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.

Begbie on Repetition in Music

Jeremy Begbie makes the interesting observation that “in music, structure is built primarily on relations based not upon difference or contrast but on attraction” (Theology, Music, and Time, pp. 158-159). Music of course utilizes sameness and difference, and repetition is largely responsible for the sameness. Yet unlike other art forms, music “tends toward the pole of absolute sameness” (p. 156). In a musical score, one commonly finds entire sections repeated note for note at the command of a repeat sign. Begbie also points out that repetition comes in different flavors and types. Repetition can be of the concealed sort and one only becomes aware of this type with intimate familiarity. Other kinds are more “immediate,” i.e., the repetition is obvious and repeated in close proximity (e.g., a section repeated by means of a repeat sign). Then there is “remote” repetition (or “return”), when the section or motif recurs after a significant time interval (p. 157). To illustrate the way in which music “gets away” with repetition in the extreme, Begbie cites the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68, bars 151-162, where we find a rhythmic motif relentlessly repeated. Begbie then asks, “Why has this music claimed so much enjoyment? What is novel amidst the almost the almost obsessive reiteration? Prima facie it would seem that we should be thoroughly weary after only a few bars. Why are we prepared to put up with so much repetition?” (p. 158). Begbie suggests that though “variation of musical parameters” (e.g., changes in orchestration, dynamics, re-harmonization etc.) and a constantly changing musical “environment” in regard to the repeated unit are partial answers, they do not reach the heart of the matter, viz., “each repeated component of music will have a different dynamic quality because each occurs in relation to a different configuration of metrical tensions and resolutions.” In other words, Begbie is highlighting the various points of tension and resolution in both micro and macrocosmic view. “It follows the every re-iterated note, motif or whatever is going to possess a different dynamic quality. The repetitions ride the waves in different ways. This is where the fundamental novelty lies within tonal music—two occurrences of the same motif can be sensed as different because each relates to a different combination of metrical tensions and resolutions. Viewed from the point of view of metre, everything is ‘new,’ […] This is why, as Berleant puts it, ‘Repetition … becomes regeneration rather than reiteration’” (p. 252). Thus, Begbie concludes that the harmonic, dynamic and other alterations do not serve the purpose primarily of keeping our attention and staving off our boredom, rather “they bring to our ear the patterns of tension and release in metrical waves. We are left with a fascinating irony:
The tones do not alter for the sake of variety, that is in order to give the same thing an appearance of being different; on the contrary, because what is apparently the same is basically always different, the tones do not always want to remain the same” (p. 162).

Anti-Enlightenment nature of Jazz

Last Fall in my “What is Enlightenment?” course we read The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno. As a whole, I found the book quite interesting, though a difficult read. Some of the intriguing aspects include the following: a Foucaultian knowledge and power as synonymous thesis, criticism of the totalizing tendencies of the Enlightenment, and the thesis that rationality of the Enlightenment becomes purely functional–a functionalized reason with no content etc. However, the one thing that bothered me about the book was H & A’s negative view of jazz. (This in no way detracts from their overall critique, it just personally bothered me). In several places, H & A criticize jazz, yet their critique seems odd and somewhat misinformed. For example, they list Guy Lombardo as jazz figure and do not mention any African American figures. The strange thing about this is that the history of jazz, which of course involves the great suffering of African Americans, in some ways parallels H & A’s own sufferings as Jews. Given H & A’s negative presentation of jazz, I’ll try to paint a different picture for those of you who are not so familar with jazz, but who are open to giving it a try.

Two central elements of jazz are improvisation and syncopation. Improvisation might be defined as “instantaneous composition.” In other words, when a jazz player improvises, he or she is not playing written music, but is instead spontaneously composing, utilizing various scales, patterns, melodic lines etc. that he or she has practiced to the point that they are second nature. What many people do not realize is that improvisation did not originate with jazz. In fact, as R. Beirach notes, “prior to the beginning of the 19th century, the roles of composition, execution and improvisation were much less clearly separated, and accomplished musicians were expected to be adept at all three” (in the CD jacket of “Sunday Songs”–an excellent CD where Beirach does the “unthinkable”–he improvises over traditional classical works). For example, the great composers Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin were known for their skill in improvisation.

Turning to the second element, syncopation, we might explain this as an emphasis on the “off” or “weak” beats. That is, in 4/4 time, the strong beats are 1 and 3. Most traditional classical music and even rock music emphasizes the strong beats. However, jazz accents the weak beats (2 and 4), and this produces a completely different rhythmic feel. The combination of these two elements–improvisation and syncopation–is the heartbeat of jazz, and it is perhaps not accidental that the fusing of this spontaneous composition with accenting the “weak” beats arose primarily from a people who were themselves oppressed by those who would want to stress the static, and in H & A’s language–reduce all particularity to universality. By definition, jazz resists both.