poetry and dream’ in Debussy which ‘take on a profound significance only when they are achieved by precision, in full daylight’. He can compare a catalogue by Berlioz of the effects that might be created with a vast imaginary orchestra to the end of de Sade’s Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, and later in the same article suggest – not without autobiographical reference – that ‘Berlioz’s written compositions make up only the scattered peices of a Great Opus that resembles in this respect that definitive Livre towards which Mallarmé was working.’ He can even compare Messiaen’s personality to ‘some great baroque building’.

The translation of Points de Repère – which can’t have been an easy job – conveys a basically sympathetic tone of voice, no matter whether Boulez is drily analysing, disputatiously lecturing, proselytising on behalf of modern music, or coyly accepting a public award. Faber have reordered the original material under more convenient headings, so that now all the pieces on compositional technique and aesthetic theory are grouped together in Part One, all those on individual composers assembled as ‘Exemplars’ in Part Two, while the third part focuses on practical matters which have drawn a response from Boulez as concert organiser, conductor and director of a research centre, and also includes several quite interesting obituary tributes. This layout is a distinct improvement, and Orientations also has the advantage of containing three pieces absent from either of the French editions: a sleeve-note for The Rite of Spring, a longish TLS article, ‘Technology and the Composer’ (1977), and an interview transcription called ‘Oriental Music: A Lost Paradise?’ (1967).

The chief value of Orientations is in the chance it gives to follow the workings of an exceptionally powerful conscience in various departments of the musical profession. Whether Boulez writes as composer, conductor or organiser, as analyst, critic or historian, it is always with the same reformist zeal and implicit belief in the general perfectibility of things. He is evidently committed in a Sartrean Existentialist sense to the consequences of his every action, private or public, musical or political; the unexamined motive, the intuition unimproved by critical reflection, are abhorrent to him. ‘I pity those poets who are guided by instinct alone,’ he writes, quoting Baudelaire in the ‘Interior Duologue’ which prefaces Boulez on Music Today: ‘I believe them to be incomplete ... Somewhere in every poet there must be a critic.’ And later in the book he speaks of the ‘absolute necessity for a logically organised consciousness, which avoids slipping into the anecdotal’. This is Boulez the cerebrator, familiar from his emotionless appearance on the concert platform and fastidiously cool way with the romantic classics. But where do the impersonal rigours of conscience and consciousness – the French word conscience covers both – actually lead, and what do they achieve? The question can be considered according to the three section-divisions of Orientations: Boulez as composer-theorist, aesthetician and man of action.

In his theoretical strivings Boulez has been as ambitious as anyone in recent years, if not quite as thorough as, say, Milton Babbitt, nor, in the end, as convincing. The objective for both was to find laws which governed the combination of tones in a serial as opposed to tonal universe, and pertained only to that universe: which did not, like Schoenberg’s, allow for the possibility of what Boulez has always despised as a tonal-serial mish-mash, as when, in Schoenberg’s fourth String Quartet or Violin or Piano Concertos, a 12-tone melodic structure is allied to a simulacrum of conventional tonal harmony and shot through with ‘academic’ rhythms. In the new dispensation – that of the post-war composers whose God was Webern – the 12-tone series was to be expanded in all directions to cover parameters of loudness, timbre and duration as well as pitch. Not any longer a thematic strand, a motif, which might be hardly distinguishable from the thematic kernel of an advanced piece of tonal music, the series would be ultimately regarded as ‘the germ of a developing hierarchy based on certain psycho-acoustical properties, and endowed with a greater or lesser selectivity, with a view to organising a FINITE ensemble of creative possibilities connected by predominant affinities, in relation to a given character’. Phew! ‘This ensemble of possibilities is deduced from an initial series by a FUNCTIONAL generative process ...’

Boulez on Music Today is an earnest, laborious attempt to articulate the true generative grammar of modern music, and Boulez discusses some exciting technical possibilities. He considers the opening up of new musical spaces not divided (‘striated’) by the familiar octave but by other ‘modules’, or even – so as to produce an absolutely smooth continuum – by none at all. He systematises the use of heterophony (i.e. slightly out-of-phase versions of the same melody) – a practice previously ruled out by tonal music’s strictures against parallel unisons, fifths and octaves. He follows Schoenberg in castigating octave doublings (these will resemble holes in the structure through which the seductive breeze of tonality might blow back in), and extends the ban to thirds and other intervals which are ‘strongly gravitational’ from a tonal point of view. He outlines logical, autonomous harmonic procedures, proper to the new serial aesthetic, by which a complex of pitches and durations can be ‘multiplied’ by other such complexes, to obtain ‘very evolved ensembles’ having in the end ‘only a very distant relationship with the primitive series of 12 sounds’. Such ensembles of sound – blocs sonores – especially characterise Boulez’s own Improvisations sur Mallarmé; though, needless to say, his practice does not always unambiguously accord with his theory.

These are important new concepts and have been widely noted. The three chapters in Orientations intended as a basis for more text of Boulez on Music Today – a project, like so many of his compositions, which remains unfinished – add but little to the theoretical picture: a few thoughts on the aetiology of notation systems and their future development, and a typically schematic, binary (Boulez has the most dualistic mind of any Frenchman) delineation of the nature of musical form-form being seen by Boulez Lévi-Straussianly as ‘the structuring of local structures, which are the content’. Of greater theoretical interest are a chapter, based on two letters written to John Cage in 1957, called ‘The System Exposed’, which reveals all the permutation-al secrets of two of Boulez’s austerest early works, Polyphonie X and Structures for two pianos; ‘Constructing an Improvisation’, where he touches on his concept of mobile form (‘improvisation for me means the forcible insertion into the music of a free dimension’) and discusses new techniques of instrumentation; and ‘Sonate, que me veuxtu?’, in which he expounds a musical poetics derived conjointly from Mallarmé’s late experimentations with the idea of the ultimate Book, and the experience of reading novels.

Formal mobility – the freedom to move within a work from points A to C without having to pass through B – and the ideal of a wholly malleable, proliferating, multi-dimensional, labyrinthine structure have increasingly preoccupied Boulez. ‘It must,’ he asserts, ‘be our concern in future to follow the examples of Joyce and Mallarmé and to jettison the concept of a work as a simple journey starting with a departure and ending with an arrival.’ It must, he insists, be conceded that ‘the modern conception of the maze in a work of art is certainly one of the most considerable advances in Western thought, and one upon which it is impossible to go back.’ The score of Boulez’s third piano sonata is physically constructed so as to allow alternative routes through it for the performer: one of the five movements, or formants, ‘Constellation-Miroir’ (double of the unpublished ‘Constellation’) is printed in two colours of ink-green for one kind of available material (points), red for the other (blocs); the unpublished ‘Strophe’ will have ‘mobile pagination’; ‘Trope’ invites the player to begin his cyclical journey through its four sections (Texte, Parenthèse, Commentaire, Glose) wherever he likes, and it comes in a convenient spiral binding. The whole work, were it ever finished, and the développants Boulez envisages in the article as complementing the formants added, would indeed be a veritable approximation to the Mallarméan Livre: at once an ‘unfolding’ and a ‘folding-up’, a book supposed to be ‘the total expansion of the letter’, drawing ‘mobility from the letter’ and, purely as a physical object, functioning as a ‘spiritual instrument’. ‘Such a book,’ Boulez writes, ‘would thus constitute a maze, a spiral in time.’ Even as it stands, the sonata is a sufficiently enticing monument to the terminology of linguistic and acoustical science.

The maze metaphor can be exchanged at will for a map metaphor. In Conversations with Célestin Deliège, Boulez likens his sonata to ‘the street-map of a town: you don’t change the map, you perceive the town as it is, but there are different ways of going through it, different ways of visiting it.’ (Berio used a similar figure of speech when describing his large orchestral-choral work, Coro.) A third metaphor is that of reading a novel, an activity that is also, Boulez points out here, rather like entering a maze. ‘As you get deeper into a book there ought to be a more or less complex texture because you have gradually been accumulating knowledge; in other words, you do not read page 1 in the same way as page 30. Page 1 is simple, whereas page 30 is complex because it contains all the knowledge you have gained from pages 1-29. This is what I sometimes do in music; developments accumulate and become tropes grafted on to other tropes, which in turn are superimposed on yet other tropes so that one gets different accumulations of richness.’ This is virtually Boulez’s main aesthetic idea, and many people were surprised to realise that a composer at first thoroughly identified with dryness and austerity should have a strong appetite for richly proliferating musical forms and works notable for their narrative complexity. If an original attraction to Webern’s style provided Boulez with his basic vocabulary, it also left him dissatisfied with what he saw as Webern’s use of increasingly simple and ‘compartmentalised’ forms. Berg’s music, on the other hand, conveyed ‘a sense of continuous development with an enormous degree of ambiguity – what I call a romanesque or novel-like development – that is, we no longer have a simple architectural development with points of symmetry ... but on the contrary we have much more intricate forms which virtually never cease to develop and imply no return to early material. That is the great discovery of the German tradition.’ The example of Berg, and of Wagner and Mahler too, all of whom Boulez has re-assessed, and frequently performed, having overcome a prior antipathy, helps the late-serial composer out of the impasse of abbreviated, jejune and over-elliptical forms: the extended work is again made feasible by appealing, not to the symmetries and architectonics of 19th-century music, but to the ever-deepening narratives of the 19th-century novel.

Boulez is keen to produce not only extended pieces but also the kind of ‘global’ work aspired to by Mallarmé and actually achieved by Wagner and Proust: ‘All the works I write are basically different facets of one central work, of one central concept.’ It is remarkable in itself to be a composer whose personality unites the inclinations of a Mallarmé, a Wagner and a Proust: insofar as Boulez succeeds in his global aim, he is showing how mobility of form à la Mallarmé, and the proliferation, the infinite extension of form à la Wagner and the novel, may coincide and the coincidence result in compositions of original beauty. But the two aesthetics are also very different, and a possible deconstruction of some of Boulez’s notions might begin here.

For isn’t it really one thing to make a composition resemble Mallarmé’s ‘open book’, where the physical specification of the work automatically endows it with a swirl of interpretative possibilities, and another thing to proliferate forms through time and pursue the greatest richness of narrative? Synchronic and diachronic versions of complexity can get in each other’s way, and they do so in Boulez’s Domaines (1961-9) for solo clarinet and six instrumental groups, where the composer’s desire for mobility of form – the clarinet and groups play alternately in an order chosen at random, in the first half, by the clarinettist as he moves on stage from one instrumental ‘do main’ to another, while in the second half, the procedure is simply reversed, with the conductor choosing the groups and the soloist responding – and his equal desire for extension in time have misled him into devising a merely over-long and untypically repetitious musical narrative, one which quite lacks ambiguity or inner life, though the surface gestures are beautiful in themselves.

In any case, it would be difficult for a listener to cope with two such musical processes at work simultaneously, Boulez most nearly makes this possible in his two celebrated works, Le Marteau sans Maître and Pli selon Pli. There are no ‘chance operations’ in the first, but the formal concept realised – three interlocking cycles of vocal and instrumental movements – is very much a Mallarméan business of ‘fold upon fold’, the book interpenetrated by its own letter; and Marteau’s sustained fluctuating narrative, no less than its exotic middle-register sound-world, astonishes and compels. The work for soprano and orchestra, Pli selon Pli, whose titular folds are meant to reveal a ‘portrait of Mallarmé’, is a plausible juxtaposition of apprehensible mobilities – the sounds marvellously levitated and loose-reined – in the three central ‘Improvisations’ (using small orchestra) and unprecedented ‘novelistic’ intricacy in the outer movements for very large orchestra.

It has to be admitted, though, that in the third sonata itself the sense of variable performance routes, of multiple possibility, is hardly perceivable at all in its own right or distinguishable from the noise the piece makes. Boulez’s dogmatism – ‘we must follow the examples of Joyce and Mallarmé’ – has deafened him in this instance to the plain facts of listening: how, essentially, can the ear enjoy the subtlety of alternatives when presented only with the choice that has been made? As composer-pianist David Tudor once said of the piece: ‘With Boulez the form is completely external. In the big section, there’s a breathtaking sound that is just like glass. With one of us younger cats the sound itself would have dictated the form of the work, whereas that section is just a minor insertion in a great big dialectical piece.’ It may be that Boulez authentically creates the audible effect of mobile form only in his orchestral piece of 1974-5, Rituel in memoriam Maderna, in which eight groups of players are for ever shifting in and out of phase with each other, their movements paced by incessant drum-beats, and their interaction and synchronicities, clear but free, building up an austere funereal chant. It is heterophony raised to the status of a form, as well as a spectacular piece of quasi-‘outdoor’ music after the pattern of Berlioz’s Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale.

Not infrequently, the hyper-conscientious Boulez has prescribed one thing and, intentionally or no, done another. Tudor’s remark about the third sonata is indicative, and a similar divergence between conception and result is evident in the two books of Structures (for two pianos) on which Boulez worked from 1951 to 1961. They were intended to be a summa of post-Webernian linguistic discovery – indeed they are total serialism’s monument if it has one. But for the listener they more than anything else comprise a sort of rather beautiful, stringent mood-music, perhaps serviceable during Buddhist meditations. His frantic attention to musical language hasn’t prevented Boulez’s music from appealing, when it appeals, in just the same way as other music: as sound rather than technics. Boulez’s harmony – cool, dry, luminescent – is, in fact, the overwhelmingly distinctive thing about his work, as clearly marked in the early Livre for strings as it is in the more recent Domaines or Rituel: it almost amounts to a stylistic ‘brand’ comparable (though hardly with the composer’s approval) to those unmistakable sound-profiles manufactured by Ligeti, Xenakis, Lutoslawski, Birtwistle, and so many of the best composers of the day. Yes, Boulez’s harmony is a success, and he has gone a considerable way towards solving the main problem of atonal music: how to make the harmony move forward and sound inevitable. Even here, though, inflexibility of theory probably limits the success: one often wishes that Boulez would bend his own rules more than he seems to, more vigilantly seek, when composing, ‘the freshness and instinctive relevance of a trouvaille’ (Alexander Goehr’s phrase), and never inadvertently succumb to the decorative and bland. Creatively, he keeps his hands a bit too clean.

His emphasis on the ‘global’ work has also had some opposite consequences from those intended. Rather than author an epic or, at any rate, seal his oeuvre as a unity in the Balzacian manner, he has practically been inducing a creative block with his endless revision – an evidently fetishistic process which undoes his oeuvre and makes one wonder whether Boulez isn’t so much a Joyce with a ‘work in progress’ as a Penelope continually unstitching her tapestry. And, after all, every work of art should surely aspire to be global, should create a world of its own.

There remains much in Boulez’s gigantic theoretical attempt which is valuable and persuasive, but it is hard to find evidence that his law-making has had any direct and beneficial influence on other composers; while his terminology and systems will certainly have proved an impediment for younger figures fighting through the various smokescreens of ideology which the modern world throws up. It is partly due to Boulez’s influence – and to his fundamental error in believing that works of art come out of a contract with the theoretical future rather than function as a sort of geological record of theoretical calamities – that we currently have (at least in this country) not only an unprecedentedly large number of talented young composers, but amongst them a significant flowering of intensely creative pseudotalent, au fond unmusical talent. Instead of recommending composers to follow their fantasy, search for the suddenly ‘right’ image, devise a music able to have what Montale called a ‘second life’ in the memory and imagination of the listener, he has perhaps preferred to go in for a copious self-dramatisation and gobbledygook. Nevertheless, his own creative works largely fulfil these last criteria.

When we come to Boulez as aesthetician, the complaints are not of inconsistency and dangerous influence – his modifications of position and inveterate canon-forming tendencies mostly add to his lustre as a critic – but only of a tendency to dwell on the morphological aspects of music: the tendency is especially marked here in his essays on Berg’s operas and in the one treating Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire together with his own Marteau. But the density of insight in almost all the Orientations critical pieces is extraordinary. Boulez’s six essays on Wagner are a treasury of observations like: ‘One remarkable feature (of The Ring) is the way in which Wagner uses certain small, strongly characterised groups of instruments in relation to the rest of the orchestra, which is deliberately undifferentiated. Clearly the music owes its character in this sense to the presence of a single instrument or group of instruments; but the absence of certain timbres at given points in the action is also a kind of characterisation.’ Boulez on the ramifications of Wagner’s Leitmotif method, or on such key moments in The Ring as the Alberich-Hagen dialogue at the end of Götterdämmerung, is indispensable reading. His three pieces on Mahler are just as penetrating. They start with the necessary truism, ‘Music does not exclude the biographical in Mahler,’ and go on to embrace formulations crisp, excoriating and magisterial: Mahler’s symphonies ‘are essentially meeting-places of the imaginary theatre, the imaginary novel and the imaginary poem; musical expression asserts its claim to what it has been denied, decides to assume complete responsibility for every possible mode of being, and really becomes philosophy, while escaping the limitations of purely verbal communication.’ The Stravinsky essay, ‘Style or Idea?’, significantly subtitled ‘In Praise of Amnesia’, is a powerful and balanced estimate (1971) of a composer who has always meant ambiguously much to Boulez, and still does. Bartok is briefly discussed, but, as so often in books on 20th-century music, gets rather short shrift, even though Boulez doesn’t hesitate to place him amongst the ‘great five’ of modern music, together with Stravinsky and the Viennese triumvirate, and recognises that he is also, after Stravinsky, ‘the chief modern composer to be completely accepted’. (The influence of a score like The Miraculous Mandarin on Boulez himself would be well worth examining.) The essay, ‘Schoenberg the Unloved?’ (1974), follows over twenty years after the controversial ‘Schoenberg is dead’, but testifies to an unchanged position: ‘I learned to find my way about in Berg’s labyrinths once I had overcome the lack of natural sympathy that proved an initial obstacle. I learned to take a detached view of Webern’s all too shining light, despite the fervour that it aroused. In Schoenberg’s case I am still fascinated by only one relatively short, but important period-though I hasten to add that this includes almost all the chief discoveries of the 20th century.’

Boulez’s angle of vision on 20th-century musical developments has not between Notes of an Apprenticeship and Orientations generally altered very much. Once his sensibility had fully accommodated Wagner, Mahler and Berg, his personal canon could be considered definitively formed, and though it is a high-toned, perhaps invidious list – Bach, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Webern, Berg, Varèse, Stravinsky, Messiaen – it seems to me to provide one of the best frameworks for the evaluation of modern music right up to the present day. Part Two of Orientations should thus genuinely assist readers wanting to orientate themselves in the modern musical field, even if the summary it provides of Boulez’s critical position is neither so accessible nor engaging as that already afforded by the Deliège Conversations of 1977. Orientations contains no material of a later date than 1979.

Boulez’s conscience in matters of performing, promoting and presenting new music finds wholly sympathetic utterance in Part Three of the book. He is absolutely right to fulminate against the rigidity of conventional concert-giving: ‘our idea of concerts resembles a plastic lunch – a roll, a slice of ham and an ice in a sterilised packing – your portion of dream, ready to take away.’ He is right to agitate for concerts in which the emphasis would not be on the self-pleased, passive contemplation of established ‘masterpieces’ (music as an object of worship), but on participation in discovery by performers and audience alike. That this would necessitate new kinds of concert hall, he is lucidly aware; and his refusal to take anything in our concert life for granted even extends to an intelligent probing of the possibilities for inventing new instruments. Now, of course, he has, an institute in Paris (IRCAM) where his research imperatives and others besides are being met. His concerns are not restricted to modern music: he is clearly committed to the development of logical formats for presenting early music and non-Western musics.

Boulez’s acuity and foresight in practical matters come as a tonic for readers who have reached this part of Orientations, and perhaps as a surprise, though we can hardly have let it slip our minds that he is one of the great conductors of the day, as well as a renowned platform expatiator (remember the Round House concerts of the early Seventies). If he has not permanently changed the face of concert-giving in those centres where he has been, principally active – Paris, London, New York, Cleveland – he has nevertheless marked a notch or two on the staff of the impossible. We should be grateful for that ‘dispersion’ of activities, with its attendant ‘exaggerations and risks’, to which he confesses in ‘The Elliptical Geometry of Utopia’, the book’s epilogue: ‘straight lines’, as he puts it, have indeed, not insignificantly, been ‘achieved by means of curves’, and there has certainly been, at the centre of those activities, the requisite ‘firm guiding idea and a clear vision’.