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Boulez In Perspective

February 23, 1986

This letter comes not to bury or to praise either Martin Bernheimer or Pierre Boulez.

Listening the other day to Boulez's "Repons" ("Electronic Avant Garde at UCLA," by Martin Bernheimer, Feb. 13), it occurred to me that a work with aspirations of reaching new artistic heights and plumbing new technological depths should be viewed from a historical perspective and not solely as one more musical item on our busy rounds.

Musically, it seemed to me, "Repons" does not so much break new paths as it does follow the paths already set by Wagner, Mahler and Schoenberg.

It is deliberately and self-consciously monumental, commanding awe by its sheer size and sonic power. Textural complexity outruns the capacity of the human ear to hear so many independent strands.

In Berlioz, whose Requiem calls for similarly placed adjuncts to the central orchestra, the harmonic unity provides counter-balance to the disparate forces. Mozart, on a lesser scale, achieves a similar unity on the stage when he has small orchestras playing in different meters.

Philosophical questions as well as artistic ones arise when the question is asked "What is this?" because the objectivity of the music varies according to the physical position of the listener in the auditorium.

We have learned to hear Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" as more than a tangle of multi-colored threads and perhaps "Repons" will one day more clearly reveal itself to us.

But, given the facts of technological life, future hearings will probably be available on stereophonic or multi-channel tape in the privacy of the home rather than in the vast reaches of an auditorium that was not designed for music.

Is the concert hall, like the opera house, to be declared "dead," or is this work just an anomaly?

Technically, as a confrontation of music (art) with the machine (science), the verdict is not yet in. Perhaps, as in Strauss' celebrated opera concerned with text versus music, the question is more important than any answer that can be supplied.

In great combinations of music and words, there seems to be a magical union, as in Schubert's "Erlkbenig": neither words nor music seem complete if alone. But in "Repons" the necessity of machines strikes at least one listener as contra rather than pro-musica . Stockhausen's "Gesang der Juenglinge" is a electronic piece unthinkable without the machine.

Perhaps Boulez's more is really less.


Los Angeles

Kohs is a composer who's served on the music faculty at USC since 1950.

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