Boulez/Coke vs. Cage/Pepsi

I am pretty sure I can taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but I have to admit I have never tested this experimentally, blindfold and all.  And I am pretty sure I can hear the difference between the Boulez Third Sonata, and Cage’s Music of Changes. But, again, I have never actually confirmed this.

This post by Kyle Gann makes me think about the Coke/Pepsi problem. Gann notes some of the wackier ways of generating notes that can be found in Boulez’s Marteau, then comments: “What I can’t see is why this method of generating pitches has any significant advantage over Cage’s chance processes, which Boulez so vehemently rejected.” Now, please note that Gann isn’t saying you can’t hear the difference between Cage and Boulez. But his wondering about the advantages of the different techniques led me to think about the difference in the listening experience. Usually the dichotomy is laid out as Babbitt vs. Cage, the idea being that maximally and minimally intentional pieces end up sounding pretty similar. I have never found that convincing; the persistent density of a Babbitt piece is unlike the more variegated textures of Cage. But pitting those Boulez and Cage piano pieces against each other might prove tougher to discern. I think I can hear a certain degree of intentionality in Boulez, but am I just being fooled by the names on the CD boxes?

Of course, hearing something as admittedly vague as “intentionality” is a lot different from truly getting something meaningful out of the pitch games the composer is playing. And what does “getting something meaningful” mean anyway? What is it that I get out of Don Martino’s music that I don’t feel I get out of Babbitt? It probably has to do with the vivid gestures in Martino that are absent in Babbitt, but I still feel the pitches make sense to the ear in Fantasies and Impromptus in a way that they don’t in Partitions.  The latter piece is simply over my head. In Cage’s chance music, you aren’t supposed to “get” the pitches anyway – the music goes around my head. The Boulez Third Piano Sonata tries to be both Cage and Babbitt – irrational and hyper-rational – and ends up being neither. To me, Boulez is something of a naked emperor until Rituel, and even then I think he is overrated.

I am not saying twelve-tone music in general doesn’t make sense. There are too many ways of writing a twelve-tone piece to make generalizations of that sort. Joseph Straus’s excellent recent book, Twelve-Tone Music in America, amply demonstrates this. (More about that book in the Martino/Shapey post I still hope to finish at some point.)

I am in total sympathy with Gann’s esteem for Rochberg’s Second Symphony, and his Serenata d’Estate. That symphony truly deserves a revival, at least as much as – or more – than those of the “American symphonists” – Schuman, Piston, Diamond, etc.

Update: Kyle Gann stresses here that Coke definitely does not taste like Pepsi.

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