Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bel édifice et les pressentiments

I’m revisiting Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître. Some like this, some hate this. But few can deny that this piece is one of those that represent the European avant-garde music in the 1950s. But an adjective such as monumental is not feasible to describe it. It is an intimate chamber piece. On the other hand, I feel detachment and distance. It is probably because of his choice of the instruments: lack of bass, use of alto flute and viola instead of flute and violin. The sound is thin. The notes are scattered and diffused, but also precisely controlled (this controlling irritates some... if it was just scattered and diffused, no problem... confusion is fun). There is no chaos, no hysteria. I dare say it is in a way close to Merce Cunningham’s choreography. Of course I know Cunningham is always remembered with John Cage, it wasn’t Cunningham but Maurice Béjart who choreographed to this, and Cage was a kind of opposition to Boulez. People say Boulez is an authority figure of the avant-garde and Cage is a guru of the experimental. For those who advocate the experimental, Boulez is a control freak and Cage is democratic. But my assumption here is that the dichotomy between the avant-garde and the experimental is basically false. Though it might have been true that Boulez dismissed Cage, this fact alone cannot prove that the gap between them was as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.
Probably because I’m seeing them from the point of view of the 21st century, I can say so. I can grasp the Atlantic Ocean through Google Earth. Both composers at some point radically questioned the subject who is supposed to choose the notes in musical composition. Is it really ‘I’ who choose, or a kind of convention or a system? If I erase myself from the process of composition, what will happen? If I feel to try to intervene given automatic process, such as chance operation or sérielle, when, what, why, and how do I want to do so? I think those who regard chance operation or sérielle as the method or technique to conjure their pieces are mistaken. It was Boulez himself who denounced such his followers.
Musicologists may say the 20th century music explored methods and now we, of post-whatever generation, are a bit nostalgic about that. But such exploration might have been just one dimension of the music history. It is more important for me that both Boulez and Cage vividly formulated the question of the subject. Right thing to do now may be reformulate such a question. I wish I were wiser and more self-disciplined than I am to be able to do so.
By the way, a gap between those who admire Cage and the others who admire Boulez is similar to a gap between those who admire Dalai Lama and the others who admire Slavoj Žiżek. That’s to say, the former is what Žiżek calls Western Buddhist and the latter is Euro-centrist. I’m simplifying, but I wish you know the point.
Another thing I can note is that both Cage and Boulez are to some extent influenced by Surrealism. Precisely, they came after Surrealism. Surrealism was generally seen as an attempt to let imagination go wild, but what really happened was killing the master who had ordered an artist to make art. René Char’s poetry derived by Boulez in Le marteau sans maître appears as if it describes some Surrealist paintings. And the subject who narrates is completely passive. I’m seeing this. I’m hearing that. It is a photographic way of seeing. Even though the sight he is seeing might actually be conjured by his imagination, he behaves as if he is not accountable for it. Flaubert might have written Madame Bovary in this manner, but the intention might have been a bit different. Both might have tried to present a passive narrator and let something emerge between the lines. But what emerges between the lines is in Flaubert’s literature a bigger story than the written, on the other hand, in Char’s poetry the narrator himself. In a sense, he “has nothing to say and” he is “saying it.” And Boulez’s piece is a commentary on it.
It is well-known that Cage said, “I have nothing to say, and I’m saying it.” On the other hand, Boulez could have said, “One may say, ‘I have nothing to say, and I’m saying it.’ So let me talk about this.” Probably that was the difference. Eventually whether Boulez himself had something to say or not might have been not his concern.
In 1955, the same year Le marteau sans maître was premiered, Theodor Adorno got his Prismen published, in which Adorno said,
The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today. (Prisms 1955 MIT Press Reprinted London, 1967, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen and Samuel Weber)
Yet I haven’t read this book, so I don’t know in what context this was said. I assume this “barbarism” includes capitalism, consumerism, commercialism, populism, exoticism, escapism, and so on. After Auschwitz such isms are writing poems, forgetting that writing poetry and critique in his “culture” should have been about the impossibility of writing poetry. So, writing poetry was already impossible before Auschwitz, on the contrary to what is often misquoted as Adorno saying “After Auschwitz writing poetry is impossible.” The master was killed, but capitalism says “Forget about the murder.” What actually became nearly impossible after Auschwitz for Adorno was writing a prose about the impossibility of poetry. I recently found Žižek saying, quoting “After Auschwitz writing poetry is impossible,” that what Auschwitz made impossible was prose, instead of poem, because such an atrocity could not be talked directly. Apparently, Adorno and Žižek appear to reach the same conclusion through the different logic.
Boulez shared “the knowledge” with Adorno.

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