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Transcript of Boulez Alea
AleaAuthor(s): Pierre Boulez, David Noakes and Paul JacobsReviewed work(s):Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn - Winter, 1964), pp. 42-53Published by: Perspectives of New MusicStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/832236 .Accessed: 23/10/2012 16:55
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SEVERAL COMPOSERS of our generation show currently a constant preoccupation with chance-you might even say they are obsessed by it. This is, at least as far as I know, the first time such a notion has as- sumed a place in Occidental music, and the fact surely deserves to be examined at length, for it is too important a bifurcation in the idea of composition to be either underestimated or rejected unconditionally.
Is it possible to trace this obsession to its origin? Outwardly, one could suggest various causes that seem to have a certain solidity, chang- ing in accordance with the temperament of the different creators. The most elementary form of the transmutation of chance would lie in the adoption of a philosophy tinged with Orientalism that masks a basic weakness in compositional technique; it would be a protection against the asphyxia of invention, the resort to a more subtle poison that destroys every last embryo of craftsmanship; I would willingly call this experiment-if experiment it be, since the individual does not feel responsible for his work, but merely throws himself by unadmitted weakness, by confusion, and for temporary assuagement into puerile magic-I would call this experiment chance through inadvertence. In other words, the result comes about any which way, uncontrolled (an absence that is voluntary though not praiseworthy, through impotence), but within a certain network of probable results, for chance must have at its disposal some kind of eventuality. Therefore, why choose the net- work so meticulously, why not leave this network itself up to inadver- tence? That is something I have never been able to clear up. The game is played only partly aboveboard, but at least no one pretends otherwise, which is creditable. It is a nicely laid out artificial paradise where, I think, dreams are never very miraculous; this kind of narcotic indeed constitutes protection against the goad inflicted upon you by all inven- tiveness; it is to be observed that its action is exaggeratedly soothing, sometimes mirth-provoking, like what hashish fanciers describe. Peace to these angelic creatures; we can be sure they run absolutely no risk of stealing any thunder, since they wouldn't know what to do with it. Inadvertence is amusing at the beginning, but one gets tired of it very quickly-all the more quickly because it is condemned to never renew itself. This being so, we incontestably prefer natural inadvertence, which doesn't require instruments for its existence. "Non-art," "anti-art"
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still take as their point of reference "art." And in the search we are engaged in, what people agree to call by this name is not at all the focus of our efforts. Some decades have passed since Beauty was found to be bitter. Let's put together with that enchantress A-Beauty, Anti-Beauty, etc., and throw a few shovelfuls of earth. Chance will do the rest!
However, there exists a more poisonous and more subtle form of in- toxication. I have already spoken of it on several occasions, for this form dies hard and arises once again every time it seems to have been over- come. Composition chooses to approach as closely as possible the most perfect, smooth, untouchable objectivity. And by what means? Schemati- zation, quite simply, takes the place of invention; imagination-an auxiliary-limits itself to giving birth to a complex mechanism which takes care of engendering microscopic and macroscopic structures until, in the absence of any further possible combinations, the piece comes to an end. Admirable security and a strong signal of alarm! As for the imagination, it is careful not to intervene after things are under way: it would disturb what is absolute in the development process, introduc- ing human error into such a perfectly deduced ensemble; a fetishism of numbers, leading to pure and simple failure. We plunge into statistical lists that have no more value than other lists. In its Omni-Objectivity, the work represents-here we are again-a fragment of chance that is just as justifiable (or just as unjustifiable) as any other fragment. The difference between the form described earlier and this new, equally pernicious temptation is evident: there is more trickery in this one, and the spontaneous confession of weakness is transformed into a hopelessly sterile search for combinative devices, into an aggressive refusal of arbitrariness, that new "diabolus in musica." Paradoxically, however, the result is that this hated and repudiated arbitrariness is, on the con- trary, most often encountered when most shunned. Objectivity recedes at every instant in front of your eyes, like a kind of irritating and fragile mirage that exhausts and dries up all vital energy; these slices of chance are unfit for consumption because, first of all, one wonders why they should be consumed!
Once this overt objectivity had failed, they hurled themselves like madmen into a search for arbitrariness. They went looking for the devil and brought him back with a suitable escort, imprisoned, bound by a thousand nets, in a work that he was supposed to vivify by his omni- presence. The devil will be there, shamefaced, or will not be anywhere. Were there complaints about the lack of subjectivity? There'll be some at each note, within each structure; this ferociously dislocated, dismem- bered, scattered subjectivity is going to force you to take a stand, hypo- critical listener, to be as subjective as the composer. As for the interpreter, it is up to him to transmit to you the devil's attacks; he will compromise
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you-interpreter-medium who will establish himself as high priest of this intellectual devilry. How so? Much less murkily than you are inclined -hypocrite-to suppose. Notation will become sufficiently, but subtly, imprecise in order to let pass between its grid-hypothetical diagram- the instantaneous and changing, moire-like choice of the interpreter. You may prolong this rest, you may hold this sound, you may accelerate, you may ... at any moment ... ; in short, one has chosen henceforth to be meticulous in imprecision.
Do you see what we are getting back to? Constantly to a refusal of choice. The first conception was purely mechanistic, automatic, fetishistic; the second is still fetishistic, but one is freed from choice not by numbers but by the interpreter. One transfers one's choice to the in- terpreter's. In this way one is protected, camouflaged; not very cleverly, for nonetheless arbitrariness, or rather a kind of tip-of-the-finger arbi- trariness, imposes its presence. What a relief! The hour of choice is once again put off: a superficial subjectivity has been grafted onto an aggressive conception of initial objectivity. No! Chance is too shame- ful to be diabolical ....
We might note, between benign parentheses, that a certain kind of analytical procedure has taken the same blind alleys. A sort of smugly statistical report has replaced a more intelligent and more hard- hitting method of investigation. The brain is used like a photoelectric cell that picks out the various components according to their special features: thanks to a formulation of intervals or of figures, the vice is re- corded as equaling the versa-which, it must be admitted, is a poor les- son. As for the composer's choice, it is slurred over with a lack of virtuosity that is painful to behold. How can analysis be limited to an ordinary inventory, to a rough cadastral survey? In spite of best inten- tions and most earnest attempts, I am unable to make out the precise reason for this fear to approach the true problem of composition. Per- haps this phenomenon also is due to a kind of fetishism of numeral selection-a position that is not only ambiguous but completely unsound when the work under investigation structurally refuses these procedures, which are, after all, excessively coarse and elementary.
Thus in addition to chance by inadvertence, we find a chance by automatism, whether this automatism tries to be pure or is accompanied by a notion of controlled bifurcation. However, since the obsession with what may happen takes the place of what should happen, it is not due only to the weakness of the compositional methods involved, nor due only to the desire to introduce the subjectivity of the interpreter or of the listener within the work and thus to create for these two a constant and obligatory instantaneous choice. It would be possible to give still other apparent reasons with quite as much justification. And first of all,
as far as the structure of the work is concerned, there is the refusal of a preestablished structure, the legitimate desire to construct a sort of labyrinth with several circuits; on the other hand, there is the wish to create a moving, constantly renewed complexity, sp