Opposite or Complementary Approaches to Music
Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)
Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)
Boulez and Iannis Xenakis, both lived around the same dates, Boulez
1925 - 2016, Xenakis 1922-2001, and in the same country (France). Both
are revolutionary, incisive, sharp and no-compromise artists. Both
attended the musical analysis class of Olivier Messiaen at the Paris
National Conservatory, but they have totally different approaches to
Their backgrounds are very distant. Boulez got a "normal" yet top-level
musical education; early schooling with piano lessons and the
Conservatoire de Paris with Olivier Messiaen. Xenakis on the other hand
had more a "cultivated" and brilliant child's, science oriented
education rather than a "talented musician kid" kind of one. The Greek
composer turned to be a successful architect and worked in Paris at Le
While Boulez was focused on to expand and integrate "total serialism"
in the "new" music composition style to each component: pitch, rhythm,
durations and metrics as well as dynamics and even instrumentation,
therefore breaking with what he called "the post-Romantic" Schoenberg
style, Xenakis, probably because he was an architect, was more
interested for ways to design a music composition like an architectural
Xenakis aimed to attain structural, compositional integrity by shaping
the "sound" as "lines", "clouds", "masses in motion in a
three-dimensional space", all definitions and terminology he brought
from his architect background to music composition.
From this point of view, the Greek architect-composer may be closer to
Ligeti than to Boulez.
Both Ligeti and Xenakis wanted to shape their musical universe by
acting on its outer design while Boulez considered the outer aspect,
the "envelope" as he called it, more as a result from the structural
design of its inner components.
Xenakis, again in parallel with Ligeti, declared that the inner
elements cannot be perceived by the listener, in complex polyphonic
parts, in their structural organization, so the composer has to focus
on their overall shapes, motions and transformations. Boulez, on the
opposite side, declared that this approach is a kind of laziness from
the composer's stand point and even though each component voice or part
cannot be distinguished in complex sections it ought to be,
nevertheless, masterfully designed and strongly structural. Even
if it is only for the analyst's sake.
However, the above classification as "Xenakis: overall designs versus
Boulez: intrinsic (serialistic) design" should not be taken too
sharply. Even in the earliest and most "integrale-serialistic" works:
the period 1940 to late sixties; "Structures" for two pianos, piano
sonatas N.1 and N.2, "Le marteau sans maitre" etc. Boulez was caring
and designing with the utmost care what he called the "sound-envelope"
i.e. the overall, exterior sound design as it is perceptible by the
Complexity Attained By Two Different Approaches
The Xenakis approach to design music by shaping its "exterior" elements
led him promptly to use the computers.
With this "new" machine, he was able to draw the "blueprint of a
musical composition" and decided on criteria for picking out notes in
order to create that specific "line" or polygonal shape he had in mind.
He could then "feed" the machine with proper perforated cards, wait for
the computation and get the listing of each particular note he then
transcribed to music paper.
That convenience was not available for Boulez, programming a complex
serialistic web for even the simplest instrumentarium was practically
out of the question with the limitations of the computer programming
languages of the time, mostly machine code, and limited access time to
the machines. However, in the late seventies Boulez did some
compositional work, in IRCAM with the use of computers.
the result of those two very different approaches to music composition
by two giant composers we have here two kinds of superior piano works.
In the works by Xenakis featured, Evryali describes better the methods
of the architect-composer.
The lines, shapes, contours are designed with such an elegance and
creativity that it may be even more effective visually than aurally.
They are connected with dynamics and pedaling just like colors added to
an architectural design. The listener must somehow "connect" his ears
and his "inner vision" and attempt to "see" all that beauty, almost
like a transposition of antique Greek aesthetics into the sound
universe of the twentieth century.
Herma, on the other hand is somewhat closer to the serialistic
approach. It uses pitch-sets (ensembles), an idea similar to
pitch-classes. Elements are labeled as "A", "B", "C" and "R" where "R"
is the total ensemble of all pitches on the piano. The composer uses
known mathematical set operations and calls that music "Musique
Selected Pieces for the Piano
Pierre Boulez: Piano Sonata N.2 (1948)
work of the composer's early style, it is also a landmark piece of
twenty first century piano music. Premiered in 1950 by Yvette Grimaux
this Sonata is stupefying as an accomplishment of a young composer aged
Even though molded in the classical Sonata model it displays an amazing
novelty in its rhetoric.
Showcasing a high rhythmic complexity, probably inspired by Messiaen's
researches it also distinguishes itself by its departure from the
Schoenberg concept of the tone-series. Here, sonic cells create
"rhythmical themes" and make, as the composer pointed out, a large step
towards the "total (integral) serialistic" world for the pieces to come.
The first movement: "Extrêmement rapide" (extremely fast), still shows,
in its boundaries, the well-known sonata-form. However, the contrast
between a "motivic" ecriture where themes are distinguishable by their
characteristic contours and "a-thematic" sections define, more than
anything else, the overall form.
Where some authors find reference to Beethoven with the trill "motive"
present all through the work, the similitude seems very far-fetched to
me. However, the citation of the notes-theme: B-A-C-H is very apparent.
Interesting to note that, in regard with large, dense polyphonic
sections, the composer wrote in the foreword: "all parts (in the
polyphonies) are to be played with equal intensity, there is no
"primary" or "secondary" parts."
"Lent" (slow), the second movement uses of the principles of "Tropes",
a typical Boulez notion to be widely used in the third sonata. It is
similar to a variation. A large "disclosure" (development) from a
"cell" of often modest dimensions.
What distinguishes "Tropes" from the known variation procedures? Boulez
says: "this is not a mechanical variation procedure. Rather, an
amplification of tiny cells, which constitute the primary text, [they
are] a more "organic" development [form]."
This movement also features the idea of musical "parenthesis": the
rupture of a (continuous) development by the apparition of a musical
text of foreign origins, i.e. a text not issued from the material at
A lengthy "Scherzo" like third movement, "Modéré, presque vif"
(moderate, almost lively), probably composed before the others, shows
even more clearly the distance from the Schoenberg-ian concept of the
tone-series, specially between its "main" portions and its (multiple)
"trios". Specially the last one, "movement dédoublé" with its
extreme polyphonic complexity breaks even more sharply with the
Austrian master's concept of tone-series limited to pitch organization
"Vif" (lively) is the "Finale" movement and makes a sort of synthesis
between the first two ones, but making the original constituents
unrecognizable and still opposing them in an ecriture alternating
between thematic and, seemingly "a-thematic" one.
There is even a fugato-like section ("Trés modéré mais sans trainer")
with a theme made of five highly individual elements which are to be
dispersed to "feed" the upcoming development. The movement which
opposes extremely contrasted sections as soft and slow with strong,
brisk and fast is not without analogy with a "Rondo". The coda ("Lent")
will then make a last reference to B-A-C-H, kind of wink to a past
which is left forever.
Pierre Boulez: "Incises" for piano (version 2001)
first composed in 1994 and revised 2001 is closely related with another
but multi-instrument (i.e. chamber music) piece: Sur Incises.
A long distance in time separates the Third Piano Sonata (1955 - 57
revised 1963) and the following piano work by Boulez Incises
(interpolations). Contrasting textures like repeated notes, uniform
rhythms interrupted by melodic lines or interjected chords over held
notes or harmonic resonance chords/notes constitute the main aspect of
the composition. The opposition between what the composer calls "temps
strié" (regularly subdivided time/rhythm; a metric based on a regular
impulse) and "temps lisse" (where no regular impulse can be recognized)
is the most striking aspect of Incises.
The "sister-piece" of Incises: "Sur Incises" is composed few years
later. A two-movement work for three pianos, three harps, and three
percussion parts. The material of Incises is distributed to the harps
and percussion, and they are deployed across space by spreading the
three groups apart in the performance area (the stage).
Tim Page on a performance of the piece wrote: "Incises is charged with
a bright, cold, hard brilliance, like a spray of crushed ice. It is
dense with events - even when it is silent for a moment, Boulez's music
never really 'rests' - but also far more generous in its emotional
expression than much of his earlier work."
It is actually very interesting to compare and see the changes and the
evolution of the composer, between the Second Piano Sonata (1948) and
Incises (2001). More than half a century separates the two major works.
I agree without reserves with Paul Griffiths, who mentions Debussy's
L'isle joyeuse in Sur Incises. Similar energy, vitality, brilliance,
and I agree much less with others who claim to see echoes of
Stravinsky's Les Noces or Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.
Xenakis: "Herma" for piano (1961)
Premiered by the dedicatee Yuji Takahashi in Tokyo, 1962, Herma is
Xenakis' first piece for the piano solo.
Herma means connection, but also foundation and embryo. A new step in
the composer's line of work is applied here. The mathematical set
theory will be the basis for the upper structure of the piece.
The procedure will be re-used by the composer in Eonta (1963-64).
Symbolic music as defined by the composer, the composition is based on
transformations between a reference-set defined as "R" which includes
all the pitches of the piano and three sub-sets,"A", "B" and "C",
defined in their relations to the idea of "sound-clouds" again an
original concept by Xenakis.
The "sound-clouds" are defined as follows: "A": the opposition between
"clouds" and a linear ecriture; "B": "clouds" without pedal; "C": very
"short clouds" with pedal.
The first exposition of those clouds is followed by their "complement":
sounds which do not belong to any of them. The following operations are
directly notated in the score using the set-theory notation as
intersection, union, negation, complementary etc.
Xenakis makes a distinction between the, atemporal, abstract conception
of the music ("hors-temps") and its transcription as a music score: its
temporal realization ("en-temps"). The scale of intensities from "ppp"
to "fff" is employed to clarify the perception of the a temporal
concept during the pieces "temporal rendition" (i.e. performance).
Extremely difficult to perform, mostly due to its large dispersion over
the keyboard range, the piece is a constant rise of tension until the
most dense last page in "fff".
Xenakis: "Evryali" for piano (1973)
far" or "Medusa", Evryali (1973) was first performed at Lincoln Center
by the dedicatee Marie-Françoise Bucquet, the year of its composition.
Like Erikthon for piano and orchestra (1974), Evryali uses the idea of
"arborescences", ramifications to create "bushes" of melodic lines.
Beginning with a punctual approach, one dynamic per note, the
piece evolving by steps, swiftly leads to high intensity climaxes and,
a common figure in most of the composer's works, alternates between
repetitive blocks of uniform or changing pitches and individual lines
which depart in many directions, cross or join each other.
If one cares to abstract from the actual notes, the musical score looks
like an architectural blueprint. Lines, shapes, volumes are almost
discoverable to the naked eye. A masterly crafted, three dimensional
design of incredible beauty emerges. A twentieth century vision of
Greek aesthetics transcribed into the field of music.
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|Pierre Boulez: Piano Sonata N.2 (1948)
Boulez: "Incises" for piano (version 2001)
|Iannis Xenakis: "Herma" for piano (1961)
|Iannis Xenakis: "Evryali" for piano (1973)