Friday, October 10, 2008

We plough the fields and scatter

In Canada, this weekend is Thanksgiving. For all of us, the Thanksgiving holiday is an ideal time to reflect upon our lives, and to remember the many wonderful things that we are fortunate enough to enjoy. So, here at TBWCTW, what do we have to be thankful for?
  1. The fact that "ordinary person" Stephen Harper does not (yet) have a majority government;
  2. The fact that the current American financial recession has had only a minor impact north of the border;
  3. Free blogging software, and the leisure to use it for the writing of lists;
  4. The good luck to be born into a peaceful and relatively affluent nation;
  5. Our loyal readership Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez?

This may seem an odd thing to be thankful for - isn't he the author of this quotation, familiar from every history of twentieth-century music ever written:
"Anyone who has not experienced -- I do not say understood -- but experienced the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. "
A friend of mine places Boulez, with Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter at the head of the "Unholy Trinity" of mid-century modernists. (I take a certain perverse pleasure in the fact that the initials of the three composers - BBC - are also the initials of the British public broadcaster, which under William Glock was one of the great strongholds of ultra-modernist music in the English-speaking world.) For conservative-minded listeners, Boulez symbolizes everything that is wrong with music today: an ideologically-driven agenda to write in a hypercomplex, atonal style. And we all know what the musical results sound like: arid, dull essays which may be interesting to analyse, but have no possible interest for the listener. This dubious collection of factoids has been elevated practically to the status of conventional wisdom, and with the ascent of minimalism and neo-Romantic composition, no-one feels any reluctance to attack Boulez's music with the most appalling, ignorant criticisms. So, for example, we read the following in a review of a CD of Boulez's piano sonatas:
The Third Sonata exists in five movements, called "formants" in French, "blobs" in English, of which Boulez has completed only two; the other three remain "in progress", we can only hope permanently. . . There's no doubt whatsoever that this sonata represents a huge advance, indeed an epiphany, in Boulez's development as a composer in that it reveals an awareness of the fact that it doesn't matter whether his music is played frontwards, backwards, sideways, upside down, or under water. . . Why bother with these obsolete, emotionally sterile essays? So a '10' for the performance, and a '0' for music of vast intellectual and cultural pretensions, and no substance whatsoever.
It should be obvious that if I submitted an similar review for a CD of music that I don't like ("This performance is terrific, but I still don't like Delius's music. Signed, Osbert") it would be instantly rejected as a biased review, and rightly so. That a similar review is considered acceptable for the music of Boulez shows to what extent polemics against his music have become conventional wisdom. However, some people have taken the time to properly take the measure of Boulez's music: one of my favourite summations of the composer's style comes once again from a CD review:
[M]y image of Boulez differs from that of many others, who picture him as a super-brain, to the exclusion of everything else. I, on the other hand, see him in the long line of French composers besotted with color and the "sensuous form" – the passion for proportion and beauty of line. One confuses Boulez's writings about his music (almost always terrible, unhelpful, and pretentious) with the music itself. I recall in particular one composer-supplied program note to a Cleveland Orchestra performance of Pli selon pli in which he compared the music to Brownian motion. If you found yourself in a kind mood, you'd call it poetry. If you actually know what "Brownian motion" means, you'd more likely call it meadowmuffins. The latter for me. I became so angry at this flummery that the program note actually got in the way of my hearing the music. It took me decades before I came around to this piece, and then only because I'd heard other Boulez works without his critical "help" in the meantime.
This last comment strikes at one of the major problems with contemporary music. The institution of programme notes for concerts has been extremely helpful, allowing the lay listener to learn something about the piece they're about to hear. For historical repertoire, well-written programme notes are now seen as a must for concerts, usually written by the performers themselves. But if you've just commissioned a new work, it seems to be bad form to allow anyone else to write the programme note than the composer, and what you get is either a technical essay filled with incomprehensible jargon or a position statement about the composer's relationship to contemporary composition. (R. Murray Schafer's programme notes are a notable example; downloadable as a package, they combine to form what is essentially the composer's autobiography. Although they are entertaining reading, they are no more useful than Boulez's programme notes in communicating the narrative of the piece to a general audience.) In any case, once a composer has set pen to paper, his programme notes are seen as definitive and are reprinted for every future performance of the piece.

In other words, we have a layer of jargon obscuring the music. No-one would let a writer on Tchaikovsky get away with gibbering about the "Euclidean language of forms" or saying that the music "unfolds like a prism". Before we can expect audiences to identify emotionally with contemporary music, we need to ditch the pseudo-scientific facade and share something of our own impressions of the music - even if it means taking the risk of being maudlin, sentimental or naively pictorial. Audiences may not immediately warm to works like Le marteau sans maitre or Explosante-fixe - to name two impressive Boulez scores - but at least this way they have some chance of experiencing the beautiful colours and exquisite counterpoint in these works with fresh ears.

The first thing they tell you in blog school is not to write paragraphs and paragraphs of unbroken, rambling prose - you need to incorporate a variety of media! So here's a YouTube video of Boulez conducting his Sur Incises.


Alice said...

Hey -- you went to blog school?

Sarah said...

[corrected] Thank you for your insightful and honest essay. As a program annotator, I especially appreciated your observation that "...once a composer has set pen to paper, his programme notes are seen as definitive and are reprinted for every future performance of the piece." When I'm preparing annotations, I sometimes incorporate composers' own words about the inspirations or experiences which led to their composing a piece of music, but I'd rather leave it to the audience to listen on their own and form their own impressions. Listening to music is an entirely subjective experience, and, as you say, overly analytical notes can interfere with pure listening, and can certainly intimidate listeners who are not trained in music. Good program notes provide some context for listening, but they cannot (and should not) supplant the listening experience.

shogart said...

That video was a very visually interesting performance, at the very least... I want to see/hear the rest now. I don't think I'd be as intrigued by a purely sound recording of the piece, though.