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 at that moment. But to prolong this ascetic attitude out of context would be unnatural today, since now you need something that is more ornate, richer in texture, more contrasted—a kind of enrichment of this language. But it doesn’t mean that, because you wish to enrich the thinking of your predecessors, you therefore have to go back to their predecessors. If you don’t want the Mies van der Rohe approach in architecture that doesn’t mean you have to return to the nineteenth century.

I wouldn’t follow, say, George Rochberg’s lead in giving up twelve-tone music and composing like Gustav Mahler because I think Mahler has done it much better than Mr. Rochberg will ever do. It seems really stupid to me that in order to avoid a present danger, you adopt the dangers of the previous generation. In this way you don’t go forward and rethink a situation. And it doesn’t work. This was like Stravinsky in the Twenties saying: I want to be “classical,” so I will imitate the style of Bach. That was a completely useless reaction. I can already see now that our “new” postmodernist buildings are as dead…even deader than the ones they wanted to replace.

For me, the problem of music is not whether it is rational or ecstatic, but whether and how it allows you to express yourself. It’s certainly my inclination when I compose to be crystal clear in the sense that sometimes the crystal reflects yourself and other times you can see through the material. So the work suggests a hiding and opening at the same time. And what I want most to create is a kind of deceiving transparency, as if you are looking in very transparent water and can’t make an estimate of the depths. If you’re a complicated self you express yourself in more complicated terms. In poetry, Mallarmé was expressing himself in a much more difficult way than Verlaine—all human minds aren’t built on the same model. The opposition, then, is really that of being understood or not being understood by the mass, being complex or not complex, having a vocabulary that is really very easy or one that is less easy to grasp. That’s much more the problem; and hiding behind false categories is, to me, simply that.


Still, in the “classical” realm, we are, I think, in a kind of ghetto and suffer under the weight of all these traditions, with their constraints of spirit and ways of thinking. I think it’s very good to be in touch with people who have other concepts, and maybe they’ll be freed of their concepts by meeting us, and vice versa. This is why I think the kind of exchange that occurred when I performed Frank Zappa’s orchestral work, The Perfect Stranger, in Paris recently is worthwhile.

A great deal of misunderstanding occurs when you approach another culture because, looking at it from outside, you miss or misspell the laws. But I find that these misunderstandings are often very fruitful, since what you see in another culture is what you want that other culture to reveal about what you yourself are doing and searching for. And then suddenly, you find something in common and you take from this culture what you most need. When you’re creative, you look at everything in life as a predator. Even the most trivial things can strike you as exactly the thing you were waiting for just at that moment.

Although I don’t want to be derogatory, I think that today’s type of minimalist and repetitive music appeals to an extremely primitive perception, and it reduces the elements of music to one, single component—periodicity. You have a chord changing slowly, and the rest of the components are either completely ignored or reduced to just a minimum of minimums. And people suddenly say, “Ah, my god! I understand modern music!” But it’s not modern in the least. It’s simply like a detail of a painting that’s been enlarged many times, and there’s no substance to it at all. If an audience wants to get high with this kind of music rather than with another product, that’s OK with me. But I don’t consider that a very high level of enjoyment.

Now, you can be obsessive in music without being simplistic. In Stravinsky, for instance, you have a lot of repetitive patterns—I’m thinking particularly of Les Noces—but they are manipulated in much more interesting ways. The music is rather reduced in its components, but it has a dialectic and a kind of evolution that makes things live. On the contrary, when you’ve heard two minutes of one of these recent minimal works, you know very well where it goes. And I find that, for me, if there’s no surprise, then I’m no longer interested in it. Similarly, when you see light sculptures based on periodicity and are told that you won’t have a similar periodicity for another two hundred years, well, who’s interested in looking at that? That’s just being passive. To me it’s like cows in front of a train. And there are people who listen to music in this way.

If composers such as Philip Glass have criticized my work, this is because fights between generations are natural, since you have always to find yourself, your own personality. It happens in families, it happens in life generally, so why not in the arts? But polemics aside—they may be amusing but not finally terribly interesting—I think simply that suddenly there was a reaction against what was the “action” before. I wonder what it will be like in twenty years. Because in 1944 and 1945, for example, all the people of the Paris school—Poulenc, Auric, and so on—were saying that Schoenberg was out of fashion and old hat. And they were writing music of the “third category”—entertainment music, light music—and it had an audience. But as a matter of fact, what remains in history—entertainment music or music that is more demanding and interesting because it brings out more of the human experience? If you want a kind of supermarket aesthetic, you can have fruit from China, vegetables from Brazil, and think you’re having a really good meal. But it’s nothing to do with art.


Nobody will be against it, but everybody will eventually forget it because each generation will create its own supermarket music—like produce that, after eight days, is rotten and you can’t eat it anymore and have to toss it away. And, therefore, I’m always astonished that composers speak in terms of quantity, i.e., “Music is valid if it has more than two thousand people listening to it.” For me, that’s no criterion of validity. And when composers say that they’ve found a direct approach to an audience, what is that really? The “direct approach” is usually an experience that the audience has already had but with a new coat of paint on it, so to speak—that’s all. And that’s not a new experience. I find that very superficial and an avoidance of the real problems, and symptomatic of a kind of amnesia that has forgotten about the catastrophes of previous years—the “stereophonic” year, the “chance” year, the “formless” year, the “novel tone colors” year. Even the works of a movement like neoclassicism are hardly performed anymore. So I’m afraid that some of the composers who are the excitement of today will not be the excitement of tomorrow; their words are, as they say in German, Plakate—advertising posters.

This Issue

June 28, 1984