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Whilst there are a few works of Boulez I find to be very mediocre (Derive, Mémoriale, (“…explosante-fixe…”), both Incises and Sur Incises, and a few others), and I’m by no means convinced that various lush re-orchestrations of earlier works constitute an improvement, nonetheless he remains one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century to me, and one whose work shows a greater consistency across the breadth of his output than, say, that of Stockhausen (who spent about 35 years mostly up his own arse, slowly going mad, with just the odd decent work).

All of this is to ignore Boulez’s seminal role as conductor, apologist for not just “new music” but for Debussy’s (for instance), Messiaen’s, Alban Berg’s, and a host of others. He established perhaps the most important institute for electronic and computer music research in the world, single-handedly petitioning a thankfully enlightened French Government in the late 60s/early 70s.

He renovated the repertoire, established a benchmark in certain conducting techniques (perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but it enlivened the world of the symphony orchestra and shook up the BBCSO), released superlative recordings of some of the 20th century’s greatest music, was politically active in supporting young composers, new music more generally, educational standards and notions of musical citizenship, and worked outside the box with the likes of the genius Frank Zappa.

About thirty years ago I was in love with Gillian Moore when we were both students at York University.

Fuck. Look at her now. Harry looks better, and he’s 76.

Did you actually meet Messiaen?

Sort of, a couple of times. I sat next to him in Paris when they played my Triumph of Time. I think it was Colin Davis, I can’t remember, maybe it was Boulez. I think it was Boulez, yeah, it must have been Boulez, and they played a piece of his.

No audience can keep awake through the eternal reiteration of a single idea. Nor can the human mind withstand a continuous bombardment of new ideas.

(Reginald Smith Brindle, Serial Composition)

I’m just reading The New Music – The Avant-Garde Since 1945 by Reginald Smith Brindle (1987), acquired for pennies from the Oxfam shop on Oldham Street just around the corner from where I live in Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter.

Even though I have a couple of Mr Brindle’s guitar works on an old Julian Bream LP, this is not a category of music that figures much in my record or CD collection or concert and BBC Radio 3 listening, although when I first started listening to BBC Radio 3 around 1972 I tried hard to make some sense of what was broadcast of the “new music”, albeit without much profit. I now find Brindle’s fairly gentle critique of the thinking behind indeterminacy, integral serialism, graphic scores and the like usually hits the nail on the head.

So where does that leave the music he discusses: the likes of Togni, Donatoni, Nono for integral serialism, Haubenstock-Ramati, Renosto for aleatoric, Cardew, Bussotti, Buonomi, Levine, Brindle himself and Donatoni again for graphic scores? The above names are taken from the musical examples in the book, although I’ve been deliberately selective (mendacious?) in leaving out more famous names like Messiaen, Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen.

Have these “schools” died as far as performances and recordings are concerned? Do any “masterpieces” linger in anyone’s memory (a tricky notion of course for those scores where no two performances will ever be the same, to the point where the whole idea of a recognizable “work” may well disappear completely). Is this period now to be regarded just as an unfortunate cul-de-sac in musical history?

Some of the then hard-line composers came to that conclusion themselves (Penderecki, Pärt, to name but two of the most well known names), others like Nono and Boulez stuck to their own kind of serialism. Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) committed suicide, but in his music we find the tendency of leaving the German symphonic style behind to develop an increasingly more avant-garde style, which would have continued without abating had he lived longer.

Quite radical composers in the minimal music corner have either mellowed (Andriessen, Adams, gradually losing the sharp edges) or ripened (Reich, refining his point of departure).

So, no, 1950s avant-garde is not really dead, but this type of music in its pure form might in the nearer or further future be considered a cul-de-sac.

Yes, 1950s avant-garde techniques and devices have been adopted, amalgamated, merged with (what might be called) more “classical” points of departure; and therefore, yes, the 1950s avant-garde does play a role in present day composing, either as continuity and development, or in music which is a reaction to the mathematics of it.

As with all periods some, indeed most, of the music then written (1950s), ends up in the “Oxfam shop” of music. What none of us know is what future generations will make of the music. It may all swing back into fashion, as has happened with the music of Korngold. Who would have predicted that in the 1970s? The avant-garde is far from dead, but it’s no longer sensibly called avant-garde, because it is simply part of the vocabulary which informs so much of what composers still do. The amazing freedom which it represented at the time remains often overlooked however, and is certainly still overlooked by those curmudgeons, stubbornly, bizarrely seeking out a tune in Pli selon pli.

Composers are now free to be as conservative or radical as they please; the pendulum has stopped swinging this way or that, because it’s finally become evident we don’t need a pendulum. Schnittke was the most prominent composer who boldly swung between styles (often in the same work) but there are many others.

The down side is that (as with much contemporary art) passions rarely are aroused one way or another. And I’m not sure the absence of an over-arching “school” doesn’t invite decadence. We don’t have a musical Damien Hirst yet, but it’s surely a matter of time.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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