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The Concept of 'Alea' in Boulez's 'Constellation-Miroir'

Author(s): Anne Trenkamp

Source: Music & Letters, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-10
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/733804
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MUSIC AND LETTERS was foundedin I920 by the late A. H. Fox Strangways.It
was continued by the late Richard Capell and is now the propertyof Music
and Letters Limited, a Company Limnitedby guarantee and comprisingrepresentatives from the Royal Musical Association and Oxford UniversityPress
and others.
EDrrORIAL ADDRESS: Faculty of Music, 32 Holywell,Oxford,OXi 3SL.


USE of chance techniques by contemporary composers has
bewildered more than a few theoristsand driven others to silence.
Some musicianswould agree withEdward T. Cone that,since chance
music has no definitivelyordered sequence of events,it can only be
described, not analyzed., Others would agree with Anthony Cross:


The preoccupationwith chance on the part of composerslike

Stockhausenand particularlyBoulez, pinpointsthe chiefproblem
faced by composersof the so-called post-Webernschool: with the
abandonmentof tonality,of all pre-existing
language, how is the
composerto achievethemeaningfularticulationofform?2
The problem of chance in music is particularlycrucial fortwentiethcenturyscholars. In the past, major musical issueshave been avoided
by negative means: tonalitybecame atonal; themesbecame athematic; rhythmbecame arhythmic.Only by linguistic feats such as
'open form','circular form'and so on has formnot become 'aformal'.
By examining one composer's confrontationof chance the relationship between the articulationof formand chance can be seen froma
more positive viewpoint.
Boulez has made a distinctionbetween chance and alea in his
speeches and essays. For him, al6a is the use of chance under highly
controlled circumstances. While this distinction appears on the
1 'AnalysisToday', Probklms
of ModernMusic, ed. Paul H. Lang, New York, I960,

p. 38.

2 'The Significanceof Aleatoricismin twentieth-century

Music', 77ieMusic Review,
xxix (I968), 322.

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surfaceto be nothingmore than linguistichairsplitting,the significance of the differentiationbecomes apparent in the analysis of a
work such as 'Constellation-miroir',the thirdand centralmovement
of Boulez's Third Piano Sonata.3 Close examination of some ideas
Boulez wrote about at the time he was composing the sonata and an
analysis of 'Constellation-miroir' make clear the necessity and
validityof the distinction.In addition, an analysis of thismovement
illustratesone meaning of the term 'open form'.
An earlier work by Boulez, Structures
for two pianos (I 95I-6),
illustratesthe composer's attemptto serialize rhythm,dynamics and
attack in addition to pitch. During the completion of Structures,
however, Boulez was already re-examiningthe validity of the strict
serial procedureshe was employingat that time; his writingsshow a
concern with this problem until the compositionof the Third Piano
Sonata (c. I 960). First, Boulez challenged the conclusions serial
composers drew from Webern's works and the manner in which
they 'extended' his procedures:
The model universallychosen is Webern: and in his music the
principalmatterforstudyis theorganizationofthemusicalmaterial.
Certainconclusionsare arrivedat, and theseare then deliberately
developedby a processof extension.With real frenzywe set about
[serial]organizationas ifwe were on the thresholdof undiscovered
we now
worlds... Webernorganizedonlyintervallicrelationships;
subjectrhythm,tone-colourand dynamicsto [serial] organization.
All this servesas fodderfor the monstrousmultipleorganization
if we are not to condemnourwhichmustbe renouncedforthwith
selvesto deafness.4
Second, he questioned the relationship between the serialized
elementsand the perception of the total form:
Each system,carefullyworked out in its own terms,could only
cohabitwiththeothersthrougha miraculouscoincidence.The works
in all theiraspects;
of thisperiodalso show an extremeinflexibility
elementsin the 'magic squares' whichthe composer,withhis magic
wand, forgotat the birthof the work,react violentlyagainst the
foreignand hostileorder forcedupon them; they get their own
revenge: the work does not achieve any conclusivelycoherent
is not always
organization;it sounds bad and its aggressiveness
These are bitter thoughtsfrom one of the technical masters of
'total serialism'. What Boulez specificallyattacked was the applica3 Only two of the proposed five movementshave been published: 'Trope' and
The latteris designedto be played eitherforwardor in retrograde,
but only the retrogradehas been published.Both were completedby I96o.
' In German in 'Einsichtenund Aussichten',tr. Hilde Strobel, Melos,xxii (I955),

? Boukz onMusic Today,tr.Susan Bradshawand Richard R. Bennett,London, 197I,

p. 25.

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tion of twelve-notepitch technique to the materialsofrhythm,colour

and dynamics,because each of these materials has a differentinner
structure.Pitch material in this style is a closed systemof twelve
chromatic pitches whose differentpermutationsproduce associative
elementsat will. Rhythm,on the other hand, does not contain such
a closed systemof separate elements; to enforceupon rhythmthe
same procedures that govern pitch cannot produce the same
necessary conclusions. This point of logic applies to colour and
dynamics as well., When composerstriedto use the same procedures
for all four elements mentioned above, there was no logical or
necessary relationship between them. The resultant 'chance by
inadvertence' occasionally produced homogeneous and logical
simultaneities,but not by rule of the composer.
Boulez, however, did not reject serial technique completely; his
arguments primarily reject the excesses of a system which relinquished compositional decisions to a series of calculations and
tables. For Boulez, the extentsand limitsofserial technique displayed
in Structures
provided not a dead end, but a new begining: 'Serialism
provided me with a syntax. In "Le Marteau", I used it to formulate
The syntax provided by Structures
was actually a re-definitionof
the role of the series. In 'Musical Technique' Boulez presentsstill
another definitionof the series that illustratesthis role; he stresses
the importance of hierarchy within the series rather than the
primacy of pitch-order:
The seriesis ... the germof a developinghierarchy... ,endowed
witha greateror lesserselectivity,
witha viewto organizinga FINITE
... ; thisensembleofpossibilities

deducedfroman initialseriesby a



(notsimplytheconsecutiveexpositionofa certainnumberofobjects,
permutatedaccordingto restrictive

Boulez's redefinitionof the series has direct bearing on the

analysis of 'Constellation-miroir'.First, the recognitionof intervalclass and/orpitch-classhierarchyas opposed to pitch-orderdemands
a reformulationof the role of pitch withina piece. Second, since it is
the interaction between musical elements that produces form,any
change of approach towardsone or more elementsis bound to affect
the manner in which a composition as a whole is organized. Thus,
the new role of pitch and the disavowal of the serialization of other
elementsinvite special attentionto the formalorganization.
Boulez has stated that his concept of form at that time was
6 See GyorgyLigeti, 'Pierre Boulez', Die Reihe,iv (i958), 38-63.
7 Peter Heyworth,'Pierre Boulez', The New rorker,
24 March 1973, p. 63.
$ Boulez on Music Today,pp. 35-36.

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influenced more by literature than by other composers, especially

by Stephan Mallarme. 9 He feltthat writershad explored structural
possibilitiesfar more extensivelythan composers,and in Mallarme
he found a systemof organizationsuggestiveof what he was attempting in 'Constellation-miroir'.In 'Un Coup de des', the poem after
which 'Constellation-miroir'is modelled, two facetsof poetic usage
have bearing on this analysis. First, Mallarme transposed words
from their everyday associations into verbal objects with a poetic
functionby concentratingon phonemic qualities and byjuxtaposing
words in a manner which gave them a multiplicityof meanings.10
Boulez's task was not dissimilar; he transposed pitches from their
serial matrix into the phonemic state of the smallest recognizable
unit of pitch relationship,serial or non-serial: the interval.
Second, Mallarme in 'Un Coup de des' segmentedphrases and
arranged them on the page in such a way that the connections
between phrases would be ambiguous. For example, if a sentence is
diagrammed in the traditional way, the words are segmented and
additional words are joined to them to designate their function.
Even if the words are presentedin an unusual order, the functional
designationsmake the meaning clear:



to myhouse


In 'Un Coup de des', the sentence is fragmented,but there is no

explicit relationship between the fragments,except for a certain

de cette conflagration
que se

commeon menace
l'unique Nombrequi ne peut pas
cadavre par le bras"
9 'Sonate, que me veux-tu?', tr. D. Noakes and P. Jacobs, Perspectives
ofNew Music,

i(1963), 32.

10Hans R. Zeller, 'Mallarme and SerialistThought', tr. Margaret Shenfield,Die

Reihe,vi (I964), 7.
11Mallarme,ed. AnthonyHartley,Harmondsworth,I965, p. 2I8.

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Despite the seemingly fewer choices in the Mallarme poem, the

musical continuityin 'Constellation-miroir'has been segmented in
the same fashion,and the choices of segment-sequencesin performance create ambiguitysimilar to that found in the Mallarme poem.
Interesting as these artistic influences are, it is the process
through which Boulez turned to aleatoric procedures that is important. Boulez stated: 'Actually, the only thingone can play upon
is the interaction between style and form'.12 He developed a postserial style and sought-by analogy perhaps-a formal procedure
withwhichit could interact.The resultofthissearch was a particular
formof chance called alea, in which the composer controlsprecisely
the areas in which chance may enter into the composition."I Alea,
then, was not an outside influence,used in and foritself.Rather, it
was the adoption of a literaryviewpointto create a formalprocedure
which could interactwith a particular style.
The intrinsicuse of alea as a formal device in 'Constellationmiroir' can be seen by a glance at the score. The idea of an openform, aleatoric movement is enhanced through the typographical
layout of the movement. The score consistsof nine pages, i8 ins. x
24 ins., over which 58 segments of varying length are arranged.
These segmentsare printed in either red or green, red standing for
the chordal blocssections and green forthe pointssectionsof pointillistic texture. Signs before and aftereach segment mark the routes
that can be taken.
In addition to the many signs surrounding the segments,two
differenttypes of tempo indications are used. First are the specific
tempo modificationsoften found in the blocs sections; these may
indicate rapid changes of tempo in a shortspace, as in blocsi:
Ex. 1.




1 t;=



~~~~ Il~~~~~~






Lecture at Case WesternReserve University,Cleveland, Ohio, March 1971.

xlix (I 957), 845. In this article
'Alea', La NouvelleRevuefranfaise,
Boulez distinguishesbetween the differentuses of chance in music by the composer's
intent.Two otheruses are 'chance by inadvertence'or totalserialism(p. 839) and random
techniques(p. 841). There is no ready-madenoun to go withthe adjective,aleatory.Mr.
Cross prefers'aleatoricism',while I would like to see the word alia takeninto the English

13 Pierre Boulez,

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Second are the 'if. . . then' tempo markings,thosewhich are indicated by the same sign that indicates the choice ofsegment.They state,
in effect,that if the composition is to proceed fromsegment x to
segmenty, the latter segment must be played at z tempo; on the
other hand, if the composition is to proceed from segment q to
segmenty, the latter must be played at w tempo, as in pointS2:
Ex. 2.

J 80
4=76 -(stable) = 5
=86 - (mobile) J= 96



absolument sants

-- Pedale

All of these signs add to the visual complexityof the score.

The use of differentcolours and the resemblanceof the layout of
the score to extra-musicalelements provide additional amusement
forthe performer;the multiplicityof signs gives the illusion that the
pianist has more choices than are really importantor available. At
the highest level of organization there are six sections: Melange,
points3, bloCs2, points2, blocsi and pointsi; thesesectionsmustoccur
in the order stated. At the next level, individual segmentsare linked
togetherby the other segmentsin whose company they are allowed
to occur. Thus, although a section may have twelve segments,these
linkingsmay cause the segmentsto create three units. Within these
units, the choice of order forindividual segmentsmay remain free.
For example, Milangehas six segments.The pianist must startwith
the firstsegmentand end with the sixth.Of the remainingsegments,
the thirdmustfollowthe second and the fifthmustfollowthe fourth.
Segments 2 and 3 belong to one texturaldensityand segments4 and
5 to the other. Thus there are only fourunits and only one choice;
the choice is whethersegments2-3 will precede or follow segments
4-5, or, in other words, which densitywill come first.
The othersections,by the verynature ofthe signswhich surround
them, divide into units in the same way. When unit groupings are
taken into account, there are actually only 17 units, although there
are 58 segments.The followingtable shows the number of segments
and units in each section:

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Tempo does not really affectthe number of units. Of the two

typesof tempo modificationdiscussed earlierthe firstoccurs withina
segment.The frequentchanges in tempo measure the time relationship between chords or pitches (see Ex. i). In music with a basic
pulse this measurement is accomplished by the rhythmicvalues
assigned to pitches. In his earlier compositionsBoulez's notationwas
characterized by highly complex rhythmsin music that sometimes
lacks a basic pulse. He found that the realization of these rhythmsin
performancewas an approximationof the notation and that simpler
notation, combined with fluctuating tempo, would serve him
better.1 As a result, the rhythmicnotation in this movement has
actually been simplified.Fluctuations in tempo replace many of the
earlier, complex rhythmicpatterns; in their place one findssimple
quavers or semiquavers.
The connective, 'if . . . then' tempo indications between two
segments (see Ex. 2) might appear to be a furtherusage of chance
techniques,but theirprimarypurpose is to assure a smoothtransition
fromone segmentto the next. Since the order of segmentswithin a
unit is not predetermined,tempo must be considered within the
multiplepossibilitiesof contextsforeach segment.This planning can
be seen in the two choices offeredby Boulez for the main unit of
points2 (in thediagram each crotchetor quaver representsa segment):
Ex. 3



A J---~~~41-26-121




126,-1521/J 52-


- 8 1--------- _

The pianist, then, actually has far fewerchoices than one would
expect from the notation of 'Constellation-miroir'.While there is
choice among individual segments, the organization of these
segments into units prevents random chance and provides a subformal structure.In addition, the tempo markings,which at first

iAl6a', pp. 841-2-

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glance appear to promote the use of chance, performtwo longestablishedfunctions:the control of the rate of musical events; and
the controlof smooth transitionsbetween segments.
To this point we have eliminated some misunderstandingsabout
the use of chance in 'Constellation-miroir'and have determinedhow
many genuine notational choices are given. In short, it has been
shown that Boulez has loaded the dice. To determinethe extent of
the loading an examination of the pitch structure is necessary.
Boulez has stated that his prime concern with serial organization in
this piece was to create horizontal and vertical sonoritiesrelated to
each other in a manner that could be perceived by the listener. If
this movementis to be considered serial, it must be considered so in
light of Boulez's definition of the series, with its emphasis on
hierarchyas opposed to pitch-order.
The pitch organization of 'Constellation-miroir'is similar to that
of 'Trope', the otherpublished movementofthe Third Piano Sonata.
The same seriescan be consideredthe foundationfromwhich Boulez
develops his pitch material:





The four main subdivisionsof the chromatic set, when reduced to

an unordered, elemental state, consist of: (a) two semitones and a
perfectfourth; (b) an isolated pitch; (c) a patternof tone, semitone,
tone; and (d) two semitones. In addition, the second and fourth
elements of the series can be combined, formingexactly the same
intervallicrelationshipsas the firstelement.
From these initial pitch elements Boulez creates short, easily
recognizable patternsthat are repeated verticallyor horizontallyat
random; the only hierarchical organization is the inclusion or
exclusion of certain intervals,or the favouringof a few intervals,
such as the minor second. This type of technique-the use of basic,
simple intervallicstructuresas a replacement for the more highly
organized serial pitch structure-has been seen as an extension of
Webern's ideas. 16 It has also been consideredrelated to the investigation of the phonemic quality of words by Mallarme.'7 The pitch
structureresultsfrom units so basic that they can not be broken
down further:
15 Lecture at Case WesternReserve University,March 1971.


Zeller, 'Mallarme and Serialist Thought', p. 7.

Ibid., p. sO.

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EL 4.

Vif 4=126




C ?ts0u:F--t;

~v gf
Mf ff








Discussion of prominentpitches and intervalsalone does not lead

to significantinsightsabout Boulez's piece. Two points should be
noted, however. First, the lack of definitive,hierarchical pitch
organization resultsin a bland uniformityof horizontal and vertical
pitch structures.This uniformityallows basic sonoritiesto be easily
grasped by the listener,unless the texturebecomes too dense. At the
same time it offersan ideal background for textural manipulation.
The absence of a strong hierarchical plan makes possible the
reduction in emphasis of the very element to which we are most
attuned: pitch. Second, there is a basic differencein the pitch
organization of the principal pointsand blocs sections. The points,
through their sparser texture and concentrationon the horizontal,
allow the listener to perceive at least part of the pitch structure.
Many of the blocs,on the otherhand, are so dense that pitch comprehension is impossible; these dense sections correspond in Boulez's
terminologyto ordered chaos. In this manner the pitch structure
does support the main structural divisions while remaining a
secondary element suitable for texturalmanipulation.
Each textureis furtherreinforcedby dynamics and range. The
pointssections employ moderate dynamics and a middle register,
while the blocsuse extremes of both dynamics and range. Within
each section various facetsof each type of texturemay be presented,
allowing subtle differencesin texture.The structuralorganization of
thiswork,then, depends upon juxtapositionsof textures.Since pitch
organization is not a major determinant,especially at the subformal
level, the options left open to the performerare really of little
significance.To be sure, differentroutes will cause higheror lower,
slightlymore dense sonoritiesto be heard in differentorders, but
since textural organization does not create the same degree of
expectation as pitch organization the choices have a minimal effect
on the perceptionofform.The basic six-partstructureof alternating
texturesremains primary.
This is the way Boulez has loaded the dice of chance: he has only
conceded to the performerthe things that do not matter; the

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perceptible structureis decided by Boulez himself.The structureof

this movementis no more 'open' than the other compositionswere
'closed' structures,unless one is to substitute'pitch-orientated'for
closed and 'non-pitch-orientated'foropen. The compositionhas an
ordered successionof textures.The movementconsistsof six sections.
The first,Milange,introducesthe two textures,the firstof which can
be described as sparse and pointillistic,and the second as more dense
and chordal. These two basic texturesare presented in alternation
forthe restof the movement,ending with a pointillisticsection. The
varietyof orders possible within each section gives renewed interest
to each section withoutremovinga sense of structure.
The conclusion is inescapable that 'Constellation-miroir' is
composed within a strongstructuralframework.Aleatoric procedures do not weaken the structure,especially at the highestformal
levels. The term 'open form' has no relevance here, unless it is
to a compositionwhose structureis determined
re-definedas referring
primarilyby elementsusually given secondarystatus. This is a piece
whose formis articulatedby what are generallyconsideredthe lesser
materialsof music: textureand timbre(in the sense ofrange,spacing
and specially devised effectsforthe piano).
This is the essence of Boulez's search for a type of controlled
chance, or alia. In the past, while reachingfornew means oforganization, he relied only on musical elements to which past history
assigned certain expectations: pitch focus, symmetry,rhythmic
periodicityand so forth.If these elementswere to serve as both the
newly organized elements and the organizational basis of the
composition,it was possible for chance to combine these elements
and purposes in such a way that unintentionaldistortionsappeared.
The solution was twofold:first,to recognize chance as an adversary
and plan every point at which it might enter; and second, to base
the musical structure on a non-expectational element, such as
If chance engaging with structureis seen fromthis perspective,
it becomes clear that the analyst's job is not to engage in fruitless
pursuits of various routes through a composition, nor to endlessly
count pitchesin search of even a changing hierarchyof pitches. His
task is to recognize the tremendous vitality of these collections of
pitches as texturesand to begin to develop a vocabulary suitable
firstfordescribing,then for analyzing them.


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