Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Slouching Toward Lachenmann: Who Cares If I Listen?

 Schoenberg is dead.
-Pierre Boulez

Boulez is alive.
-Judd Greenstein

Milton Babbitt, 1916-2011.  In Memoriam.

I’ve been affected, in writing this post, by the Ecstatic Music Festival going on in New York City (through March 28, 2011).  I was able to attend only a small part of the opening day’s Marathon, but the part I attended was sublime.  The Chiara String Quartet played Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet No. 3, and the NOW Ensemble played Judd Greenstein’s City Boy.  Both pieces were superb, the musicians excellent, and the composers were in attendance.  I was, yes, ecstatic, to be able to attend two more concerts that week.

As I’ve written before, there’s something exhilarating about attending a concert where the composer is present (and sometimes performing, too).  I love so much of the music by these young composers, and it’s exciting to hear from them directly and offer my applause.

I’ll always remember attending a concert of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and A Minor Violin Concerto, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.  At the end of the concert, Rostropovich held up a score and pressed it against his chest, in loving remembrance of his former teacher and friend.  Now, Rostropovich, too, is gone.

I took away from that what a precious opportunity we're given to see and hear from composers while they’re here.  With some trepidation, I realized that, to be true to my view, I couldn’t simply slide past Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez.

I set about my duty without much hope of finding anything to like.  There was, though, one glimmer of light:  Olivier Messiaen.  Though Messiaen is no longer with us, Alex Ross wrote that “the avant-garde era may be said to have begun” with his Quartet for the End of Time.

While, when I first listened to the Quartet for the End of Time, I found it hard to grasp, I quickly warmed to the two gorgeous Louanges.  That encouraged me to listen, again and again.  As my ears became accustomed, I grew to appreciate, then to enjoy, the strangely beautiful solo clarinet in Abîme des oiseaux.  Perhaps the same could happen for me with the music of these two men.

Elliott Carter

As I’d heard Pierre-Laurent Aimard play Elliott Carter, I thought I’d try Carter first.  (He’s the elder statesman of the two, at 102.)

Of Carter, Ross wrote:
At around the same time that Babbitt was theorizing his version of total serialism, Carter renounced Copland-style populism and embraced the aesthetic of density and difficulty.  . . . “I decided for once to write a work very interesting to myself . . . and so say to hell with the public and with the performers too.”
I’ll have to say, this put me off a bit.  What the devil is wrong, after all, with Appalachian Spring?  And why should I try listen to Carter, if he doesn’t care a whit whether I do?

Still, I soldiered on, turning to a book I’d found by musicologist, music historian, and critic Richard Taruskin, for further insight and advice.  Well.  Taruskin, I discovered, sputters repeatedly, albeit eloquently, about this music, even referring, at one point, to work by Carter (and Babbitt) as “absurdly overcomposed monstrosities.”

The debate goes on, but for most of us as listeners, it’s probably beside the point.  The question for me is, simply, can my ears find a way in?

Thinking back on how exciting it was to see Aimard play Carter, I decided it might help not just to listen, but to watch.  This isn’t Aimard playing Carter's Caténaires, but it’s pretty darn good:

This gave me heart, and I headed on to listen to Boulez.

Pierre Boulez

As a younger man, Boulez was the enfant terrible of avant-garde music, most infamously upon the death of Schoenberg, about which he seemed almost to gloat:
. . . I do not hesitate to write, not out of any desire to provoke a stupid scandal, but equally without bashful hypocrisy and pointless melancholy:  SCHOENBERG IS DEAD.
Boulez was also, for a time, a practitioner of and advocate for total serialism.  In my own shorthand, total serialism is a sort of twelve-tone music cubed, but here’s a fuller definition:
serialism is a set of methods for composing and analyzing works of music based on structuring those works around the parameterization of parts of music:  that is, ordering pitch, dynamics, instrumentation, rhythm, and on occasion other elements into a row or series in which each gradation is assigned a numerical value within that series.  In its strict definition each pitch, dynamic, colour or rhythmic element should only be used in its order in the series and used only once until the series repeats.  The terms total serialism, integral serialism, and multiple serialism describe music which is serial in several parameters. 
I found this definition on a mathematics site, which is emblematic of the problem I faced.  Yet, while Boulez’s music was difficult for me to understand, I noticed that, as the result of dogged listening, my ear was becoming a little more attuned.  And, too, Boulez’s compositional style changed over time.  Ross wrote:
Years later, in conversation with Joan Peyser, he casually dismissed his early ventures in total serialism, saying that Structures 1a had been not “Total but Totalitarian.”  He also brushed away the formerly dire necessity of the twelve-note composition.  “I’ve often found the obligation to use all twelve tones to be unbearable,” he said in 1999.
Boulez is a towering presence, both as composer and conductor, whom even younger composers don’t feel they can ignore.  Judd Greenstein described his own struggle with Boulez's total serialist music, "that is mostly, to my early-21st century ears, pretty terrible."  He found something to like in "the texture of the music," though, and decided "to explore the textures on my own, to see what I could take for myself from this music that has kept me at a distance."

The result of Greenstein’s exploration (though taking as his inspiration Boulez's first two Piano Sonatas, which are not total serialist works, and which, as Greenstein notes in his comment to this post, he finds compelling), is the composition Boulez Is Alive, about which he wrote:
 . . . I know that there's still a residue of my time spent with that music.  I wouldn't be so hostile to it if it didn't still have some hold on me.  And so, in addition to the other readings that one might make of it, the title is also an admission of this music, dead as I may perceive it to be, being alive in me and in my own composition.
I’d thought that, once I completed my tour of duty amongst these avant-garde composers, I'd be able to put them on a shelf next to my unread copy of Finnegan’s Wake.  What Greenstein wrote resonates just a little more than will allow for that.

Classical music very nearly lost its audience, many felt for good, during the reign of this particular segment of the avant-garde.  And composers may have been the ones who suffered most if they hazarded not to fit.  Had it not been for the courage of some, among whom I count John Metcalf and Steve Reich, to follow their own muse, I shudder to think where we’d be now.  I’m stunned to realize that even someone of Greenstein’s generation didn't evade the avant-garde's grip.

If, in the face of that, Greenstein can be so gracious, who am I not to follow suit?  Carter and Boulez, though thorny and far beyond my ken in their music and their thought, are part of the century in which I was born and have spent more than fifty years of my life.  Whether I stand with or against them, they’re part of me.

So, who cares if I listen?  The answer is, I do.  The composers participating in the Ecstatic Music Festival nourish me more than these avant-garde composers will likely ever do.  Even so, I’ll count myself lucky should I ever get the chance to hear Boulez’s work in a concert he conducts.

Postscript:  Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt, in some ways the most formidable member of the serialist wing of the avant-garde, died on January 29, 2011.  He was 94.  The title of this post is taken from his essay, “Who Cares If You Listen?” (not Babbitt, but High Fidelity, the magazine in which it appeared, chose the title).

As described in the New York Times obituary, Babbitt was the first to use total serialism in his compositions “and adhered to it through his entire career.”  Ross wrote that Babbitt, “the emblematic Cold War composer, produced music so byzantine in construction that one practically needed a security clearance to understand it.”

In his High Fidelity essay, Babbitt analogized a “lay listener's” experience of this music to that of a layperson attending a mathematics lecture:
Imagine, if you can, a layman chancing upon a lecture on "Pointwise Periodic  Homeomorphisms."  At the conclusion, he announces:  "I didn't like it.”  Social conventions being what they are in such circles, someone might dare inquire:  "Why not?"  Under duress, our layman discloses precise reasons for his failure to enjoy himself; he found the hall chilly, the lecturer's voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner.  His interlocutor understandably disqualifies these reasons as irrelevant to the content and value of the lecture, and the development of mathematics is left undisturbed.
Yet Babbitt also had an early, and lifelong, affinity for theater music and jazz.  Ross wrote that Babbitt’s own “rigorously organized music ends up feeling mysteriously prankish, antic, loosey-goosey; it shuffles and shimmies like jazz from another planet.” 

I had trouble locating this in Babbitt’s work until I found a rendition of Semi-Simple Variations by The Bad Plus, accompanied by members of the Mark Morris Dance Group:

Babbitt, by all lights, had a wonderful sense of humor.  I like to think of him, somewhere out there, watching and listening to this.

Boulez invokes the Finnegan's Wake analogy:

Listening List

For an invaluable introduction to avant-garde music of the '50s, including audio excerpts, click here for the Audio Guide to Chapter 11 of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise.

Judd Greenstein

To hear Boulez is Alive, click here.  To hear the effervescent City Boy, click here.  To hear two other exquisite Greenstein works, The Night Gatherers and Le Tombeau de Ravel, click here and here.  (The Night Gatherers, performed by the Chiara String Quartet, can also be found on violist Nadia Sirota’s excellent CD first things first.)

Milton Babbitt 

Three Compositions for Piano (1947) 
Composition for Twelve Instruments (1948) 
Philomel (excerpt) (1964) 
String Quartet No. 4 (excerpt) (1970) 
A Solo Requiem (excerpt) (1977) 
Clarinet Quintet (Section III) (1996)

For an utterly appealing documentary about Milton Babbitt, Portrait of a Serial Composer, just out now, click here.

Pierre Boulez

Notation VII (excerpt) (1945/1997) 
Le marteau sans maître (Ninth Movement) (1953-55) 
Structures II (1961) 
Le soleil des eaux (1948-65) 
Dérive 1 (1984) 
Sur Incises (excerpt) (1996-1998)

Elliott Carter 

Sonata for Piano and Cello (Allegro) (1948) 
String Quartet No. 2 (excerpt) (1959)  
Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord, and Two Chamber Orchestras (excerpt) (1959-1961)
Caténaires, played here by Aimard, for whom it was written (2006)
Several compositions for piano (excerpts) 

Photo credits:  detail from "White Light," by Jackson Pollock (1954), Susan Scheid; Elliott Carter, unknown; Pierre Boulez, Jorge Franganillo; Milton Babbitt, Clestur.

The Boulez quotation at the head of the post can be found in several sources, one of which is Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, p. 274.  The Greenstein quotation at the head of the post is the title of the Greenstein composition mentioned in the post.

The Ross quotations in the text are from The Rest is Noise, pp. 271 (Messiaen), 305 (Carter), 274 (Schoenberg is dead), 301 (Boulez), and 303 (Babbitt).  The Taruskin quotation is from his essay “The Poietic Fallacy" in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (2010), p. 311.  The Greenstein quotations can be found on his website at Boulez is Alive
The Babbitt quotation is from his essay, “Who Cares If You Listen?”  High Fidelity, v. 8, no. 2 (February, 1958, pp. 38-40).  All other quotations can be found at the links provided in the post.   


  1. Thanks for all the kind words. Just a point of clarification — my comment about Boulez's work refers to his strict, "total serialist" output. His earlier works are compelling (especially the Piano Sonatas, which I took as inspiration for Boulez Is Alive), and some of his more recent works, in the 1980s through the present, are truly beautiful and occasionally remarkable. I had the pleasure of hearing Derive 1 performed by eighth blackbird, earlier this week; it shone brightly and was quite moving. And Sur Incices is one of the most interesting works of the past 20 years. It's never good to treat a composer's entire output as monolithic, and I wouldn't want anyone to think I was doing so, here. Thanks again and be well.

  2. Dear Judd: Not only do you compose beautiful music, but you are a wonderful guide to music as well, as demonstrated not only by your curating of the magnificent Ecstatic Music Festival (and many other things), but by gracing this post with additional insights into your piece, Boulez is Alive, and into Boulez’s work, as well. I have amended that portion of the post in a way that I hope is more clearly consistent with what you write in your comment about Boulez. I, too, as it happens, was at the eighth blackbird concert, and found Derive 1, as performed by them, quite fascinating. (Sur Incises, which you also highlight, is the piece in the video at the end of that portion of the post.) Your cautionary note not to treat any “composer’s entire output as monolithic” is well taken, and I thank you again for taking the time to further my own musical education.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.