The Distant Shore Seen from Two Sides

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Even before the plane I took to Paris touched ground three years ago, a seemingly negligible observation made me acutely aware of the difference in attitude taken by Europeans towards the serious music of their culture from that of Americans (and the type of musician and/or listener to which I refer in both cases is that sensitive intelligent person most likely to appreciate serious art). In the Air France magazine awaiting me on my seat I noted that "for my listening pleasure" there was not one but in fact three classical music channels. Further, rather than the usual grab bag of repertoire items interspersed with light classic encores, the programs were positively scholarly in their concentration—chamber music of Mozart, dramatic music of Berlioz, and a selection of bel canto arias. My reaction went much deeper than just a sigh of admiration for European sophistication or a corresponding muttered curse on American philistinism. In fact, those thoughts did not cross my mind at all—indeed, what I suddenly sensed with an almost physical shock was "This is their music, not mine. I have loved, studied, and absorbed the repertoire, made it my own, but it can never be mine as it is theirs, an ancestral music rooted in the very earth, while for me it is central but only the linchpin in a musical spectrum, the whole thing seemingly suspended, rootless, weightless." Over one year and a season of more than one hundred new music concerts, that sense of a very real difference in the European musical mind's attitude toward the very nature of its art grew more profound, eventually crying out for articulation. This essay is the fruit of that working out of issues while I was in Paris. It is true, American artists have been traveling to Europe ever since the birth of the Republic as a finishing touch to their education, and I am just one of myriad American composers to visit Paris in this century. In one sense it is pretentious of me to speak of American and European music in general terms, and I will try to provide examples and/or exceptions to whatever rules I propose. Nevertheless, I think to remain silent would be false modesty, untrue to my own need to examine and understand my experiences and unfair to others who might find something of interest in what I say. Let me begin with an introduction to the structure of the Paris compositional world.

The first thing to strike an American about the Parisian new music scene—a creative community considered moribund only about a decade ago—is its extreme vitality and centralization. In the course of a single season I attended over one hundred new music concerts, and that did not include everything one could have heard. The major reason for this explosion of activity is the massive transfusion of French government money to create new performing ensembles and research institutions. While older ensembles such as Marius Constant's Ars Nova and Vinko Globokar's Musique Vivante still present full seasons of about ten concerts each, the brunt of activity has been taken up by three new ensembles. Paul Mefano's Ensemble 2e2m presents a schedule which, including tours, runs to about fifty concerts yearly and represents the most catholic programming in Paris, emphasizing younger composers and a large proportion of non-French music. Tristan Murail's Itinéraire follows a more special aesthetic, tailored to this young composer's own compositional tastes: most works chosen for performance in its twenty-concert season are concerned with "pure sound" as a primary musical concern—texture pieces, repetitive process works, pieces involving live electronics, music whose formal structure is derived from the overtone series—all this family of music is Itinéraire's province. Finally, Pierre Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC) occupies the pinnacle, presenting a series of over forty concerts with a larger proportion of programming devoted to twentieth century classics than that of other groups, in keeping with Boulez's aim of "educating the audience." Because the EIC is the performing branch of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique), every commission written for the group must include some sort of live electronic component.

The figure of Pierre Boulez personifies the aforementioned centralization of French cultural activity. The French "musical miracle" has been almost entirely his doing, so much so that the current joke describing his decision to leave New York so as to direct IRCAM is summed up in the following sentence "Zorro est revenu" (Zorro has returned). Through his conductorial, pedagogic, and administrative work at IRCAM and on television Boulez has become a star known to every Frenchman; his close contacts with the national government have guaranteed him an annual budget of over $6 million to dispense as he pleases; the enormous prestige of IRCAM as a concert space has caused every ensemble in Paris to vie for the opportunity of performing in the "Espace de Projection." This last item is a double-edged sword, for while it has encouraged performance and stimulated composers to write for specific ensembles, making Paris in the process a showpiece for new music from all over Europe to rival if not surpass New York, all programs appear subject to Boulez's approval, and it seems that ensembles may exercise a certain self-censorship to ensure that the works they perform do not contradict Boulez's "modernist" aesthetic too flagrantly (for example, I never heard any music of George Rochberg, Alan Petterson, David del Tredici, or Michael Tippett at IRCAM during my stay, and doubt I would have had I stayed longer).

But all of the above states only why new music flourishes in Paris, a fact in part due to the legacy of aristocratic patronage and a monarchic political system. It does not yet broach the deeper question I raised earlier, i.e., what is presently the concept of music's nature and function in European culture, and how does it differ from an American perspective? This question leads to a minefield of generalizations, but I think I must yet attempt a serious answer, trying to be as specific as possible with concrete examples. Any American composer who wants to understand European music or achieve some dialogue with other European musicians about his own work would do well to think deeply about these issues.

On the surface, European music seems more and more like a different art form from that music produced by the American avant-garde, both academic and experimental (including all gradations in between). For example, while many postwar notational devices are being discarded by American composers as being impractical or confusing to performers, they have been embraced in France at least to an extraordinary extent. Spatial and graphic notation are old hat now to performers who are third- generation specialists in new music. As a result, the so-called "typical" score looks different from its American counterpart—notationally rigorous, but in a less traditional way (and throughout such comparisons, I am thinking largely of those pieces which occupy the middle of each culture's stylistic spectrum).

Electronic music, both on tape alone and in interaction with live performers, is also far more prevalent abroad. Immense state support is put into electronic music research centers, of which IRCAM is the foremost, followed by the INA-GRM, which specializes in analogue tape music in the tradition of its founders Pierre Henri and Pierre Schaeffer, and CEMAMu (Centre de Equipe de Mathématique et d'Automatique Musicales), Iannis Xenakis' laboratory at the French equivalent of the Bell labs, containing the UPIC, a computer controlled "drawing board" for precise realization of graphic scores. Equipment is constantly replaced and serviced, all major performing ensembles and halls are equipped with excellent playback systems, and composers are expected to write for the medium. As a result, while electronic music is undergoing a drastic re-valuation of its function in the U.S. (though I hardly think it is in its demise; rather it is awaiting the quantum leap in sophistication and flexibility made possible via widely distributed and easily understood computer applications), in Europe it has found a comfortable niche.

Finally, the sound of a majority of European pieces is truly different from their American counterparts. The "typical" piece one hears in Paris today emphasizes pure sonority, color and texture as the primary compositional structurants. Rarely does one hear a long-breathed melody, returning motives larger than the tiniest Ligetilike melodic cells, or a harmonic organization that is more than just the sum of a mass of individual, minimal linear strands. Further, the eclecticism one finds in so many American pieces, mixing influences of different styles, theatrical elements, world musics, and harmonic systems, is far less evident abroad; there is, within a certain spectrum, still more homogeneity, more of a common musical language in Europe. There are, of course, numerous exceptions to this rule among the best composers, who have developed a musical profile so individual as to defy easy generalizations. And ironically, the greatest such exception to the above is György Ligeti, the man who probably has contributed the most to defining this "colorist" style. His San Francisco Polyphony breathes with real tunes, albeit fleeting ones, and his new opera Le Grande Macabre is a stylistic pastiche often evocative of The Rake's Progress in its recycling of 18th century forms. Partly through his influence and partly through a resurgence of German nationalism, a number of younger German composers under the banner of "Neue Einfachheit" ("New Simplicity") are returning to writing in 19th century styles and forms, but this movement is still in its infancy and regarded with genuine distrust by the French, Italians, and Eastern European composers.

Finally, as a sidelight, aesthetic conflict is far more muted. In America, I have seen composers of differing creeds come close to assault and battery on panel discussions and have heard in private from a variety of composers some of the most scabrous comments imaginable on everyone from Babbitt to Cage to Stravinsky. In Europe such hostility simply does not exist, at least overtly. Part of the reason for this is the lesser divergence of styles (in America by contrast, to take a random example, what would Claudio Spies and Robert Ashley have to talk about?). It is also a legacy of the last war, a determination not to "rock the boat" unnecessarily in any sphere, be it artistic, political, social, or whatever. As a result relations between composers seem a bit more formal, cold, and gentlemanly.

Given these differences, can we search for any particular reasons to explain them? I think an answer lies in the radically different attitudes Europeans and Americans take toward the idea of the past, history and tradition. One of my European friends who had visited the States told me that the thing which shocked him the most about our country was that it was a nation without a history, a landscape without a physical presence of the past. I disagreed, but I did admit that this "helped to explain one thing, namely the genuinely larger, more understanding and avid audience for new art that exists in Europe. In a society surrounded in its everyday life by the past, the new satisfies a longing for fresh experience; in a culturally fragmented, geographically decentralized culture devoted to the new in its day-to-day life, the past takes on both a respectability and exoticism perfect to the aura Americans assign to serious art if they are interested in it. Nevertheless, I disagreed with my friend that American intellectuals at least have a very strong sense of the past. For example, the average American composer knows far more about both the state of contemporary European music and the basic repertoire than his European counterpart does about the albeit brief history of American music up to the present day. There was this very real truth though in what my friend suggested: Europeans view the past as a progression, while Americans see it as a disjunct series of events. In the realm of music, this means that for a European composer there is always a "historical imperative" such as that Schoenberg felt in inventing the twelve-tone system. Art is constantly in the state of forward movement—looking back may arrest the flow and dry up the very source of creation, i.e., the "modernist" aesthetic that ironically has become a tradition in its own right. For an American, on the other hand, the past is a type of smorgasbord from which to choose and synthesize those elements which combine to form the most satisfying personal whole. (For example, the American concept of "continental" cuisine mystifies Europeans who would not dream of mixing their different national cuisines on a single menu, much less in an actual meal.) Or to take the example of the attitudes held toward "the land" in each culture, for Americans the terrain of their country, which is ever present in the national consciousness, exists as a metaphor for space and the freedom to move in an essentially rootless society, while in far more compact Europe the earth implies rootedness, stability, and a need for growth that is more deliberate and "natural," even for an avant-garde.1

In European music this on-going view of tradition has two distinct manifestations. The first has already been mentioned, i.e., the emphasis given to the pure sound of an instrument as the point of departure for a composition. This results from a "parametric" idea of the Western musical tradition, i.e., in different historical periods different aspects of music have found pre-eminence; for example, counterpoint in the Renaissance, harmony in the nineteenth century, rhythm in the first half of the twentieth century. In this era timbre and sonority rule supreme. To quote Tristan Murail, one of the leading younger French composers:

How can today's composer find complete satisfaction in the inherited systems of writing music, which concentrate on combinations of note-symbols which can only act as a barrier to the sound phenomenon? To make up for this, new ideas, inspired by acoustic observation and synthesis of sounds, have made it clear that it is possible to rebuild systematically the world of sound. Acoustic observation—which shows the internal composition of sound, and the kind of interactions available between sound phenomena—puts the complete density of sound within our grasp.2

This idea is tightly allied with the second and I think more important "historical imperative"—i.e. the development of science and technology to an unparalleled degree in our age demands an interaction between art and technology to bring forth a truly new aesthetic product. Ignoring this "fact" will bring forth the condemnation of history. And this attitude brings us to the ultimate topic of this essay, the two leading proponents of this aesthetic and master composers of Paris at the end of this century, Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis.

Pierre Boulez has in the last two years narrowed the focus of inquiry at IRCAM from research into all aspects of contemporary composition under separate departments to a single thrust—musical applications of the computer. The reason he has done so is bound up in his gamble on his view of intellectual history, in which interaction of the computer with men will eventually reshape man's very thought processes and change the nature of art in the bargain. He has written:

If there is one thing the use of the computer forces us to do, it is to reflect on the very processes of composition. This is certainly not its only power, for it also aids us in creating new sonic materials in a very different perspective from that offered us by the instrumental realm. In no matter what inventive circumstances, it forces us to follow a different itinerary, to consider events in a different light—something which has the potential to reshape our habits formed by education and practice.3

The advantage of the computer is that it can show us all compositional choices left unheard by creative intuition, which focuses on a single result.

When we create by ourselves without some sort of "mechanistic" intermediary, we proceed along successions of unique choices due entirely to instantaneous intuition. The moment of our choices is of course prepared by selections already made on deeper levels, but this decisive moment of choice is due to a sort of "short circuit" which leaves behind intuitively all other options. . . . When we provide a few compositional "givens" to the machine, it is multiple choice that presents itself to us. The computer can produce in a minimum of time a family of results whose field can be circumscribed by the limitations of our demands. Having broken down the components of the composition into a certain number of vectors, it suffices to put these elements into interaction with one another to create an infinity of results ("variants"). [This is] multiple choice, which allows for the validity of several solutions, even a multitude of solutions.4

This is the credo of IRCAM—the computer is at last the conceptual tool to create the true musical revolution heralded but unfulfilled by the ferment at the start of the century. The computer will perform a feat analogous to the splitting of the atom; it will analyze the microscopic components of sound, so as to allow composers to then base new forms upon these acoustical discoveries. Though so far I have not heard any concrete results in the form of exceptional music to justify these extravagant claims, there is no denying the seductive power of such rhetoric, and it is no surprise that at present Boulez reigns supreme in his underground kingdom, and a heady atmosphere of self-importance envelopes IRCAM.

Iannis Xenakis also has his own electronic center, but it occupies only about the space of a glorified closet. He is by now an authentic French culture hero, receiving myriad performances (even by musicians in the subway!), but his "political" influence is so much less than that of Boulez that his class at the Sorbonne contains only about five students at any given time, even though admission is open to anyone interested. Yet despite this apparent lack of "clout," Xenakis' influence in France and Europe is real and growing, largely because he has not stopped writing and throughout his music has improved in traditional ways without sacrificing the original radical vision that inspired him to begin writing thirty years ago.

Xenakis also is a believer in the primacy of a scientific perspective on contemporary music but in a way quite different from Boulez. While Boulez conceives of music as a sonic medium that can be manipulated in a way analogous to that in which a scientist experiments with the chemical elements or the light spectrum, Xenakis sees music as an ideal metaphor, a playing field where a variety of disciplines may interact in order to create new results which may be beneficial to other disciplines.

The essence of musical materials is the intelligence of man in some way solidified . . . which is the cold result of exchanges between the warm cells of the brain and body, e.g. "cold fire" . . . since antiquity, and with a strong acceleration in the 20th century, this faculty of condensation toward the abstract is of a profound nature which appertains to music undoubtedly more than the other arts. Thus, it seems a new type of musician is necessary, an artist-conceiver ["artiste-concepteur"] of new, abstract, free forms . . . this artist must possess inventiveness and understanding in biology, genetics, paleontology (for evolution of forms), history, human sciences, in short a sort of universality, guided by and founded upon forms and architectures.5

What makes Xenakis radical is his architect's sense, not the mathematician's which first brought him to prominence. The fact that he conceives of his forms as objects initially outside of time gives his works a characteristic developmental sound that is his alone. For example, his work with group theory posits a symmetric geometric figure such as a cube, each corner of which is assigned a coordinate. Rotating this figure on one of its axes will create a correspondence between the old coordinate and the newly arrived one which now occupies this space. These rotations in turn engender others which create chains which eventually cycle back to the original position. Assigning parametric values to these coordinates then brings the theory into the musical realm. The result does not necessarily "sound" like the visual concept, but one does, I think, feel a certain sense of cyclic development (albeit segmented) not quite like anything one has heard before, yet also strangely logical. Another instance of this architectural sense is the UPIC at CEMAMu, a computer controlled "drawing-board" with a light pencil that interprets with painstaking precision graphic scores created on a simple time/pitch cartesian graphic system. As an "interface" between computer and composer requiring no knowledge of a program language it is unusually supple and sophisticated; as a tool for probing a new form it is stimulating, though not without its drawbacks (such as the fact that one is inclined to draw curved and slanted lines on it, resulting in glissandi textures much like those which arise in Xenakis' own music).

But, frankly, it is on much more traditional grounds that Xenakis' claim to prominence rests. In the last decade, he has begun to write a series of works in which at least form and material are mated, in which motives appear and are repeated, in which a sense of powerful motor rhythmic elements and genuine musical phrases combine with his original intellect to produce works of a primitive power not heard to this listener since early Stravinsky. The orchestra work Jonchaies (1977) with its pulsating, phasing sound masses; the electronic Legend of Eer (1977) with its avalanche of sound, a continual crescendo over forty minutes; and the keening N'shima (1978), a work for two female voices, brass, and cello which sounds like the recently discovered ritual music of a long lost barbaric culture, are all examples of this flowering of his voice. In one sense, even though he has taken French citizenship, Xenakis is very much a Greek, for his music pays tribute in its rigor to the great rational tradition in the spirit of an Aristotelian philosopher-scientist, while its passion suggests a world of Homeric struggle. He is that rare instance (so rare that I am wary of holding him up as an example to follow for younger composers) of a composer who by inventing his own technique has made himself a musician, a true bootstrap operation. Not since Berlioz have the French had in their midst such an original, from so far outside the musical establishment and established aesthetics.

As one can easily see, my sympathies lie with Xenakis, but this is not to denigrate Boulez. While his compositional hiatus has been suspected by some as a cover for lack of inspiration, in fact he has been composing steadily. His Messageesquisse (1978) for seven celli is a whirlwind of sixteenth note moto perpetuo, to the extent of seeming to be his "Third Brandenburg." An opera commission from La Scala is in the works. The Visage Nuptiale, written at age 18, and largely unknown, for soprano, contralto, women's choir, and orchestra, shows a prodigy at work rarely matched in music history. His craft and rigor cannot be dismissed, even if some find his music cold (as I do). For me, Xenakis' music, while seriously flawed on certain levels, is still full of life and a fine madness that speaks to me and I think will do so to future generations; Boulez's work, while technically "perfect," raises more questions for me. But my opinion is of far less importance than an understanding of what these composers represent. This "scientific" aesthetic is far removed from even its closest American counterpart, the East Coast American serialists. The growing romanticism, eclecticism, overt tonality, and experimental theatre of American music all seem to stem from a humanistic view of art rather than a technological one. Of course, most of the technology in use now in European music has been built in America, and American research centers such as Stanford, Urbana, and MIT certainly are exploring this aesthetic. Nevertheless they are acknowledged as only part of a broad musical spectrum here, while in Europe there is a feeling that this work represents the cutting edge of history that will eventually sweep away all else. It is best to understand this rather than ignore it; at the best, European composers aspire to be aesthetic scientists with real heart, while their American counterparts see themselves more as poets or mystics with a sound structural sense. This difference in emphasis is not universal, but it helps to explain something of the very different routes the two cultures are taking at this fin de siècle.

1This perhaps helps to explain the European assessment of contemporary American music which views Cage as this country's greatest living composer. That wing of American serious music labeled "experimental" meets with particular approval because of its sense of freedom, reckless play, and invention—qualities which most European composers feel would be self-indulgent and antithetical to their tradition, but which are natural to a "traditionless" society such as the United States. A nation of uninhibited inventors has something in its psychology which European art lacks and thus is welcome for that difference. American "historicists," on the other hand, (i.e. those composers who work closely within the European tradition) are dismissed as pale copies of the original and not thought of as particularly "authentic."

2Sappho 003 (recording), liner notes.

3Pierre Boulez, "L'in(de)fini et l'instant," Le Compositeur et L'Ordinateur (Paris: IRCAM, 1981), pp. 46-47.


5Iannis Xenakis, Arts/Sciences, Alliages (Brussels: Casterman, 1980), pp. 14-15.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018

Robert B. Carl

Robert Carl (b.1954) studied composition with Jonathan Kramer, George Rochberg, Ralph Shapey, and Iannis Xenakis. His music is performed internationally, and is published by American Composers' Alliance, Boosey&Hawkes, and Northeastern. His grants, prizes and residencies have come from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, Tanglewood, Camargo Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, Ucross, Millay, Bogliasco, Djerassi, the Aaron Copland House, Youkobo ArtSpace and the Tokyo Wonder Site, and the Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio). He received a 2005 Chamber Music America commission for a string quintet featuring the Miami String Quartet and Robert Black. An excerpt from his opera-in-progress Harmony (with novelist Russell Banks) was presented in May 2006 in the New York City Opera’s VOX Showcase series. He received the 1998 Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. New World Records released a CD of three string chamber works in March 2006, and in July 2012 his second disc on the label featured electroacoustic works based on Japanese materials. In 2013 Innova released a collection of three large piano works. Other CD releases of his work are found on Cedille, Neuma, Koch International, Centaur, Lotus, Capstone, and Vienna Modern Masters. In 2007 he received a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council for travel to research contemporary Japanese composers, and his book Terry Riley’s In C (Oxford University Press) was released in 2009. He is chair of the composition department at the Hartt School, University of Hartford, and writes extensively on new music for Fanfare Magazine.

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