(above) spatial layout of musicians and audience for Répons (drawn by and courtesy of Michael Singer).

Mixing the audience with the players in a musical performance is by now a well known avant-garde tactic, though—like most things avant-garde—it has hardly budged the convention of audience on one side and musicians on the other. In that arrangement, the music is played ‘to’ or ‘for’ or ‘at’ the listeners; moreover, it expresses and enforces social divisions active in the world outside the concert hall, between workers and patrons, between art and ‘real’ life. As has been noted elsewhere, and many times, any arrangement of space is inherently political; however, the political and social origins of any traditional arrangement are often forgotten, which is to say, obscured by habit and nostalgia. We forget that the hierarchies of the societies Haydn and Wagner composed their music for are really antithetical to modern ideals of participatory democracy. This does not mean that we should not listen to their works, and in the spatial arrangements they were composed for—quite the contrary. What it means is that the new music of our time needs to be performed in spatial arrangements that reflect our most critical experiences and values, those that engage a new level of complexity in relationships between people and between events. The same can also be said of the new architecture of our time.

The spatial designs of Pierre Boulez, composer, conductor, and critic, who sees the necessity of composing new music, but also the wisdom of writing critical essays presenting both its musical and social bases, are radical departures from tradition and convention. His works—by nature collaborative and interactive—give form to the anxieties, tensions and strange, unexpected harmonies that emerge from the discordant mélange of an international community assembling itself from the shards of old societies and the raw forms of new ones. His music is not meant to comfort or distract us, but to give us experiences that aid us in joining the struggle.


New Tork Times article on Boulez:

Boulez Répons:

Boulez biography:

The following is a comment in response to this post by composer Svjetlana Bukvich-Nichols that I think is of interest:

Boulez was much needed in one historical moment (namely post-war Germany and Darmstadt), and he rode the wave of that moment well. However, I believe that his tongue did more for his legacy than his compositional work. Boulez did not create a new language (such as Scriabin or Reich did), but used an existing one which eventually self-imploded. Then moved to improvisation, chance (what Cage is known for, among his other contributions), electronics, and world music…?!? I see him more as a proponent of a system than a creator.

Much of his ideas come from a kind of thinking (euro-centrism, anyone?) which is essentially dated. “Performers aren’t audacious enough today,” Mr. Boulez said in a recent New York Times interview. “They think audiences won’t respond to what’s unfamiliar. But to provoke — in the good sense — is the performer’s role. It’s not just to give one more concert.” “That’s not culture,” he said. “That’s marketing.” This type of generalizing is not applicable to music outside of the confines of mainstream European concert practice. Perhaps he should have tea with John Zorn.

Boulez is very right about the importance of tools, though, and the element of danger and risk all truly new music possesses: “Tools are important,” Mr. Boulez repeated. “Mallarmé chastised Degas for writing poems. He said, ‘You can’t just have an idea that you want to write poems. Poems are made out of words.’ ” The only problem for me here is that Boulez likes to tell the world which tools should be used for the evolution of communication with sound. But, it is not all dire. In a true historical rubber-band moment, Boulez yielded people like me. Between larger-than-life serial and avant-garde orthodoxy on one side and Russian romantic orthodoxy on the other, I fled from Sarajevo to the U.S. Minimalism seemed—back in the 80s—to be creating a new thing.

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