Pierre Boulez video interview: ‘I am a composer. I still am a composer’

Pierre Boulez video interview: ‘I am a composer. I still am a composer’


norman lebrecht

March 12, 2014

The éminence grise of contemporary music gives a lucid and combative interview to the BBVA Foundation, his intellect and his English diction unimpaired.

He is asked  by the wooden interviewer: ‘is contemporary music for an elite?’

PB: ‘Of course. But the elite should be as large as possible.’


)pierre boulez 2014


  • I’ve heard that Mr.Boulez is not very well right now. Let’s hope he gets better soon.

    I’m still wondering about that rumour that he has been working on a opera based on “Waiting For Godot”. The rumour says that the opera should be premiered at La Scala in 2015, the year that Boulez turns 90. It would be fantastic if it’s true.

    • Though not impossible, I would be surprised if this were true because the Beckett estate is very strict about not allowing adaptations of Beckett’s work — more strict than even Beckett was.

  • Mikey says:

    Just because monsieur Boulez says that contemporary music should be for the “elite”, doesn’t mean that contemporary music HAS to be for the elite, regardless of the size this demographic might have.

    Boulez is, and always has been, a talented hack. He doesn’t compose, he constructs. There has never been an ounce of “inspiration” in any page from his pen. He may have a magical ear for hearing, but he has absolutely no soul for creating.

    The people who cry “au génie” at the mere mention of his name are not any form of musical elite. They are musical poseurs. They are the douchebag hipsters of the classical music world.

    • All very true…. Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen and all the composers in their wake, created a totally new art form which is not music. They were, in fact, much more ‘modern’ than even they were thinking. The misunderstanding comes from the claims that their work is music, which is a cultural tradition and requires musical talent, capacities of expression and communication through the music itself, and the talent of writing for musical instruments which have developed to do all this in the best possible way. Sonic art however, is for people (be them composers or performers) who have dexterity but no feeling for music, which is OK because they can at least exercise the talents they have in an innocent field. But don’t call them musicians or composers.

      • J says:

        Don’t worry, John. There were many people who didn’t understand Beethoven’s late quartets at first. It took a very long time for people to realise they are among the greatest works ever written, with the extreme being the Große Fuge which was met largely with bemusement for almost a century.

        • Will Duffay says:

          Except that in the case of Schoenberg’s early atonal works, that century is upon us and the bemusement largely continues.

          I think it’s a fallacy to assume that simply because a very small number of late works by Beethoven did not receive widespread acceptance until some decades after his death that the same will be true of the great mass of atonal music composed between, let’s say, 1920 and 1970. Beethoven is always cited as the example, but I don’t know of any others, and there certainly has never been an entire movement of music across many decades, in all history. which has remained unloved by the wider listening public after such a long time.

          I think advocates of such music are going to have to accept that the music they love was a curious historical diversion which will always remain of very limited interest even within the small world of classical world.

          • Will Duffay says:

            Edit: final word should be ‘music’!

          • John Borstlap says:

            Spot on.

          • Glenn Hardy says:

            Finally, this stuff can be said. Shoulda been there in 1968 when we tried to say it then. Yeowch!

          • David says:

            I agree wholeheartedly. Although I actually enjoy some of works from said period, it’s still challenging to shake the feeling that such “music” does not truly speak in the same way that the music that preceded it did. It’s almost as if it came from a different place — I’m not sure whether to call it the mind or the brain, but suffice it to say that this music simply does not address us in the same way, and to explain this by resorting to the argument that we still don’t understand it is to simplify the matter. The fact that a work is being misunderstood is not always a gauge of its artistic worth. In fact the opposite seems here to be the case, as much contemporary music did already encounter some resonance — albeit in an admittedly small public — which makes me suspect that much of it may eventually be relegated to the dustbins of history, a mere fashionable or musicological curiosity that will probably not withstand the test of time.

          • J says:

            You may have noticed, however, that attitudes are changing. Major institutions (symphony orchestras, opera houses etc) are programming an ever increasing number of twentieth-century works, they are being performed to ever improving standards, and this music is being increasingly well received by the public. The Southbank Centre’s Rest is Noise festival last year, for example, was a great success that attracted an overwhelmingly large number of visitors, many of whom had never engaged with twentieth century music before and found that they enjoyed it greatly. It is madness to continue to believe that such major work is a mere ‘historical curiosity’ when the evidence in the concert hall suggests that there is clearly an appetite for it.

    • Dan P. says:

      It’s amazing that as the composer nears the century mark, just the name of Boulez can bring out the name callers and epithet slingers whose only ammunition is a string of tired clichés. Making statements about what music is or is not, comments on the state of the composer’s “soul,” conclusions about what someone you’ve never met can feel or not feel, or assessments about musical relationships that are constructed rather than composed (what about a fugue?), are not even at a level high enough to be called childish. But we get the point. You don’t like his music and some people enjoy engaging in public tantrums. That’s ok. But starting to make public pronouncements on what is or isn’t music puts one shaky ground for a lot of different reasons. Comments here seem to come from those 1950s Soviet Composer’s Union meetings when Prokofiev and Shostakovich would bring them their latest works and be told that they didn’t express Socialist Realism.

      If one wants to take the stand that something “isn’t music” then the follow-up question is “by whose decree and on what basis is something deemed music or not music.” Who gets to decide this? The foolishness of such proclamations is emblazoned on centuries of music commentary – Middle period Beethoven isn’t music, Stravinsky isn’t music, the Beatles are not music, or the entire century that thought that Bach wasn’t music.” Music is what composers propose it might be. You can personally accept it or reject it. That’s your choice, but it is either meaningful or esthetically pleasing to someone or it is not. You may not like Boulez’ music, but there are clearly people (I am one) who find Boulez’ music meaningful and esthetically pleasing since I was in my middle teens, although grappling with it was a process over time. But so was Brahms. That’s because listening and hearing is an ongoing process – and some people are better at some kinds of music than others. I’ve never learned ancient Greek so were someone to read me some of my favorite passages in the Illiad in that language, I would no doubt think it meaningless constructions in sound. I would have to admit, though, that from a single reading I wouldn’t have been able to ascertain whether or not Homer had a soul or not. That would take repeat hearings.

      • Talking about clichées… all this is merely a tired repetition of avantgarde ideology from the fifities and sixties. That something is ‘incomprehensible’ does not mean that it is therefore great music. Rejection can also be the result of full comprehension. There are very sound arguments (no pun intended) to reject Boulez’ work as music and to relegate it to a different reception framework. If one would not be allowed to criticize new music, there would not be bad new music – how could one know? It has been a pavlov-reaction since WW II that not accepting modernism on its own terms means that one is sharing the nazi opinion about art and that one is conservative, not ‘open to new things’, etc. etc.

        That’s why I am a frantic meat eater and smoke sigars the whole day, to prove that I am different from Hitler who was a vegetarian and did not smoke. Also I am playing my Wagner CD’s in secret and with head phones, to avoid the suspicion that I am planning to invade Poland.

        Also it is mythology that the famous Beethoven late quartets ‘were not understood in their own time’. They have been understood and appreciated right from the beginning by an elite of connoisseurs, indeed not by audiences at large, but the reason for that is that only in the course of the 19C a bourgeois audience as we know it now, the ‘general music audience’, was to develop. Chamber music was for small audiences in intimate settings. – In the same way all these modernist myths can be refuted and deconstructed, to reveal they are merely defensive reactions against rejection by the central performance culture. Read Boulez (‘Orientations’), Xenakis (‘Formalized Music’), and all the other attempts to change the nature of the art form. In reality, a new field of sound experience was created, next to music. And that is perfectly acceptable.

        • Dan P. says:

          John: “That something is ‘incomprehensible’ does not mean that it is therefore great music.”

          Dan: You and the others here seem to assume that because you don’t understand Boulez’ music, then there is nothing for anyone to understand. You realize how foolish an assumption this is, don’t you? And what do you mean by comprehend? In your mind, what does it mean to comprehend, say, the Brahms Fourth Symphony?

          John: “Rejection can also be the result of full comprehension. There are very sound arguments (no pun intended) to reject Boulez’ work as music and to relegate it to a different reception framework.”

          Dan: Well, what are they? You’ve never stated this and you seem content to feel that you’ve won an argument just by asserting your point of view without substantiating it. You might be more convincing if you had an argument to share.

          John: “If one would not be allowed to criticize new music, there would not be bad new music – how could one know?”

          Dan: What does this mean? This makes no sense.

          John: “It has been a pavlov-reaction since WW II that not accepting modernism on its own terms means that one is sharing the nazi opinion about art and that one is conservative, not ‘open to new things’, etc. etc.”

          Dan: I think what you mean to say here is that it has been an accepted notion that not accepting modernism on its own means….. What historical basis is there to make this claim? I think you’re just making this up – and it’s a pretty ugly thing too. I grew up among many musicians – pianist and violinists – who went as far as Bartok, if even that, and were more comfortable with Barber and Britten when it came to the 20th century, but no one ever thought of them as Nazis. They were considered colleagues and friends.

          Dan: I will skip the assorted nonsense that directly followed in your note.

          John: “Also it is mythology that the famous Beethoven late quartets ‘were not understood in their own time’. They have been understood and appreciated right from the beginning by an elite of connoisseurs, indeed not by audiences at large,”

          Dan: And isn’t this what you’re beating up Boulez for? Music for the elite?

          John: “In the same way all these modernist myths can be refuted and deconstructed, to reveal they are merely defensive reactions against rejection by the central performance culture. Read Boulez (‘Orientations’), Xenakis (‘Formalized Music’), and all the other attempts to change the nature of the art form.”

          Dan: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but “the nature of the art form” has been constantly changing since someone in the 11th century figured that you could sing two melodic lines at the same time and it hasn’t stopped since. If history has taught us anything is that it is in the nature of things to change over time. Music of one generation has been inexplicable and anathema to the previous generation. This has happened OVER and OVER again. I know change is not always a happy thing, but it’s the process of life, like it or not. “Conservative” composers of the 20th century have written some extraordinary works – from Samuel Barber, Bernstein, Copland, Britten, Delius, Randall Thompson and I’m sure lots of music that we could both agree on that are wonderful. But the argument that art is any one thing and cannot be if it isn’t has never been a strong one because while one generation is arguing it the next generation has gone on and considers the argument moot. Art is what artist determine it to be. The rest of us can either enjoy it or move on to something else. I think that you and those who agree with you just need to let it go and move on.

          • John Borstlap says:

            We should be greatful for this text, since it so eloquently demonstrates the problem. For the sake of an attempt of clarification of what Boulez’ work really signified in the last century, let’s take this little rant with pincers and try to understand where this anger comes from. My guess is, that it comes from the threat posed by the possibility, however faint, that received wisdom as taught and written as conventional music history, and spread by academics, could be wrong and end-up in the dustbin of oblivion. Like music itself, interpretations of music develop, and new insights may appear along the way. Let’s not be afraid to confront this possibility…

            Just a few points, since this blog is not for such wide-spreading debate (a symposium would be a better place):

            Comprehension of music means understanding the musical meaning of the work, its cultural context, the tradition it comes from, the expectations of audiences, and the intentions of its maker. When you read Boulez’ essays, you discover that what he was after, was the presentation of sound structure WITHOUT the baggage of musical tradition, i.e. without the dimension of what was considered ‘expression’, ‘communication’, ‘musical meaning’ and the entire framework of expectations in terms of time experience, distribution of pitches etc. etc. His efforts were focussed upon separating small units (tones, notes, sound combinations) from a traditional context. All parameters had to be different from what had gone before. And that is indeed what he did and that is also confirmed by the listening experience. His work is an aestheticized sound art, like abstract painting, without mimetic content. The idea behind these art forms was to arrive at an objective art that was pure, i.e. without the ‘interference’ of subjective, emotional communication based upon experiences of reality as humans, and especially: as much as possible without references to traditions (= ‘the past’). That’s fine, but it also means the separation of an art form from a framework which was fundamental to music. It was creating a totally new framework. Better give it another name, better be consequent and logical.

            To understand what this new receptive framework is about, one also has to understand what the nature of the receptive framework of music is. Music is an art form in which composer, performer and listener form, together, an interelated system of cultural exchange of meaning. The nature of this meaning requires another chapter of 1000 words and here I refer to Scruton’s Aesthetics of Music which explains this very well.

            John: “If one would not be allowed to criticize new music, there would not be bad new music – how could one know?”

            Dan: What does this mean? This makes no sense.

            Yes, I know, sometimes we don’t get things…. This simply means: if critique of an art form, or a work of art, is not allowed, i.e. if critical examination is ‘not done’, it is impossible to establish some sort of evaluation of it. If criticizing new music is not taken seriously because of immediately interpreted as ‘not understanding’ or being ‘conservative’, no reasonable discussion is possible, and then we end up in a situation which can be best described as totalitarian: ‘You HAVE to accept this, otherwise you are a stupid moron.’ And this is exactly what happened in the first decades after WW II concerning new music, i.e. the ‘avant garde’. This reaction is, of course, merely a defense reaction where real arguments are failing: if one refuses to engage in serious debate, one has to cover-up something, one is insecure. Even Ligeti, one of the gang members, later-on admitted their attitude was totalitarian.

            As for the nazis: this may be referring more appropriately to Europe than to the US. In Europe, modernism was considered a liberation from a decadent culture which had produced two world wars. And since the nazis loathed modern music, any critique was accused of being somehow ‘fascist’. A couple of years ago, in London a theatre play in which concept art (visual art) was mocked, got reviews in which the production was accused of emulating fascist notions.

            As for Beethoven quartets: yes yes, these things are not easy to understand…. What was meant is, that this music was received with appreciation when bourgeois music practice had developed enough. Music audiences in the 20C were different from those of the age before, so any comparison in terms of acceptance time span is moot. There is nothing against elitism, but the Boulez kind is different from the Beethoven kind. Which is OK.

            What is at stake here, is the definition of an art from. Modernism has tried to remove the basis of an art form, with the result that quality standards have gone to the wind, under the disguise of ‘openness’ and ‘progressiveness’, which is naive. Cultural traditions develop all the time, of course, but their basis remains intact. It is the bedding through which the river flows. Remove the bedding and the water goes anywhere, and there is no longer space to develop depth. That is what we have today: ignorance, incompetence, misconceived notions of music, etc. etc. have made the art form very very thin, and the art form as such (including its tradition) has lost quite much of its credibility. Hence the attacks upon classical music for being elitist, that its funding should be curtailed, that it is merely entertainment for the wealthy, etc. etc.

            I hope Mr Dan P. can now sleep more quietly.

  • Becket’s play is about alienation, nihilism, non-communication, the absurdity of life. Boulez has lived that kind of life so he is in the best position to write a really expressive opera. (For Chris Ph.D.: I am being ironic.)

    Boulez thinks that programmers are too shy to progamme new, provocative works that sow doubts in the audience. This is the result of the misunderstanding that when a masterpiece seems provocative and doubtful at first, these characteristics are sure indicators of artistic greatness. So, let’s be provocative, then the masterpiece will come of its own accord. In fact, Boulez suffers from the romantic Beethoven delusion…

    One of the reasons, and probably the strongest one, that the central performance culture has bunkered itself into a canon of repeated masterworks, is the disappearance of new music which shares the fundamentals of this culture. This has nothing to do with conservatism or the lack of a sense of adventure, but is the result of endless disappointment. The existence of a ‘museum culture’ is merely supported by the provocations Boulez has tried to sell to audiences all his life.

    Apart from the usual time span that a new work is being accepted into the regular repertoire of the central performance culture, which can extend to one of two decades and seldom more, in the past there was a curiosity for new works. Premieres of new works by Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky et al were eagerly awaited and performances discussed, because composers, performers and audiences together formed an interrelated cultural network of values. What Boulez and some other composers of his generation have done, was to cut the life line with tradition, thinking it was something stultified, and forgetting that traditions can also be dynamic and developing. You don’t develop something by leaving it altogether.

    In another, more civilized age, Boulez would have been an engeneer.

    • Mikey says:

      @John Borstlap

      That is so well written, would you mind if I quoted you to some confères composers?

    • I’ve studied le marteau sans maitre and have come to the conclusion that Boulez is, in fact, an engineer. He remains an articulate, interesting character with fine conducting ability (as any talented engineer should be). Pli selon pli creates some unusual effects … but so does driving through spagetti junction in Birmingham.

      • But really…. as sonic art, it is great and innovative. ‘Derive’ is also very aestheticcally satisfying sonic stuff. It is the opposite of Morton Feldman’s, let’s say, ‘Coptic Light’ which is a very, very slow sound tapestry. All this is like abstract paintings in chique hotel lobbies, offering aesthetic pleasure without troubling the clientèle.

        But please, don’t call it music and don’t place it between a Mahler symphony and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.

        • Sam says:

          That sounds a ridiculous notion. Sound tapestry but not music? So music is tonal? Melodic? I guess african drumming is simply sound tapestry? What then is minimalism? Landscape yet still not music? I guess not many movies contain music? How about all those bands that have adopted the sounds of music concrete and tape splicing?(beatles) What about Johnny Greenwood or Penderecki? Aphex Twin? Perhaps the word “music” is a historical word that no longer adequately defines our cultures interaction with sound? I would say the opposite…..don’t place a Mahler symphony between Coptic Light and Stravinsky. However, thats mostly just me being obstinate. Seeing a Mahler symphony is an amazing experience that I recommend as avidly as I recommend seeing a Boulez piece…..or Feldman. Being open is different than being all inclusive. I definitely don’t like Justin Bieber….I know that much.

    • Glenn Hardy says:

      With the Modernists’ expunging of improvisation (understandable, given the necessity of a fixed row,) the fate of “New Music” was sealed. Removing the lifeblood of music (and the underlying foundation of several centuries of composition,) was effectively eviscerating the art form (“classical” music) that had actually developed a fairly large following, even in the rough-at-the-edges colonies. It was always an uphill battle, but things began to slide back down once the newly enfranchised academic music departments issued their fatwah on tonality. Of course, it did depend somewhat on where you were going to school. Despite the contentions of some current revisionists, there actually WAS a concerted effort (sometimes successful) to torpedo careers of those who were not in compliance. Boulez was certainly a part of this in spirit, if not in fact.

      People don’t like to be made to feel foolish by being scorned for not “getting” something, so they vote with their feet. They go back to the Three Bs, or maybe tuneful melodies from Porter or Gershwin, rather than the latest shreiking, howling piece from Hobart Fartknocker, fresh out of Princeton.

      So, perhaps my rant is a little off-topic, but I just wanted to second the fine assessment of Mr. Borstlap in suggesting that, for many years, there was a dearth of “new music which shares the fundamentals of this culture.” Actions have consequences, and the professionalizing of the arts, and subsequent transfer of power to the academic world, was the death-knell to classical music with any kind of meaningful cultural relevance.

      I realize that many people are just sick and tired of hearing this type of thing, along with discussions of sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism in Vienna, etc. etc. I’m all for moving on, but can’t we first just acknowledge what actually happened at some time period in the past–and then move on?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Moving-on is still hindered by institutionalized (post-)modernism, it lingers on while being dead, because of financial interests. Fortunately nowadays, many composers try to get out of the 20C musical disaster… let’s wait what comes to us, the few occasions that really interesting new music can overcome the barriers of misconception.

    • Derek Castle says:

      Mr Borstlap, may I, as an ‘ordinary concert-goer’, add my two penn’orth to your excellent exegesis. Concert organizers/conductors want to prove that they can do ‘modern’ too, as long as it doesn’t frighten away the punters. So they squeeze Webern’s “Five Easy Pieces” (forgive me if I don’t Google the correct title) between two popular works, and we can all go home feeling we have attempted (and in my case, yet again failed) to understand what it’s all about. Didn’t Barenboim do this recently at a series of Proms, ironically thanking the audience for keeping quiet ‘during the Boulez’. Are Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” (or Bali Hai as I think of them) pure kitsch, are his symphonies bombastic and instantly forgettable? Well, that’s something I can discuss over a beer. But ‘Pli selon pli’, Pierrot Lunaire, et al., while being ‘sonically interesting’, don’t do more for me than make me feel I’ve got brownie points for ‘making an effort’. Is art/music meant for the consumer, or are we less cerebral types way down the food chain? Have Joseph Beuys’ piles of bricks, sticks, whatever, in Tate Modern, or his old car and even older kitchen stove, taking up a lot of room in a Berlin gallery, with huge Twombly scribblings alongside, any relevance to us, admittedly less intelligent, gawkers? Can’t help feeling, as I gratefully drift into dementia, that there’s an awful lot of (expensive) Emperor’s Clothes being foisted onto a gullible public. And if the intellectuals sigh and look up to heaven at this worn-out argument, so be it.

      • GORILLA

        I strongly believe that a majority of audiences of classical music concerts think this way and they are right. It is not that they ‘don’t understand’ such new music, they do understand it all too well. It is like a gorilla on a wedding party: they are nice but in a context where they don’t belong, they create embarrassment.

  • Michael J. Stewart says:

    Thank you for posting this Mr Lebrecht. A remarkable composer, great conductor and a truly brilliant mind.

  • nyer says:

    Now Later Maybe and Yes

  • Peter Bogaert says:

    Isn’t it just beautiful that we live in an age where both Pierre Boulez and Nico Muhly can enjoy great succeses and have their fanatic audiences? Come on, modernist bashing is so passé, and I know of plenty people that really enjoy both of them!

    • Mikey says:

      It’s perfectly legitimate to bash someone who once said “Avant moi, il n’y avait pas de musique.”

    • John Borstlap says:

      It’s not about bashing, but about clarifying a fundamental distinction which explains both the ‘museum culture’ of classical music and the separate territory of ‘new music’ with all the established institutions to support it.

      As for enthusiasm: let us not forget that when the lights went out over Europe in 1914, this was cheered on a broad wave of fanatic enthusiasm.

      For the rest: let there be different art forms everywhere… just don’t mix them up.

      • Peter Bogaert says:

        Weren’t the enthusiast fanatics you mention not the same adepts of the lost culture you mourn?

        • John Borstlap says:

          I will have to think about that…..

          Did Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Reger, Bartok, Szymanowski, etc. etc. endorse WW I? It is true that Thomas Mann at first was quite happy with the slaughter, but then – after some common sense set in – he reversed his opinions. Steiner in his ‘In Bluebeard’s Castle’ claims that the high culture of Europe produced the world wars and the holocaust, that these abberations were, so to speak, the price that had to be paid for great cultural achievement. In my opinion, such ideas are a form of intellectual perversity. There are even musicologists who accuse Haydn of supporting a suppressing regime by writing symphonies for Count Esterhazy.

          It has been an axioma of postwar modernism to relegate older European cultural traditions to the prison of guilt by association, because they have not been able to prevent wars and the holocaust. That is like condemning the wife of a criminal for not having been able to convince her husband that it were better to stop killing if they wanted to have a quiet family life, in spite of her many attempts.

          • John Borstlap says:

            PS: I now realize that Mahler died in 1911. But surely he would not have liked to see the Untergang of a culture he loved so much.

            Also I have to think of Carl Kraus who warned against the self-destruction long before it happened.

            In fact, the ‘cultural’ celebration of violence and destruction finds it best reflection in futurism (advocating murder), surrealism (simile), and post-1945 modernism (a.o. the Boulezbian universe). Destroying things of value is a gesture of impotence and despair.

          • Peter Bogaert says:

            I’m glad you agree with me, Mr. Borstlap, and I do hope that the changing times – times that are open to good music of any kind – will give you the freedom of expression for your own music. I will go on and enjoy both the thrills of a envigorating Brahms symphony and a haunting Xenakis string quartet.

        • I am not mourning something but defending something that is fully alive & kicking.

    • Mikey says:

      And regarding “modernist bashing”: there is FAR more “bashing” going on from the modernists side toward those who do not live up to their avant-garde standards. In most of the western world, the modernists have an unbreakable grip on the “official” channels for new music.

      You want an arts council grant for a new work? It better live up to the “modernist” standards or else kiss that grant goodbye.

      You want to be performed by a major symphony orchestra? You better be best buddies with that orchestra’s modernist “composer in residence”, because otherwise you aren’t getting a second of airtime.

      You expect to get your university degree in composition? You’d better be up-to-date on the latest modernist tricks-of-the-trade if you expect to get that piece of paper.

      You’d like to write music that is expressive and lyrical? get ready to be called a throw-back, a hopeless conservative, passé, cliché, etc… Because the “modernists” will attack you without a second’s pause and do everything in their power to belittle you and your music.

      The complete rejection of anything remotely related to tonality by Boulez and his ilk makes them a perfectly justified target of criticism.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I cannot but fully agree with all of this. When ‘modernism’- in the broadest terms – was institutionalized, it opened the doors to people without musical talent and without cultural understanding, creating a field of activity paid for by the governments, and based upon ideology and propaganda. It has nothing of a normal cultural field. The irony is that it has taken-on traits of Soviet Union directives, in the name of freedom.

        When I studied composition at the conservatory, I was not allowed to take the final exam because my work was not ‘modern’ enough, although the official requirements merely stated what was necessary in terms of craftmanship, not idiom. At Cambridge university it was consensus that airing skepticism about Schoenberg’s ideas immediately disqualified students for being taken seriously. In Holland, modernism has created a small establishment of incompetence where John Cage is venerated as a great composer, and fees for commissions are only accessible for composers sharing the same ignorance and incompetence. Even worse, the Dutch legal system protects the ignorati against professionalism, which would be hilarious if it were not so sad. This is not merely the raspberry of a small country, but a reflection of what happens when modernism is intitutionalized, which has been achieved in the Netherlands in the course of the eighties. Ec. etc….

        But in my experience, in the orchestral world there is an unspoken CONTEMPT for modernism, and as a result of that, a deep mistrust about contemporary music of any kind. Yet, where this mistrust can be overcome, orchestral programmers and conductors happily try something new if it can fit within the orchestral performance culture. The successes of brilliant (tonal) composers like David Matthews (UK), and Nicolas Bacri (FR), show how these abysses of mistrust can be bridged.

        Imagine the position of the orchestral programmer: he is under pressure to prove that his orchestra is NOT merely a piece of museum culture, so should perform something new now and then, otherwise it becomes increasingly difficult to justify subsidies and sponsorship. But the usual new work chases away the audience who see something new as a red warning sign, which will reduce the ticket income, which would make the orchestra even more dependent upon subsidy and sponsorship. Often the best they think they can do is to do something new as a short OOMP (Obligatory Opening Modern Piece) which often just sounds like that.

        • Dan P. says:

          I have no experience of European practices, but in the US, the sort of cultural heavy-handedness you describe has never really held – at least in my experience. There was a huge diversity in composers long before the post-war era and that only increased afterwards. All you have to do to prove that is to look at the faculty lists of American conservatories, the Pulitzer Prize listings, and programs of American orchestras over the past century. While it’s true in New York City there was a proponderance of Babbitt and Boulez influenced composers, but that was because they were here and there were handfuls of musicians who were interested and able to perform their music during the 60s and 70s (I knew most of them – it wasn’t a large group.). But that was ONLY in the 60s and 70s. And, we’re still talking about a very small group of composers.

          In the U.S., only a few small crumbs from Federal and State sources were ever tossed our way, and most of that went to institutions who were by and large not interested in contemporary music of any kind. No composer of no matter what persuasion gets any governmental financial consideration here. In any case, if any group has been in the spotlight for the past 3 decades, it’s been the minimalists Glass, Adams, Reich and their friends. This is why I smile at the vehemence of this discussion. From my vantage point, it seems like this conversation is taking place in the 1980s.

          I can understand the consternation of being faced with being in an educational program that has no time for the kind of music that interests you, but this started back in the late 19th century. Debussy and Ravel faced the same thing – how many prizes were they turned down for? – as did many composers for many generations at US conservatories that were run by, say, by William Schumann, Peter Mennin, and Howard Hanson. As this discussion has shown, composers can be very partisan when they run things but this is not new. I believe Berlioz and Prokofiev had a thing or two to say about the situation as well. But they perservered and did quite well. But then again, they lived in culture that placed an importance on music. But that is no more, and I don’t think it’s because of all the reasons set down here. Cultures change and, our western musical culture is only a small remnant of what it was. Writing a 12-tone row didn’t change that fact, and writing a nice neo-romantic tune for flute and strings won’t do it either. What’s left is only a fight over the remaining crumbs. What we now have is Pop Culture as the dominant force.

          in the 21st century, if you’re looking for someone to support you both financially and professionally for your work, I think you’re in the wrong profession unless you write film or other kinds of commercial music. The 19th century has went a long time ago and it’s not coming back. Now we have Talent Shows. This is our culture.

          • Dan P. says:

            Correction – that should be The 19th Century went a long time ago. Not has went.

          • John Borstlap says:

            That’s why I believe the USA has a more healthy musical climate, in spite of the lack of (state) funding. But I also believe that in Europe there is more musical culture going-on, since it was – and to some extent still is – part of cutlural identity. That is why it is state-funded.

            American composers have more freedom because of ‘less importance’ in the context of society as a whole. Minimal music and its discontents is, I fear, merely a half-way solution to the musical crisis of contemporary music, although it was a breath of fresh air in comparison to Babbittism. And there are some really gifted talents there. In Europe the situation is different, and if some sort of restoration is to take place, it will probably be in Europe rather than in the US, but in philosophical terms the US may show the way – in terms of a real pluralism.

            As for finance: as long as there are sources, there will be money for the arts, only they change location. There surely will be a reform of state funding in Europe, and that is why it is important to debate the matter.

            Our pop-drenched ‘culture’ is the result of populism, eroding classical music, but maybe classical music culture is simply shrinking to its former size after a century of growing due to greater accessibility. It is now more accessible than ever but if people’s mind are not ready for it, it is wasted on them. In the long run, I am not pessimistic though, there will be sophisticated audiences, of any size, for a long time to come.

      • Dan P. says:

        Mikey – I would like to know on what basis you make these statements about bashing. (1) Having worked with the NY State Council on the Arts, I’ve actually seen just the opposite pressure being put on new music groups – to be “diverse” in the current jargon of cultural politics. (2) Knowing several “composers in residence” I don’t know of a single one who is pushing what you quaintly call avant garde music. Do you a certain orchestra in mind? (3) As for university degrees, I’m pretty familiar with that territory in the US too. Where exactly do they do require “the latest modernist tricks-of-the-trade” in order to get a degree? I’m not familiar with that college. In fact, undergraduates don’t even declare a major until their third year and graduate composers go to the institutions where there are the composers with whom they most want to study. Why would anyone do otherwise?

        (4) As for this attack business you mention, composers will be attacked by people who don’t like their music no matter what kind of music they write, although little of that happens in the press anymore. If you can’t take that, then that’s just too bad. What little music journalism that is left in this country is mostly of the “Mr. X then played the Y Sonata, which was full of rugged harmonies and toccata like rhythms and performed masterfully” and then is done with it.

        I have to say that this entire thread is like the situation where you put one whining / crying baby in a room with a lot of other babies who are just sitting there and before long, all of them are crying and whining.

        • John Borstlap says:

          What an unnecessarily nonsensical last paragraph this is.

          • Dan P. says:

            Just an observation, but I thought someone ought to make it.

            I’m not sure I see the point in all of this belly-aching (sorry to use an Americanism here). It seems as if everyone is getting worked up about composers (mostly dead or with one foot in the grave) writing music that they don’t like or approve of and just get a grip. Would you just prefer to ban the music of Boulez, Babbitt, and whoever else is on your list? What exactly would you like to see happen? And what do you think you need to do to see it happen?

            Instead of complaining on a blog and making pronouncements about what music must be, why don’t you either compose it, support those composers you admire, push performers you know to perform it and do something constructive. THIS was the point of that last paragraph. If you want a certain kind of culture to come back, then do something about it. Doesn’t that make sense?

          • John Borstlap says:

            As an attempt to refute this superficial nonsense:

            1) This is not about people’s taste, likes and dislikes, but about a cultural phenomenon which has had serious consequences in the field of (art) music. If we care about the quality of high art in our civilization, we have to leave cultural relativity behind. That does not impair individual freedom, but would offer an alternative way of thinking to the usual ‘anything goes’ and ‘any taste is OK’.

            2) Already quite some composers work on recovering a musical receptive framework which contributes to a restoration of classical music’s viability. Institutions, promotors, etc. are still behind but will follow in due course. Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen et al are symbols of a way of thinking about culture which was the result of the postwar hangover and underdeveloped theorizing about ‘modernity’. That’s why their heritage is being discussed.

    • Glenn Hardy says:

      I don’t really think anyone here is saying that we ought not to enjoy all kinds of music from all kinds of camps or systems, or whatever. I use elements of 12 tone writing in my work. There seems to be a tendency in modern media-driven discourse to assume that any finger pointing is automatically bad. If there are “two sides” to something, perhaps BOTH sides are wrong. While I appreciate the “can’t we all just live happily together” approach, sometimes this allows one to simply look away from something unpleasant, rather than confronting it.

      Both Pierre Boulez and Nico Muhly are creations of the Culture Industry. It can be argued that the self-perpetuating oligarchy which controls the corporate classical division of this industry has wised up somewhat, in that they have learned that a more diverse collection of music is the way to go. Good for them…good for us.

      But…what we get to hear is music from those who have paid their entry fee (at least five, if not the low six figures necessary to purchase the entry level credential,) kept their dues up to date (masters and doctorates, anyone?) and have otherwise participated in the complete corporatization and professionalization of the creative arts. When ANY of the creative arts are subjected to the institutionalized mentality of the academic world, you have sent them down the path to irrelevance. There was a reason that most colleges and universities did not offer the “professional” degrees in music (B mus. M.M. D.M.A.) prior to about 1910 or so. The professions were things like law, medicine, engineering, archaeology, literature (NOT creative Writing,) hard sciences, etc. So I submit that professionalizing music is responsible for many of the problems that we talk about around here. It kills the spirit of adventure and insulates the favored few by the offering of grants and stipends. No wonder all those modernist composers didn’t care if audiences liked their music.

      I’m not suggesting that Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, et al…were not professionals in the sense of working full time and achieving excellence in their art. That’s a different kind of professionalism than the kind you get by successfully appearing before Boards of Examiners. End of rant. No more…promise.

  • Mark Stratford says:

    Many thanks for posting this, Norman.

    I often find myself wondering about Boulez and what he’s up to these days. And yes, he always was a master at answering dumb questions like this quite charmingly.

    He will be 89 in a couple of weeks.

  • Listen to Boulez’ performance of Beethoven 5. It clearly shows him grappling with a mode of composition which he , for whatever reason , cannot associate himself spiritually or intellectually.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That’s right. And that’s why such people should keep away from that repertoire.

      But also later repertoire creates problems for Boulez. His recording of Debussy’s ‘Jeux’, a late ballet which according to Boulez presages modernist sound treatment, suffers from stiffness and a misconceived attempt to produce clear textures where the isntruments could be heard separately, while everything in the score demonstrates that it was fusion Debussy was after. I saw the production of Welsh Opera where Boulez conducted Pelléas, which had the same problem.

      • Dan P. says:

        “That’s right. And that’s why such people should keep away from that repertoire.”

        So, now that you’ve decided the type of music that composers should and should not compose to reflect your particular cultural theories, and interpretation of history, you are now proposing what conductors should and should not be allowed to conduct? Sounds a bit autocratic to me, no? Or am I misreading you?

        It would seem that – and I’m sure you will agree – historically speaking, attempts to direct culture in a specific direction have never worked out terribly well. And, the fact is – and I’m sure you’ll agree with this too – never in history have there been as many cleavages we have in musical art as there have been in the past 50 years or so. I just don’t think that trying to put this particular Humpty Dumpty back together again by force of will will be successful. This is just our reality at present and I believe it to be a fantasy to think that cultural directives from one direction or another will change anything.

        You know, I agree with you to the extent that we both think that our musical culture is in a very dire state (although for vastly different reasons) but these things play themselves out according to their own schedule independently of the wishes of one group or another. Personally I don’t think it looks good because we’re in a period in which pop culture has become the dominant world culture and it has already pretty much smothered everything else. This is why I think you’re aiming at the wrong target. To think that the battle is between the artistic descendants of Marteau sans Maitre and Composer X’s Symphony No.. 5 in G is completely misguided. The real battle is between an artistic culture guided by musically literate adults and one dominated by the huge cash flow provided by young adolescents who support boy bands and the like. It’s about money, and money has won.

        All you and I are arguing about is who gets the few remaining crumbs off the table and it’s not a fight we should be having. We really need to put these things in perspective.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Why are my opinions taken so seriously? If a performer tries to handle repertoire that he / she is apparently not performing well, the normal reaction of audiences, critics, or connoisseurs is: he / she should not play that stuff. In general, such people go on with it nonetheless because they have no idea. But on such debates the interest of performance practice florishes. I am allowed any opinion about anything like everybody else, including mr Dan P.

          Also, I am not advocating directives, I am expressing an opinion about mr B, and deliver the arguments with it. There is far not enough understanding of what mr B really signifies. In a culture where anything goes, there should be voices that point to the obvious. People with some common sense do understand that, instead of cynically throw up their arms. What is necessary is a mobilization of common sense and the awareness of what a culture is.

          In Europe and in some islands in the USA, classical music is alive and kicking, in spite of everything. Clarifying the art form – what is classical music and why is it important enough to be financially supported? – helps the survival of music. An important element in this survival is its viability, which is tested by performance of existing repertoire but ALSO by new works, and it is there that debate is useful. The notion that classical music is alive, is proven by its contemporary interpretations.

          It is not so bad as you think… I believe it is both the pop culture and people lke mr B which have eroded musical culture. Understanding both is like diagnosing the illness before looking for a treatment, which in this case would be: education based upon tradition – i.e. a correct understanding of tradition, which is dynamic, and not the outdated fomr of stuffy academicism.

          • Alex says:


            I have to disagree with just one thing you wrote yesterday:

            “Comprehension of music means understanding the musical meaning of the work, its cultural context, the tradition it comes from, the expectations of audiences, and the intentions of its maker”


            I confess that — even while acknowledging its value and importance in terms of the historical record — the idea of the explanation and understanding of a piece of music in terms of its social and cultural context at the time the music was written has always seemed to me an enterprise perverse in the extreme in terms of interpretive understanding and performance; an idea inimical to the very music itself.

            Any music that lives beyond its time of creation will say and mean different things to succeeding generations and eras (which, in fact, is precisely what enables it to live beyond its time of creation), and attempting to fix what it has to say and means in terms of the social and cultural context of the time of its composition is not only thoroughly wrongheaded and potentially destructive, but lethally contrary to a true and meaningful understanding of the music itself qua music.

  • May I do a self promo here. My Symphonies Nos. 3,4,6,7 and 9 are available from Amazon. These are examples of one composer’s path out of the twentieth century dilemma.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Kinsella is a real, and talented, composer. Listen to his ‘Elegy of Strings’ on YouTube… Of course this is the way out of the 20th century dilemma. Exploring tradition is more daring than kicking it out, because one enters competition and a perceptive framework which have stood the test of time.

  • Robert Scott Thompson says:

    Reading this has been hilarious…and taxing…so…now, back to “composing” – whatever that is…!

  • Keith says:

    Is John Bortslap always so angry? Maybe all that energy would be better placed into making his own music more interesting?

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is always funny to see how some people can only interpret critique as a personal expression of anger, or frustration. People are nice, the world is nice, art is nice, especially new art is nice, and critical comments come from people who are NOT nice. Oppositions in parliaments are just angry people, protests against Hitler were also merely coming from angry people, as were the opponents of Stalin etc. etc. But Boulez, yes, that is a nice composer, was never angry and how interesting and nice his music is! Borstlap’s music is, in comparison, so boring… it’s far not nice enough.

  • Keith says:

    Haha I have read your book and really just wanted to join the ranks of people who seem to anger you. I’m in good company if I’ve been bitch-slapped by you. Maybe it’s just a matter of your way of expressing oneself in English but the tone of your writings on music generally comes across as angry, apocalyptic, like a mirror image of Adorno at his worst, as if you were constantly settling scores. I wish your music had some of that rhetorical force. I’ve heard some of it and right now I’m listening to Nicholas Bacri whom you admire but the work just doesn’t speak to me. I’m glad that there are people who do like his music because it means I don’t have to. But you wouldn’t catch me saying that you or Nicholas Bacri are not real composers or not really writing music. Of course it’s music: I just don’t like it very much. So what? I bet you don’t like gagaku, Coltrane or Merzbow either. I do a great deal. But ultimately it just doesn’t matter. I don’t have the time to provide a sentence by sentence rebuttal of the claims you make in your book or in the comments you seem to make all over the internet on every second blog I read but it reads to me like lots of Chicken Little over something that you have no hope of ever enforcing (gladly).

    I’ve worked in record stores for more than a decade selling a wide variety of “classical” music with everything from Machaut to Boulez and beyond and I just laugh when I read anyone who makes the kind of blanket pronouncements as to what is or is not music. People’s taste in music and the way they discover and make sense of it is something that no one can ever understand, it’s far broader and stranger than any writer on music would ever want to admit. We cannot hear music with the ears of another. I for one was instantly captivated by Boulez when I was a teenager, just as I was when I first heard Mahler or Machaut. Was my 13 year old ear wrong? I bet you would say yes.

    No composer thinks that what they are doing is the way all must must be (not even Boulez). How often we pass from just not liking something to saying this thing we don’t like is not what it says it is or that people who do like the things we don’t like somehow shouldn’t like them? It’s the negative side of the false universality and the necessary subjectivity of the judgement of taste. You can say as much as you want that something is not music or that people are being duped but hey guess what? It just doesn’t matter. All that matters is that there are listeners for every kind of sound out there and I find any attempt to cordon off one area as being “true” or “real” music rather silly.

    There is more music in the world than any of us will ever have a chance to absorb. Why is that such a terrible thing if such a variety also implies a variety of different and sometimes incompatible ways of thinking about music?

  • Thank you for so eloquently demonstrating the problem…. We should have more of this kind of texts.

  • Sarmad says:

    I am aghast at the stupidity of so many of the commentators here. The lack of intelligence and spiritual evolution of the musical fundamentalists who expel their hot air about PB will be the laughing stock of a future age. I’d laugh at you if your medieval mentality weren’t so chilling.

    Those who cannot feel the true joy and radiance that permeates every note of Sur Incises and Derive 2 are, to quote Sorabji, ‘Not dead – since only that is dead which was once alive.’

    Don’t bother replying, idiots, since I won’t be reading your worthless remarks.