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    Comments On Boulez's Repons

    I wanted to challenge myself today and listen to some contemporary works so I put on Repons [sorry I'm missing the French e) by Boulez.  Here's an interesting quote from Boulez referring to his approach to total serialism:

     "I had taken the experience to absurd lengths . . . this sort of absurdity, of chaos . . . was completey intentional and has probably been one of my most fundamental experiments as a composer.  At that point disorder is equivalent to an axcess of order and an excess or arder reverts to disorder." (from Twentieth-Century Music by Elliot Antokoletz, Chapter 15 Total serialization in Europe, pgs. 373, 374).

    I have to admit than in comparison to the late Renaissance/early Baroque music I have been listening to (a Christmas tradition) that Repons lacks the change of character, change of mood, reflective moments without compexity in the forfront.  The sonorous qualities seem to be obliterated by the unrelentless complexity.  The rhythm of the piece lacks the same sense of clarity, metric modulation, change of character due to the complexity and dense field.  I longed for a movement in the piece that emphasized space, the compliment to mass.  How much complexity can one take without desiring it's compliment - simplicity? 

    While the aim of the total serialists was to innovate and avoid past models of form and heirarchy, I wonder if the things they were trying to avoid are indeed the things we enjoy about music?  Change of character, change of mood, simplicity as compliment to complexity, lyricism, sonority, melody, expression of a phrase, identification of thematic material, personal expession, etc.  

    Stockhausen said "Schoenberg is dead."  I think not.  What moves us in Schoenbeg's music is not that he used older forms or structures, but the intensity of his ideas, their innovation, and the unique way in which Schoenberg was able to define his compositional method systematically into his own language.  Even in Webern, the composer of choice for expansion of serialism by the total serialists there is a great deal of change of character, change of mood, lyricism, dare one even say "hooks!", sonority that allows one to breath, a wide range of dynamics and space/mass compliments.  

    Unrelentless complexity and musical activity for that purpose tend to wear me out as a listener; everything becomes a static stream of intensive sound.  Is it possible that the next generation of composers need to affirm and not avoid?  Webern's music is not only relevent for it's technical means, it is also the inseperable personal expression of the composer that affects us - Webern was a composer living in the midst of the 20th century's most brutal fascist regime.  Webern's music reminds us of our human condition and that is beyond the scope of serialism technique.  


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    • 8 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • I once heard a live performance of Repons - at UCLA, 1986. The performance was in a large space (a big gymnasium that had been carefully set up for this performance). At that performance, the sonorous qualities (for me anyhow) were in the forefront, it was a fabulous "sonic bath". I understand what Carson means about "too much complexity" being tiring, but I did not experience that in the UCLA performance. I could imagine that a recorded performance could be quite a different experience.

      I concur with Carson's general observations. Personally I (usually) prefer a broad spectrum of stimulation. (ie lyricism, sonority, melody, expression of a phrase, identification of thematic material, personal expession, ...). Maybe I should think of extreme-serialism as being a different aesthetic (one sip of a dry martini as opposed to a Great Wines Dinner)




      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • I agree with Isaac. Repons was a piece composed for a large space performance only. It's raison d'etre was the interplay of voices coming from varying distances around the hall or gymnasium. I heard this piece at its New York premiere some time back in the 20th century and its was most entertaining. That may partially be due to the excitement of being at the premiere with the composer present with all those live musicians and the attentive, knowledgable audience. As for the content of the music, I think we all know that the super-serialists were able to produce the most astoundingly complex scores that are tremendously impressive to look at and are nearly impossible to perform with any confidence. What they achieved was, in effect, a written form of randomness which frees the listener from needing to understand the musical narrative. You experience the immersion in sound but leave the concert unable to remember a single musical event. You certainly didn't leave humming anything you had heard. This was music for the head, not the heart.

      I was a student of Boulez in 1963 and many of my generation realized we could not outserialize the super-serialists so we went in the other direction to minimalism. Some of us ended up employing serial techniques in our minimalism. For me that was a productive place where the best of both worlds produced music that was pleasant, seemingly rational, and intriguingly crafted.

    • Thanks for your comments Stephen.  Your comments make perfect sense regarding the large space performance which would be absent when listening to the piece via home stereo system.  Although I enjoy the magnificent detail of the total serialists (Boulez, Babbitt), I still contend that the constructs [of total serialism] are abstractions of formulas and lacking elements related to of the physics of sound.  There is some evidence that "hearing" is related to the history of the human hearing sense and this is why so much of Western Music history and theory is based on Pythagoras, the overtone series, harmonic partials, etc.  That's missing from total serialism IMO - the relation of musical structure to acoustical laws.  So what if you serialize rhythmic durations?  It would be more interesting if those rhythmic durations were related to physical acoustical relationships rather than random arbitrary numbers.  I know, art and science are separate entities.  On the other hand one only has to look or trace the development of Western music to see that "those divisions" of the monochord have shaped our art music and have some basis in the reality of physical laws of nature.  


      Carson, You touched upon one of the most fascinating aspects of all music theory--the relationship of the music to the ability of the astute audience to sing or dance to what they are hearing. It starts with the receiver's ability to discern shape and pattern, both melodic and rhythmic. Once they get the drift of what is being sung or played they get on board and do something that is in synch with the groove. It is a very natural thing for musical people to want to sing or move to what they are hearing, if what they are hearing seems to have a logic and direction. To oversimplify the matter, it is a question of music of the head or music of the heart. The super-serialists were able to create music that was designed for the head, forsaking the ability of music to affect the neuro-chemical/emotional condition of the listener. In fact, they were able to create a music that was so controlled to the nth degree that it mimicked randomness. I occasionaly demonstrated this to my students by improvising at the piano music that was not tonal or metrical and contained gestures that were not anticipatable. I always imagined that was why Boulez and Cage were so close for a while--they both went after the same aesthetic from opposing music technologies. Around that same time the same thing happened to the world of jazz. When it moved from the dance hall to the clubs it went from dancing music to listening music and the size of the audience plummeted.

      I have often contended that the world of music divides itself into two categories: popular music and unpopular music. Evidence of this is the Grammy Awards where, in 2015, the category of classical composition is the third from the bottom. It wasn't always so.


    • Carson Farley, allow me to respond to your last posting. Although "total serial" techniques remain a component of Boulez's compositional working methods, Repons should by no means be characterized as a "total serial" work. Indeed, strictly speaking, Boulez's last works that can be characterized safely by that label are the withdrawn Polyphonie X of 1950-51 and the first book of 1952 's Structures. In all of the composer's subsequent work, technical means are far more informal and the intervention of the increasingly experienced performer's ear in the sounding result directly contradicts your insinuation that the ear and acoustical laws are ignored in this repetoire.  Indeed, it was a disatisfaction with the sounding result in those early works which led Boulez to distance himself from the strict and often independent parameterization of that early "total serial" idea.  Finally, it should be clear that for a composer like Boulez, the search for music with greater tonal and timbral variety neccesarily departs from the same basis in, as you put it, "Pythagoras, the overtone series, harmonic partials, etc.", but does not limit itself solely to those results with least complexity or greatest sensory consonance but rather seeks to work within broader continua on both counts.  

    • As Schoenberg put it (Style and Idea): "Music is only understood when one goes away singing it."


      Michele Ignelzi

      Conservatorio di Musica, Florence, Italy

    • Hi Stephen and Daniel, thank you for those wonderful comments and ideas I will surely ponder in regards to this thread.  I believe Mozart and Debussy were both composers who were simultaneously capable of composing music of the head and heart, as well as many others.  In regards to Cage, I am inspired by his response that when choosing structure or content for musical composition, he compared it to walking on the beach and picking up objects "he liked."  This is a critical statement IMO - the good composer must sometimes make musical decisions that are pleasing in contrast to following conclusions for abstract logical purposes IMO.  Debussy alluded to "this" regarding composition.  Regarding Boulez, he just won a Grammy and that was refreshing to witness!  If Repons is not a total serialization composition (and I trust your detailed evidence), it sure "sounds" like one to me (and I consider myself an educated listener who enjoys contemporary music and seeks it out).  My comments related to Pythagoras are simply that the Western Music aesthetic is related to a scientific method, number, rationale, relations to nature aspect that is integral to Western Civilization's approach to reality - science, deconstruction, physics, numbers, etc.  This is surely demonstrated in the teleology of Western music's development as evidenced in the historical theoretical record - divisions of the monochord, temperament, isorhythm ratios, post tonal permutations and combinatorial set theory, etc.  I have listened to Repons many times - I never said I didn't like the piece or the work of Boulez (I have a lot of his music in my listening library and have spent time with his work), my initial post stated that I don't enjoy Repons very much because of it's unrelenting complexity without relief or contrasting textures.  I'm certain my personal opinion doesn't count for very much nor should it.  But as a composer of contemporary music, I choose and observe that too much density and complexity without the necessary organic compliment - sparseness and simplicity at some point in the composition to balance the music and give the listener a moment of, or change of mood is something I wish to avoid - and that required listening to the work of others (in this case Boulez only regarding that specific piece - Repons) in order to learn, or come to that conclusion.  Perhaps the dissolution of the trends of advanced serialism waned in the 1960s for many reasons, but primarily because there was no audience for it, no interest at the concert hall in sustainable subscribership, as well as the fast moving changes of style, tastes, and technology of the second half of the 20th century.  As bizarre as this may sound, the original Twilight Zone television series was a high point for contemporary atonal [serial] music in that it blended the essence of post tonal music with 20th century media, theater and science fiction in a manner that did captivate hearts and minds.   

    • It's as if discussion of music – in the U.S. in particular – is stuck in a remake of Groundhog Day. But there's nothing funny about it.

      Steve J., with all due respect but also taking the gloves off because I for one am pretty tired of this same old recycled rot:

      You're preaching to the choir. Unfortunately for you and others preaching and worshipping with you, yours isn't the only church. How hard is this to understand and accept?

      However you dress up this high-horse church's defining doctrine, preference-grounded belief is not fact except by accident. The only claim one can possibly make here that is potentially credible (I for one certainly believe it) is that the choir is singing in America's biggest music megachurch. Anything that you claim as following directly from the size of this church rests solely on an argumentum ad populum. And if you wish to define your congregation – with nothing more than a wink and a nod (we know who we are) – as "the astute audience" and "musical people" who respond to "music of the heart," I certainly wouldn't dispute that, only because to dispute it would be to insult the members of your congregation unnecessarily.

      But what you must realize is that by defining the members of your church this way you are concomitantly condemning those outside your church as a conglomeration of unperceptive, tone deaf people who sit around composing and listening to a "music of the head" that foresakes "the ability of music to affect the neuro-chemical/emotional condition" of "the listener." There is also a clear implication (surely not missed by your astute students) that anyone who claims to respond to Carter or Babbitt or Boulez or Cage as music of the heart is either deluded or lying. And since first-person avowals are at (I would say beyond) the threshold of what can or cannot be proven by neuroscience, it is unfortunate that members of the One True Church can continue unchallenged in calling my love and respect for heresiarchs and their music a delusion or a lie. When one can't clearly demonstrate something one way or the other, one is evidently free to chose the alternative that matches one's personal bias followed by a string of reasons demonstrating one's lack of bias. That all this results in an affront to my own church and those of others is, evidently, just too bad.

      My own church, which is a kind of musical universal unitarianism, takes comfort in these words freely adapted from Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary:

      You do not appreciate or respect my music. There are people in the world who do. Therefore, you could be wrong.

      as well as these words from Joyce's Ulysses:

      You behold in me, Stephen said with grim displeasure, a horrible example of free thought.