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Book Review

Boulez, Music and Philosophy

Boulez, Music and Philosophy by Campbell

"Music in the Twentieth Century" Series

Edward Campbell
Cambridge University Press, 2010, xvi + 281
ISBN-10: 0521862426
ISBN-13: 978-0521862424
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Boulez, Music and Philosophy is another volume in the hugely influential and important "Music in the Twentieth Century" series from Cambridge University Press. The series' General Editor is the distinguished musician Arnold Whittall. This book's author, Edward Campbell, is a lecturer in the Music Department of the School of Education at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, someone very well equipped to tackle such a subject. Indeed, this is a timely, useful and approachable study of an important area of current musical concern.

Pierre Boulez, born in 1925, has not been for everyone the easiest of musicians and musical thinkers to respond to. His iconoclastic reputation, somewhat unfairly, has sometimes clouded a proper understanding of his reception as a leading member of the European avant garde in the 1960s and '70s. His at times uncompromising mien, equally unfairly, has tended to prevent those who respond superficially to definite and uncompromising stances from appreciating the enormous wealth that Boulez has to offer.

To advocate a more positive, welcoming, neutral even, acceptance of Boulez' ideas is a minimal position. To argue that Pierre Boulez stands at the very center of contemporary musical esthetics and has made a key contribution to our thinking and understanding of what makes twentieth/twenty-first century music what it is is not difficult. Moreover, we actually need Boulez' at times adversarial stances, his untiring insistence that we do music a disservice if we resort to slogans instead of reason. Serious music is under attack from the globalized commodification of entertainment. Trenchant and perceptive understanding, appreciation and advocacy help in the resistance movement. This book is full of examples, explanations and evaluative explorations of Boulez astonishingly broad careful, meticulous and thoughtfully comprehensive approach to music.

As Campbell points out in his introductory chapter, theories of music over the last 200 years are plentiful and varied. But they have often failed to sit really comfortably in the realm of musical practice; they have lacked, frankly, musical "realism". Along with the trio of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner, Boulez is an exception. So much so, it might even seem, that he is reluctant even to use the term, "philosophy" or apply its language to music, being a musician first and a thinker second. On completing this book, you can decide how accurate that position is. What's more, Boulez, Music and Philosophy makes an important contribution to our current understanding of the language and equipment necessary intelligently to link philosophy and music at all.

Campbell shows the common ground that exists between Boulez' thinking on music and that of others working in the area… Adorno, Lévi-Strauss, Eco and Deleuze, for example. While it would be a beneficial, useful and helpful outcome for those reading this book who are otherwise little disposed to understand and accept Boulez' work and ideas, that, too, is a minimal outcome. The same can be said if Boulez, Music and Philosophy simply explains why Boulez approaches composition, performance and reception as he does. Rather, using otherwise unavailable or previously unpublished material, Campbell actually succeeds in laying more than mere ground rules for a potentially more widely-accepted and equally potentially more readily-applicable musical esthetic well outside the avant garde with which his subject is generally associated.

Boulez, Music and Philosophy's 250 or so pages are divided into ten chapters; they take a logical and even chronological approach, looking first at the influences on Boulez (Gilles Deleuze, who was born in the same year as Boulez and died in 1995, in particular), his reaction to dialectical thinking, serialism and structuralism and emerging through the much longer-established scientific model and post-structuralism towards explaining how it is that Boulez exerts such strong influences of his own. Observing a trajectory like this ought to go some way towards explaining his compositional priorities. In the absence of many other (re)sources dispassionately exposing Boulez' techniques, strengths, influences, priorities and successes, this book makes a useful contribution on those terms alone as well.

Particularly significant is the inclusion in Boulez, Music and Philosophy of correspondence between Boulez and Adorno. They reveal their common ground, as well as several crucial differences – particularly on social dimensions. By the time you're even as little as a few pages into Campbell's book you're acutely aware that Boulez' apparent reservations at engaging with the likes of Adorno for fear of being too "lightweight" by comparison are not necessary. From what we know of Boulez polemicism, neither can they be legitimately taken as false modesty. In fact, what Campbell does with great ease and suaveness is establish Boulez as a very major thinker indeed in the fields of music, thought, and music-and-thought. This achievement alone makes this book worth its rather high price.

It's well-indexed, more than adequately-referenced and appropriately-illustrated with (music) examples, tables, summaries and cross-references to what, it has to be said, is a complex and dense field. A certain familiarity with current and contemporary philosophical and epistemological ideas, schools and conclusions is all but necessary to get the most out of Boulez, Music and Philosophy. There are aspects of this book that necessarily appeal more to specialists, those concerning the more abstract areas of philosophical hypothesis and understanding. But to work through these if you are (otherwise) in any way interested in the musical esthetics of our time and with to arrive at an appreciation of just what a central, solid and inspirational figure Boulez is for our time is worth every bit of effort.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.