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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

Pierre Boulez and Heinz Holliger: On the Problem of the Transformation of Musical Language

Petruseva Nadezhda Andreevna

Doctor of Art History

Professor, Head of the Department of Theory and History of Music, Member of the All-Russian Organization "Union of Composers", Perm State Institute of Culture

614067, Russia, Permskii krai, g. Perm', ul. Krasnovodskaya, 13

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Abstract: This article focuses on transforming a musical language and the correlation between the esthetic guideline, invention, compositional technique, and language. The author describes Pierre Boulez’s two strategies in life and work, which allowed him to gain significant cultural authority, and sets out the people who influenced Boulez’s esthetics. In a broad esthetic and philosophical context, the author shows the turn from the technique to the language in Boulez's esthetical and theoretical texts, describes the three concepts of the language, the period of synthesis following the period of rejection, and Boulez’s concerns about the problems of music perception. In the context of Boulez’s thesis about the unity of an invention, a technique, and a language, the author considers Boulez’s supporter Heinz Holliger's piece for viola, Trema(1981). The author uses a comprehensive approach as a combination of elements of comparative analysis, musical phenomenology (focusing the mind on music structures), and hermeneutics (the process of understanding and interpreting). The research material is of methodical importance for modern educational courses in the theory and history of music. The author arrives at the conclusion that Boulez, as well as Kant, directs the concept of art towards Aristotle's category of “poiesis” as “craft and creation” and focuses on overcoming the esthetics of rejection (preceding the classic-romantic tradition) in Boulez’s turn to the period of “synthesis,” which includes not only the turn from a technique to a language but also electroacoustic “sound manufacturing.” The following aspects of Hollinger’s Trema are considered for the first time: the idea, the principles of new solo music, and the new technique. The author arrives at the conclusion that Trema belongs to the “multilayered music epoch” and that radical rethinking of a musical language sharpens communication.  


specific techniques of the game, piece for viola, Hans Holliger, three concepts of language, turn to universality, texts by Pierre Boulez, music as a language, idea of the piece, new solo music, different time levels

As many original artists as there are, so many worlds are open to our view, worlds more different from each other than those that unfold in the infinity of the cosmos...

Gilles Deleuze [1, p. 69]

In the first section of this article, we will focus on the interpretation of musical language by composers of new music in the second half of the twentieth century. At the same time, the problem of the transformation of musical language is covered in the context of the aesthetic and theoretical views of one of the leaders of the French musical avant-garde, composer, theorist, and essayist Pierre Boulez. For the second musical-analytical section of the article, a solo composition from 1981 by Heinz Holliger, one of Boulez's students, a world-famous oboist, whose compositional work, however, is practically unknown in Russia, is selected.


Looking at the life of Boulez (26.03.1925–05.01.2016) and his activities, the researchers identify two strategies that allowed him to achieve great cultural influence. Each of these strategies is an unsurpassed (with the exception of a few major figures of the post-war avant-garde) combination of compositional and performing skills in different but interrelated areas of its activity: 1) as a composer and conductor and 2) as a theorist, author, polemicist, and educator. In this way, he controlled every aspect of the musical dialogue: his composition, the sound production, but also the conditions of his composition – its performance, theorization, dissemination through education, and thus, its legitimization.

Boulez's aesthetic was influenced primarily by his teachers, Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz (understanding analysis as a prelude to composition; Messiaen's lessons; Boulez's early support for Webern; the result of his training with Leibowitz), Stéphane Mallarmé (a key figure as he introduced mobile elements into all aspects of literary form), Paul Klee (Boulez's book on paintings by Klee highlights some of Boulez's ideas), several surrealist artists and authors (René Char and André Breton), expressionism (through studies with Leibowitz and critical essays by Arnold Schoenberg), phenomenology (especially the theory of Maurice Merleau-Ponty), structuralism (approaching the philosophical ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Michel Foucault; influenced by the ideas of leading scientists – Jean Piaget, Jacques Monod, Jacques Lacan). Boulez's correspondence – most of it remains unpublished – with Luciano Berio, René Char, Theodor Adorno, Darius Milhaud, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Igor Stravinsky contains a wide range of sources: not only music but also extensive knowledge of the visual arts, literature, history, and philosophy.

When considering the various aesthetic approaches of any generation, one thing is sure: the trend of each work, its real meaning, changes depending on the dictionary that the artist used. On the one hand, any consideration of the "real" language, deepening the analytical concretization, weakens the inspiration and destroys the composer's holistic vision of the work. On the other hand, ignoring the technique cruelly avenges itself, and this "deadly struggle" is always inherent in the work. Boulez concluded that a technique divorced from aesthetic thinking could lead to "bankruptcy" [2, p. 68]. Boulez would later clarify this point: sound exists only for itself, but it must be included in broader connections in order to be a valid element of language (text, invention, technique, language).

Today, language in music is a concept that is strongly attacked and, quite frankly, denied. How did this happen? In the text, Language, Material and Structure, Boulez outlines the strategy of three concepts of language [3, S. 60–88], of which the first is an individual concept. The resulting language is about the process of evolution (the conflict between language and the individual, between collective means of communication and individual means of expression), the hypertrophy of the concept of personal individuals form language according to their own desire and personal needs while retaining, however, the concepts of organization, decision, choice. The problem of connection here solves everything: the material refers to the structure; it is selected depending on it. It could be stated differently: the structure chooses the material (the text is Boulez's form). The second concept is the total negation of language when the fabric of sound is considered independent of the individual language codes. According to this concept, everything that approaches the category of sound vibrations belongs to music: whether the noise of daily life, natural noise, or sound that comes from cultural phenomena or technological applications. Each object of sound is exalted (such, for example, is the reality of the "found objects" by Duchamp and Cage). It becomes obvious that here we are dealing with the total negation of language as a coherent and organic whole.

The third concept – the subject of criticism and rejection by composers of new music – is based on stylistic borrowings (according to Jean Baudrillard, "quoting, simulating, re-appropriating," borrowing forms of the near or distant past and even forms of purely modern "with a greater or lesser degree of playfulness or kitsch" [4]; in Russian terminology, the technique of polystylistics, allusions). Its representatives expect something like universality from the language. For example, in the wordless Fifth Symphony by Gustav Mahler, there are many quotes: the song "We do not say goodbye," 21 songs without words by Felix Mendelssohn, a motif from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 (in circulation), for which the composer was reproached, calling his music "kapellmeister-music," but later "justified" by introducing the concept of "metastyle."

However, the question remains whether this is a real universality or only a function of openness, behind which there is an ideological standard and its poetic justification. They find the expressive possibilities of today's vocabulary too narrow. They wish to expand these possibilities: not "downstream" to the future, but "upstream," to the sources, thus reviving the past worlds and integrating them. They try to apply the linguistic concept to all sound events of any kind or to extend it to all cultural and historical events of sound (which has already happened in the literature of the Surrealists and J. R. R. Tolkien and James Joyce: the phenomenon is not new). There is a classification (intonation, rhetorical figures, signs, emotions, quotes, allusions, etc.) in both cases. Recall a passage from the novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco: "I could continue this list, oh, everything in the world is more attractive than the list in its inexplicable clarity!" [5]. However, the entire catalog in music is as absurd (in its desire to classify everything that can be classified and even what cannot) as the total lack of classifications, as Boulez writes with irony: "we summed up in our childhood: 3 apples + 5 knives = 8 frogs. Poetics may be pretty, but it is still limited and not capable of renewal" [3, S. 66].

Boulez's preoccupation with the problems of musical language is accompanied by questions of form (listening and means of music) and musical institutions (teaching at the Darmstadt Summer School, University of Basel, Harvard University, and the Collège de France, at the Lucerne Festival Academy, IRCAM from 1973 to 1984). In the text Language, Material and Structure, Boulez comes to a solution necessary and indicative to investigate the complex problems of "invention"/"technique"/"language" in "a single bundle" [3, S. 17]. In general, the focus from technology to versatility is through the transformation of musical language. It becomes one of the central problems in the musical-theoretical texts of Olivier Messiaen, Boulez, J. Griese, Stockhausen, Helmut Lachenmann, and others. As a result of the general tendency of many intellectual experiments to turn philosophy from cognition to language, there is close contact between the spirit and the primordial phenomenon. According to Ernst Junger, this is more important than all the discoveries in the field of physics [cit. po: 6, p. 30].

Previously, the expression "language revolution" or linguistic turn was used in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Logical-Philosophical Treatise, 1922), the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (Logical Investigations), the fundamental ontology of Martin Heidegger. The concept of "language games" is introduced by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations: "The whole process of using words in a language I will call 'language games.' I will also refer to the language game as a single whole: language and action, with which it is intertwined" [7, p. 83]. The main features of the linguistic turn are the appeal to the study of meaning, the consideration of the language as the ultimate ontological basis of thinking and activity. The key idea of Noam Chomsky's linguistic theory of transformational grammar is that language has an internal structure and is based on a system of rules. At the same time, a person not only generates new sequences of words and sentences but also understands them, which is explained by our linguistic creativity. Chomsky divides syntactic rules into basic grammar ("deep structure," which generates a set of basic sentences) and transformational rules (which allow you to create derived sentences based on basic sentences; "surface structure") [see: 8, p.947]. Deleuze's critique of Chomsky concentrates on the thesis: "style as a metaphor, not as a generative model." A metaphor is an essential metamorphosis, when two objects exchange their definitions, even the names given to them, in a new environment that gives them a commonality [1, p. 76]. In this sense, the statement of the British musicologist Paul Griffiths about Stravinsky's "progress" in the course of the 1950s is interesting: "forward to Webern and Boulez, but at the same time, back to Gesualdo and pre-Renaissance music" [9, p. 168]. For a number of twentieth-century composers, the growth in the interest of "early music" after Stravinsky testifies to the commonality of their thoughts and feelings.

The world-opening function of language is characteristic of the humanities. So, Aleksei Losev, in the Theory of Artistic Style, emphasizes the hermeneutic principles of anamnesis and "conversations" (with tradition) in the understanding of the phenomenon of "artistic style." A differentiated (i.e., at a high theoretical level) approach to the definition of the Losev style is achieved by excluding all the art and literary categories close to it: "It is the principle of constructing the entire potential of a work of art based on its various superstructural and extra-artistic tasks and its primary models, which, however, are felt immanently by the artistic structures of the work itself" [10, p.226]. Finally, Baudrillard shows the historical and critical violence of modern "xerox" culture, adding to it the "violence of analysis, interpretation, meaning" [3].

From an extensive body of works on language and the process of communication theory and aesthetic identification,we find it directly relates to this topic because it justifies the concept of "wordless aesthetic understanding," where "I" is the unity of sound and meaning. The musical and aesthetic understanding is interpreted here as fundamentally wordless as the subjects of understanding are not verbally fixed concepts, but structural intentions, i.e., the connection of one musical element with another, which is the specific content of the "meaning" in music. "Music explains itself when you listen to it. It defines its meaning through itself: through its form, structuring, the play of its elements, which, as a game, is full of meaning and which, when we listen to it, pulls and draws our meaning into this game – so that we, on the other side of all concepts and all conceptual cognition, learn to understand the game and become a participant in this game" [11, S. 107]. In general, music, considered as communication, is, according to Boulez, "[]a global gesture formed from subordinate gestures" [2, p. 120].

When discussing perception, Boulez, as with everything about influence, takes what he considers important for his own work. First of all, this is the need for the unexpected in the process of listening to each "sound object." And the listener is able to feel new aspects of the composition when listening again. Therefore, Boulez (along with other composers) conceives a work not just as a single solution but as a set of solutions (for the principle of proliferation, see below).

Deutsche Grammophon has recently released 44 CDs of Boulez's recordings of twentieth-century music; Sony has compiled an anthology of Boulez's recordings, mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, in an impressive collection of 67 CDs (!), from Handel to Boulez's own compositions. These collections are striking in their timbre, depth, and richness.


Casting a retrospective glance at the work of Heinz Holliger, we must admit to ourselves that we do not know him at all as a composer. However, it is possible to highlight a few turning points that need to be explored. Holliger's starting point as a composer is clear: he studied composition at the Bern Conservatory with Sandor Veres and, from 1961 to 1963, studied composition with Pierre Boulez. In 1963, he began his career as an international virtuoso oboist; he gave chamber music concerts with the ensemble and group he founded (see about this: [12]).

As a performer, Holliger was interested in the need to expand the oboe repertoire. He commissioned works from Kryzstof Penderecki, Luciano Berio, Frank Martin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, André Jolivet, Hans Werner Henze, A. Pusser, Ernest Krenek, and Witold Lutoslawski. Written for Holliger and his wife, Lutoslawski's Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Chamber Orchestra became a twentieth-century masterpiece. In general, Holliger's performance is characterized by a smooth, subtle "French" sound, an exceptionally bright tone quality, a deep understanding of the practice of performing all eras of music (for his skill, the composer received a number of awards; see about this: [12]); the use of many advanced techniques associated with the performance of twentieth-century music, such as harmonic vertical on a solo instrument, double trills, multiphonics and glissando, new sounds achieved by placing a microphone inside the instrument. Holliger was one of the first to make extensive use of these methods.

Holliger's music is influenced by Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Nono, and Pierre Boulez. The composer has composed Magical Dances for two dancers, choir, orchestra, and cassette – a work of exceptional sound density and subtle nuances. He also used Indian rhythms (influenced by Olivier Messiaen) to present specific poetic images. In Pneumo (1970), for thirty-six wind instruments, four radios, an organ, and percussion, he instructs performers to create specific breathing sounds in microphones. In Cardiophonie, he uses an amplified stethoscope (a medical instrument for listening to the heart and lungs) attached to the soloist to add the performers' pulse to the music. His compositions are equally difficult both technically to perform and listen to.

The solo piece Trëma for viola (1981) was written for viola player and Israeli artist Rivka Golani. (Here ë is a diacritic mark in Greek, Latin Grecisms, and Romance languages, sometimes in English, indicating the separate pronunciation of two vowels: to note, French: Noël — Christmas; or in English personal names Chloë, Zoë.)

This music rapidly develops thanks to the harmony progressing at an extremely slow pace, which is veiled by the technique of arpeggios and tremolos and has many sound layers comparable to the spatial dispositions of the flights of huge flocks of flamingos in Africa (photo 1 –2).

Photo 1–2. Africa (Sus). Flamingo flights (2019, end of June, 4: 32).

According to the author, the main idea of the work is "the use of different time periods. y x levels on a single instrument" [13]. The idea of a multi-level composition attracted many: Gruppen for three orchestras by Stockhausen and his Mantra for two pianos and live electronics (including two ring modulators: a block in which one of them feeds two inputs, and then outputs the sum and difference of the two signals, resulting in a new signal with an enriched spectrum [see more: 14]), Rituel in memoriam of Bruno Maderna by Boulez, which the author included in his list of the ten greatest scores of the twentieth century (1974–75), The Thirteen colors of the Setting Sun by Tristan Murail. György Ligeti used the method of rhythmic layers and complex polymetry in piano pieces (Monument and Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley [und Chopin ist aush dabei]), pulse flows for creating "auditory illusions," "complex acoustic illusory rhythm,"[15]) as in a series of sketches from three notebooks.

A number of principles characteristic of new solo music deserve attention: a new sound object, concertina, virtuosity, improvisationality, the phenomenon of "instrumental theater," and the principle of commentary (see chapter 2.5. "New solo music: the coordinate system" [16, p. 147 –169]). So, a new sound object Trema is created by combining a number of performing techniques. The main methods of sound extraction are pizzicato and col legno. At the same time, the arpeggio technique and bow tremolo is used to create a kind of vibrating sound "grid" that moves in different directions (see examples 1–2).

Example 1. H. Holliger. Trema for viola. 1 page, initial 4 lines

Example 2. H. Holliger. Trema for viola. 2 pages, 7 –9 lines

In the introduction to the score, the author states general and specific techniques of the game. The common ones are: "regular (fast) arpeggios on the specified strings" and "irregular arpeggios (rhythmically free) on the specified string" [13]. A specific technique is "fast irregular arpeggios on two or more strings, so always at least two strings sound simultaneously (direction with different distribution of bow pressure on individual strings). The lines show which strings are included in the arpeggio and also what rhythmic structure in the arpeggio should be" [ibid.]. Recall the viola piece My Sister, My Bride, A Fountain Close, A Sealed Source by Murail, woven from different degrees of pressure from the bow on the viola strings, which forms the method of "phase transitions" [see more: 16, p. 156–162]. The result of a combination of playing techniques in Trema is multi-layered. As the author explains, "Music is multi-layered, as if running simultaneously at different levels of time" [13].

The principle of concertina and virtuosity of Trema is due to the impression that this work is performed by more than one musician and not one instrument. Here, instrumental virtuosity is the component that changes Holliger’s gesture as the composer. In the aspect of improvisation, the part of the right hand is of particular interest (the movement of the left hand is accurately indicated in the notes). The principle of commentary manifests itself in the existence of two versions: Trema for viola and Trema for violin (1981/1983). The awareness of music as a "commentary" (the principle of proliferation) was fruitful for Berio: Berio's Sinfonia is a "commentary" on the symphony, a number of his works created in concert format are indirect comments on the form of the concerto: followed by Chemins, followed by the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1972–73), "points on the curve to find…" (1973–74), Concerto II (1988 –89) with the subtitle "Echoing Curves"; essential for Stockhausen (for example, Tierkries [12 melodies for each star sign of the zodiac]) and for Boulez (Trope for piano from the Troisième Sonate; vocal-instrumental cycle Fold by fold: Portrait of Mallarmé [Pli selon pli ], which has many versions; Notations I-IV, started in 1977 as an extensive proliferation of piano miniatures from 1945; Eclat/Multiples, with its rapid expansion of musical ideas and the ensemble principle of operation more compact in scale; Domaines (Areas)for clarinet solo/for clarinet and other instruments … Motionless-Exploding… (versions 1972, 1973, 74, 1985, and finally a version for MIDI flute, chamber orchestra, and electronics, 1991, 93), versions Dérive 1 (1984) and Dérive 2 (1988), Anthems I for solo violin (1991) and Anthems II for violin and electronics (1998).


The transformation of musical language is an eternal problem as the art of musical composition always goes forward. Here, it is appropriate to quote Gustave Flaubert's statement, who believed in the continuous evolution of mankind: "Neither Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe, nor even the Bible do not draw any conclusions. […] The horizon perceived by the human eye is not yet a shore, for on the other side of it there is another shore, and so on without end!" [17, p. 172–173]. In general, like Immanuel Kant, Boulez still focuses the concept of art on the Aristotelian category of poiesis and techne as crafts and manufactureswithout a touch of romantic metaphysics. Not the beauty that can illuminate it, nor the culture that creates it, but the technique of musical language through which it speaks constitutes art as art (essay Ghosts in Flight). The period of negation (which is not only about serialism rejecting the previous tonal tradition but also about overcoming the Adornian aesthetic of negation) should be followed by a period of synthesis, involving many of the musical, technological, and scientific streams of the past decades (the manifesto of The Art of Noises on technology and the composer). At the same time, the use of the term "synthesis" includes not only a turn from technique to language but also electroacoustic sound production, which is central to the composer's vision in the second half of the twentieth century.

The age of multi-layered music, as Stockhausen explains, makes us more sensitive to the nature of sound [18, p. 15]. Like Helmut Lachenmann and Salvatore Sciarrino, Holliger immediately achieves something abstract, contrary to the codes and languages with which we are accustomed to understanding musical expression: a radical reinterpretation (of language) sharpens communication.

The play Trema beats the elements in the relaxed balance of different times. y x levels convey the distant breath of space. The style here is the result of strict internal logic, conditioned by a certain compositional technique (according to Aristotle, techne there is a way – a primary and elementary way – of knowing, of being in the truth of things), an idea, and a set of principles characteristic of new music for transmitting this idea.

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