Begbie on the Paradoxical Relation Between Boulez’s Total Serialism and Cage’s Chance Music

Comparing and contrasting two leading twentieth century composers, Pierre Boulez and John Cage, the former a strict adherent and promoter of “total serialism” (a compositional method that organizes music according to mathematical patterns) and the latter the champion of chance music, where just about anything turns out to be music, Jeremy Begbie makes the following astute observation. Begbie first points out a deficiency in Boulez’s music noted by Boulez himself, viz., that in his music the excess of order tends to produce the perception of disorder when heard. Then he writes, “[a]lthough a piece of music does not have to yield all its meaning in perception, a modicum of perceptual intelligibility would appear to be necessary to apprehend it as music . Total serialism seemed to engender a kind of ‘entropic’ anarchy. Boulez came to describe his Livre pour Quantuor as an ‘accumulation that springs from a very simply principle, to end in a chaotic situation because it is engendered by material that turns in on itself and becomes so complex that it loses its individual shape and becomes part of a vast chaos’. The prescriptive determinacies of notation coincide with sonorous effects which are largely indeterminate” (Theology, Music, and Time, p. 188). The point being that though these composers are more or less on the opposite ends of the spectrum, Boulez representing overly rigid mathematical calculation and Cage representing chance music in the extreme, when one listens to the music of Boulez its unnatural, machine-like mathematical precision ends up sounding as indeterminate as Cage’s random chance music.

4 thoughts on “Begbie on the Paradoxical Relation Between Boulez’s Total Serialism and Cage’s Chance Music”

  1. This is not surprising, as both have attempted to substitue technique for inspiration. They may well be inspired in their attemt to create music this way, but it is misdirected. Math governs form and provides intelligibility in the same way the spoken word is governed by the rules of grammar, but it cannot provide content that breathes, the breath (inspiration) being the element that creates the musicality humans respond to. Likewise, improvisational notes in Jazz are not random, but inspired, spontaneous, rational and lyrical lines hard-won in the woodshed. Music without breath in it is not music at all, but engineered sound.

  2. Hi Susan,

    Nice analogy–I agree with your comment and especially like how you note that improvisation is significantly more “calculated” than people tend to think–not that the mystery is totally eradicated, but as you say–jazz musicians spend lots of time in the “woodshed” working out ii-V-I and other melodic lines.


  3. I’m grateful for your visit to my blog and look forward to much interaction with your thoughts on jazz and faith.

  4. Dear Jazztheo,

    The gratitude goes both ways! I too look forward to many fruitful conversations with you.

    I recently purchased James Cone’s, The Spirituals and the Blues for a resource for my upcoming paper presentation at Baylor. The book arrived yesterday, and I can hardly wait to “dig in.”

    Warm regards,

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