March 27, 2016

Boulez the Cartesian

…I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation…
Rene Descartes [1]

…if you do not make a clean sweep of all that you have inherited from the past … and adopt an attitude of fundamental doubt towards all accepted values, … you will never get any further.
Pierre Boulez [2]

[My first fully serial composition] was an experiment in what might be called Cartesian doubt: to bring everything into question again, make a clean sweep of one’s heritage and start all over again from scratch.
Pierre Boulez [3]

Pierre Boulez had a reputation as a Cartesian, and not just because he was French and in France Descartes inspires the kind of reverence accorded to vodka in Russia or to Jesus in the American South.  From his late twenties to the end of his long life, Boulez repeatedly described his musical theorizing as a Cartesian project of employing radical doubt to challenge every aspect of musical tradition with the aim of rebuilding compositional practice from scratch on the new foundation of integral serialism.[4] 
     Boulez’s Cartesianism has been duly noted by musicologists, though always in passing and without judgment, the way one mention’s a man’s height or his place of birth.  But why?  Imagine if it had been discovered that Boulez was inspired by, say, Mein Kampf.  Surely musicologists would have taken a close look at the relevant parts of that book, identified all sorts of bad thinking behind the words, and adjusted their assessment of Boulez’s intellect accordingly.  Since deranged tyrants do not have monopoly on bad thinking, my guess is that the free pass given to Boulez’s Cartesianism is due to the common acceptance of Descartes’ reputation as a great thinker.  In light of this reputation, a brief mention of Descartes’ ideas which inspired Boulez is all that needs to be said in the context of a musicological discussion.
     The only problem with this way of treating Boulez’s Cartesianism is that, as a philosopher, Descartes was not a great thinker.  Not even a good one.  Which is to say he was pretty bad (though not as bad as some other members of the Great Philosophers Club).  And if Boulez was inspired by bad thinking imported from Descartes’ philosophy, this non-musical blind spot is worth noting for the sake of a more complete (and more realistic) perspective on the man.

March 9, 2016

The ethics of musical masochism

[Elliott Carter] walked out of Orchestra Hall before the [Chicago Symphony's] 1984 performance of his Symphony of Three Orchestras because he objected to the seemingly flippant tone of conductor Leonard Slatkin's spoken introduction.
John von Rhein, "Composer Elliott Carter has chosen a difficult road", Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1992.

I always like to talk about a difficult piece before I perform it. ... I meant no disrespect to Mr. Carter.  Simply because I don't like a particular piece of music doesn't mean I can't lead a performance. I even recorded the Pachelbel canon. 
     ... On the other hand, I still don't like Mr. Carter's symphony. ... I don't hear much in his work at all.  It's just a series of mathematical gestures, piled on with needless complexity.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin speaking to Tim Page in "An American Conductor Succeeds at Home", New York Times, May 20, 1984.

I take it as obvious that Leonard Slatkin's remarks in the above New York Times interview are those of an arrogant asshole with a seriously underdeveloped musical mind and a grotesquely inflated sense of self-importance.  What caught my eye in this interview, however, was not so much Slatkin's display of philistinism and rudeness - he isn't the only baton-waving hack to have insulted Elliott Carter - as his bragging about having performed musical works he actively dislikes. Slatkin's musical masochism made me wonder if, aside from being irrational, it is unethical for a musician to give public performances of music he actively dislikes and which he is not contractually obligated to perform.