What Pierre Boulez told John Cage (‘Do something with it’)

What Pierre Boulez told John Cage (‘Do something with it’)


norman lebrecht

May 16, 2016

The pianist Ivan Ilic has reconstructed a 1970 interview Morton Feldman gave in Paris to French art critic Françoise Esselier. It is full of what Feldman calls ‘anecdotes’ which are more like epigrams.

For instance:

One day Boulez said to John Cage on the subject of Winter Music (1957), ‘It’s very interesting, John. Now you have to do something with it’. And I say, that for me, it’s not what happens in a work of art that makes it interesting, it’s the fact that you’ve never heard anything like it.

There are three separate mind-worlds at work in that story, each pulling music in a different direction. How often do you find that? Boulez is the functional one, Feldman the aesthetic and Cage … no-one knew what he was after.

Another example:

I once had a long conversation about a similar subject with John Cage. I told him, ‘How can you be interested in Duchamp? He does exactly the opposite of what you do’. Most people don’t realize it, but Duchamp and Cage are complete opposites. Duchamp and Boulez are similar. Let’s just say that Boulez is the epitome of the intellectual approach, with a process that is as clear as Duchamp’s, for example. But what John Cage did, and what I have done, is to extract music from the conceptual domain and to place it in the purely physiological sensation of sound, separated from this conceptual cause and effect.

Fascinating ideas. Read the full interview here. Ivan has artfully reconstructed Feldman’s original English from the published French text.


feldman with cage, source and date unknown


  • David Osborne says:


  • boringfileclerk says:

    Countdown to John Borstlap’s obligatory anti Boulez rant in 3…2….1…..

    • John Borstlap says:

      We heard a quite forceful explosion in the studio but fortunately, when we opened the doors in a panic, the Master was quietly sitting at his desk, although we saw some faint columns of white smoke coming from his ears. To our great relief, the Boulezbian moment seems to have passed without any damage this time….. we thought you might like to be informed.

  • Muslit says:

    Just listened to Boulez’ ‘Rituel’ yesterday. Hadn’t heard it in 20 years. Now there’s a piece Boulez could have done much more with. What a slog and a bore.

    • Hilary says:

      True. I’ve always found it rather stiff.
      For what it matters Cage (“Dream”) and Feldman (“Rothko Chapel”) wrote more memorable tunes than Boulez.

  • rg says:

    Feldman was by far the best composer among those three.

  • Sue says:

    I must say their conversation is much more interesting than either their music or the art!

  • miker says:

    Rituel is the only piece Boulez wrote which is even moderately approachable.

    • Hilary says:

      Is approachability a virtue? I’m inclined to think not.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Composers whose ambitions outreach their talents try to be inapproachable, in the hope that it might be understood as a sign of virtue. Saints whose ambitions outreach their virtue try to be approachable, in the hope it might be understood as a sign of holiness. Ergo, composers who combine talent with virtue, are approachable in spite of their holiness, not due to their holiness.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          Are you saying that there is some kind of evangelical zealotry behind this reverse snobbery?

        • Holly Golightly says:

          Are you saying that there is some kind of evangelical zealotry behind this reverse snobbery?

          Nikolaus Harnoncourt, in his excellent writings, talks about the agency of composers from the past in ensuring they were accessible too their audiences. These same composers needed to remain available to their audiences to actually earn a living. They were not the recipients of generous government hand-outs or institutional tenures!! It is only these two factors which imbue modern composers with the luxury of projections into the future.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Agreed. Serious music is an art form kept together by the composers, the performers, the promotors/organisers, the funders (if there are any), the critics (alas), and the audiences. All these parties are part of the art form and cannot be left out. Not all of these parties are equally important but that is another question…. important is that they should all be concerned that the art form can exist, each party has its contribution to make. But modernist ideologies created a never-never land of arrogance and pretention, which disrupted this fragile context.

            It seems to me that in a healthy culture – i.e. a culture that works – composers are part of that culture and not some kind of isolated category of visionary who does not need performers, audiences, etc. etc. and counts on future fame and power, while in the present he has to feel isolated in his ivory tower. Such people live posthumously. But that does not mean that music should be immediately understandable and accessible; if composers are part of the culture, they will be automatically understandable, even if only after a while.

          • Hilary says:

            Did composers of the past really ensure their music was accessible to audiences? What is an audience anyway?! …it comprises of a wide variety of tastes and backgrounds. There’s no way a composer/artist can encompass all of this.
            Having said that, I’ll tentatively suggest that some pieces are more approachable than others.
            Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons is more approachable than Bach’s Art of Fugue for instance…
            Some composers (eg. Moszkowski) wrote with more commercial awareness than others.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Hilary (above) is right. But if composers are part of the same culture, in general they will think about their own music in more or less the same terms as performers and audiences of their time. In the 20C, audiences and composers – that is, certain groups of composers – parted company.

  • miker says:

    I first listened to Boulez in the 70’s. Like I did with other modern works, I would replay my records over and over. So pieces that I did not understand initially would slowly become interesting and worth listening to. I learned to like many modern pieces this way. I have casually listened to Boulez again and again, and despite many listenings and the passage of over 40 years, his music is for the most part impenetrable. If there is something to enjoy, understand or emotionally feel in his music, it has escaped me. Rituel seems to be the only piece that has some sort of driving feeling because of its repeated beating. Most of the works of Carter from the 70’s forward, leave me without any appreciation of them. He was such a knotty, expressive composer at one time.

    • William Safford says:

      I came to the realization that when I couldn’t tell the structural difference by ear between a fully serialized work (e.g. much Boulez and Babbitt) and a randomized work (e.g. many Cage works), I lost interest in both.

  • jaypee says:

    Every time the self appointed arbiter of good taste sees the name “Boulez” in the title, we can be assured that he will “contribute” within hours a significant proportion of comments.
    Currently: 6 out of 21.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Wenn man nicht mehr weiter kann, fängt man mit der Scheisse an”. (Aus dem Briefwechsel eines völlig unbekannten Schwäbischen Schriftstellers.)