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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

But why was all this considered desirable, or if not desirable at least inevitable? To this question many different (often contradictory) answers have been given; over it many battles have been fought. Many resented on social grounds the idea of a music that disclosed so little to an ordinary listener, associating it with the arrogant rhetoric of manifestos like “Schoenberg Is Dead,” with elitism (that is, the use of a willfully difficult style to create a social elite that excluded the noninitiated), and with the misappropriation of scientific prestige. (All of these criticisms could just as well have been leveled at the medieval troubadours, but they weren't, since the idea of social elites in those days required no apology, least of all in artistic circles.) On the other side, the music, the rhetoric, and the cult of difficulty were all upheld as necessary protections against those who would regulate art, and curtail the freedoms of artists, on social or commercial grounds. Back came the retort that there could be no greater regulation or regimentation of art than that of “total serialism” (or, more generally, any method of composing by algorithm). Yet a discipline one imposes on oneself, no matter how zealously one may exhort others to follow suit, ought not, perhaps, to be equated with a discipline imposed by political authority. Was it just puritanism, then?

Boulez's own answer, given long after the fact to a sympathetic interviewer (and long after he had given up the utopian dream of “total serialism”), invoked something milder: experimental curiosity. He wanted, he said, “to find out how far automatism in musical relationships would go.”34 The idea of taking things to their limits has always had an appeal to modernists, as we have known, so to speak, since the days of Mahler and Scriabin. We also know that Messiaen, Boulez's teacher, had been a rare keeper of the maximalist flame all through the reign of irony. But why should there have been such a resurgence of maximalism among so many young composers precisely at this time? And what was the appeal of algorithmic methods—what Boulez called “automatism,” or what the Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925–2003), another important alumnus of Darmstadt, called “writing music without being personally involved”?

Boulez was not unaware of the paradox inherent in a process of composition that applied the most stringent controls, only to bring forth a product that, as far as even the most educated listener was concerned, might as well have been the product of chance. “From the prescriptions we have been examining in detail,” he wrote toward the end of an article in which he gave a preliminary analysis of Structures, “there arises the unforeseen.”35 (Indeed, he went on, characteristically, to turn the remark into a dogma: “There is no creation except in the unforeseeable becoming necessary.”) That begins to approximate the terms of existentialist thought, with its meditations on the relationship between free will and necessity, on the one hand, and between free will and contingency, on the other. Still, what did it mean (or could it mean) freely to decide, as the music theorist Roger Savage has put it, to “hand the work's structure over to the serial operations which control it”? What did that say about agency and responsibility?


(34) Boulez in conversation with Celestin Deliège, quoted in Dominique Jameux, Pierre Boulez, trans. Susan Bradshaw (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 52.

(35) Boulez, “Possibly…,” in Stocktakings, p. 133.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001011.xml