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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 and substandard

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 find inspiring.

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 music.

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 Boulez’s 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 musical development.

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 couldn’t 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 Boulez’s 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 Boulez’s 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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