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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin
“Big Science” Eclipsed

fig. 10-2 Ferneyhough, Quartet no. 2.

Although he remained a commanding presence on the musical scene, Boulez lost his hold on young composers even as he created opportunities for them. One reason was the steady decline in his productivity over the 1970s, caused in part by his engagement between 1971 and 1977 as music director of the New York Philharmonic, and by his simultaneous conducting commitments elsewhere and everywhere. Even after leaving the Philharmonic post, Boulez has been active mainly as a conductor with a heavy international schedule, in incessant demand for commercial recording of early-twentieth-century repertoire with major orchestras, and as leader of a handpicked new music group, the Ensemble InterContemporain.

Composition went on the back burner. Four years after giving up full-time employment as a conductor, Boulez produced Répons (1981), a twenty-minute composition for chamber orchestra, six solo instruments (two pianos, harp, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and cimbalom) and live electronics. An extended, thirty-three-minute version of the piece was performed the next year, and in 1984 a full-hour, “full evening” variant was unveiled and taken on an international tour. The longer versions contained no actual new material but were developments, in the traditional motivic sense, of the original piece. That mode of meticulous elaboration has become Boulez's primary compositional method. Répons was further cannibalized in two chamber works, both titled Dérive (I, 1984; II in two versions, 1990, 1993). Since then Boulez has produced only one short piano piece (Incises, 1994) that is not a reworking of earlier pieces, some going back to the 1940s; and (as we know) Incises itself was cannibalized in the Grawemeyer Award-winning composition of 1998.

This strangely symptomatic way of living, compositionally, in the past seems related to the circumstances of Boulez's late career. Répons was composed at IRCAM, the electro-acoustical research institute the French government (under President Georges Pompidou) set up for Boulez as an inducement to lure him back from America. Fully operational from 1977, when Boulez took up the reins, it was touted as a “meeting place for scientists and musicians,”17 but in practical terms it amounted to a sort of laboratory, well stocked with electronic and computer equipment and well staffed with technicians, to which composers from all over the world (as well as some musicologists and music theorists) were invited for residencies and fellowships. Boulez retained the directorship of the center until 1992 and devoted much of his energy to its administration. But creatively he was from the start a somewhat isolated figure even there. Even there, a basic esthetic and generational divide loomed up.

In 1984, when Boulez finished the final version of Répons, he was fifty-nine years old, between one and two decades older than any of the support staff. Most of the technicians came from (or at least had significant exposure to and knowledge of) the world of commercial pop music, where as much or more progress was being made in audio technologies than in the world of the cloistered avant-garde. And while nobody thought that IRCAM was going to be hospitable to pop music, the differences in background and viewpoint nevertheless showed up in attitudes toward technology, its applications, and its benefits.

As the stately beneficiary of unprecedented government largesse, and no doubt remembering the wall-covering, $175,000 Mark II synthesizer bestowed on Babbitt by corporate patrons at the Columbia-Princeton electronic music lab, Boulez was fervently committed to the conspicuous consumption of technology. He had his own custom-built “machine” at IRCAM, the 4X computer developed by the Italian engineer Giuseppe di Giugno to Boulez's specifications. The 4X was an enlarged and more sophisticated version of a “live electronic music” device called a Halaphone, which could modify the timbres of instruments as they were being played, and disperse their outputs, by means of a computer program, among the speakers of an electro-acoustical installation. The engineer who processed these transformations and moved the sounds around during the performance was in effect a member of the performing ensemble. (Boulez had first employed a Halaphone in an instrumental septet called Explosante-fixe, composed in 1971.)

The 4X, an exceptionally rapid computer for its day, greatly enhanced the capacity and versatility of real-time digital sound processing. It was (to borrow a phrase from Dominique Jameux, a musicological disciple of Boulez) “the technological ‘trophy’ of IRCAM,”18 and conferred status on the few who were qualified and privileged to use it. Or as Boulez's personal technician put it, the 4X was “the Rolls Royce of computer music.”19 Its size, costliness, and complexity, and the difficulty of running it (which required a special expertise that few if any composers possessed), made it an indispensable emblem of progress, and a tangible justification for the whole IRCAM enterprise, which relied heavily on public funds. The Institute's commitment to spectacular big-system development — “Big Science,” as it was called in America—thus had a nationalistic significance for the French in addition to an artistic one.

But there was a paradoxical or ambivalent side to high-tech modernism, since one of the principal tenets of the modern movement had always been the composer's autonomy or freedom from external factors. So technology, whatever prestige or possibilities it may deliver, is inherently suspect. It must be kept in its place; it must never seem to dominate or determine the artist's conception. As Jameux put it (speaking for Boulez), there must be no compromise of “the necessary priority of compositional thought over the empiricism of dealing with a machine.”20 Hence Répons is a completely composed composition (to put it as redundantly as the situation demands), with a fully specified score that includes a part for an engineer or “sound designer” who performs it exactly the same way every time.

Thus, even as the maximum technological potential is demanded, its application is held in check. Jameux comments that the work “derives its armature from the perenniality of a completely notated score, which could almost be played and suffice in itself,”21 that is, without the electro-acoustical transformations. So, paradoxically, the legitimacy of the computer technology is established by limiting it almost to the point where it becomes superfluous. “Whatever the degree of success of the processes of transformation, and of the electro-acoustic equipment in general, the ‘machine’ treatment seems subordinated to a relatively traditional musical text,” she writes. “We do not have the impression (although this is a purely personal opinion) that the available technology gave rise to the composition, but rather that an abstract idea—enshrined in the title — led to a score written in the light of what technology could offer in addition.” It is safe to say that this squeamishness was not only the commentator's, but the composer's as well.

IRCAM's support staff, meanwhile, was more and more intrigued with the burgeoning “digital revolution,” the commercial development of personal computers and software that miniaturized, standardized, and democratized technology. A rift opened up between Boulez, whose aristocratic disdain for small machines reflected his high modernist commitments, and David Wessel (b. 1942), an American psycho-acoustician and composer with a jazz background, who was serving as IRCAM's director of pedagogy, over the introduction of mass-produced Apple Macintosh computers and Yamaha synthesizers. An impasse was reached in 1984, when Boulez forbade the move and Wessel (who had negotiated independently with the American and Japanese companies) ordered them anyway.

There was even a political component to the struggle: production of the 4X machine had been contracted through the French government to a company (Dassault/Sogitec) that was mainly engaged in the design and manufacture of high-tech aircraft and munitions equipment for the military. IRCAM was thus implicated in what Americans call the “military-industrial complex.” Those advocating the downsizing of technology made it a “Green” issue; those committed to Big Science invoked traditional avant-garde hostility to commercialism.

Georgina Born, an English anthropologist and cultural critic with a musical background who in 1984 had received a grant to conduct an “ethnography” of IRCAM as a thesis project, built her narrative (published in 1995 as Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde) around this controversy, which she luckily happened to be on the scene to witness, casting it as a paradigmatic modernist-postmodernist confrontation. She made a compelling case for its significance, especially in the light of the outcome. Despite Boulez's opposition, the “dissident” faction led by Wessel triumphed, even if Wessel himself was disaffected in the process and departed for the University of California at Berkeley, where he became head of a Center for New Music and Technology. The downsizing of technology, while a personal defeat for Boulez, nevertheless transformed IRCAM in accordance with changes that were sweeping the whole world of information processing, keeping the Paris institution relevant and, in effect, saving it.

The essential irony of late-twentieth-century art—the transformation of the avant-garde (vanguard) into an arrière-garde (rear-guard) precisely because of its commitment to an old concept of the new—was thus dramatically encapsulated. The change of course at IRCAM reflected in microcosm the transformations in the wider world that led the American composer Kyle Gann to suggest that “centuries from now, the years 1980 to 1985 may well appear one of the most significant watersheds in the history of music.”22 It is of course far too soon to gauge the accuracy of such a prediction, but the world that many musicians inhabit at the time this text is being written did come into being then. And to describe it is a fitting way to conclude a book devoted to tracing the history of the fine art of music in the West. For the defining feature of that history, as emphasized from page one, has been its reliance on written transmission; and what the digital revolution of the 1980s presaged above all was liberation from the literate tradition to which Boulez remained so unbendingly attached, and its probable eventual demise.


(17) Tod Machover, “A View of Music at IRCAM,” Contemporary Music Review I, part 1 (1984): 1.

(18) Dominique Jameux, “Boulez and the ‘Machine,’” Contemporary Music Review I, part 1 (1984): 19.

(19) Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), p. 285.

(20) Jameux, “Boulez and the ‘Machine,’” p. 18.

(21) Ibid., p. 20.

(22) Kyle Gann, “Electronic Music, Always Current,” New York Times, 9 July 2000, Arts and Leisure, p. 24.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010004.xml