Iconoclasts, Shibboleths, Paul Bley and Pierre Boulez

Classical composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed within a week of the influential jazz pianist Paul Bley… in this brilliant in-depth article, guest author Mark Polishook considers the impact that both musicians had on the music of the 20th century and beyond…

I experienced a visceral “something” when Paul Bley passed away. Shortly thereafter Pianodao asked “Could I write a few paragraphs about him?”

“Of course.”

The following day Pierre Boulez passed away. That changed A LOT : how and why to write about one but not the other? Because I’ve found the two of them to be among the most interesting musicians of our times.

Boulez and Berio

Pure magic describes my first hearing of Pierre Boulez conducting Luciano Berio’s Symphonia. For me, the third movement is a game changer. Composed entirely on top of Mahler’s Second Symphony’s scherzo

Berio’s third movement is filled with quotations from archetypal 20th century orchestral repertoire over which are set fragments from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable.

But like a letterbox for a re-formatted for television movie and almost like a nightmare Mahler’s scherzo is always present. If there’s a mid-to late 20th-century composition that screams “I’m postmodern” and “I hear you Finnegan’s Wake” it’s the third movement of Luciano Berio’s Symphonia.


Read all about it!


There’s a fabulous anthropological study on IRCAMInstitut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic / Music– the institution in Paris that Boulez founded in the early 1970s. The study is a book by Georgina Born called “Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde“.

While it has its controversies it’s a requisite read to understand the culture and contemporary music Boulez championed.

And the controversies that came from the book? Georgina Born describes and analyses IRCAM through the filters of her research agenda. Which is to say there’s more to the book than “just” an explanation of “who,” “what,” and where” and it’s not just a tale of names and accomplishments.

The more I thought about paragraphs on Paul Bley the more for me they led to Pierre Boulez–as the paragraphs above show. As I take my final pass on writing this post, what I see is my “Tale of Two PBs.”

Ethan Iverson on Paul Bley

My first stop after hearing Bley passed was Ethan Iverson’s Do The Math blog where I found the following excerpt from a post entitled “The Main Man” :

“The older generation would have known that Bley was simply an alternative. Stationed both in the wrong era and in primitive wilderness, I was free to assume that Bley was the foundation. In a sense my entire career has been a reckoning with this mistake.”

Yes, Bley was a monumental musician. Ethan Iverson expresses that eloquently while leaving us with a fascinating unanswered question: How has has Ethan Iverson reckoned with his “mistake?”

Bley as blurb

Paul Bley

Paul Bley embodied the fundamental, foundational individualism that’s always been a core aspect of jazz. He grew up with jazz when “getting your own sound” was everything.

Lester Young said:

“Originality, that’s the trick … You may well possess tone, technique, and a bunch of other things but if you have no originality, you don’t really go anywhere. You have to be original.”

As a young pianist Bley played with Lester Young and Charlie Parker. His debut recording in 1953 or so was a trio session with Charles Mingus and Art Blakey.

It included “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” here with classic pre-performance “patter” that I’m not sure is on the commercial release:

Years later, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” was in Bill Evan’s repertoire.


Bley went on to play with Ornette Coleman. That turned out to be an enormous piece of jazz history. As with the Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus Live at Massey Hall Concert and like a few classic Charles Mingus recordings in the 1960, it was a collaboration captured on substandard recording equipment–which for some only adds to the allure and the mystery of the music.

Later, Bley was among the first jazz musicians to experiment with synthesisers and electronic sound. He was one of the first jazz musicians to create his own recording company–to generate control over the business side of his art.

First of his name

Bley was “there” first so many times that modestly or immodestly he called his autobiography “Stopping Time: Paul Bley And The Transformation Of Jazz.”

A fabulous excerpt about what he learned from Charlie Parker:

“With Bird’s concept, he would be playing a thirty-two bar tune and in the second eight, he would already be starting something that was going to get him into the bridge. Meanwhile, I was busy on bar three-and-a-half of the second eight, and in my conception of it, the bridge was a long way off.
That was a very important lesson to learn. You never play where you are. You play where you’re going. Thinking ahead. Some could think ahead 16 bars, some could think ahead four choruses. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I can hear a whole solo in advance – not note for note, but structurally. I get an idea, facing a rhythm section or a particular instrument in a particular environment, of what can be done in what length of time.
In hearing Bird’s ability to anticipate what was coming and always thinking ahead, I’ve tried to extend the idea to listening to three things before I start playing a phrase:
One: What was the last phrase that was played, and what was the last note of the last phrase that was played, and what should follow that?”

A reminder of Lester Young’s statement about originality?

“Two: What music has been played throughout the history of jazz that has to be avoided, leaving me only what’s left as material for the next phrase?
Three: Where would I like to get to by the time my playing is finished?
All that in a split second during a pause in my phrasing.”

The dangerous sounds

Pierre Boulez advocated, at least metaphorically, for bringing the so-called “dangerous sounds” into music.

Donaueschingen Festival - Pierre Boulez
French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.  Photo: Rolf Haid.

“Dangerous sounds” is a phrase I heard from Curtis Roads an author, composer, professor, and researcher who’s among those who worked at IRCAM in the 1980s. Whether “dangerous sounds” was a phrase of his own invention or something from his peers or mentors I don’t know. But it’s a clever phrase and Curtis Roads has for a long time been an extremely influential composer and author in the realm of digital music–the techniques of granular synthesis, now common in pop music production, come largely from his work.

The “dangerous sounds” that Curtis Roads spoke about are rapid, explosive and disruptive. Literally, they destroy because that’s how bombs and such that make them are designed to work–by generating non-linear pressure waves that overwhelm and disintegrate structures with which they come in contact.

The bomb

But when Pierre Boulez explosively said:

Only with the greatest difficulty can one present modern operas in a theatre in which … repertory pieces are played …. The most expensive solution … [is] blow the opera houses up … don’t you think that would … be the most elegant?

there was an unintended side effect which was, years later, his’ inclusion on a terrorist “watch” list and subsequent detention–not detonation–in a five-star Swiss hotel. Boulez’ statement of course demonstrates the hyperbole through which he expressed himself paralleling Paul Bley’s aesthetic, his wish to transcend the known past.

Arnold Schoenberg

Pierre Boulez had made use of hyperbole long before his reference to exploding opera houses led to l’incident suisse. In his manifesto “Schoenberg Is Dead” he accused a “someone” who wasn’t just “anyone” of FAILURE:

Schoenberg’s failure to grasp the serial domain as a whole has caused enough dissaffectations and prudent rights to make full description of it unnecessary.

Sancrosanct order

At issue was the order of pitches in a twelve-tone row. Was or was not the order of a twelve-tone row sacrosanct? To determine whether or not a composer was a serialist Boulez escalated the notion of order to the level of a litmus test.

But to be clear, it wasn’t the term serialism per se that was the the issue. For Boulez the important bit was what was possible artistically when a composer focuses on the musical properties of “order.”

That may seem far-fetched, artificial, unnatural, arbitrary, and very rational but, really, is it any different than asking what’s possible when a composer focuses on using I, IV, and V chords?

What captured Boulez’ attention with order was the necessity of using order, just as the necessity of using I, IV, and V chords captured the attention of composers for hundreds of years previously. Or to define Boulez’s interest even more, it was the question of “what’s possible?” “What’s possible?”– that’s the key to understanding his obsession with and predilection for new rather than old.

IRCAM bits and bytes

IT professionals and computer scientists recognise Boulez’ preference for order – was it a fetish? – as the difference between an unordered collection and an ordered queue, jargon that may seem removed from if not irrelevant to music and art.

In fact, Pierre Boulez was among those who created and supported conditions that aligned computer science creativity to the art of music composition. That was because the mandate Boulez had to create IRCAM was to build a research centre. Which he did.

In the 80s at IRCAM, LISP, because of it’s historical association with artificial intelligence, was the computer language to learn–and composers in-residence at IRCAM learned it. That described with enthusiasm and excitement in Georgina Born’s book.

Meanwhile, George Lewis, the jazz trombonist, member of and writer of a book about the AACM, and now a professor at Columbia University, was at IRCAM in the 80s exploring how humans might not just employ but actually and really collaborate with software programs–and vice versa.

Cycling74 Max, a programming environment now used by many musicians and artists, not infrequently to control the popular software Ableton Live was developed by Miller Puckette at IRCAM. Max – which, however, does much, much more than just controlling Ableton – eventually morphed into the influential and widely-used open source programming environment PD–Pure Data.

John Chowning was a researcher at IRCAM where he designed the digital synthesis technique–frequency modulation synthesis–FM– that because part of Yamaha’s DX series of synthesisers. If you’re of a certain generation and played in certain styles then you KNOW what a DX7 is and what it did. Or if you remember the digital keyboard sound of an electric piano from the 1980s you’re recalling the DX7.

Pierre Boulez, IRCAM’s founder and director, was a huge influence on not just the practice of contemporary music but also its technology, not to mention music, whether, pop, jazz, or hybrids, that used that technology.

Return to order

But did Arnold Schoenberg adhere rigorously to a strict pitch order in his twelve-tone rows? Well, yes when he initially stated his rows at the beginning of his twelve-tone compositions but not once he began to develop his twelve-tone compositions. Maintaining a strict constant order among the pitches in a twelve-tone row wasn’t among his priorities.

It’s interesting therefore to read what Stephen Hough said about this recently in the Guardian.

“In this construct each note of the Western chromatic scale appears just once in a sequence until all the notes are used up and the sequence begins again. The row can be inverted or reversed or transposed, but strictly speaking it shouldn’t be disordered.”

Because what happened, actually and really, was Arnold Schoenberg abandoned the strict order a twelve-tone row might impose on its pitches. That’s because Schoenberg had other concerns, one of them being to explore what’s known in the profession, or the jargon, as “hexachordal combinatoriality.”

“In music that consistently utilizes all twelve chromatic tones (particularly twelve-tone and serial music), the aggregate (collection of all 12 pitch classes) may be divided into two hexachords (collections of 6 pitches). This breaks the aggregate into two smaller pieces, thus making it easier to sequence notes, progress between rows or aggregates, and combine notes and aggregates.”

If nothing else that name – hexachordal combinatoriality – demonstrates music theorists sometimes wished to align themselves with mathematicians or perhaps they thought that only ideas from mathematics could address what they were finding in the music of Schoenberg and others. But Milton Babbitt was an accomplished mathematician in addition to being a composer and a theorist.

The bottom line was while Schoenberg was the self-proclaimed inventor of a “method for composing with twelve tones” he wasn’t what Boulez called a serialist.


Which is why Boulez wrote:

“That exploration of the dodecaphonic realm may be bitterly held against Schoenberg, for it went off in the wrong direction so persistently that it would be hard to find an equally mistaken perspective in the entire history of music.”

And furthermore:

“At the very beginning, perhaps one should dissociate the serial phenomenon from Schoenberg’s oeuvre, The two have been confused with obvious glee, often with poorly dissimulated bad faith. It is easy to forget that a certain Webern also laboured; to he sure, one never hears this discussed any more (so dense are the screens of mediocrity!).”

For Boulez, Anton Webern was the composer to whom to look to for guidance and inspiration as regards serialism. Boulez conceptualised it as a matter of “perhaps:”

“Perhaps we can say that the series is a logically historical consequence, or-depending upon what one wishes-a historically logical one. Perhaps, like that certain Webern, one could pursue the sound-EVlDENCE by trying to derive the structure from the material.”

Perhaps one could enlarge the serial domain with intervals other than the half-tone: micro-distances, irregular intervals, complex sounds. Perhaps one could generalize the serial principle to the four sound-constituents: pitch, duration, intensity and attack, timbre.

Perhaps . .. perhaps .. . one could demand from a composer some imagination, a certain dosage of asceticism, even a little intelligence, and, finally, a sensibility that will not be toppled by the least breeze.”

And so he wrote “SCHOENBERG IS DEAD.”

The story of ‘All The Things You Are’

But who knows? I’m compiling or interpreting a story. It includes hyper-links for detail, perspective, and alternatives. There’s also, first things first, the music.

To journey into Paul Bley’s art at a point where he really came into his own there’s his piano solo on ‘All The Things You Are which he recorded in 1963 at the Newport Jazz Festival with Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins.

Bley’s playing, with extreme rhythmic and spectacular tonal freedom spun over the standard, canonical chord changes of All The Things You Are, is different from anything else in jazz then and maybe up to and including now.

Paul Bley may sound to some like he was a young Keith Jarrett. Better, and maybe more accurate to say Keith Jarrett sometimes sounded more like Paul Bley than Paul Bley. Such was the influence Paul Bley had on many.

There’s a studio version of All The Things You Are :

– recorded six months or so before the Newport recording. This particular recording, the studio version, is one that jazz pianists point to as astonishing and mind bending.

Here’s what jazz pianist Aaron Parks says about that solo:

“The piano solo on this song was my first introduction to Paul Bley’s music. When I heard it for the first time (7 years ago or so), it basically changed my life. Many people have spoken about the originality and historical importance of this solo, analyzing it in detail and discussing its far-reaching influence; instead of trying to do something like that, I’ll just talk briefly about what it has meant to me personally and why I love it so much.

“Like many young musicians today, I came up through the jazz education system. I was a diligent student, so I had learned a fair amount of music theory and had a pretty solid understanding of which notes were “correct” for me to play on one chord progression or another. The three choruses that Bley plays here (sandwiched between a more traditional yet beautifully lyrical solo by Coleman Hawkins and a perhaps slightly self-conscious solo by Sonny Rollins) showed the limitation of those theoretical conceptions, and represented a radically different approach to improvisation, one not about right or wrong. It was a paradigm-shifting moment for me, one which caused me to reevaluate my musical priorities.

“In this solo, Bley’s melodies roam freely in and out of the written changes, each line unfolding in its own curious way, pursuing its own muse. Yet he not just playing free; even when he’s not using the prescribed chord-scales, he always knows exactly where he is in the form of the song, and his ideas are incredibly coherent sometimes motivic, sometimes gestural, sometimes playful, always imaginative. I find this solo to be one of the most strangely beautiful moments in the history of recorded jazz, so I really don’t want to spoil it by attempting to use any more words to describe what he’s doing here. Just listen.”

Actually, Aaron Parks says much more here.

Nota bene or mea culpa, I wrote a blog post in which I analysed a small part (with a bit of transcription posted) of Paul Bley’s studio recording of All The Things You Are solo.

The Hammer Without a Master

To leap into the world of Pierre Boulez is to alight possibly in the soundscape that is Le Marteau Sans Maitre

Le Marteau is seriously serial serialism composed for a non-standard chamber music ensemble. It’s at times tuneful, joyous, toe-tapping, abstract, percussive, gamelan, and always gorgeously textured.

Regarding gorgeous texture: Boulez studied composition with Oliver Messaien and also with Rene Leibowitz who had studied with Maurice Ravel. And Boulez had enormous admiration for the music of Claude Debussy. Is is surprising that texture is an important part of Boulez’ music?

The Response

Another composition that demonstrates the storm that could be Pierre Boulez – I’m partial to it because it’s a storm I attended – is ‘Repons‘ :

‘Respons’ was a huge project. I heard it in its 1985 New York City premiere in the Columbia University basketball gym. The reason for that space–a basketball gym– was to support antiphonal choirs here, there, everywhere–and nowhere.

‘Repons’ had no antiphonal choirs. Rather there were soloists spreading out in a vast circle at the edges of the basketball court of which the main ensemble, the Ensemble intercontemporain, a group that came to be through IRCAM, was located at mid-court. A gigantic, enormous array of speakers–heaps and heaps of them–were suspended from rafters in the ceiling.

During the performance, Boulez conducted his soloists spread out across the gym and it looked like ship-to-ship semaphore signalling. But that’s what soloists, spread as they were, around a basketball court, required. It may not have been invented or meant as a performance art gesture. But in fact it was. Or it could be seen like it was.

The performance, the lab, the white smocks, and the 4x

One notable aspect of the Repons performance was technicians in white lab coat who controlled, or perhaps they played, the so-called “4X” computer system. The 4x was there to process and redistribute sound from the soloists to the speakers in the rafters.

As for the 4x, it was huge mainframe-like device with a million cables running to and from it on the floor. It dwarfed in size and complexity the hugely expensive Fairlight and Synclavier synthesiser systems standard then in commercial music genres. Jan Hammer used a Fairlight to compose the soundtrack for the “old” TV show Miami Vice and Michael Jackson used a Synclavier for Thriller and Bad.

Now, a laptop if not an iPad and possibly even an iPhone would replace the 4x. About the the Fairlight: it’s available as an iOS app for iPhones and iPad.

Notice is now served

To be in the Columbia University basketball gym during that New York City Repons premiere was to see and hear a whole new world of sound and music. My perception was Pierre Boulez served notice:

Digital sound was in the the compositional mainstream. It was out of academic research centres. It no longer was a genres hat commercial musicians used to supplant traditional acoustic instruments.

But not everyone liked it

Donald Henehan, the chief music critic for the New York Times who was almost never supportive of contemporary classical music, wrote:

“… the New York premiere of … ”Repons” Wednesday night at Columbia University Gymnasium did not live up to the Concorde-like screams of hyperbole [note the use of the word “hyerbole”] that have preceded the arrival of this 45-minute breeding of live music with computer-generated sounds.

It was hard to imagine how ”Repons,” as performed here in a particularly cold and inhospitable space by Mr. Boulez’s own Ensemble InterContemporain, could be thought of as anything more than a highly elaborated version of spatial ideas that Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and others have given us many times. It represents, at best, a triumph of logistics and sound effects, though presented too pretentiously to be enjoyed even at that modest level.”

Mon histoire

I realised during that presentation of Repons that I was going to take a detour from my path at the time, which was being a jazz pianist in New York City. That detour led horizontally to graduate degrees in composition and writing for chamber ensembles and orchestra, learning to code in assorted computer languages, and working with digital synthesis systems, most of which required some knowledge of coding.

After finishing my degrees and teaching in a university system in one state in the US I moved to another state and university to direct a music composition and theory program. That led to a Fulbright in Poland where I taught electronic music composition with a LISP-based programming language at the Cracow Academy of Music. Then some years later it led to my Robots-in-Residence project in Denmark where I was artist-in-residence in the computer science department at Aarhus University.

In Robots-in-Residence Lego robots danced to algorithmically-generated music influenced by incoming emails sent to the robots from the audience. Of course the robots replied politely, by email, to every message they received.

Now and then

These days I teach improvisation and piano mostly through Skype. But in those days when Pierre Boulez was creating ‘Repons’ things like Skype, FaceTime and other such things were known as “telepresence.”

The iconoclastic aesthetics of Paul Bley and Pierre Boulez led me on a journey to discovery. The path included improvisation, the piano, composition, technology, teaching, international collaborations, and much more such as being the Internet artist-in-residence for the University of Maine at Augusta (thank you Dr. Rick Nelson) where I first taught eons ago as an assistant professor.

It’s ironic to me that commonalities I see now between Paul Bley and Pierre Boulez – ideas and influences from which I benefited greatly – became visible only after both were gone. For anyone who knew (of) either of them it’s as if a huge chunk of the 20th century aesthetics, controversies, innovations, music, leadership, ideas, performances, institutions, recordings, and more – THEY’RE GONE.

Mark Polishook

For more information about Mark Polishook:

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator and writer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio. He is a published composer, author, and his original compositions and piano recordings have been streamed by more than a million listeners worldwide.

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