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In the world of architecture, celebrated composer and conductor Pierre Boulez sees a relevant analogy to contemporary classical music.

“New materials — concrete, steel and glass — changed architecture, creating forms never thought of.”

In the world of music, Boulez sees technology, especially computers, as these new materials.

Boulez says that since new technical forces are influencing composers, it is time for a change. “We should think differently,” he said at a recent symposium on the future of music, organized by the Japan Federation of Composers. For the event, Boulez was joined by two other contemporary classical composers — Hanspeter Kyburz from Switzerland and Joji Yuasa from Japan.

As an example of new areas of exploration, Boulez cited the way in which technology allows musicians and composers to accurately replicate quarter tones and microtones — effectively creating new sounds by using intervals smaller than semitones (the half step between, for example, C and C sharp).

Boulez, who served as conductor and musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1971 to 1977 and head of the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris from 1977 to the early 1990s, came to Japan to conduct Gustav Mahler Jugendorchestra.

Boulez is well-known not only for his challenging music, but also for his more radical statements on music theory. “History as it is made by great composers is not a history of conservation but of destruction — even while cherishing what is being destroyed,” he once said.

A contemporary of the U.S. composer John Cage, who died in 1992, Boulez became a leader in the European avant-garde after expanding the basic methodological thinking used in 12-tone music developed by Arnold Schoenberg to cover not only pitches, but also rhythm, dynamics and timbre.

At the symposium, the three composers agreed that technology would inevitably change the shape of music and expand its horizons. But they also pointed out its pitfalls.

Boulez warned against becoming overreliant on mathematical approaches to making music because mathematically beautiful solutions can sometimes lead to musically “vulgar” sounds, such as glissandos.

Kyburz, who is teaching at the Hochschule for Music in Berlin, said that as the practice of computer-assisted composition spreads, the danger will arise that composers will become obsessed with discussing the software tools themselves rather than with trying to harness their full potential.

Music born out of such an atmosphere tends to have weak aesthetic or musical meaning, he said.

Yuasa said that due to the rapid progress of science in the 20th century, a mutual osmosis between music and science is inevitable.

Citing the achievements of electronic music and musique concrete (electronic music composed of instrumental and natural sounds often altered or distorted in the recording process), he pointed to the birth of music not bound or defined by bars within Western classical music.

While Yuasa called this a significant “breakthrough,” he pointed out that the cognitive science concerning musical perception has not made enough progress. When it does, though, music itself will have to change, he said.

Touching on the originality of composers, Yuasa called on students of composition to enrich their own “cosmology” by having a wide interest in subjects outside music. It is natural that the richer their cosmology becomes, the more original their music will be, he said.

Boulez said that composers need to develop new categories and deepen their thinking about them because it will help expand musical thinking.

Taking stretched time, such as the long, unmetered tones found in Japanese gagaku, as an example, Boulez said that composers should not consider them to be merely peculiar traits of traditional Japanese music.

“We must always go to the core of problems,” he said, calling on composers to consider the temporal features of gagaku within a wider context.

Yuasa explained that while European music is based on clearly measurable time signatures, Japanese music is based on an uncountable temporality that he said is based on breathing.

“European and Japanese music are based on different substrata,” he said.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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