Wednesday, February 03, 2010

B is for Boomlet

Music history gets told in a frustratingly elusive interplay of exceptions and the rule.  Do you point to odd and striking landmarks or do you describe more cohesive landscapes?  Take the uniform identification in the major textbooks of Pierre Boulez with the term serialism.  How much of Boulez's music is strictly serial?  The abandoned and unavailable Polyphonie X and the first half-book of Structures.   The opening of Structures 1a gets plenty of print and as much analysis as it can probably sustain, but dozens of works of the era by other composers would have been just as good, if not better, as examples (starting, AFAIC with several pieces by Goeyvaerts), yet its is Boulez who gets included, and probably on the basis of other works for which the serial turn of Structures and Polyphonie X was a necessary but non-productive cul de sac,  abandoned immediately by the composer's self-criticism within Structures itself: and students of music history are thus given a non-example as the most prominent example.   While there are certain techniques that Boulez uses in his mature works for which the strict serial experience was a prerequisite, in retrospect, Boulez's more characteristic, stylistic concerns were formed prior to that experience and — fed through his experience as a performing musician — form the greater continuity in his catalog.  Boulez's ability to re-work the clumsy, juvenile Douze Notations for piano (1945) into orchestra pieces of significant scale and even some grace more than half a century later is an elegant illustration of this.  But no, the example we continue to read about is Structures 1a.  In part, I suspect, this is plain laziness: "analysing" 1a is easy, very little more than a description or even just a list; the hard topic here is style, and that is never easy to discuss. 

2 comments:

Paul Beaudoin said...

Not only Boulez suffers from this "non-example as best example" syndrome. Having taught across several textbooks the examples they present are more or less the same with nearly the same "informative" content - Penderecki and Threnodi, Crumb and Black Angels, Ligeti and Artikulation ... YGTI.

On the other hand there is a popular 20th century history book that claims Native AMERICAN Indians were the inspiration for Stravinsky's Sacre. And this from a composer who should know way better! That book got tossed (on our out - your choice).

Where does that leave us - either laziness or too close to the recent past to have perspective.

Andrew said...

I feel like because Boulez has been a conductor his whole career has definitely played a role in more people knowing about his music and thus analyzing it. Also, for an introduction to serialism, don't you think it would make some sense to choose an example that is very straightforward and by someone everyone has already heard of?