Boulez Is Alive / Solo Instrument Works / Concert Music

Boulez Is Alive

Boulez Is Alive, 2006 (7′)

for piano solo

The composer, conductor, and polemicist Pierre Boulez once wrote an article called “Schoenberg Is Dead.” This was meant, I think, as a gesture of respect, which says a lot about the mood of those grim, post-war days. To the European Modernists of the 1950s, Schoenberg’s sentimental attachment to German Romanticism was, to put it mildly, distasteful. The plan going forward was to follow the rather more severe compositional method of Anton Webern, using surface-level rational processes to make an extremely ordered, systemic, serialized compositional technique. Boulez and others wrote a body of work using this technique (broadly defined) that is mostly, to my early-21st century ears, pretty terrible. It sounds cold and calculated, which perhaps is a mark of its success on its own terms. That’s fine; we all have different tastes (though Boulez also wrote a polemic against the idea of taste – amazingly, a response to fascism!). I do think that Boulez has some great musical moments, particularly in the music written before and after his most severe, serialized composition.

One element of Boulez’s music in particular that I’ve often enjoyed is the texture of the music, the quick gestures made by lines that don’t line up and then suddenly do, the sense that “anything can happen”. Combined with an opaque harmonic language and used as an unrelenting method of composition, the appeal of this textural language wears thin after a short while (Webern was onto something with his tiny, tiny pieces). But I thought it would be interesting to explore the textures on my own, to see what I could take for myself from this music that has kept me at a distance. From Boulez’s output, I thought it would be most useful for me to examine his first two piano sonatas, which slightly pre-date his “Schoenberg Is Dead” and his total serial style. His use of the instrument is novel and sophisticated; the piano is well-suited to the dramatic gestures that are his compositional bread and butter.

The piano also seemed a good choice for me, personally, as I am a pianist but have not written anything for solo piano since I was in high school (about a decade, at this point). At that time, I was very interested in Modernist music, including that of Boulez, and my own compositions had a good dose of those sounds in them. While my style has changed dramatically since then, and I have even gone so far as to issue my own polemics against Modernist music, I know that there’s still a residue of my time spent with that music. I wouldn’t be so hostile to it if it didn’t still have some hold on me. And so, in addition to the other readings that one might make of it, the title is also an admission of this music, dead as I may perceive it to be, being alive in me and in my own composition. Boulez Is Alive is dedicated to my friend Nico, who came to mind (musically and personally) in the course of the work’s creation.