Is There Progress In Music?

Barenboim’s second installment of Beethoven’s symphonies is up on BBC (again in addition to the available everywhere radio version).

As in the first installment, Barenboim programmed a piece by Boulez between two symphonies. The first episode featured a conversation between him and Boulez about various musical issues. The idea is not so much that the Boulez is the Beethoven of our time (as sympathetic to Boulez and his general musical agenda as I am, I think to say that would be too much), but that there is a sense in which if you juxtapose the two, you can see that they are both significant composers each in his own way and that this contrast somehow shows the progress in music. Or at least this is what the explanation sounded as trying to present the issue to me. Even if I completely misunderstood the intention of throwing Beethoven and Boulez together, there is still a very strong tradition in classical music (and music in general) to interpret the change of styles and type of music over the centuries as a kind of progressive development of musical substance: from simple unison singing to polyphony to harmony to atonality and so on.

But does the diversity here show any progressive development? And, if such progressive development (in the sense of successive generations picking up and developing the musical material of the previous generations) exists, does it constitue a kind of universal progress of music from previous primitive forms to more recent sophisticated forms? In order words, is Boulez’s in any way more advanced than Beethoven’s music (or, say, Monteverdi’s music)? Can someone write music in the style of Beethoven today (and not be a film composer) and be taken for a “real composer”? They probably can but they do not. Any piece of contemporary music that is being written today (and, again, not for films) is very likely to be atonal in some form or another.

I think the question of the progress in music is difficult to answer because if progress is taken not as a simple development from one form to another form, but as a development from an inferior form to a superior form, then there must be a clearly identifiable criterion of what constitutes “good” and “bad” music. What must music do? If it is entertainment, then obviously Boulez and much of contemporary classical music is bad music. Yet whose entertainment are we talking about? If it is the “great unwashed masses,” then even Beethoven is bad music. So does that mean that the quality of music in the ear of the listener? An educated and refined insider would understand Boulez (what does it really mean to “understand” something like Boulez’s music anyway?) and an uneducated and rough outsider will think it’s sheer noise and nonsense – so where do we go from here?

New Book: Boulez, Music and Philosophy

This looks interesting:

Boulez, Music and Philosophy by Edward Campbell

Series: Music in the Twentieth Century

Cambridge University Press

While acknowledging that Pierre Boulez is not a philosopher, and that he is wary of the potential misuse of philosophy with regard to music, this study investigates a series of philosophically charged terms and concepts which he uses in discussion of his music. Campbell examines significant encounters which link Boulez to the work of a number of important philosophers and thinkers, including Adorno, Lévi-Strauss, Eco and Deleuze. Relating Boulez’s music and ideas to broader currents of thought, the book illuminates a number of affinities linking music and philosophy, and also literature and visual art. These connections facilitate enhanced understanding of post-war modernist music and Boulez’s distinctive approach to composition. Drawing on a wide range of previously unpublished documentary sources and providing musical analysis of a number of key scores, the book traces the changing musical, philosophical and intellectual currents which inform Boulez’s work.


1. Preparing the ground; 2. Early influences and movements; 3. Dialectic, negation and binary oppositions; 4. Boulez, Adorno and serial critique; 5. Deduction and the scientific model; 6. Serialism and structuralism; 7. Post-structuralist encounters; 8. Boulez, difference and repetition; 9. Expanding the virtual; 10. Continuity and discontinuity of space and time; Conclusion; Bibliography.

Elliott Carter Is Older Than You.

NYTimes: A Composer Who’s 99 With Plenty to Celebrate:

The composer Elliott Carter, left, and the conductor Pierre Boulez after a Focus! concert.

Perhaps it’s true that composers of formidably complex music, like Elliott Carter, are tough sells for mainstream audiences. That is why the scene at the Juilliard School on Friday night was so encouraging. Outside the school’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater a long line of people stood in the wintry chill, hoping to get tickets for the first concert of Focus! 2008: All About Elliott, the school’s free, weeklong festival devoted to music by Mr. Carter, interspersed with works by composers who influenced him and by sympathetic colleagues.

The rest of the article is here. Go Carter!

Monday Tune: Pierre Boulez, Piano Sonata No. 1

It’s Monday night and I am already so tired I could swear it is Friday – well, I figured I would post a tune for all of you tired instructors of young and impressionable minds – something special to cheer you up: Pierre Boulez, Piano Sonata No. 1 (performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard). 


From Musical Quarterly, 60:2 (1974), 319:

Piano Sonata No. 1 (1946) is a two-movement work of variegated interfaced materials: thin, crystalline motivic fragments, arpeggiated and chordal globs of sound, driving brittle toccatas, and lyrical outpourings of tantalizing beauty. The music is propelled through constantly changing meters and tempos, sometimes unfolding accentless melismas, or pausing to savor a particularly delicious sonority. Without suggesting that this is a derivative work, the influence of Debussy (textural clarity, juxtaposition of materials in a convincing though hard-to-explain succession, and delight in a single sonority), Stravinsky, Messiaen, and even Bartok (motoric, additive rhythms) and Webern (pitch determination and the opposition of registers) are more apparent here than in subsequent compositions.