The New York Review of Books (NYRB) makes it a point to acknowledge in print the death of any past contributor to the periodical. Thus, the current (February 11) issue has printed such an acknowledgement in response to the death of Pierre Boulez. (Ever on the lookout for irony, I was not sure how to treat finding this acknowledgement following the conclusion of David Maraniss’ article “The Collision Sport on Trial,” discussing books and films about recent evidence of the impact, so to speak, of playing tackle football on brain damage.) Since I could not recall having read any of Boulez’ contributions, I decided to visit the NYRB Archive to see how many there were.
It turns out that there were only two entries, neither of which was actually an original article. “Mahler Now,” which appeared in the October 28, 1976 issue, was basically a translation of the preface Boulez had written for a 1979 French edition of a book by Bruno Walter about Gustav Mahler’s time in Vienna. The article is behind a paywall, but it can be found in Martin Cooper’s English translation of the collected writings of Boulez edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and published under the title Orientations. What is important to note about this essay is that it predates most of Boulez’ efforts as a conductor to perform Mahler’s music.
The other entry, which appeared on the June 28, 1984 issue, is not an essay. Rather, it is a set of excerpts from an interview that Boulez gave on the subject of contemporary music. The excerpts were selected (and probably also translated into English) by Jonathan Cott. The interview took place shortly after Boulez’ Ensemble InterContemporain had performed the world premiere of Frank Zappa’s “The Perfect Stranger,” which would later be recorded for release on a CD. Zappa’s work is mentioned only in passing as an example Boulez gives of the need “to be in touch with people who have other concepts.” Ironically, the text continues shortly thereafter with a sentence beginning “Although I don’t want to be derogatory” that then expresses at some length Boulez’ negative feelings about “minimalist and repetitive music,” calling out specifically the work of Philip Glass.
Between Zappa and Glass, however, there is a rather interesting statement: “A great deal of misunderstanding occurs when you approach another culture because, looking at it from outside, you miss or misspell the laws. But I find that these misunderstandings are often very fruitful, since what you see in another culture is what you want that other culture to reveal about what you yourself are doing and searching for. And then suddenly, you find something in common and you take from this culture what you most need.” Apparently, he had no trouble approaching Zappa’s culture but could not be as accepting where Glass was concerned.
More problematic, however, is his approach to Anton Webern, a composer for whom had had considerable sympathy. Unfortunately, that sympathy appears to have been grounded in his having seen Webern as responsible for what he called “the birth of a new language.” This may provide a valuable explanation for all the effort that Boulez put into what Arnold Schoenberg had caustically dismissed as composing “principles,” rather than music.
If Boulez wanted to talk about languages, he probably should have prepared himself with some background on how linguists approach what is often called “natural language,” what counts as “language” in our day-to-day interactions through speaking, writing, and reading. (The philosopher Jürgen Habermas chose to call such interactions “communicative actions.”) At the risk of trivializing the perspective, language is what we do with it, not how we construct it or “give birth” to it; and this is as true about the communicative action of making music as it is about sending out a tweet that you just voted for Bernie Sanders. Language emerges as a consensus for how we engage through communicative actions; and that is as true of the marks Webern put on paper for his Opus 21 symphony as it was for the marks that Johann Sebastian Bach put on the pages of the four volumes of his Clavier-Übung.
Reading the text that Cott compiled, one gets a sense that Boulez was shooting from the hip. This may have been nothing other than a reaction to his being uncomfortable in an interview setting. His relationship with Zappa seemed to be a warm one with little, if any, sign of polemics. In retrospect, we would probably do better to focus attention on Boulez’ journey of communicating through conducting, rather than his trying to think about composition in terms of a “new language.”