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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.


Webern during the 1920’s kept refining his style into what Pierre Boulez calls “a new manner of musical being”. Webern, he says, “was the first to explore the possibilities of a dialectic of sound and silence”, with silences as integral parts of the rhythmic cells. Webern also evolved a new structure of pitches, rethinking “the very idea of polyphonic music on the basis of the principles of serial writing”.

Where Schoenberg and Berg could never discard romanticism, Webern was the one member of the so-called Second Viennese School who worked in pure tonal organization, rejecting completely the romantic rhetoric. It could be said that there was no rhetoric at all. So condensed was the writing that a piece might last only a few minutes, and every once in a while under a minute.

Boulez claims that in Webern’s mature works, between 1927 and 1934 (including the Symphony) “each sound becomes a phenomenon in itself, linked to the others … he aerates his positionings in time and space as well as in their instrumental context”. Instrumentation itself takes on a structural function.

The transition from serial music to totally organized music might have come earlier had not the Nazis and seven years of war intervened. Webern was forced to live in obscurity, doing editorial work for Universal Edition. He was accidentally shot and killed in Mittersill during the night of September 14, 1945, by a trigger-happy American soldier who was working on a black market case in which Webern’s son-in-law was involved.

(Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, Volume Two)

Well, he was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, the biggest fucking musical charlatan of the 20th century, so something must have rubbed off on him.

The word for Cage’s compositional practice is apparently, I’m told by various dullards who bother about these kind of things, “indeterminacy”, “aleatory” being a dirty European word (coined by loser Pierre Boulez) describing a European concept of having some chance elements inside a determined structure. (In this, it is not much different from any piece, ever, as there are always little things different in each performance of each piece. That goes for each playing of a fixed recording, too.)

Indeterminacy, on the other hand, is about finding ways to let go of control, finding ways to bypass one’s own tastes and desires (this goes for performers as well as composers, hence the distinction Cage always made between indeterminacy and improvisation). Aleatory basically leaves the whole Western art tradition intact, leaves the audience still in the position of admiring “works”. Indeterminacy, briefly, overturns the tradition, inviting the audience to take more responsibility for their enjoyment, inviting the audience to become more aware of, if not even enjoy, the sights and sounds of everyday life.

Superficially, they all seem similar, aleatory, improvisation, indeterminacy. But they really are all three quite distinct.

In conclusion, therefore, Arnold Schoenberg was an arse and John Cage was an arse.

Oh come on, seriously, how often do you think, “Where’s that John Cage tape I made in 1972 … I really want to listen to it now” or “Let’s put on Alfred Brendel’s recording of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and fuck like crazed weasels”?

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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