October 28, 2009

Boulez vs Stockhausen

There is the decades old and by now well-entrenched tradition of seeing Stockhausen and Boulez of the late 1950s as refugees from the austere perceptual chaos of total serialism, who found creative haven in the shimmering, slowly undulating, and temporally undirected sound surfaces inspired by Debussy. The earliest source of this tradition that I’ve come across was the great pianist and Debussy interpreter Paul Jacobs, who described Debussy as an inspiration for Stockhausen and Boulez in his 1970 article on that composer. (Whether or not Jacobs was the first to claim this connection – I do not know. The article was written for the first edition of The Dictionary of Contemporary Music.)

This is certainly true of Boulez, whose obsessive fixation on the exaggeratedly ‘orientalist’ surface elements in his music  - ‘exotic’ Javanese, Balinese or Japanese timbres and sonorities, ritualistic phrasing, a ‘Buddhist’ embrace of undirected perspective on time  -  made the surface-focused sound world of Le Marteau and (the inner movements of) Pli selon pli feel as dated today as the exaggerated tail fins on American cars of that period. At some level of formal abstraction the “Debussy connection” also applies to Stockhausen. Yet this background similarity strikes me as being far less telling about the music of these two composers than some of their background differences. As I hear it, their music has been much more deeply affected (and differentiated) by their respective metaphysics: the grandiose, ‘deep’, transcendental German metaphysics lurking in the Weltanschauung of a German intellectual, and the slim, rationalist, "of this world" metaphysics typical of the French after Descartes. (The French had many distinguished philosophers since Descartes, but their philosophical concerns were far better moored to this world than those of the grand-transcendental relay team of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Fichte and Heidegger.)

It takes only a few of Stockhausen's general (philosophical) pronouncements on the "nature" of time, space, mind, etc., to hear an echo of German metaphysics, albeit metaphysics whose vocabulary has been updated by 20th century physics (and later by the jargon of "new age-ish" spiritualism).  And Stockhausen’s music from the late 1950s and early 1960s reveals these metaphysical allegiances by oozing metaphysical grandeur underneath whatever formal devices he employs at the moment, whether in the slender pointillist
Kontra-Punkte or in the massive tectonic shifts of Gruppen, Carre, and Punkte. In the latter three works, the orchestral palette alone – in which Stockhausen’s highly declamatory, massive brass outbursts and growling basses contrast so sharply with the bass-shy, silvery, sparkling palette employed by Boulez – takes my mind to those “cathedrals in sound” so characteristic of the late 19th century Austro-German orchestral music. If refined, reserved, inwardly sensuous Debussy is Stockhausen’s ancestor, he is an uncle at best, and a rather distant one at that. To my ear, the DNA of Stockhausen’s music is far closer to that of Bruckner and Mahler – the two composers whose gargantuan compositions were driven by loudly proclaimed and equally grandiose metaphysical commitments. To ignore (or de-emphasize) this connection is to misrepresent the foundations of Stockhausen’s musical aesthetics. After all, Stockhausen did want to write a Mass - something that neither Debussy nor Boulez would even consider as a hypothetical possibility (but which Bruckner actually did write, and which Mahler approached indirectly with Veni Creator Spiritus).
With Boulez, on the other hand, the metaphysical grandeur is avoided in the typically French manner, which aims at avoiding excesses of any kind (including metaphysical). To be sure, Boulez's light, glittering, sparkling soundscapes are rich with formal complexity, but this complexity seems to be in the service of elegance and sophistication unburdened by the heavy weight of (a typically Germanic) ponderousness. (Just as the cool, refined and reserved piano playing of the so-called French school, however sophisticated, always sounds ‘light’ when contrasted with the "deep in the keys", grandly phrased Germanic interpretations.) And this pervasive, airy lightness of Boulez’s music strikes me as entirely natural, coming from a creative mind which sees the world (and the human condition therein) as complex, but not because it is bolted down to some complex 'metaphysical foundation'.


David Federman said...

You write, "the inner movements of Pli selon pli feel as dated today as the exaggerated tail fins on American cars of that period." Given the Balinese origins of what you call these "sound-surfaces," ones that are similarly drenched in shimmering, I think it unfair to fault Boulez for them. Boulez has discovered abstract impressionism as an alternative to abstract expressionism. Listen to much of Messiaen's music of the same period and you will hear a very similar fascination with gamelan. Stravinsky accused Boulez of "monotony" in this music, but its meditative nature reveals inner depths and nuances that I find rewarding 40 years after first hearing this music. I only wish I could find the 1962 premiere performance that eclipses every one of Boulez's later studio recordings. I still think Pli Selon Pli the greatest work of its time.

Boom said...


Of course claims about what does or doesn't sound "dated" are to a large extent subjective. Perhaps an alternative (if not better) way to describe my impression of Boulez' "orientalism" is "self-conscious"...

In any case, much of the impact of Pli depends on its performance, and Boulez' three studio recordings are disappointing on several levels. However, long time ago I obtained a superbly engineered live 1986 recording of Boulez and SWR SO with Christine Wittlesey from Strasbourg, in which the piece had an overwhelming impact on me - unlike any other live recording I've heard. (The 1986 performance is also a rare "intermediate" version of Pli.)

I don't have the recording of the premiere performance (although I heard it long ago but wasn't impressed.) But if you'd like to hear the 1986 performance, e-mail me (see top of blog's homepage for address), and I will send you the link privately.

dgrb said...

"Bruckner and Mahler – the two composers whose gargantuan compositions were driven by loudly proclaimed and equally grandiose metaphysical commitments."

When did you write this sentence, the 1950s?

Surely this equating of Bruckner and Mahler is hopeless outdated.

Boom said...


To say that these two composers had "equally grandiose metaphysical commitments" is not to equate the commitments themselves, much less their music (style, rhythmic and harmonic complexity, management of constraints imposed by tonality, etc.).

Surely it is worth reading a longish post a bit more carefully with respect to what exactly is being claimed... :)