Penser la musique hier et aujourd’hui: Heterophony?

I recently read Boulez on Music Today (translation of Penser la musique aujourd’hui). Mostly I was pretty bored by it and found it quite dry and dated in comparison to texts by Stockhausen, Xenakis and others from the same era (1960s), which still seem to have things to offer us in terms of ‘thinking music today’. It seems to me that Boulez was overly concerned about building a single and water-tight musical system, and forgot that the purpose of systematic thinking in music was to aid the liberation and exploration of new musical ideas.

In any case, what I did find interesting though was – perhaps not surprisingly – the section where he deals with different textures and how to think of them and derive them in a consistent, serialist, manner. He calls this the “syntactic organisation of the language” (p. 115), since it is a matter of how serial structures are deployed in along the horizontal and vertical axes (with a diagonal one in there two) – in line with the unification of the horizontal and vertical since Schoenberg’s innovations. In addition to the horizontal-vertical dimension of a texture-type, there is also the individual-collective determination of it. So monody is ‘horizontal-individual’ whereas homophony is horizontal-collective. And of course there can be a “polyphony of polyphonies, heterophony of heterophonies, heterophony of polyphonies, etc.” (p. 115).

Remind me to come back to the chart on page 119 where he summarises all of this…

Polyphony actually has a funny, and rather vague definition. It is “distinguished … by the responsibility which it implies from one structure to another. Polyphony is based, in my opinion, on a fitting together of structures, which amounts to the use of ‘counterpoint’ and ‘harmony’, provided that the sense generally implied by these words is extended; or again, on a distribution such as can be related neither to harmony nor to counterpoint.” (p. 118)

He draws a further distinction between strict and free counterpoint. In the latter one structure need only be answerable to – fit within – some general collective determinations. In the former, a structure needs to be answerable to – have a determinate relation to – another individual structure. So free counterpoint = horizontal-individual/collective; strict counterpoint = horizontal-individual/individual.

Instead of ‘line’ or ‘figure’, Boulez prefers the term ‘structure’ – since his vision of counterpoint is placed on more abstract, logical foundations.

“The word structure, not figure, is intentionally used, because counterpoint can, in general horizontal relations, govern single figures as well as complex phenomena.” (p. 118)

“Polyphony can also be described as the diagonal distribution of structures: ‘parts’ or ‘voices’ no longer exist, strictly speaking: the organisms are to be analysed as distributed structures.” (p. 119)

“It would be in vain to try to reinstate contrapuntal and harmonic writing: these died with Webern. The concepts of parts should be radically reconsidered; a part will henceforth be considered as a constellation of events obeying a certain number of common criteria a distribution in mobile and discontinuous time, respecting variable density, and using non-homogeneous timbre, of families of structures in evolution.” (pp. 131-132)

This abstraction of the concept of polyphony is important, in order to break with traditional thinking, but it has the danger of producing a paper polyphony that results in an indistinct gestalt texture for the listener, complex in its surface level details, but simple (in that it counts as one and is not internally divided) in what it demands of the listener. So this has to be taken into account from the very beginning of conceiving of the structures.

And it is for this reason that I disagree with Boulez’s definition of antiphony as secondary: simply the distribution in actual space of “already ‘formulated’ polyphonic structures” (p. 119). Localisation of a structure in actual space, onto an instrument or set of instruments, makes up yet another part (a fundamental part, I think) of the contrapuntal determination, a structural parameter to work with.

Ok. What really interests me more though, after all that is how Boulez talks about deriving one texture from another: “It is possible not only to combine them, but also to pass from one to the other, that is to say, a monody can represent a ‘reduced’ polyphony, just as a polyphony can be the distribution, the ‘dispersion’, of a monody” (p. 120).

What Boulez goes on to show is how to derive a heterophony from a monody. This is done by very controlled, but rather inventive, procedures increasing the degree of difference from the original and the derivation along a number of dimensions, or parameters: ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ pitches, duration, tempo, timbre, general intensity and dynamic profile.

I won’t reproduce his procedures, since they are quite specific to Boulez’s specific world of techniques. But the basic principle is clear: heterophony is the fact of an intermediate degree of (perceptible) identity between two simultaneous structures. Some identity is retained, some negated. Some parametric determinations kept in common, others divergent. Moreover, a heterophony can be produced from a homophony, and a polyphony from a heterophony, by way of increasing the degree of difference (decreasing the identity) between two structures. It is in this sense that these categories are ‘porous’. (The point at which one texture type ‘tips over’ into another is a matter for compositional exploration). Here is where I find fundamental agreement with Boulez, even if I tend to find his actual concrete approaches lacking in perceptual contrapuntal oomph (although, I have to admit it’s been a while since I’ve listened to Boulez…).

In a sense then, my idea of counterpoint as the working through, in the course of a piece, of a field of possible identity relations between simultaneously sounding ‘parts’ could be described as thinking all musical texture from the standpoint of heterophony.