More From Begbie on Boulez and Cage: Opposites Converging in Modernist Assumptions

Having discussed Boulez’s tendencies to control to the point of creating a perceptual sense of disorder (recall that Boulez is a promoter of “total serialism,” a compositional method that organizes music according to mathematical patterns), Begbie then turns to Cage, who at first seems to offer a more promising way. Cage, of course, with his chance music thinks that we should abandon the desire to control and let the sounds be themselves. Yet, as Begbie observes, this way ends up leading down a path similar to Boulez’s. “To be sure, here music is ‘freed,’ in a sense but the cost is an evacuation (or near evacuation) of the notion of music as constructive, of the idea that human shaping could be fruitful and enriching. The dialectic between human will and nature’s constraint is thus effectively dissolved” ( Theology, Music, and Time, p. 194). Whereas Boulez’s over-control results in a destruction of intelligibility on the perceptual level—and correlates well with the modernist view of humanity’s relation to the world, viz., one of control and mastery), Cage’s absolute freedom alternative practically does away with human creating (or better, re-creating). “It is one thing to spurn the worst of humanity’s aggressive imposition on the natural order, it is quite another to suppress any conception of human forming altogether. Further, we might add, Cage’s stress is very much on the ‘randomness’ of the extra-human world, not on its inherent order” (Ibid., pp. 194-95).

Then Begbie goes on to discuss an additional similarity between these two seemingly opposite takes on composition, viz., both share a discomfort with temporal constraint or better with certain kinds of temporal constraint. Noting that this unease is perhaps related to the composers’ failure to “present a convincing dialectic between human embeddedness and otherness in relation to the non-human world, with associated doubts about nature possessing its own distinctive integrity,” Begbie then spells out exactly which kind of temporality they wish to throw out, viz., “directional temporal continuity. As with many of their contemporaries, any goal-oriented, teleological dynamic (so characteristic of tonal music) is not only avoided but subverted—tensions and resolutions, clearly marked out sections, development, opening and ending frames, and so forth. More than this, Boulez sought to abolish any sense of metre or rhythmic regularity either in the large scale or in the smallest details” (p.195). Cage as well “rebelled” against temporality by empoloying what has come to be known as “vertical time music.” “Common to vertical time music is the restraint (or evasion) of temporal differentiation within the entirety of a piece of music. Cage is not prepared to see sounds as participants in some kind of progression from beginning to closure, because for him each instant is equally related to each other instant. No event can be more significant or valuable than any other” (p. 195).

Though Boulez would not want to associate his music with Cage’s chance music, both end doing away with goal-oriented time, organic thematic developments and harmonic and rhythmic relationships. Citing a passage from Edward Cone, Begbie highlights the irony of the Boulez-Cage paradox, “When chance music plays the major role in the writing of a work [e.g., as in Cage] […] logic […] can take only an accidental role. The same is true of music written according to a strictly predetermined constructivistic scheme [e.g. as in Boulez] […]. In neither case can any musical event be linked organically with those that precede and those that follow; it can be explained only by referring to an external structure—in the one case the laws of chance and in the other the predetermined plan. The connections are mechanistic rather than teleological; no event has any purpose—each is there only because it has to be there ( “Analysis Today,” in Paul Henry Lang (ed.), Problems of Modern Music, p. 38, italics added) [Begbie, p. 196]. The irony here is that in spite of Cage’s strong emphasis on absolute freedom, necessity is actually lurking in the nearby bushes. As Begbie explains, “the struggle to be free of a supposedly oppressive teleological system (such as tonality) would seem to come close to resulting in two kinds of (oppressive?) necessity, the one the necessity of a particular mathematical system, the other the somewhat bland necessity of ‘the way things happen’” (p. 196).

4 thoughts on “More From Begbie on Boulez and Cage: Opposites Converging in Modernist Assumptions”

  1. This was an interesting post. When I was in music school in Louisville, I got a chance to meet Boulez. He is a facinating man. I noticed you teach in Texas. Do you teach at UT? I’m a seminary student in the Austin area.

  2. Hi Renee,

    Thanks for your comment. Actually, I teach in the Dallas area.

    Blessings on your studies!


  3. Cynthia,

    Greetings. These articles on rational and perhaps irrational based music have been very interesting to read, and I have wondered about many of the same things, being somewhat familiar with Cage’s approach.

    Additionally, “The Enjoyment of Music”(Machlis) seems to be one of the better references on music principles like the ones mentioned, and I like the way machlis maps out the course of western music as a development of civilization.

    In particular, the study of the component of melody has been of great interest, and unraveling some of the mystery about it has been a happy thing. I was curious about more advanced writings on melody, and just how melody can be achieved in something like Cage’s work if dissonance is predominant.

    I have the understanding that order in music, and the necessary ingredient of order to music to accomodate distinctions and notation is pretty much inseparable from the essence of what it is that music does when it is working within people. It seems a melody line that is structured can bring a form of universal appeal.

  4. Dear KE,

    Thanks for your comment and for the book recommendation. I am always adding to my list of music books to read.

    Kind regards,

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