Of Signposts and Labyrinths

It is fair to say that there is little consensus among musicians over the lasting power of the legacy of Pierre Boulez, not least within a group of composers such as the Severnside Composers Alliance – to which I am proud to deliver this paper today – that is brought together as a community by a range of geographical coordinates rather than some particular aesthetic creed. Needless to say, it is precisely the variety of opinions that come to be expressed and to contrast one another on an occasion like this that makes the debate so intriguing. And so, when I started to contemplate the idea of a talk that would address the question of Boulez’s legacy, it appeared to me that paradoxically there would hardly be any value, other than proofing one’s own convictions, in dealing with the matter from a full-frontal angle, so to speak. The point that I have chosen to focus on in order to specifically engage with that question, is not whether his aesthetics, whether his personal solutions, means and methods may stand as a lasting contribution to musical knowledge. On one hand, it is undeniable that a number of Boulez’s compositions have become established landmarks on the musical landscape – and we can all recognise that; at the same time, and this is of course not a new phenomenon, they seem to stimulate, roughly in equal measure, either sustained interest or – no less sustained – contention and, sometimes, animosity. To some composers, and I do count myself among those, Boulez’s ideas and techniques have had, and retain, the potential to fertilize invention, which could well be said to be one measure of artistic legacy; to others, however, his music appears, on the contrary, sterile – when not altogether misguided.

Yet, and it is worth pointing this out, such diverging positions do not have to be interpreted as antagonistic. They can be understood – in the best cases, at least – as simply symptomatic of the heterogeneity of compositional practices that characterizes our time. They are a natural upshot of the compulsion for composers to ground their languages on personal affinities in a cultural landscape which has become so multi-dimensional and so multi-facetted that the very concept of musical canon as a shared store of accreted knowledge has become unsustainable and obsolete. Postmodern canons are individualized narratives, private webs spun from that maze of possibilities that has become so readily available to all of us; they are localised and personal, portable, their make-up primarily contingent on aesthetic congeniality.

And so, nowadays, no leading composer, past or present, whatever their status or achievements, is inescapable. Their contributions may be taken on – and carried forward – by some, left out by others; ultimately, they form nodes on a vast musical map where the paths of their successors may, or may not, get to pass and intersect. One question, therefore, that the recent death of Pierre Boulez has brought me to reflect upon is not so much whether his musical legacy may be assessed as lasting or not, but, rather, and more fundamentally: what does the very notion of musical legacy mean today, how does it manifest itself, how does it feed creation and invention? Boulez himself did address these matters more or less directly in his writings and, in themselves, his comments on the subject, both original and discerning, constitute in fact an intriguing aspect of his legacy. I will therefore turn to them for clues to finding elements of answers to those questions; in particular, I will look at how Boulez envisaged the relationship of the composer to the works of others, what his own influences have been and through what kinds of mechanism they translated into his poetics.

. . . . .

By way of an preamble to that discussion, I would like to give an overview of Boulez’s body of writings and to explain how they are organised in current publication, since they provide the primary source of reference for this paper.

Boulez’s collected writings occupy today three large volumes, in addition to which a number of books of conversations and correspondence have been published over the last 40 years.

Prior to 1981, four books were released, three of which have been translated into English: On Music Today, based on the lectures given by Boulez at Darmstadt in the late fifties, appeared in 1964; a collection of critical essays written between 1948 and 1962, Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, was published in 1966; and Conversations with Célestin Deliège, the edited transcript of an in-depth interview originally recorded for the Belgian radio, came out in 1975 and sees Boulez reflecting over his own compositional output up to, and including, the 1972 version of …explosante-fixe….

Then, in 1981, was published a first book of collected writings under the editorial direction of musicologist and scholar Jean-Jacques Nattiez. Entitled Points de repère (meaning ‘landmarks’, or ‘signposts’), it contains an extensive collection of articles that Boulez either had left out of Stocktakings or had written after. That first book was updated in 1985 with a revised edition, of which a slightly augmented version was published in English the following year under the title Orientations. The book is divided into three parts: Part One focuses on Boulez’s poetics, Part Two brings together texts that he wrote about other composers, and Part Three looks back at his involvement with the musical scene from the fifties up to 1980.

From 1995, Points de repère was completely reworked after a much more exhaustive collection of writings had been gathered and catalogued, as part of a doctoral research project conducted under Nattiez’s supervision, to the extent that each of the three parts of the original text would ultimately give rise to an entire, separate volume. That year saw the publication of the first of those volumes, Points de repère I, with texts covering the period from 1948 to 1963 – during which Boulez wrote substantially about his own musical language: this first collection, as Nattiez explains, portrays Boulez the composer. Published ten years later in 2005, the second volume, Points de repère II, gives access to Boulez the conductor – writing in great length on the repertoire he performs, on other conductors and composers, and paying tribute to various personalities who have had an influence on his career. Points de repère III, also published in 2005, is subtitled ‘Music lessons’ and presents the texts of Boulez’s classes at Collège de France, the higher education and research institution where he held a professorial chair from 1976 to 1995: this third volume focuses on the voice of Boulez the theorist and teacher.

From that triptych, totalling about 1,800 pages, only the essays that had already appeared in Orientations and Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship have been translated into English so far. To my knowledge, three other texts are also available in English translation: the Boulez-Cage Correspondence (published in 1993) and two further books of conversations – Thoughts on Conducting (1996) and Boulez on Conducting (2003). A volume of correspondence between Boulez and ethnomusicologist André Shaeffner, as well as five further books of conversations, all published in French in the last 15 years or so, have yet to be translated into English.

That means that only a relatively small proportion of the entire literature authored or co-authored by Boulez is readily available in English language today, with very little from 2000 onwards. This relative paucity of translated material might reflect a lack of appetite for Boulez’s later intellectuality among the English-speaking readership, or perhaps it is simply a project in waiting. After all, the English translation of his first book, On Music Today, only came out eight years after its original publication in 1963. Not unexpectedly, the tone of Boulez’s writings have become somewhat less polemical with time. But his ideas and battle horses have remained strikingly consistent throughout his entire career, and it is not unusual to see him employ similar metaphors or analogies from one decade to the other.

. . . . .

Let’s now return to wider question of legacy.

Composers seek and find their voices within the musical universe in which they happen to exist. Our time is one of individuated practices, techniques, grammars, systems, where notions of artistic legacy and influence have shifted from what they were in an era dominated by a cohesive compositional tradition and a standard musical canon that grew alongside it. Whether the explosion of languages and the waning of the authority of the received canon are two sides of the same coin or a cause-and-effect is another discussion altogether; but what I am keen to emphasize here is that legacy cannot – can no longer – be assessed against ideological criteria: now more than ever perhaps, and at all levels, influences are individual and isolated choices that composers make freely, particular affinities that they come to experience, more often than not by chance. Furthermore, so personal are the systems, so individuated are the languages that have assumed significant importance in the last 75 years or so, that hardly any methods, any poetics that are associated with them can be followed as such without leading to imitation, impersonation almost. And so, today, the works that a composer decides to elect as models, those works that make it to his or her private canon, so to speak, are not – and cannot be – what to aspire to; they are, instead, where to go from, points of departure – in other words, they are no longer ideals to emulate: they are chosen as models by virtue of the potentialities they are felt to bear, rather than their exemplarity.

Indeed, the potentiality of the model, as opposed to concepts such as value, exemplification or authority, is a notion that is particularly dear to Boulez. An important work, for him, is first and foremost a work that is ‘interesting’ – that is, a work from which one is able to draw new ideas that will then feed their own poetics. Boulez was always critical of composers who would allow themselves to be seduced – or, as he puts it, ‘hypnotised’ – by such or such aspect of some other composer’s syntax and to adopt it unquestioningly. He saw in those all-to-easy ridings a case of ‘epigonism’ (a term defined as a lesser imitation of an artist by a later generation, even though he would generally be pointing not so much to imitators of composers from the past, but to followers of their own contemporaries from the ’50s onwards). These epigones, he wrote in 1963, rush with voracity on a specific means, of which they of course see neither the origin, nor the necessity, as they take it in isolation from all logical line of thought; they turn it into standardized applications and, having quickly exhausted its apparent appeal, finding themselves unable to grasp its internal rigour, they have to find a new air supply, at all costs: the ants’ nest awaits the shock that will get it agitated and create a commotion. One will agree that such a practice has more to do – to put it crudely – with mess of ideas than with composition. (Penser la musique aujourd’hui, 1963, pp. 17-18)

This quote is certainly typical of Boulez at his most polemical, but if we look beyond its virulency and caricatural colour, we find it implicitly revealing of how he envisages the notion of influence from one composer to another. He clearly expresses fierce contempt for the lack of a logically organised musical consciousness on the part of the composer – a lack of methodology that, he claims, can only lead to the anecdotal. He is dismissive of a fetishistic approach towards borrowed techniques that, as philosopher Lambert Dousson reads it, ultimately consists in “making legible, audible, the material as well as the process of production that shaped it”. Incidentally, Boulez echoed that view in conversation with Michel Archimbaud in 2015: it is interesting, he says, talking about the benefits for composers of seeking food for thought from other artistic disciplines, to compare Cézanne with some of his contemporaries, famous at the time and completely forgotten today. We find that the latter use mechanical processes that can be very quickly deciphered and where systematism settles. In Cézanne, by contrast, as we don’t exactly understand the transcription process [from the landscape he sees to the painting he makes of it], that leaves us with a certain margin of mystery – which is the sign of a great creative artist. (Entretiens, 2016, p. 55)

Boulez’s position regarding epigonism does not preclude, of course, modes of influence that would avoid the pitfalls of fetishism. In fact, far from rejecting any form of appropriation by composers of the technical legacies of their predecessors or their contemporaries, Boulez did repeatedly defend the notion that music cannot be created out of nothing, that all concepts are inherited: you are always dependent upon a certain historical tradition, he claims, and are part of a culture that feeds you. Yet, as he pointed out in a lecture at Collège de France in 1978, that relationship with historical tradition operates on each individual artist in a very unique way, since it is ultimately contingent on one’s innate dispositions; the transmission of musical inheritance – what he calls métier in his writings – is, he says, “extremely random and depends, above all, on a personal profile that becomes clearer and emerges gradually through favoured encounters where choice and chance share responsibilities.” (Idée – Réalisation – Métier, 1978)

Indeed, that idea of the ‘encounter’ is key to Boulez’s conception of influence as a genuinely productive force. Encountering a musical text, “learning to invent according to the works of others”, as he once wrote, is best achieved, in his view, through what he refers to as ‘creative analysis’ – a process which consists, essentially, in apprehending the analysed work as a potentiality rather than a finality. In its purpose as well as its approach, the composer’s analytical encounter with a work differs from the musicologist’s: it is concerned not with describing or expounding, but with inferring and, indeed, creating. As French academic Anne Boissière has pointed out, “analysis is creative inasmuch as it relates to the problematic character of the work, that stands as a potential from which the composer will deduce a work yet incommensurate with its model.” (Geste, interprétation, invention selon Pierre Boulez)

From the composer’s perspective, the work of a predecessor – whether from a recent past or from more distant times – may therefore be considered to bear genuine musical legacy if it affords him to derive original solutions from an analytical encounter. In other words, it is in the potential it presents, through creative analysis, for further inference and sustained invention, that a work may be said to hold a legacical value.

Thus conceived, legacy is at once intrinsic and extrinsic to the work, a latent quality revealed by a particular type of hermeneutical experience that, in effect, aims to actively participate in an historical tradition that embeds the productive dialogue one engages with the work through seeking to find “not a general truth but a particular truth, transitory and subjective, and to graft one’s own imagination on the imagination of the analysed composer”.

The most tempting situation when analysing the work of another composer, Boulez claims, “is to create a labyrinth from another labyrinth, to superimpose one’s own labyrinth onto the composer’s: not to try in vain to reconstruct the composer’s own process, but to create, from the uncertain image one may have of it, one’s own process. Productive analysis is probably, in the most casual case, false analysis.”

. . . . .

I would like to conclude this paper, which is only the start of a reflection on the concept of musical legacy, with two more quotes by Boulez. The first is the answer that he gave only a few months before his death to the writer Michel Archimbaud, who asked him if there were any young composers with whom he thought to have a link of filiation: Filiation, he said, “is often a form of repetition, and I’m not interested in repetition. However, if some musicians may have been interested in some of my works, or if they have been able to get something out of them, why not…”

And to end on a more personal note, this is what he said to the same Archimbaud on the impact a composition teacher can have on a student: “If the student wants a particular content, you cannot deny it to them; but you can show them what is possible or impossible to do from a formal point of view. It is a very difficult position to hold because you are aware of the negative, possibly even destructive, influence that you risk having on the student. And you could also get it wrong, in case for instance someone is a late developer. You can break someone if you are too hard with them, but if you are too kind it is useless… What matters is that you give something to think about to the young person who starts composing.”

Well, I first read Boulez’s book, On Music Today when I was just starting to develop as a composer. That little book certainly gave the not-so-young person that I was then ‘something to think about’. In particular, it gave me early on the impetus to seek through the act of composition that rare and fragile point where intellectual rigour meets expression, where musical form and emotion become one. And I have little doubt that through the compositions and writings that Boulez leaves after him, he will give something to think about to quite a few young persons who are yet to start composing.


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