Orientations, by Pierre Boulez

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OrientationsOrientations, by Pierre Boulez. Edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez, translated by Martin Cooper. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986. 541 pp. ISBN 0674643763


Boulez is (arguably) the laureate of post-war European contemporary music, and his public utterances are part of the permanent record of this era. Orientations, the largest compilation of his writings to date, is thus de facto an indispensable text. Moreover, the organization of the volume carefully and admirably disentangles the various strands of Boulez's exemplary career. Each major section of the book introduces a new facet of the master: Boulez-as-composer (represented by Darmstadt and Basel lectures, letters to colleagues, and so forth), Boulez-as-conductor (liner notes, program booklets, etc.), Boulez-as-impresario (lectures on the Domaine Musicale and the origins of IRCAM), and finally, in a kind of nostalgic apotheosis, Boulez-as-history (commemorations and eulogies of colleagues).

Intended as a companion to Notes of an Apprenticeship, which appeared in 1968, Orientations is meant literally to complete the English-language publication of Boulez's prose through 1980. The two books flank a couple of shorter volumes—the fragment Boulez on Music Today (1971, an unfinished reworking of the composer's Darmstadt lectures of the prior decade) and the long interview, Conversations with Célestin Deliège (1975). The large, final essay collection is meant to be comprehensive, as Jean Jacques Nattiez claims in his editor's introduction:

The choice of the essays was deliberately as catholic as possible, and apart from a few very minor texts we have included virtually everything written by Boulez from the fifties up to 1980 on which we could lay our hands, including unpublished texts. All the big moments in Boulez's career are therefore covered. . . . [p. 11]

These are strong, even boastful assertions, and indeed Orientations is a kind of professional autobiography—though I am not certain that Nattiez should glibly lay claim to "all the big moments," or even, for that matter, to textual completeness. In fact, it is not entirely clear what that would mean for a public figure whose words have been as thoroughly recorded as have Boulez's—the "Boulez industry" has hardly processed all of the radio and television "texts" available, though some such material has been adapted for the current volume. (Nattiez reports the preparation of yet another book by Dominique Jameux that in turn lists some of this unprocessed material, including BBC broadcasts; there is even more material, preserved and organized to varying degrees, from IRCAM and the New York Philharmonic.) Perhaps more importantly, some recent writing on IRCAM has been suppressed, according to Nattiez "since that would have involved making premature judgements about a venture that is not yet complete [p. 12]." This seems particularly odd, since Boulez's writing is notoriously polemical, rife with reversals and reinterpretations—nothing if not provocatively open-ended, by nature incomplete. Moreover, the story of IRCAM—its ambitious goals, historical models, public funding and functions, and changing creative and research agendas—comprises a crucial dimension of Boulez's career: what is, perhaps, his boldest and most important accomplishment.

On the other hand, it is hard to know why (other than in the name of completeness) Boulez's more perfunctory liner notes (for major works of the modernist canon: Stravinsky, Bartók, Berg, Varèse) are included in Orientations. Arguably, these also commemorate some of the "big moments," important performances and recordings with major orchestras, but their content is usually subsumed in longer, more substantive prose documents that Boulez produced in conjunction with his performances.

As these superfluous inclusions and unfortunate omissions suggest, there is both more and less of Boulez in Orientations than the reader might wish. And despite the humble title of the earlier essay collection and the assertively teleological editorial organization of the latter, Notes of an Apprenticeship seems more substantial than its companion volume—in large part because it contains several sustained efforts, especially the well-known, extended analysis of Le sacre du printemps. This provides a context for the commemorations, random polemics, and flashes of insight running through its shorter pieces. Lacking equivalent intellectual ballast, Orientations often seems a bit disoriented, buoyant but adrift on the vast sea of culture in which it grandly, if sometimes rather pompously, floats.

Boulez assumes various voices and personae throughout all the occasional writing gathered in the new volume, but much of it, especially from the 1970s, remains rather distant and official, at once confirming the necessity and limitations of so many words about music. Underlying it all is the sense of a public figure receding before our gaze, a musician of historical stature who progressively comes to view the literary text more as a political necessity or a mark of his authority than a significant concomitant of musical production. The compositions, performances, and new musical institutions (Domaine Musical, IRCAM, etc.) are, of course, themselves the "primary texts," and the accompanying prose commentaries gathered in Orientations often merely mark their existence rather than illuminating them.

At its best, however, like Notes of an Apprenticeship, Orientations seems at once monumental and intimate. Its sheer scope (there are sixty-seven separate essays in the volume) portends something grand and authoritative, and its apparent candor promises an inside look at a bona fide Great Man. At times the promise is realized, especially in the earlier essays. Here, for example, is Boulez the self-parodist in one of his later Darmstadt pieces, the 1965 lecture "Periform":

Rereading what I have written elsewhere, I find it extremely serious and very much to the point. This for instance:

Form and content are of the same nature and amenable to the same analysis. Content derives its reality from its structure, and what is called form is the "structuring" of local structures, which are the content.

(I did not write that, of course, but Lévi-Strauss, the eminent ethnologist, whom I quoted merely for my own purposes.) . . .

As I read on, I come upon things whose naïveté I find in retrospect delightful. This for instance:

It has become exceedingly difficult to speak of form in general, since it is not really possible to examine it apart from the aspects that it assumes in individual works. At best we can hope to distinguish a number of general principles of organization.

That is admirably guarded, and I should say the same today and with even greater emphasis . . . [p. 104]

The tease here is extraordinarily deft, balancing a serious intellectual effort to come to terms with a big and complex issue (the nature of form in music) with skepticism about the project itself. The author simultaneously reaffirms his beliefs and distances himself from pious formulations, even poking fun at his own unrelenting references to difficult, francophone intellectuals (here, Lévi-Strauss—more often, Mallarmé, René Char, Breton). Important issues are addressed without offering false resolutions and the whole thing manages to sound like idle chatter among co-conspirators.

Still, the characterization of "form" remains incomplete, and the attitude of the author (flippant, hostile, serious, self-mocking)—both about the subject at hand and the critical enterprise as a whole—is ambiguous. In the lectures of the early sixties, Boulez seems to delight in this playful ambiguity, offering up complex but undecidable questions, only to disappear behind a smokescreen of slippery terms, contrived dualities, and ephemeral metaphysics.

For example, in the essay "Taste: 'The Spectacles Worn By Reason'" (1961, a Darmstadt lecture) Boulez worries the notion ("taste") through various attempts at a definition, in the end surrendering to indeterminacy:

As I said at the beginning, nobody is perfectly convinced of his neighbor's good taste, and nobody believes his own taste to be bad. . . . I think the best thing is to think of this evening as though it had never existed, as something like taste itself, impossible to grasp, present everywhere and nowhere. . . . [p. 62]

Taste, the lecture on taste, and perhaps the author himself are chimeras, "impossible to grasp," and so forth. Still, the content of the essay must somehow be in the argument leading to this disappearing act, and it is indeed engaging to follow Boulez as he invokes Rousseau, locates ambiguities in the Encyclopedist's definition, and proceeds to pair off the term with a variety of dialectical partners: "value," "function," and "style":

We must therefore beware of making swift generalizations and of attaching "taste" directly to works themselves when in fact it may simply mark the shifting value attached to works.

It remains true, however, that taste is a matter of convention. . . . [p. 50]

The form and the site of the ceremonial impose on music certain determining functions, which act as very precise limitations to musical taste, so precise indeed that changes in taste can clearly be related to changes in the function of music in a society. [p. 51]

Is taste, then, something resembling "style"? Not at all. It is quite possible to write without taste but in a very definite style or, equally, to write with taste but to have no style. This notion of "taste" is really devilish. . . . [p. 56]

The point of these various oppositions seems to be to distill out something distinct about "taste," something permanent, transcendent, and irrational—as opposed to the more local, normative attributes associated with the other principal terms. Nonetheless, Boulez refuses to identify his elusive subject with any facile list of qualities, preferring to view taste as a mysterious and irreducible presence (or absence) in the unfolding of cultural history.

To the Anglo-American post-positivist sensibility all of this seems a bit overwrought—Why should "taste" (surely a heavily contested term even in its most parochial senses) be elevated to a privileged, almost metaphysical status? The lecture on taste, then, appears to be founded on a pseudo-problem, trumped up to provide a context for the engaging but finally empty fulminations of a brilliant musician anxious to reify his own value.

This is close to what I actually think about much of the earlier writing in Orientations, but it doesn't quite capture the earnest, even heroic grappling with relativism, and finally the commitment to embrace and evaluate musical culture, conveyed therein. Unable to resolve questions of artistic value, permanence, change and direction, Boulez resolutely delineates the problem, then erases himself from the picture, leaving behind, perhaps, a bemused grin and a literary allusion—often to the "indestructible kernel of darkness" that André Breton finds in the composer's personality. The impossibility of cracking that kernel seems to inspire Boulez to oxymorons and paradoxical expressions: "organized delirium," "structures of improvisation," and so on. This is a far cry from the Wittgensteinian epitaph looming over almost all contemporary American music theory: "That about which we cannot speak we must consign to silence."

Boulez's compulsion to dramatize the ineffable, to use the conventions of critical language to call attention to its limitations, may help to explain the relative paucity of hard-core analytic detail in his discussion of compositional method. These few essays (discussing Polyphonie X, Structures, the Third Piano Sonata, and the Deuxième improvisation sur Mallarmé) contain much more speculation about the aesthetic bases of indeterminate forms than the nuts and bolts of derivational procedures for pitch and rhythmic strings. Of course, even to the extent that such procedures are invoked, they are vastly different from those developed by American and British formalist thinkers such as Babbitt, Lewin, or Winham, to name a few. In any event, the entire first section of Orientations should remind us of the enormous differences between the artistic ambitions and intellectual foundations of postwar European and American music—despite the superficial interest in the interpretation and extension of twelve-tone principles briefly shared by European and American composers.

As I have suggested, much of the later writing in Orientations has the air of an official valediction to a project or person rather than a committee effort at critical discourse. Nonetheless, there is plenty to learn from Boulez's public accounts of the major works he conducted in the seventies. At times, he seems a kind of post-modern Tovey, offering up revisionist perspectives on Wagner or Berlioz to a non-specialist audience:

One is tempted to say that Berlioz's written compositions make up only the scattered pieces of a Great Opus that escaped him—an Opus that resembles in this respect that definitive Livre toward which Mallarmé was working. . . . ["Berlioz and the Realm of the Imaginary," p. 217]

Fragments of a great imaginary project, Berlioz's compositions no doubt require us to find a style of presentation unconnected with any of those that we still accept today, since the latter exist for works conceived in terms of certain predetermined categories. [p. 219]

As the Ring proceeds, Wagner makes increasing use of the contrast between pure and mixed colors, bringing to a fine point the art of transition from one field of sonority to another. Not content with employing real lines in which an instrument is entrusted with the whole or part of a melodic line or a harmonic group, he shows himself a master of ambiguity, creating lines that are not "real" and do not follow the polyphonic structure closely: these "virtual" lines intersect the "real" polyphonic lines and present a kind of mock-analysis of them. . . . It is in fact a technique of disassociation and recomposition in which concept and reality may appear to change roles, producing exceptionally rich and far-reaching results. [p. 273]

In such observations as these, the perspective of composer, conductor, littéraire, and critic merge seamlessly, and Boulez's extraordinary gifts are shown off to best advantage. Visionary speculation about Berlioz flows into practical speculation about new and radical modes of performance; a subtle analytic insight about instrumental thought in the Ring is associated with an almost synaesthetic intuition about the dramatic projection of varieties of experience.

Such epiphanies are rare in the recent literature generated by American composers, who are usually content with tidier, more academically-constrained models for critical and theoretical discourse. As I have suggested, the epiphanies come rather irregularly in Orientations as well—not, however, due to humility of ambition or limitation of scope, but rather to the largely occasional nature of its texts. Nevertheless these insights, whether they are fully developed or not, reveal aspects of a career the stature and breadth of which remain a challenge to American contemporary music. Certainly the American academic contemporary music community has produced a more coherent and sustained research program than any either adumbrated or fulfilled in Orientations. Ironically, however, this achievement has occurred in a context of progressive marginalization and fragmentation of the research community itself. By contrast, Boulez has obstinately refused to be marginalized, and Orientations is a testament to that obstinacy and the genius to support it. While one may wish for more revelation and less public, almost ceremonial prose in Orientations, the anthology represents a career that is both indelibly written into our culture and incessantly challenging to our complacent relation to that culture.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018

Martin Brody

The composer Martin Brody has received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim, Fromm, and Artists Foundations, and the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Council.  In the fall of 2001, he was Composer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome. In the 2004 he was Fromm Resident at the William Walton Estate in Ischia and Roger Sessions Memorial Fellow in Music at the Ligurian Arts and Humanities Center in Bogliasco.  He also served as Heiskell Arts Director at the Academy from 2007-2010.  He has written extensively, on contemporary music and serves on the editorial board of Perspectives of New Music and The Open Space.   He is Catherine Mills Davis Professor of Music at Wellesley College, where he has been on the faculty since 1979.

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