ANDREW LANCE writes a rebuttal to Jeff Talman's 'Boulez is Dead'
I am writing in response to Mr. Jeff Talman's recent article "Boulez
Is Dead." Though Talman makes it very clear, from the outset, that
Pierre Boulez has contributed nothing to the evolution of modern music from
the mid-twentieth-century on. Though Talman obviously feels strongly about
his convictions, these same convictions seem to be largely fallacious and
unfounded. It is my intent to demonstrate how and why this is the case.
I believe Mr. Talman is attempting to make two general arguments:
1) Mid-century academic avant-garde classical music is objectively damaging
2) Pierre Boulez is a walking contradiction that has nullified his own
activism by his character
We shall see that both arguments made are illogical and unfounded.
It is very clear that Mr. Talman would like to make objective generalizations
about the academic avant-garde. It is "damag[ing]", "marginal"
and "bland." Talman claims that intellectual avant-garde music
was composed in a setting in which "passion and expression were miniaturized,
curtailed, avoided, and dried-out." What Mr. Talman is doing here is
applying value judgments to certain pieces of music. From his point of view,
academic avant-garde music is "bland" whereas other types of music
are not. These are not subjective statements; they are, rather, objective
claims. Nowhere in the coarse of the article does Mr. Talman suggest that
these claims are strictly personal, relegated to his own individual mindset.
No, he is claming that the very essence of academic avant-garde music is
passion-less, emotion-less, and is therefore claiming that no passion or
emotion is conveyed whatsoever by this music. In his example of the young
lady studying with Milton Babbit, he claims that the work done by such composers
is damaging and unrelenting. Damaging to whom? How is it damaging? By not
specifying a subjective target for his statement (i.e. himself), Talman
would have us believe that this type of compositional technique ("intellectual")
is damaging by its very essence, by its very definition. It is not damaging
to a specific person or idea, it's just damaging, as though music can hold
such value in and of itself.
What Mr. Talman overlooks is that music, no matter the type, cannot be
objectified. Universal value judgments cannot be made with regard to music,
or art in general. There are two reasons for this:
1) There are no established rules or standards by which music is composed.
What makes a thing objective is that by its very nature, it must adhere
to certain standards or certain logic in order for that thing to be considered
what it is. A triangle must, by its very definition, be a polygon with three
connected sides whose internal angles add up to 180 degrees. Anything else,
and the object would no longer be a triangle, by its very definition. Music,
on the other hand, has no such logic or standards. There is no logical definition
of music, such that a breach of that logic renders the output something
other than music. Therefore, no objective standard exists for the composition
or development of music.
2) Just as music has no logical definition to adhere to, neither can
value judgments of music be objectified. There is no standard on which musical
value is based. The value of music arises from a completely subjective and
internal system -- the inspiration gained from a particular piece of music.
Inspiration, by definition, is a subjective element of appreciation. If
the subjective is the criteria for valuing music, then no objective value
judgments could ever be made.
From points 1 and 2, we clearly see that the creation and appreciation
of music is subjective in nature. The individual person makes, consciously
or subconsciously, a set of fluctuating criteria by which they internally
judge the worth of a selection of music. Some people like Mozart, others
don't. Some like Boulez, others don't. This is not a contradiction; it is
the recognition that both people are justified in their liking. One has
no justification dictating to another what music she should appreciate or
Unfortunately, this is what Mr. Talman would have us do. But it is clear
that such claims of objective generalization and value judgments are unfounded,
and based on illogical and unreasonable foundations. The assertion that
academic avant-garde music is universally substandard, bland, or damaging
is unreasonable. The fact is, empirically we see that many people do
find emotion in intellectual atonality, many people do find passion in it.
Let us assume, for the moment, that Mr. Talman's objectification was
legitimate, and that we could assign a universal value to academic avant-garde
music. Talman would have us believe that the value is bad. Academic avant-garde
music is bad music, from which nothing good came. But empirically, the experimental
nature of the early mid-century composers was to become an inspiration to
many future composers. Music has always been about experimentation, whether
it be Bach, Beethoven or Schoenberg. Indeed, many of the "famous"
composers became so only because they decided to do something new in their
compositional technique. Avant-garde music was experimentation taken to
an extreme. Mr. Talman may not like the direction it took, but he is certainly
in no position to claim that it was a negative direction. To many composers,
and listeners, the experimentation proved to be a release from the conformity
music seemed to become for them. Avant-garde music became a new challenge,
for composer and listeners alike. For those who found frustration in how
overly tonal music had become over the course of two hundred years, atonality
became something fresh, something new. That Mr. Talman finds no inspiration
in academic avant-garde music is clear. But he has no justification for
denying anyone else the possibility of inspiration and enjoyment of this
In this respect, mid-century atonal music can be seen as a positive,
not a negative. Many genre's of classical music sprung from it, and many
respected composers found inspiration in it. Mr. Talman makes an interesting
statement: "But increasingly, no one, except composers, theorists,
eccentrics, a few die-hard critics and a handful of dedicated musicians
who eagerly awaited the next Elliott Carter musical cross-word puzzle, was
interested." That, Mr. Talman, is quite a few exceptions. Testament
to that is the fact that there is still a loyal minority who appreciates
and actively participates in this style of music. It has not gone away.
Inspiration, passion, and emotion are found in this music, and the joy that
it generates to this minority is something that Mr. Talman cannot deny.
Charles Wourinen, György Ligeti, and Elliot Carter are just a few of
the major composers who continue to foster extreme atonality. There is also
a vast majority of people outside the mainstream who revel in it. Mr. Talman's
insistence that academic avant-garde music is negative or bad or damaging
cannot be substantiated.
Thus, Talman's attacks on Pierre Boulezs
compositions are unreasonable. Calling them "wheezing," "outdated,"
and "a very weak form of theory," Talman would like us to believe
that Boulez's output is universally substandard. No such claim can logically
be made, in light of our reasoning above. To you, Mr. Talman, Boulez's
material uninteresting. To you, they are weak. But you may not extend
your judgment past your own opinion. You cannot reasonably say that in all
places, for all people, Mr. Boulez's material is substandard. You cannot
make such a value statement at all! You are relegated to spouting opinion,
and nothing more.
The crux of Mr. Talman's article, however, focuses on the personality
and the character of Mr. Pierre Boulez. Talman portrays Mr. Boulez as an
egotistical, self-serving, hypocritical, insecure "Fascist." Talman
even goes as far as to insist that Boulez is responsible for "the decline
of modern music," an extremely objective statement in and of itself.
Talman indirectly calls, at the end of the article, for the destruction
of his music. Needless to say, Talman makes it very clear that he holds
utter contempt for Pierre Boulez, his music, and his agenda. He blames Boulez
for everything wrong with 20th century music, and in his typical way, makes
sweeping generalizations regarding Boulez's responsibilities for the state
of modern music.
I will not contest the personality or character of Pierre Boulez. Controversial,
attacking, and determined are certainly characteristics of Boulez, especially
in his younger days. I will not make excuses for his unreasonable attacks
on respected composers. I will not try and justify particular characteristics
about Boulez's personality that Mr. Talman does not agree with -- his ego,
his temperament, and his somewhat arrogant approach to his own role in modern
But Talman is quick to judge Boulez as though he were
the center of all musical development, which I believe is a mistake.
Claiming that Boulez is directly responsible for "the decline of modern
music," Talman is assuming that Boulez could actually be a figure that
such corruption would be completely within his means. First, "decline"
is a subjective word to describe musical evolution, one that many would
disagree with (the intellectualist approach to composing seems to elevate
the mind, for example). But even if we allow Talman to advance it, we see
that such is not the case. Boulez, no matter his publicity, his fame, or
his role, is but one man in the sea of composers this century, all making
contributions. No single person can possibly exert such control over music.
Despite the fact that Mr. Talman would like us to believe that Boulez "and
his atonalist cohorts" were trying to "dictate the path of new
music to the exclusion of all else," I fail to see how such control
could ever be realized. Mr. Talman, we're speaking of human individuals
here, who have the freedom to compose whatever they like. Mr. Boulez could
never have been the dictator you make him out to be. You mistake control
for inspiration. What you see as Boulez controlling other composers (thereby
shaping the direction of new music) is really the acknowledgement that what
he brought was inspiration. These young (and old) composers didn't follow
Boulez because he "controlled" them; they followed him because
he was inspiring.
That Boulez was never so technically oriented that he could master electronic
music is, as Talman himself realizes, "not a fault, it is just his
own particular persona." But Talman then proceeds to point out what
a failure Boulez was in his own experimentation with electronic composing,
as though he should have been producing great work. Mr. Talman, your
argument against Mr. Boulez regarding electronic music rests on a foundational
contradiction -- you hold Boulez up to the highest standards of compositional
advancements in the realm of electronic music, but you admit at the outset
that he was not so technically oriented that he could possibly compose on
those standards. You also state: "His recent preference was to perform
a work once scored with electronics in a revised version without the electronics.
His use of the computer apparently added nothing that couldnt be accomplished
traditional ways." Is all such revision -- from one instrument-set
to another -- a denial of the original? Are Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven
symphonies a denial of the symphony itself? Boulez simply revised a work
for another instrument-set, as composers regularly do. In doing so, he is
not denying the importance or success of the original, he simply wished
to play it with traditional instruments. Is there anything so reasonably
wrong with that?
Talman insists that Boulez has a responsibility to program his performances
a certain way. Why could this be? Why, Mr. Talman, should Boulez refrain
from programming works you personally feel are bland and boring? He chooses
no American composers for his London Symphony Orchestra performances --
he is perfectly within is right to do so. Here, perhaps more than anywhere
else in the article, Talman is stretching his objectivist claims most widely.
Criticizing Boulez for the particular performances he gives, Talman would
like to see Boulez conduct only music that he himself prefers. What Talman
fails to realize is that people do appreciate
that which he does not, and they have every right to pursue, program,
and perform it.
The solution to the problem of material on the program is very simple
-- don't attend. Go elsewhere to hear the composers you do like, such as
Stravinsky and Bartok (as you mention). If, however, you find that nowhere
else can you hear such a fine performance of Stravinsky and Bartok, then
you must admit that Boulez is providing a worthwhile service -- that of
great music. The choice is yours, to attend or not, but what you may not
do is dictate to Boulez what he should program.
Talman constantly resorts to name-calling throughout his article. Boulez
is a mere "bean-counter," a "megalomaniac," a "would-be
alchemist." Boulez is a "rabble-rouser" and a "hypocrite."
Talman even dedicates a paragraph to poking fun at Boulezs hairstyle,
saying that no one with such a style could ever be refined. That Talman
feels he must resort to name-calling is discreditable; how can we take seriously
the arguments put forth when he continuously resorts to ad hominem
fallacies? In addition, Talman continuously employs ad populum (appeal
to popularity) fallacies (most people find mid-century academic music bland
and uninteresting, therefore the music must be bland and uninteresting)
and the "style over substance" fallacy (the use of vague descriptors
that are irrelevant to the argument, for example "His pseudo-science
is exposed as the weak old babbling of a would-be alchemist
The following statement made by Talman further demonstrates this:
"The serialists/atonalists wrapped themselves in quasi-mathematical
systems at the expense of the subjective, though they insisted that the
works were meant to be expressive. Surely they were, but expression is
buried under their he-man cloud of reason."
What, exactly, does Talman mean by "the subjective" here? Talman
would also have us believe that somehow, serialists and atonalists could
bury expression in their music by piling on the mathematical base on which
their music was founded. Is this to imply that expression could be found,
but only after understanding the "quasi-mathematical systems"
that were used? Through such understanding, all of a sudden the music becomes
expressive? Such language is vague and casts suspicion on the integrity
of the argument.
Ultimately, Mr. Talman, your article becomes self-defeating. The characteristics
you so vehemently criticize Boulez for, his "bombast," his egotistical
attitude, his fierce personal attacks, and his self-serving language, are
the very things you employ in your article. You rely not on logic and reasonable
foundations for your arguments, but emotive and exaggerated language. Whereas
you would like to see the new century usher in the "destruction "of
not only Boulezs compositions, but many works of similar nature, I
would hope it brings us towards a greater understanding for the musical
exploration that has taken place throughout the 20th century. We must embrace
and learn from all music of the past, not shut out and ignore that which
we feel we could never appreciate. The legacy of Pierre Boulez is far from
over. This man has brought us a wealth of information and inspiration, through
not only his compositions, but also his musical interpretation of some of
the most difficult music ever written. Happy birthday, Pierre Boulez; may
you happily enjoy many more.
Copyright © 30 March 2000 Andrew Lance
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