Sunday, 22 February 2009

The (Dis)Taste Of Boulez


Pierre Boulez (game of hide and seek ongoing by the looks of it)

I was reading Dialogues With Boulez the other day and thought some of his views about art, music and technique were a bit odd, contradictory perhaps (though as I go on to suggest, he may have his reasons.)
Boulez...the two people who were most striking for me, I met in New York when I was there for the first time in 1952. They were DeKooning and Pollack. Unfortunately, Pollack was completely drunk, so it was a very chaotic conversation because his nose was on the table, practically. With DeKooning, it was different because I went to his atelier and was looking all the series of women he did at that time, in this period. Unfortunately, most of the painters or artists are not really interested in music. We tried at the Pompidou Centre to have musicians and artists have a dialogue and maybe a project or not, but just to exchange ideas - because not a single figure in the plastic arts comes to our concerts at Ircam. (interview from the late 1990s. pg55)
It seems Boulez was interested in these painters and perhaps abstract-expressionism more generally, not that odd you might think, but then consider this from the same series of interviews..
I will begin with Schoenberg, who is, for me, a more important question than Scelsi or Feldman, who are really marginal for me.....
..and, to tell the truth, individuals like Scelsi and Feldman are amateurs for me. They have fancy ideas and the like, but that's not enough; they have no tools.....if you listen to Scelsi - I mean, first, one does not know if he wrote his pieces - that's the main question!. I know he was improvising on a kind of vague electronic instrument and that somebody was transcribing for him. But, I mean, that's very simplistic, certaintly; but there are no ideas, just a kind of atmosphere for a couple of bars and extended to nothing. For me, I don't understand really how it came to be that there has been a kind of big discovery of Scelsi. Myself, I knew him personally. He was a very intelligent man - nice and cultivated.

But, I mean, he was an amateur, simply that. I knew him in 1949, so I followed all his developments. You know, these kind of anarchic people, they are needed from time to time, because they are subverting the kind of academicism to which everybody finally tends. But, as values, these people's ideas have no values. I put in this category Satie, Ives, Cage; I put Scelsi and I put Feldman - people who are provoking thoughts, but who have not the tools to realise their ideas. Or they realise their ideas in a much too simplistic way; you can see that in two seconds.(pgs 17, 19-20)
Pollack and DeKooning are worthy artists (lets say), but Feldman, Scelsi, Cage, Ives and Satie are not, they are 'amateurs' with some interesting, provocative ideas (at best). Scelsi and Feldman are 'really marginal'.

First, here is Feldman in response (not necessarily in direct response to the interview quoted above, i'm not sure what comments he is referring to, either those made in the discussion he mentions and/or those made elsewhere)..
Feldman: 'I once had a wild six hour discussion walking the streets of New York with Boulez, how he is telling me, he is really telling me but he is using Ives, "Oh, Ives, the amateur!" And I think it's absolutely outstanding, I think it's absolutely incredible why one would think about Ives as an amateur. No. He wrote fantastic things, like the conception of the 4th symphony, I'm talking about the one with the four pianos, he never changed anything, Mahler was changing things all the time. Why was he [Ives] an amateur? Because he wasn't a European? A man does all these innovations, he is an amateur, I, for years, I'm still called an amateur. I'm one of the few original people writing music, I'm an amateur! Is it only that -, I never understood that John Cage is an amateur, I'm an amateur, Ives is an amateur. ' (source)
I should state at this point that unlike Jim O'Rourke ('I'm not into Boulez, but that's kind of obvious.'), I like Boulez's music, quite a lot actually.

I also like Feldman and Ives and some Satie, Cage and Scelsi (less so probably but i've not heard all of their music). I don't care whether or not Feldman is or isn't an 'amateur' and I don't care about his 'tools' or 'technique', he said what he wanted to say and I am glad he did, same goes for the rest.

However, Boulez has the right to state his opinion and I appreciate his honesty, also he prefaces everything with the subjective qualifier 'for me' (rightly so, for me, at least.) He makes no claim about any objective knowledge or universal criteria, no need to get upset and go on the defensive because he has criticised one of your favourite composers or something (a fairly common response in my experience, and actually a backhanded compliment, plenty of anti-Boulez invective on the page I used as one source for this post ... http://ronsen.org/boulez/boulez5.html).

My point is (finally), why is it ok for Pollack to throw paint on a canvas but it's not ok for Cage to throw notes onto manuscript paper? (as it were, not sure if Cage actually did that but he did use chance and metaphor, like the I-Ching and mapping star charts onto manuscript paper, or the contour of a rock and so on, somewhat analogous to dripping paint on a canvas).

Technique and 'tools' are essential one might infer from Boulez's discourse about music, that is if one hopes to avoid being cast into the 'margins', but not so for the visual arts (those not that interested in modern art sometimes claim about work like Pollack's that 'I could have done that myself' and/or make an emperor's new clothes analogy, i.e., there is not much technique on show, putatively at least.)

Odd, isn't it (?). Does contemporary/classical music have to be more technical, complex or 'accomplished' than the visual arts to be considered credible or outside of the 'margins'?, and is music therefore a narrower field of activity? (less diversity of approach).

I would ask Boulez about it but unfortunately I don't know him so instead I ask the interweb (perhaps he thinks the visual arts are different and technique is not as important or something, and/or perhaps his interest in Pollack and DeKooning et al is more tactical/political, hard to say.)


Edward Corbett 1969 (a Second Wave Abstract Expressionst)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Contrary, to your thought I think that Boulez's argument and I do agree that artists such as Scelsi and Feldman are amateurs, clearly in comparison to the great composers of this century, being primarily Boulez and Carter, in their field. Many of their contemporaries would therefore appear as amateurs.
What Feldman, Scelsi, Ives, etc. do is do something very stylised, and then live off it. An example is possibly Ligeti, but there is a much clearer development through that particular composer. A more recent example, but very different musically, would be Philip Glass.
Also, Feldman, Scelsi, etc. do very much what other is very much what other composers have previously written: there is nothing original. For instance, Scelsi was probably very influenced by the great master Ligeti, as both composers explore the timbres in one note, and then develop it. This is done very much in Scelsi's String Quartet No. 4.
However unoriginal these composers may well be, some of their music is very good...

Anonymous said...

My response to the above comment:

http://ronsen.org/boulez/boulez5.html

Elliott Goldkind said...

Well put.

Anonymous said...

The main problem is that Cage and Feldman hadn't anything to do with Pollock and De Koonig but mostly with dadaism and neodadaism (Duchamp, Fluxus). Dadaism is certainly important in development of Abstract Expressionism bur after II WW it becomes almost old junk: so Neo-dadaism, amateurish or not, is simply something that leads to a pre-war atmosphere, in which evasion was the first interest of a collapsing society. After 2nd WW there is need of ENGAGEMENT, not evasion. And Jackson Pollock of course doesn't throw colors casually, but with the same accuracy, moral force and engagement that Pierre Boulez puts in defining the structural constitution of New Music language.

Edward Lawes said...

[i]The main problem is that Cage and Feldman hadn't anything to do with Pollock and De Koonig but mostly with dadaism and neodadaism (Duchamp, Fluxus). Dadaism is certainly important in development of Abstract Expressionism bur after II WW it becomes almost old junk: so Neo-dadaism, amateurish or not, is simply something that leads to a pre-war atmosphere, in which evasion was the first interest of a collapsing society. After 2nd WW there is need of ENGAGEMENT, not evasion. And Jackson Pollock of course doesn't throw colors casually, but with the same accuracy, moral force and engagement that Pierre Boulez puts in defining the structural constitution of New Music language.[/i]

Thanks for the comment. Not sure I agree but your text is lacking sources/arguments.

First, and let's stick to Feldman rather than Cage. How did he have nothing to do with Abstract Expressionism? This is just an assertion, it needs expanding (I'm not criticising you here as it's just a blog comment and you may be referring to some text/source etc, but still, the fact remains).

Also, I don't see Pollack's method of paint dripping as analogous to Boulez's method of composition (which in general is highly formalised). Regarding 'moral force', how is this defined and applied?

Also, re the first comment, I wouldn't put Carter in such a lofty position. I think Ligeti and Berio are more influential or 'important' to name two post war composers other than Boulez.

Finally, I doubt Scelsi was that influenced by Ligeti at least in terms of his 'third period' where he developd his ideas around a single pitch (I think). His Quattro pezzi su una nota sola was written in 1959, Ligeti had only just developed his own sound at that time and wasn't very well known, e.g. Apparitions 1958-59.

Ross wrote something on it here..

http://www.therestisnoise.com/2005/11/scelsi_notes.html