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).

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.