BY Leo Chadburn in Profiles | 01 JUN 15
Featured in
Issue 172

Influential Composer Pierre Boulez Turns 90

Depending on your point of view, the composer, writer and conductor is either a purveyor of cold-hearted didacticism, or a creator of glittering musical worlds

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BY Leo Chadburn in Profiles | 01 JUN 15

Pierre Boulez,1987, photographed by Martine Franck; Courtesy: Magnum Photography

The prism of opinion has fractured the image of Pierre Boulez into many opposing things. Depending on your point of view, he’s a tyrant or a perfectionist, an iconoclast or the face of the establishment. He’s a purveyor of cold-hearted didacticism, or a creator of glittering musical worlds. It’s hard to think of any other figure in 20th-century music who has had such a divisive impact. As a composer, writer, conductor and researcher, he’s the firebrand around whom the rest of musical modernism has ignited.

Boulez celebrated his 90th birthday in March this year, prompting anniversary events at London’s Barbican Centre, with more planned for festivals in Salzburg (July–August) and Lucerne (August–September), as well as the BBC proms. His age binds Boulez inextricably to postwar music and aesthetics; while Europe was being rebuilt in the 1950s, Boulez set about creating a new musical language, rejecting soiled old forms and traditions, and infamously repudiating an older generation of artists.

‘It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa, because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All the art of the past must be destroyed,’ said Boulez in a barbed 1971 ‘tribute’ to Igor Stravinsky for Saturday Review magazine. This unsentimental mission of destruction was initially inspired by the 12-tone techniques of Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern music based not on keys, scales or tonal chords, but on manipulations of tone rows, lending equal weight to all 12 notes of the chromatic scale and producing strictly ordered atonal music, full of sharp edges and unpredictable shifts. This idea was a source of fascination in the classes of composer Olivier Messiaen, Boulez’s teacher at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 1940s and ’50s.

It inspired a passionate fervour in the young Boulez, who wrote in his 1952 essay ‘Eventuellement’ that any musician who had not ‘truly experienced […] the necessity of dodecaphonic [twelve-tone] music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.’

Boulez went several steps further, calculating and serializing parameters such as duration and dynamics in works including his Structures (1952) for two pianos. Each note in the piece is an individual gesture, a single point in an austere, jagged landscape or a dense starry sky. This quasi-mathematical ‘integral serialism’ was both a beginning and an end for Boulez, who implicitly acknowledged its expressive limitations, but not before it had influenced a generation of composers.

The epicentre of this style of music throughout the 1950s was the International Summer Courses for New Music at Darmstadt, where composers such as Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen disseminated similar ideas and a whole generation of musical modernists cut their teeth. The ‘Darmstadt School’ immediately acquired a reputation (perhaps not unfairly) for dogma and elitist intellectualism. It was Boulez’s polemical writing and energetic, sometimes abrasive, personality that provided the lightning rod.

However, his major work of the mid-1950s, Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1955) has an expressive quality totally at odds with the Darmstadt image. It is a 40-minute setting of surrealist poetry by René Char for a solo alto singer and the unique combination of alto flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba and unpitched percussion. This kaleidoscope of instrumental colours linked it in many listeners’ imaginations to the music of Africa, Indonesian gamelan and even a fractured kind of jazz. In this way, the first major irony of Boulez’s career emerges; despite his anti-nationalist advocacy of musical abstraction, Le marteau sans maître is identifiably French. Its sensuousness and ‘exoticism’ links it to Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and the perfumed impressionist music of 50 years earlier.

The second irony of this seemingly controlling composer’s work during the 1950s was that he began to include elements of flexibility and modularity into his music. John Cage had arrived at Darmstadt and caused an understandable stir with his ideas about musical indeterminacy and chance operations, and he and Boulez maintained a dialogue throughout the decade.

The fruits of this discourse were the two published movements of the Third Piano Sonata (1957–58) that are ‘destined to be renewed at each performance’. One movement, Trope, is a spiral-bound score that can be started from any page, while the other, Constellation-miroir (Constellation-Mirror), is a huge map of musical fragments for the pianist to navigate.

Boulez Conducts Boulez: Pli selon pli (Fold by Fold), 1973, record cover; Courtesy: Columbia Records

Boulez soon rejected Cage’s Zen relinquishment of control, but the idea of ‘constant renewal’ has remained central to his work. For example, … explosante-fixe … (Exploding-Fixed) began as a modest piece for solo flute in 1971, but was revised and recycled over a period of 20 years before emerging as a wild concerto for flute, small orchestra and electronics. He began writing his most extended piece – the shimmering, hour-long Pli selon pli (Fold by Fold) for soprano and orchestra – in 1957 and repeatedly rewrote it until 1989. The ten-minute piano solo Incises (1994) mutated beyond all recognition into Sur incises for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists: the original material quadrupling in length.

In fact, several of Boulez’s compositions remain officially unfinished. (A planned three further movements of the Third Piano Sonata have never been published in a finished form.) His complete works (as released on the Deutsche Grammophon label in 2013) fill twelve CDs, which is not a huge amount of music for a man whose career is seven decades long. This is not merely due to the composer’s constant reimagining of his own music, but a result of his activities outside of composition. In 1970, he had enough cultural leverage to persuade the French president Georges Pompidou to fund the creation of a permanent centre for musical research, Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), which opened its doors in 1977.

With Boulez as director, IRCAM became (and remains) a temple of innovation in electronic music. The list of composers who have passed through its doors reads like a who’s who of modernism: Luciano Berio, Harrison Birtwistle, Gérard Grisey, Jonathan Harvey, Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis, among many others. The influence of IRCAM on digital music can be seen in every studio in the world, in the shape of its publicly released software (such as the immensely popular GRM-Tools plug-ins) and the game-changing computer-music programming environment, Max/MSP, which began life as an IRCAM project.

Boulez’s own most significant composition to come out of IRCAM was Répons (Response, 1981–84), a key work that places the audience at the eye of an icy maelstrom, with soloists and orchestra surrounding them, the crystalline sounds of piano and tuned percussion being thrown in six directions across an array of loudspeakers. No pre recorded sounds are involved; the electronics are a hall of mirrors transforming the music in real time: a serious technological innovation.

For someone whose early career was so bound up in vociferously rejecting the past, Boulez has had an unexpected, extremely prestigious parallel career as a conductor. He has become a supreme interpreter of early-20th-century music, Richard Wagner and some surprising contemporaries, such as Frank Zappa, on whose 1984 album The Perfect Stranger Boulez conducted Ensemble InterContemporain, the IRCAM house band.

Boulez’s incandescent intellect will always be off-putting for some. He will remain a composer more often discussed than heard. But, like the cleverest architects, there’s a poetry to his work, a beauty to the sound world he creates. His towering, pristine musical structures gleam with an idealistic energy and an absolutely committed drive to reinvent both the artist and the art form post-1945.

Leo Chadburn is a writer and composer based in London, UK. He has previously contributed to The Quietus, TEMPO and The Wire. In 2015, he premiered his solo work RED & BLUE, and in 2016 he wrote and staged the work Freezywater for the Apartment House ensemble. His new piece, 'Affix Stamp Here', will be premiered by EXAUDI in October 2016. 

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