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.