On New Music

Following are excerpts from a long interview with Pierre Boulez on the state of contemporary music. The interview took place in Paris early this year, soon after Boulez had conducted a concert of Frank Zappa’s music.

Jonathan Cott

When I hear about the “Return to Romanticism,” I recall that the real Romantics of the nineteenth century were extremely adventurous. But what I see in many of today’s musical currents is simply a dead solution—a kind of self-protection against what is going on right now. There are some other directions that seem to me more alive—the creation of new material and new aspects of sound, for instance. There are still some composers who recognize the adventure and who aren’t afraid of going somewhere without knowing exactly where they will finish. And to me this is very important. The previous generation of composers was very adventurous, but that of the neoclassical 1930s, say, reflected an end of invention. And I think that right now we are witnessing the same kind of protective phenomenon. I would use the word Angst in this case, because there is a kind of anxiety in trying to find a refuge in old values that are no longer relevant.

The procedures of a composer are very closely related to the period in which he’s living. Now although Debussy’s vocabulary was new, the elements—the perfect triads, etc.—were not. Debussy was free with regard to the network of musical relationships, but he was not with regard to the construction of the objects themselves. So for him the problem was simply to free the objects of the kind of constraints they’d previously been bound by.

In our time, especially in the Fifties, you had a new vocabulary and you didn’t want any familiar musical objects to be there, so you had to construct them. And then you understood that you couldn’t build objects without laws. Debussy built his chords based on “known” laws—they were used constantly, so he didn’t have to think about them. But in the Fifties you had to think about the methods of building these objects, so therefore the situation wasn’t at all the same. Debussy’s world was coherent, and he brought fantasy to it; while our world was incoherent, and we had to bring coherence to it…but without losing fantasy. And this was a problem that wasn’t easy to solve. Because if you were too much engulfed in the methodology, then you lost complete spontaneity. The great composers throughout history have always tried to find a balance between spontaneity and strength of ideas. The stronger they were and the kinds of constraints they created for themselves enabled them to bring their imaginations into a world they would never have reached otherwise.

Of course, with a late composer like Webern you had an excess of purity, but it was necessary in his case—maybe because of his personality, first of all, but also because the birth of the new language was very difficult, and it couldn’t accept ornamentation…

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