Discussion of James Joyce’s influence on Pierre Boulez (via John Cage) from Scott W. Klein’s excellent paper, Music After Joyce: The Post-Serial Avant-Garde:
“…[Boulez] had read Ulysses in French, and in a letter to John Cage in 1950 he thanks the American composer for his gift of a copy of Finnegans Wake, calling it “almost a totem,” while admitting “reading it was slower than slow, given the difficulty of deciphering it.” Boulez was interested in avant-garde literature in general, admiring Mallarmé particularly for his density and obscurity. Boulez thought of Joyce as a key figure for the way in which avant-gardism in literature tended to precede avant-gardism in music. In his essay Recherches Maintenant in 1954 he asked for “a new poetics, a different way of listening,” noting “Neither the Mallarmé of the Coup de dés nor Joyce was paralleled by anything in the music of his own time.” In a 1961 lecture at Darmstadt, Boulez noted that he was after something deeper than mere provocation, wishing to emulate the subtlety and engagement with tradition of Joyce rather than the antics of the noisier avant-garde: he wrote, “Satie included typewriters in his orchestra, Webern did not. The surrealists shouted in the street and Joyce shut himself up with old Irish songs and Italian operatic airs. Which has proved the greater provocation? Which is the provocation recorded in the pages of history other than in a footnote?” His implicit claim is that Boulez, and his generation, could accomplish in music what Joyce had in literature.
Boulez never set Joyce’s texts, and one might wonder what appeal Joyce, with his baroque aesthetics of elaboration, might have for the post-Webernian Boulez. Yet Webern was perhaps the first Western composer whose compositions cannot easily be divided into its constituent musical parts; that is to say, one can scarcely make a piano reduction of Webern, because the ‘narrative’, the melodic forms, are inseparable from structure and timbre. In an analogous way, the same is true for Joyce: by the time of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake there is no longer ‘plot’ and ‘style’ separate from one another; all of the aspects of prose, including the sound of the language, are integral to the meaning of the whole. Indeed, when recalling what drew him to Joyce, Boulez cited “the specificity of technique for each chapter, the fact that technique and story were one.” It is not too farfetched to look at Boulez’s Marteau sans Maître, where each movement has a different orchestration, and see behind it not only the example of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire but also the changing styles of Ulysses.
Most of Boulez’s published references to Joyce occur in the 1960 essay Sonate, que me veux-tu? (Sonata, what do you want of me?), an essay on his Third Piano Sonata. Of the sonata, Boulez wrote, “It may well be that literary affiliations played a more important part than purely musical considerations” noting that “some writers at the present time have gone much further than composers in the organization, the actual mental structure, of their works.” Boulez explicitly compares the innovations of his sonata to those of “Joyce’s two last great novels.” “It is not only that the organization of the narrative has been revolutionized,” Boulez writes, but that “The novel observes itself qua novel, as it were, reflects on itself and is aware that it is a novel.” Boulez compares the construction of the sonata to the self-consciousness of technique in two particular chapters of Ulysses, Scylla and Charybdis, where Stephen Dedalus lectures on Hamlet, and Oxen of the Sun, where the “growth of a foetus in the womb is suggested by a series of pastiches in which the evolution of the English language is traced from Chaucer to the present day.” In the Third Sonata, this auto-referentiality is mainly a function of the various ways in which the movements can be structured and played. Originally in five movements, or ‘formants’, only two have been published by Boulez. They can be played in a variety of configurations, particularly in Formant 2, titled Trope, in which the constituent parts, Glose, Text, Parenthèse, and Commentaire (all literary terms) can be reordered according to a fixed set of permutations. When listening to the Sonata, one cannot tell that it is based on Joycean ideas, but for Boulez the idea of mobility of structure and innovation of language was Joycean above all else…”