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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

Pierre Boulez: Sonate I-III pour piano
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstucke I-IV

by Rhys Chatham

    The decade of the 1950s was an exciting time for music coming out of a classical tradition as well as for other disciplines. It was just at the end of the epoch where the atom had been split and its power used for many purposes. Freudian psychology was still very much in vogue. Theoretical and practical science were deeply respected, to such an extent that it had invaded philosophy with Husserl striving to develop the doctrine of phenomenology into a pure, non-empirical science, soon to be followed by Heidegger and Sartre.

    A scientific approach to music was also very much in vogue during the 50s and 60s, when the form of a composition of music tended to become more important than its content, to the point where a composer like Charles Wuorinen would be inspired to say that the actual performance of a given composition was a "necessary evil" that was unfortunately attached to the "pure" Platonic process of making the piece!

    While it might seem like a silly idea in the 1990s, this comment of Wuorinen's was quite risque when it was made and was actually taken seriously. In the 1950s, this music (which was called "serialism") was actually very exciting and continued to seem so right up until the late '60s. The idea that it might be possible to order all the parameters of music in much the same way one would order a 12-tone row was an idea that led to much interesting music during this period.

    Most of the composers who originated this style of writing are now either dead or in the twilight years of their life. While a few of them have gone on to invent or work in other styles of music within a classical tradition, many of them opted to continuously elaborate upon the musical style to which they gave birth to in the 1950s. Since having a new idea is much more difficult than simply refining or commenting upon an old one, this seemed the more prudent course, which is why even today we hear the students (or students of students) of these composers, after ALL these years, mindlessly aping their style (or "daringly" embellishing upon it, as we like to do here in France).

    Music in a serial style (as well as its later post-serial derivatives and various descendents) is easy to identify. It is almost always atonal, usually arhtyhmic and unerringly brings to mind a vision of the depressing, frozen-wasteland of Europe immediately after World War II. It's a music about angst, a music about the "triumph" of the mind over the emotions.

    The end of the fifties saw a hybrid musical landscape, with composers on one side of the fence advocating complete control of all the parameters of music, attempting to reduce music to a science, and on the other side the composers who continued to push the definitions of music through the use of indeterminacy, chance operations, stochastic principles and rule-oriented pieces. The composition of music and the sound of the resulting performances had reached the outer limits of the performers technical capacities, doing its intrepid best to be as arcane as possible. At times it seemed comprehension was limited only to a select core of hardened new music fans. By the early sixties, a critic of the New York Times had gone so far as to write a shocking article on the composer Milton Babbitt, a composer who was a leader of this school, entitled: "Who cares if you understand?"

    There was a consensus among composers of the time that it was considered a compromise to write music with even a veneer of accessibility, for accessibility was not a part of the theoretical platform. It seemed one needed to be a specialist in modern music, or perhaps in love with someone who was, in order to fully appreciate the music which was being written around that time. In other words, for an ambitious young composer at the end of the fifties or the beginning of the sixties, tonality was out and dissonance was in. Or at least some kind of noise! I was writing in this style of music myself when I was studying composition in the sixties. It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. I loved it!

    However: we are now (after all) in 1997...

    We are in an epoch where many composers coming out of classical music are also comfortable working within a jazz or rock (or even techno) context as they are working within an academic or "art" environment. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Pierre Boulez as a young man wrote Sonate I-III and Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote Klavierstücke I-IV.

    These pieces were written for the piano. The piano, more than any other instrument lets us know where a composer's head is at, one's compositional technique being laid bare, as it were, when one composes for this instrument. Both of these pieces were written in the 1950s and were enormously influential. What are we to think of them today?

    I listened to both pieces recently and came to certain conclusions.

    I hadn't listened to Sonate I-III since I was a student, so I was really hearing it with fresh ears. I will also say right up front that I have a weak spot in my heart for some of the music of Pierre Boulez. When I was a classical flutist I had played his Sonatinefor flute and piano, which the American pianist Paul Jacobs had kindly offered to read through with me at the time. I should also say that I have much greater musical experience now than when I was a music student. As a music student, I knew nothing of popular music, my background was in early music of the Renaissance, I didn't get into contemporary music (Berio, Wolpe, Babbitt, Cage, Carter, Boulez, Shapey, Stockhausen) until I was a teenager!

    After a fresh listening, I decided that I prefered Klavierstücke I-IV to Sonate I-III. Both pieces are atonal, arhythmic and cerebral as well as being extremely difficult to play. However, Stockhausen's effort seems so much more musical than the effort of Boulez. Particularly, when listening to Klavierstücke's so, well, exquisite. One almost imagines one is listening to something as refined as a sophisticated blues line articulated by a singer on the level of Billie Holiday. In Stockhausen's piece, everything is in its place. The melody, the rhythm and the structure, while being complex (extremely complex) is also elegant and beautiful. Everything works musically. It's about perfection. I wasn't surprised when I read that Stockhausen played piano in a bar during his late teens and early twenties, this earthy connection that he had with music certainly shows up in his written work.

    On the other hand, with the Boulez piece, it almost seemed as if the composer was viewing the final aural product with disdain: that the actual sound, which was, after all, a mere byproduct of the structure of the composition, was a "necessary evil" (to quote Wuorinen); that the actual music was less important than the intellectual effort that went into creating it. In listening to Sonate I-III we hear a mushy, dark, depressing sound with much overuse of the sustain pedal and many overlayered rhythms, which may work on an intellectual level and look wonderful in notated form, but do not work or hold together very well musically, even when one takes into consideration its given genre where complexity is championed.

    No matter how complex music is, whether it is Stockhausen or whether it is an Anthony Braxton composition, it has to work within a rhythmic and melodic framework no matter how dense the rhythm and structure might be, as does much of the music of Stockhausen as well as the younger composer Braxton. I don't care how much Mr. Boulez might say his music is coming out of his reading of Mallarmé, all I can do is quote the current motto of IRCAM's Ensemble Intercontemporaine: "It don't mean a thing unless it's got that swing!".

    While I do not mean to say anything here against complex music, I think one thing we can all agree upon is that too much contemporary music coming out of a classical context hides behind complexity, which it uses as a disguise to cover bad or mediocre music. It's been painfully obvious to most of us for a long time that the emperor has no clothes. I am finding it fascinating to take a fresh look at music coming out of a classical tradition which was made in the fifties with a view to deciding which music from this period we still find useful and which music would perhaps be better off relegated to the dustbin of history.

    Rhys Chatham
    Paris, France
    April 1997

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