Pierre Boulez: Structures pour deux pianos. Alfons & Aloys Kontarsky. Wergo WER 6011-2 (1992)

Pierre Boulez: Structures pour deux pianos. Alfons & Aloys Kontarsky. Wergo WER 6011-2 (1992), barcode 4010228601121

Recorded 1965

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When the Yin becomes undistinguishable from the Yang
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 2 May 2016

I’m in no doubt that Boulez’ two books of Structures for 2 pianos (composed respectively in 1952 and 1956/1961) are supremely intelligent works, with every detail (of pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics) following a carefully-conceived plan, and that Boulez’ plan to exert total control over his material is realized to the hilt. I can’t tell if the Kontarsky brothers, here recorded in 1965 and with good stereo separation, faithfully and fully realize Boulez’ intentions in their rendition of Structures, but I’ll give them credit. A line drawn on a sheet of paper, even with the finest pencil, will never be a mathematical line, just an approximation, but the approximation is good enough to give you the idea of a mathematical line.

The short blurb in English, giving the gist of a conference said to have been held by Boulez at Harvard in 1962 (but further research shows that this is an error: it was Darmstadt in 1963) comments that “In Structures Boulez realized his intention of eradicating every trace of derivation from his musical vocabulary, be it figures or phrases or the development and the form. He then intended to recapture – step by step, element by element – the various phases of composition so that a completely new synthesis could arise in this way which was not ‘corrupted’ from the start by foreign elements – in particular by stylistic reminiscences” – and I am immediately reminded of Descartes’ plan recounted in his Discourse on Method:

But now that I wanted to devote myself solely to the search for truth, I thought I needed […] to reject as if it were absolutely false everything regarding which I could imagine the least doubt, so as to see whether this left me with anything entirely indubitable to believe. Thus, I chose to suppose that nothing was such as our senses led us to imagine, because our senses sometimes deceive us. Also, I rejected as unsound all the arguments I had previously taken as demonstrative proofs, because some men make mistakes in reasoning, even in the simplest questions in geometry, and commit logical fallacies; and I judged that I was as open to this as anyone else. Lastly I decided to pretend that everything that had ever entered my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams, because all the mental states we are in while awake can also occur while we sleep and dream, without having any truth in them.

But no sooner had I embarked on this project than I noticed that while I was trying in this way to think everything to be false, it had to be the case that I, who was thinking this, was something. And observing that this truth, “I am thinking, therefore I exist” [“je pense, donc je suis”: I think, therefore I am], was so firm and sure that not even the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics could shake it, I decided that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.

Boulez the Cartesian then, the analytical Boulez, applying Descartes’ method to composition. Yes, it certainly fits what we know of Boulez.

But, ah, you know how it is: the intelligence of the creator or the interpreter is sometimes way above the intelligence and perceptive abilities of the listener – even the informed and welcoming listener with an ear trained to “contemporary music”. I derive little appeal listening to Structures, especially Structures I – it seemed terser, more abstract and cerebral, than Structures II, the latter sounded more sensuous (in its treatment of piano chords, sound mass and resonance) and dramatic, and that too fits with what we know of Boulez’ early radicalism and his (very moderate) later softening. Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus and Visions de l’Amen, Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Berio’s piano music, Xenakis piano works: yes I can relate to those and derive much appeal from listening to them. These compositions are always evocative of something, secret stories which are left to the listener’s imagination. By the same token, I can follow Descartes up to his “I think therefore I am”, but he loses me when from there he goes to “I can conceive of a being greater than I, therefore this being, e.g. God, exists” – uh? And I can conceive of Jabba the Hut therefore Jabba exists?

But with Boulez’s Structures I, I hear what sounds like a caricature of “contemporary music”, one note struck here, one there, many notes all over the place, and all seemingly at random as a kid (or adult) with no training would do at the piano. Cage’s Taoism (and composition outlook as well) is as removed as it could be from Boulez’ Cartesianism, but it’s incredible how much the Yin can meet the Yang sometimes to the point of being undistinguishable from it, and how total determinacy can sound like total randomness, how the most supreme control can seem like the lack of any control. Hey, maybe I’m saying something important about God’s creation here too.

I know, it’s the same kind of “reasoning” that leads the asinine ignoramuses to say: “this Picasso, selling for millions of dollars??? Now c’mon, my two-year old can draw the same!” So I’m not saying Structures are worthless intellectural crap – read again. It’s just that the listener’s intelligence, knowledge, ability at understanding and appreciating, are not up to the composer’s supreme intelligence, knowledge and mastery. That the long analysis given by Boulez on Structures – in fact the relevant excerpt from his Darmstadt-not-Harvard conference – should be reproduced in the booklet only in German doesn’t help, of course. And it doesn’t help either that it deals only with Structures I, although, by 1962, Structures II had already been composed – I had to go to the Wikipedia entry on Structures (yes, there is one, and it doesn’t even have a counterpart on French Wikipedia) to find out that Structures II was in fact a reworking of Structures I. Not that it’s immediately perceptible on hearing. But then, even if the text had been in English, I’m not sure I’d have wanted to read its 12 pages in small type. What’s music that needs a 12-page explanation in small type to be understood, with the faint hope that better understanding will lead to appreciation? I don’t need twelve pages to be bowled over by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or Goldberg Variations, and in its time that music was as learned and intelligent and exploratory as Boulez’ in 1950. It’s because I’m enraptured by the music that I’ll want, then, to read 12, or 120 pages about it, to get closer to it.

In truth, I’ve found online the full text of the conference, in French, as belatedly published by the Canadian University Music Review in 1986, “Nécessité d’une orientation esthetique”. It’s a long and, as always with Boulez, brilliant and fascinating essay – sometimes incomprehensible too to even the reasonably informed layman that I am – on “tradition” and its rejection, on how not just to denounce it in words, but fully reject it in acts, on Boulez’ and his like-minded peers’ radical overhaul of the very concept of music in the late 1940s and early 1950s – and although Boulez places himself under the patronage of painter Paul Klee and 17th-century jansenist philosopher Blaise Pascal, I think it bears out my likening of Boulez with Descartes and his radical doubting of every received “truth”

The article didn’t help me appreciate more Structures I, but I think I get what the whole entreprise of Boulez and his like-minded radical peers was about. This is going to be very tentative, because to make conclusive pronouncements about Boulez’ goals and achievements I’d need to read many more of his writings, and I’m not quite ready to do that at this point of my life (although the point he has now reached in his – the final one – may be a good occasion of doing it). But it seems to me that, in his radical questioning of music and how to compose it (he mentions even questioning the very legitimacy of composing), Boulez concluded something along the lines that music, in its very essence, was the organization of the parameters of pitch, rhythm (or “duration” as he prefers to say), dynamics/modes of attack and timbres, and that none of these aspects had to be left to “tradition”, old ingrained but arbitrary habits, or chance: they all had to be organized by a unfying principle that was consciously chosen and mastered by the composer: numbers and rows. And in the case of “Structures I”, as he says himself, he chose the piano in order to leave out the parameter of timbre, “as bothersome in the way it interposes between the concept and its realization”.

Okay, fine. But it seems to me that, in his stripping the very concept of music to its “bare essentials”, Boulez neglects one thing: for all the composers of the past (and future), music was NOT “just” a mode of organizing pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timbres, taken as an end in itself. It was all that – as a tool, or means, at the service of expression. First came the necessity of expression, all the rest, the organization of pitch-rhythm-dynamics/attack and timbre, was subordinate to it.

So I’m wondering if what Boulez did was only to separate the process from its goal, and to turn the process into the goal. No more organizing pitch-rhythm-dynamics-timbres to express emotion, but organizing pitch etc as an end in itself. Music made purely formal, abstract, the organization of sound through a unified principle, period. I think this is borne out by Boulez’ insistence on the very abstractness of the piece, his rejection of timbre as parasite, as an obstacle between pure thought and realization, and also by his admission of its experimental and radical nature: “I persist in believing that this experience was really fundamental only inasmuch as it reached directly the frontiers of logical absurdity”.

All this reminds me of a play of Peter Handke, “The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other“. It’s a wordless play with 450 characters just entering and exiting the stage. Reading now its entry on Wikipedia I see that it was inspired by Handke’s observation of the hustle-bustle of a little town square, but seing the play some years ago and not knowing of this anecdote, it struck me instead as a very experimental piece which dealt with the very fundamentals of theatre, the realization of the question: “what is theatre if you strip it of its words?”. And the answer is: just characters entering and exiting the stage (that’s how a theatre “scene” is defined and called in Germany: “Auftritt”, “entrance” of a character. And remember Shakespeare: “exeunt”). That may not be THE essence of theatre, but it is, from a certain point of view, AN essence of theatre.

Okay, but music as a mere abstract process, assembling sounds according to formal processes but with no concern whatsoever for the expressivity of the result? And now I am reminded of Milton Babbitt’s (in)famous article (he claimed the title was never his, but it does summarize the argument): “who cares if you listen?” Music not for the enjoyment of the “wider” public, but music as mathematical exploration, just for the enjoyment or interest of peers. But then, why play and record Structures? For which audience? Other composers or performers trained to serialism? Makes it a very limited public I should think.

If I want to look at things as positively as possible, maybe the idea of Boulez was that whatever expression is derived from the music is not, cannot be and should not be the composer’s choice: it’s entirely left to the listener’s imagination. Something like an accidental by-product of the formal process of composing the music. Program a computer, let it compose a piece according to the logic of the program, listen to the result and decide if it “talks” to you. The article doesn’t really say, Boulez only mentions that Structures I was only a first step that dealt with what he calls “the language” or “semantics”, to be followed by an even more radical step that delt with the very fundamentals of expression – but that is sent to, apparently, the second part of the conference which is not included in the published article.

Anyway, sorry Pierre, but after a few listens of Structures I, as attentive as I could afford it without a score and hearing hails of notes with seemingly no expressive content, as if they were rifled at random all over the two keyboards, I can’t make out any “expression” – I hear only hails of notes rifled all over the two keyboards, as if at random. I can make out more expression in some passages of Structures II, especially in the flurry of notes in the high registers of one piano that happens in the second part from 2:30 and 3:30 – in fact I’ve even enjoyed that passage, some kind of berzerk bird chirping. And a similar passage, but now in the low registers, from 7:45 to the end.

It’s funny – I mean… sort of… – when Boulez claims that he wasn’t a firebrand fanatic when casting an absolute doubt on the previous ways of making music and composing Structures – that he was just being consistent and “rigorous” (disciplined, strict). Yeah, well, that’s also what the Luthereans and Calvinists said when they burnt the dissidents at the stake, what the Puritans said in the English Revolution, what the Inquisition said when they burnt any of the former at the stake.. Boulez also talks of those “years of cleansing”, of the elements of the musical language being “purified by fire” and, speaking of tradition and influences, of a “culture full of germs”. Sure sounds like the Inquisition, or Da’Esh, to me. I’m glad that, with Boulez, it’s only metaphorical.

Total timing of the CD is a shamefully short 35 minutes – now come on Wergo, didn’t you have in your inventory a recording of one of Boulez’ piano sonatas, or one of Stockhausen’s early Klavierstücke, for a better measure? And how about Stockhausen’s Kontakte by David Tudor (Wergo WER 6009-2, barcode 4010228600926)? Running also 35 minutes, it would have been the perfect fit– but in this case it is rather a relief.

Comments are welcome