4.26.13 | On Listening to Boulez’s First Piano Sonata

I’ve noticed that I do a lot of writing. Much of that writing gets printed on sheets of paper, handed out to anywhere from 5 to 200 people who attend a concert I am somehow involved with, and then vanishes. Musica Reservata is a means to collect the writing I do in one place and to give it a chance to live, unlike the performance it often accompanies, beyond its moment of creation. This space, being not constrained by things like word count and page length, may also provide opportunity for further elaboration than would be possible or appropriate in the form of printed program notes or articles. Beyond that, other current plans for this blog are admittedly vague.

As a somewhat ceremonial gesture, I’ve decided to start the blog with the program notes I recently wrote for Pierre Boulez’s Piano Sonata no.1. These will be included in the program of Julia Den Boer’s solo recital at the Bohemian National Hall on May 2, 2013, which includes this piece, Lugi Nono’s Sofferte Onde Serene, Janacek’s Sonata, and works by Srnka, Adamek, and Philippe Leroux. You should come. It’ll be great.

Sonata No. 1boulez
Pierre Boulez

Let us forget everything that lies between us and this music: let us forget the passage of the last 68 years (a distance greater than, for example, that between Bach’s B-Minor Mass and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony…during which time flashed the entire life of Mozart…), let us forget the composer’s subsequent litany of familiar incendiary remarks, his various stances in relationship to the development of art, music, technology, politics and power, and let us forget above all, the music he has written since.

Let there be nothing whatsoever between us and this music: a short ten-minute piece for solo piano, written by an ambitious and prodigiously talented 21-year old in Paris, in 1946.

The first ten seconds of the first movement:
a rising interval / a falling interval …
a single high suspended pitch / a blurry cascade of pitches falling into focus …
a harmony stumbling into verticality

Let us forget the “cycle of twelve equal pitches” lens through which we have learned to think about (ie: learned to reconstruct) bland 12-Tone Music, let us forget the very idea of “12-Tone Music,” and let us especially forget all notions of “equality.”

Let us focus, instead, on these five gestures and their unequal relationship to one another. We will not immediately feel the expressive power of these opening gestures and their inequality in the first ten seconds, but that’s ok…after all, if the first five gestures expressed all there was to be expressed, the piece would be over.

Throughout the first movement, each of these microscopic gestures will undergo perpetual transformation: in pitch, in register, in dynamic and in length of time necessary to unfold. These transformations will be as unequal as the gestures they transform, veering each gesture into wildly different realms of possible existence. Throughout this process, however, the gestures will retain the familiarity of their original formation.

This may be an unnecessarily pedantic thing to propose, but I would suggest that the expressive power of the first movement (and in fact of the entire piece) sits not only in the variety of transformations of each gesture, ranging from delicately off-set moments of repose to patently absurd moments of extreme silliness (in the form of glissandi up the keyboard and ridiculous low, thumping cluster cadences), but that each transformed gesture also finds expressive power in contrast to the thing that we hear directly before it and directly after it. Because each gesture is so small and so characteristic, this creates two levels of listening that I can’t help but undertake. On the one hand, I hear the delirious energy of the piece moving (jerking and twitching) forward, as each gesture transforms in real time, butting up against opposing gestures differently transformed (a kind of musical surrealism – witnessing the landscape of flowing time fill with impossible and nonsensical objects in absurdly close proximity). At the same time, however, I retain a memory of each of the five original gestures, and hear the newly transformed versions of each as a fleeting recollection. This creates, in a way, five imaginary groups of fleeting recollections, in which all the versions of a single gesture are loosely situated next to each other (a kind of musical cubism wherein I see multiple sides of a single object at once). This larger opposition, my own experience of surrealism v. cubism, and my attempt to manage them in real time is, for me, one of the most powerful aspects of the first movement.

The second movement, a rapid (rabid?) and virtuosic toccata, then acts toward the first movement as the gestures within the first movement act toward each other. The whole piece comes to resemble the small parts we have been observing. The second movement opposes the first: whereas in the first we hear the micro-gestures – two intervals, one note, one cascade, one chord – the second movement would have us listen to broader strains of ideas, alternating sections of the lyrical and the furious.

But there is a problem (an exciting problem) in the second movement: because we have been lured into listening along the time scale of tiny gestures during the first movement, we make a similar attempt of listening as the second movement begins. I would propose that Boulez plays with (preys upon?) this very idea in the sparse-ish introduction, knowing that we will continue to listen as such. The movement very quickly becomes extremely difficult to keep up with…and herein lies the expressive power of the second movement. As we attempt to apply Boulez’s own framework of the first movement, a framework of hyper-focused moments, to the second movement, we experience the second movement, and the large contrasts between furious and lyrical passages as even more rambunctious, even more unruly, even more…

There is a great deal at stake. If we succeed in our efforts to experience this music independently from the crushing burden of history, we will have done Boulez (and ourselves?) the profound favor of momentarily destroying the Mona Lisa, burning down the opera houses, and knowing an urgency of composition so extreme that it does in fact render all other composition, for a few moments, USELESS.

(sans the thoughts contained in these pop-up boxes)
Influential composers dying, opera houses burning, the uselessness of non-serial organizational structures, etc.
It has been my observation that particularly among French composers (and by “French composers” I mean “serious French composers” – if that distinction is somehow unclear, consider the music of this guy v. the music of his better-known-in-France-and-virtually-unknown-in-the-US frère cadet. I don’t know for certain, but would guess that Olivier is fairly issue-free re: Boulez.) and even some performers of “serious French music” of my generation, and perhaps half a generation older, that there is a deep resentment toward Boulez, the influence he has wielded since forming IRCAM, his setting of the aesthetic agenda of an entire nation / culture (and therefore the system by which individuals do or do not advance, gain recognition etc), all coalescing into a general feeling that the serious music life of France is only improving as the godfather ages and his influence wanes. I don’t doubt the truth of the situation, but being almost entirely outside of that sphere of influence (Oberlin being as far flung from IRCAM as one can get while still being remotely cognizant of its existence, meaning and import) and having encountered the man HIMSELF only as a participant in conducting classes at his school-to-teach-young-musicians-to-play-his-music, I found him to be warm, open and engaging, and in fact much warmer, more open, and more engaging than a number of other less reviled heavy-hitting figures with whom I have had the pleasure of interacting…and I have therefore found the intensity of the French resentment (to say nothing of the calcified loathing of the even older generation of American composers of “serious music” who apparently felt so compelled by the gravitas of his word-spreading that they apparently abandoned expressive music making altogether in order to pursue what it seems to me they describe as soulless structure building…or so I’ve been told…over and over again…) a bit…well…baffling.
Because, really, with that much emotion in the air and that much cultural-aesthetic baggage heaped upon the man and his music – and I am not, here, saying that he didn’t ask for said heaping – how can we POSSIBLY listen to this music with fresh ears? And yet it seems to me that if we are sitting at a concert with this music being played, or for that matter sitting at ANY concert with ANY music being played, that the experience of those roughly 10 minutes has more to offer us if we are able to approach the listening with fresh, unencumbered ears. And further, isn’t it sad to attempt to shuttle all of that baggage INTO an experience lasting a mere ten minutes…or the equivalent of roughly 1 / 4.20759 x 10 to the 6th chunk of our lives?

If it could be said that I have an agenda here, in this post, it is simply to discover how to do that with THIS piece of music.

I am tempted here to insert a link to some ridiculous youtube video of college-level juniors being generally ridiculous in order to drive home the point that Boulez was only 21 when he wrote this piece, and that this turned out to be only the second piece he considered acceptable for publication, and that he had not yet written any of the famous incendiary words that would help make him famous. But, sadly, comparison to contemporary 21 year old antics is not really the point. Closer to the point is Robert Schiff’s observation (now almost 20 years old) that “Figuring everything out at twenty-one can be dangerous.” His 1996 article in The Atlantic is an interesting, insightful, and mostly agenda-free read for anyone who may still care about Boulez the human…a decidedly less enigmatic human these days than he was in 1996…or 1976.
I have a hard time imagining that anyone, even in 1946, found these gestures to be unduly “wild” or “avant” (ie: in some way compositionally scandalous). Rather, my reading is that these non-structured gestures (for lack of a better term) are a kind of logical result of an accumulation of energy – at the moment of the glissando, there is no choice BUT to glissando in order to break through the accumulation of motion into something else.
Take the rhetorical flourish of that last sentence as nothing more than rhetorical flourish. One could (and I would) argue that one goal of any focused listening is to be so close to the object of observation that everything outside of that sphere is in some way momentarily useless. Hopefully, good writing about music enables one to get closer to that musical-observational sphere faster.