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Book Review

The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez

The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez by Goldman

Writings and Compositions (Music Since 1900)

Jonathan Goldman
Cambridge University Press, 2011 xxii + 244
ISBN-10: 0521514908
ISBN-13: 978-0521514903
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This book is as important one. If you didn't appreciate the magnitude and spread of Boulez' influence on the music of the last more than half century before reading The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez: Writings and Compositions, you surely will afterwards. It's not a long book… fewer than 200 substantive pages with almost a fifth as many again devoted to comprehensive notes, select discography and bibliography as well as a chronological list of works, plus a comprehensive index. But in that space Jonathan Goldman, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the School of Music in the University of Victoria (Canada), provides as thorough, trenchant and useful an analysis of the achievement of Boulez as is currently available. For this reason – despite its price at almost $100 – it can be recommended as a good place to start and/or to consolidate a study, understanding and appreciation of Boulez. Indeed, the only other title approaching The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez, Dominique Jameux's Pierre Boulez (ISBN-10: 0674667409 ISBN-13: 978-0674667402), goes no further than the early 1980s.

The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez is divided into two roughly equal parts. Each deals with "form as opposition": the first as examined in Boulez own writing; the second in his music. Specifically, form is set in the context of opposites as identified by the Structuralist movement. There is a revealing list [page 63] of some of the concepts that lend themselves to such oppositions. This turns out to be a more precise and nuanced term than "opposites", in fact. It could be argued that Goldman's decision to focus on Boulez' view of musical form is a risk. In fact it shows such a deep understanding of the essence of the composer that where there are "gaps" (the relationship between text and music, instrumentation, and Boulez' work as a conductor, for instance), the ground that is covered can easily be used to fill them.

Boulez style has evolved over the decades. That's something which the casual listener may not fully appreciate or understand. Goldman's exposition of how and when this has happened is thus most useful and apposite. At the same time, he demonstrates the common factors and preoccupations which make the composer's work so valid and enticing. There is a certain constancy and consistency in his work. To explore the nuances as Goldman does is all to the good. Specifically form is important if for no other reason than the importance Boulez has always attached to it. And because it so cleanly illustrates a key tenet of the composer's development which remains poorly understood as critics have attempted to mis-categorize Boulez, ignoring the very development in his work and thinking that makes his life and work so influential and remarkable.

Form, too, seems easy to summarize when looked at from any other perspective than its own, when examined globally, holistically, externally or independently of moments in time. Yet in fact questions of form are more complex; but they are also more rewarding when understood and considered "as they happen". Such an approach, of course, provides great insight into the ways in which Boulez' music works and – most usefully – how it works in the wider context of other musical, literary and broader artistic developments. That Boulez, for example, could achieve great freedom despite matrices and serial strictures in a piece like Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel) (1985) is due chiefly to understanding this multifaceted aspect of musical form. This is handled superbly by Goldman throughout.

Pride of place in examining Boulez' writings is given to the – amazingly – largely still untranslated (into English) lectures which Boulez gave at the Collège de France in the 20 or so years from 1976. They too illuminate the endurance or Boulez' thought with respect to nothing less than what music is. At the same time, Goldman helps us understand the richness and variety of the composer's output and thinking. Rituel, Dérive I, Mémoriale, Anth&egrav;mes, and Incises, works from after the mid 1970s are each analyzed thoroughly. But not merely as disconnected examples of Boulez' work; rather to illustrate his attention to antiphony, harmony, "polar mechanics", virtual thematics (the existence of a theme as much by implication as actual presentation) and recognition as opposed to surprise respectively. Again, these works explain many other characteristics of Boulez' works and approach to music than might be thought if you're only vaguely aware of the titles… the family of pieces that belongs to what Goldman calls "the … explosante-fixe … clan" (he's never too much in awe of Boulez' stature to stint from using such oblique glosses when they help) is a good example.

Goldman's book is not a "neutral" exposition, then, of Boulez. He believes him to be one of the most influential composers of this and the last centuries precisely because of his interest (an understatement) in form; as well as because of his resistance to the ill-informed dismissal of serialism by critics who seemed anxious to push the "postmodern pastiche-artists (or rock-influenced minimalists) who in turn ushered in the ultimate triumph of industrially produced pop music" [p xv]. Despite the change in direction that Rituel from 1974/75 represented, and despite the reduction to a slogan which could then be dismissed of some of Boulez' more "strident" remarks (most famously that about his apparent preferred fate of opera houses, of course), Goldman demonstrates much in Boulez' output and thinking that is consonant with existing harmonics, for example; with a concern for reception (by the audience) and a flexibility in Boulez' work that totally belies his reputation in some quarters as an iconoclastic dogmatist.

More specifically still, Goldman has as one of his primary aims in writing The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez an exercise in showing just how accessible and immediate – even to those with little preparation in and understanding of contemporary music – Boulez' work is. How he has adapted to changing movements outside his own style. How that style really must be judged from his compositions after the mid 1970s as much as by those iconic earlier ones. True, the emphasis remains on form. But the scope of The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez is wide enough to appeal to anyone seeking a wider understanding of Boulez. Don't be put off, in other words, by this emphasis on how Boulez wrote. On completion, you will find Goldman's book comprehensive and highly satisfying. Also significant, the book will reveal much to anyone interested in the broader issues of contemporary musical aesthetics, including composers, historians, theorists, students – as well as listeners. Goldman has succeeded admirably in using Boulez' writings to illuminate his musical thinking and – in turn – using musical analysis to illustrate his writings.

The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez: Writings and Compositions is chock-full of examples, musical examples but nearly as many tables illustrating Boulez analytical approach to how music works. There are also necessarily ample quotations from Boulez' writings. It's produced to CUP's usual high standards and can be recommended for anyone even vaguely interested in modern music. Yes, it relies on a technical dissection of actual music. Yes, it presupposes some understanding of why the issues discussed are important. The job Goldman sets out to do he succeeds at credibly and impressively.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sealey.