The Boulez-Cage Correspondence
The Boulez-Cage Correspondence is the title of a book, of the letters Pierre Boulez and John Cage wrote to each other, but we are dealing here also with a correspondence of interests. The two composers met when Cage made his second visit to Paris, arriving in the spring of 1949. He was thirty-six, and the composer of a substantial output, especially of music for percussion ensemble (First Construction, 1939) and prepared piano (Sonatas and Interludes, 1946-8). Boulez, though only twenty-four at the time, already had a reputation as a composer (Second Piano Sonata, 1947-8) and polemicist. Someone—it may have been Virgil Thomson—suggested to Cage that he pay a call on his junior colleague, and they evidently hit it off right away, musically and personally. Boulez was impressed by how the prepared piano made possible a controlled expansion of sonic resources to embrace complex sounds, noises, and microtonal tunings; he also latched onto Cage’s use of charts of sound categories: pitches, durations, dynamic levels. As for Cage, he found in Boulez a young man of huge energy and conviction, who shared his wish to remake music. After a few months, he returned to New York, and the relationship continued by mail. Both of them revered Webern. Both of them wanted to monitor subjectivity in composition. Both of them expected much from electronic means. As Boulez was to write in an essay of 1951-2: “The direction pursued by John Cage’s research is too close to our own for us to fail to mention it.”
Of course, it did not remain so. Cage was already using chance operations, to Boulez’s consternation, and soon he would make the breakthrough into silence, with 4’ 33”. The exchange of letters continued a while, but at a lower level of engagement on both sides, before petering out after they had met again, in New York late in 1952, and ceasing altogether after the summer of 1954—just when Boulez was at work on Le Marteau sans maître. The correspondence in the other sense, however, the closeness of aims and ideas, remains vitally present in the music of the two composers: a correspondence that, of course, also shows up their differences.
I think constantly of my friends in Paris, of you and your music…
-Cage to Boulez, December 1949
Pierre Boulez: Avant “L’Artisanat furieux”
John Cage: Music for Flute, Guitar, Viola
René Char (1907-88), a fiercely independent writer who had come through the surrealist movement, was the young Boulez’s poet of choice. A hectic erotic cantata, Le Visage nuptial (1946), was followed by music for a radio play, Le Soleil des eaux (1948), and it was to Char that Boulez turned again—now to dense, compact, cryptic poems—for the work he began in 1953, Le Marteau sans maître. Cage’s charts had opened the way to “total serialism,” whereby every note was thoroughly determined by a prearranged system. Le Marteau was to be an escape, but an escape made by one who had learned from working under extreme constraint. Rules remain, but they are almost limitless in what they legitimate, and the result is often—as in this first movement, for alto flute, viola, guitar, and vibraphone—music of darting brilliance.
Cage’s Music for —— (1984-7), from more than three decades later, allows us to approximate the scoring of the Boulez movement, since it provides seventeen instrumental parts to be used in any combination. Each part includes elements that are scrupulously notated and others allowing some leeway, so that the music weaves between precision and freedom—though it may not always be clear to a listener which is which.
I have just embarked on the preparatory phase of my new work… I plan to put into practice in it some ideas derived from your pieces…
-Boulez to Cage, January 1950
Pierre Boulez: Commentaire I de “Bourreaux de solitude”
John Cage: Amores, movement II
Combining imaginative freedom with tight system, Le Marteau sans maître also brought together impulses from different musical traditions: European folk and chamber music, what Boulez had picked up from musicians in South America during his tours there as music director for Jean-Louis Barrault’s theater company, and what he had heard from records of African and Asian music. Hence the pulsing percussion joining the ensemble in this movement, and the resonant sounds of the xylorimba and plucked viola, together with the universal flute that seems at once above and enmeshed in the percussive activity.
A decade earlier, Cage astonishingly foresaw the sound, phrasing, and form of this Boulez movement. He wrote Amores in January-February 1943 as a four-movement piece, the first and last for prepared piano, the middle two for three percussionists, who in this second movement play tom toms and a pod rattle. Cage performed the sections for prepared piano at a concert in Paris in June 1949, but it is unlikely Boulez heard the percussion movements. Thinking along similar lines, and with a probably rudimentary experience of similar African sources, the two composers came to similar conclusions.
Your letter has just arrived here at home. I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was to get it. Without news of you I am without news of music…
-Cage to Boulez, January 1950
Pierre Boulez: “‘L’Artisanat furieux”
John Cage: The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
The alto flute, which so far has come to seem the leader in Le Marteau sans maître, invites the voice, a low woman’s voice, to take part. Time slows, but not tension. For one thing, none of the most usual associations of the singing voice—with subjective expression, ritual participation, ecstatic pronouncement—quite fit. Also, the vocal melody is at once superbly sure and wonderfully strange—the duetting with the instrument likewise. The two move in a space beyond categories.
Again from a decade earlier, Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (November 1942), which also features two performers, is not much nearer any song tradition we can name. The piano, which might normalize the situation, is shut, and the pianist taps on the closed lid. The singer has only three notes, to be sung without vibrato, in the manner of a folk singer. The words, if perhaps more obviously lyrical than Char’s, are hardly less mysterious; they come from Finnegans Wake. Boulez was delighted to receive a copy of Joyce’s book from Cage near the start of their correspondence, writing back: “It is almost a ‘totem’!”
I have started…a collection of 14 or 21 polyphonies (maybe more), I don’t know yet, very long in duration. But one will be able to select what one likes…
-Boulez to Cage, December 1950
From time to time ideas come for my next work which as I see it will be a large work which will always be in progress and will never be finished; at the same time any part of it will be able to be performed once I have begun…
-Cage to Boulez, May 195
Pierre Boulez:Commentaire II de “Bourreaux de solitude”
John Cage: 1’51/2” for a String Player
Omitting the two performers of “L’Artisanat furieux,” Boulez leaves himself with a largely percussive ensemble—wholly percussive at first, with the viola playing pizzicato. Resonances are crucial, and the music jolts to a stop irregularly to let a moment in its inscrutable harmonic progress hang in the air. In the second part of the movement, the viola is played with the bow, leading a line, like Ariadne’s thread, through the labyrinth.
With Cage, we come now to a composition exactly contemporary with Le Marteau, for it was in May-July 1953 that he wrote 1’ 51/2” and four other short pieces for a string soloist, as parts of the immense project he mentions above. He sometimes called this project—which recalls Boulez’s “Polyphonies” of two and a half years before—“The Ten Thousand Things,” referring to a term found in Taoist and Buddhist writings to indicate the diversity of the universe. In the case of these first string pieces, Cage used chance operations to determine where a string would be stopped (graphically notated), what the bowing pressure should be, where a noise should be added, and how fast and dense the music should be. Where Boulez’s viola melody comes from the workings of an elaborate system, modified by the composer, Cage’s comes from a randomness the composer chooses.
The only thing, forgive me, which I am not happy with, is the method of absolute chance…
-Boulez to Cage, on the Music of Changes, December 1951
-Cage to Boulez, on 4’ 33”, summer 1952
Pierre Boulez:“Bel Édifice et les pressentiments,” version première
John Cage: 4’ 33”
The third poem is introduced immediately as a song, but instrumental commentary or preamble is contained within it, since Boulez divides the text into three couplets and has the instruments play alone before each of them. Turning away again from percussiveness, the movement puts forward alto flute, viola, and guitar, whose lively interplay is changed, each time the voice enters, into playing that is more accompanimental. Finally, it is as if the voice has silenced them.
And so to 4’ 33”. We all know this piece, of course. Or do we? Each time, it is going to be different. Each time, its difference is going to be different. It is the most straightforward piece in the world, and the most unknowable. David Tudor presented the first performance, at Woodstock, N. Y., on August 29, 1952. His program also included Boulez’s First Sonata, which Cage mentioned to Boulez, while saying nothing about what the concert is now best remembered for.
Everything you tell me about music on magnetic tape I find extremely interesting…
-Boulez to Cage, October 1952
The “Williams Mix” is on its way to you.… We performed it at the University of Illinois with 8 tape recorders and 8 loudspeakers…
-Cage to Boulez, May 1953
Pierre Boulez:“Bourreaux de solitude”
John Cage: Radio Music
For the first and only time in Le Marteau sans maître, a song is followed by another song, this one the work’s big slow movement, with a sense of drag not only in the tempo but also in how the lines slowly swirl after each other, as if time had become as thick as treacle. For the first time, too, the whole ensemble is in play.
Radio was the internet of the 1950s. New music was disseminated far more abundantly by radio than by records; the first performance of Le Marteau, in Baden Baden on June 18, 1955, took place at the behest of the head of the local radio station, Heinrich Strobel. Cage’s use of radio receivers as concert instruments, first in Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1952) and then in Radio Music (1956), came therefore in tribute to an ally. He wrote Radio Music for a concert in New York on May 30, 1956, providing parts for up to eight radios. Each part is a string of numbers, representing frequencies to be tuned into, with some silences but nothing fixed with regard to durations and volume levels. Chosen by chance, the frequencies do not, of course, necessarily coincide with those of broadcasting stations, and, equally obviously, Cage could not have foreseen what would be picked up. Indeed, that was part of the point, that the outcome should be indeterminate, except in its overall length of six minutes.
I am deeply ashamed of never having written since leaving New York [a year and a half ago]…
-Boulez to Cage, June 1954
Pierre Boulez: Après “L’Artisanat furieux”
John Cage: Solo for Flute
Short, a shard, the epilogue of the “L’Artisanat furieux” cycle, like the prologue (whose viola has been lost), skids in phrases of unpredictable length, going at double the speed of the vocal setting. For twenty years, until Lev Koblyakov published the first thorough analysis, nobody had any idea how this music was composed. It just was. In many senses, it still just is. Though Koblyakov and several later interpreters have revealed much of the compositional technique, and shown how that technique is responsible for the work’s quivering harmonic consistency and its febrile rhythms, few listeners are going to be pondering serial derivations when faced with music so electric. The music has, as Boulez wished, exploded beyond its mechanism.
So it is with Cage. For a concert celebrating his twenty-five years as a composer, in New York on May 15, 1958, Cage produced his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, comprising uncoordinated solos for piano and other instruments. Chance operations were used for all, to make decisions about sounds of the widest possible range. With a musician before us, though, tracing a line through these sounds, random events start to fall into patterns, to matter.
With Boulez, we see the tip of the iceberg. With Cage, we see the tip, even though there is no iceberg.
My poor John, I haven’t had time to write to you much this year…
-Boulez to Cage, July 1954
Pierre Boulez:Commentaire III de “Bourreaux de solitude”
John Cage: Atlas Eclipticalis
As first completed, in 1954, Le Marteau sans maître comprised six movements, three on the poem “L’Artisanat furieux” followed by three on “Bourreaux de solitude,” each triptych including a song along with two instrumental spin-offs. When Boulez revised the score in 1955, he not only added a third poem, in two settings, but also interleaved the groups and composed a third commentary on “Bourreaux de solitude,” to complete a set of movements that could come regularly in even-numbered positions. This third commentary seems to reflect on, and even come near quoting from, all three of its companions.
Can music composed by chance operations include self-quotations? Perhaps. Like the “Ten Thousand Things” of 1953-6 and the Concert of 1957-8 (or, from the future, Music for —— of 1984-7) Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-2) provides a number of solos to be put together in any combination. Now, though, there are eighty-six of them, allowing the potential of performance by symphony orchestra—a potential realized, disastrously, when the Philharmonic scheduled the work in 1964. Cage’s source of randomness in this case was a book of star charts, from which he traced points and lines onto musical staves; hence the title. Unlike the “Ten Thousand Things” and the Concert, however, Atlas Eclipticalis also has a part for conductor, as timekeeper.
Cage dedicated each part to a different colleague or friend, Boulez not included.
I am keeping as much of my time as possible for writing “Le Marteau sans maître.”…I am trying to rid myself of my thumbprints and taboos; I am trying to have an ever more complex vision…
-Boulez to Cage, July 1954
Pierre Boulez:“Bel Édifice et les pressentiments,” version double
John Cage: Amores, movement III
The last, longest, and most fully scored movement of Le Marteau sans maître begins as a more dramatic and mercurial setting of the poem already heard in the middle movement. But this is all over in around a minute and a half, after which the singer continues as another instrumental voice, humming, as she did between phrases of the poem. In alternation with her, the alto flute re-enters, with gong and tam tams. Memories from earlier movements resurface, until the flute conveys the work to silence.
From Cage comes the tiny postscript: a dance of woodblock figures repeated and transformed, re-used in Amores from a percussion trio of 1936.