Pierre Boulez/John Cage – Structures/Music for Piano (Hat Hut)

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One of the intriguing paradoxes of modern music is how total control and total chance result in music which sounds similarly chaotic. In the early 1950s the obsessive rationalist Pierre Boulez met indeterminate composer John Cage and they bizarrely struck up a strong, respectful friendship. Both were opposed to the notion of subjective artistic creation, anxious to dissect music from ideology and sever ties with tradition; where they differed was on their diametrically opposing approaches to realising these aims.

For Structures I for two pianos (1952) Boulez took Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method to its logical conclusion in ‘integral serialism’, using a 12 by 12 matrix to determine pitch, duration, intensities and dynamics, a homage to his teacher Messiaen’s uncharacteristic ‘Mode de valeurs et d’intensites’. What’s impressive is how violent, discordant and machinistic Structures is, a clinical, inhuman form of music created through an utterly human, intellectual process.

Cage wrote the series of 85 pieces for Music For Piano using a range of chance operations, including making sounds from imperfections in the notation paper. The incorporation of paper imperfections came about from convenience, a short-cut to the slow I Ching process to meet the deadline for a Merce Cunningham dance performance. Sonically the results are similar to Structures: abrupt shifts in dynamics, lightning-fast runs, extreme dissonance. Pianists Pi-Hsien-Chen and Ian Pace are no strangers to the demands and deliver suitably crisp, distant performances. This is fiercely challenging music, intensely visceral yet refreshing, like a splash of ice-cold water to a hungover face.

Joshua Meggitt

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