As Oscar Wilde said: “An unbiased opinion is always absolutely valueless.”
Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) is one of our most opinionated musicians (composer/conductor), but when was the last time you ever heard a note of his music? Come on, folks, fess up. Did you ever hear anything written by him? If not, why not?
He issued a lot of rather shrill polemics in the 1950s, a result of post-war pessimism and the Darmstadt contemporary music seminars. Those turned a lot of people off, and contributed to the “split” in academic music departments between “serious” 12-tone composers and “everyone else.” Severe judgments were passed that anyone not using serial procedures was merely rehashing old ideas (at best) or writing “trash” (at worst).
Maybe a good place to start listening to Boulez is “Pli selon pli.” It’s based on poetry of Mallarmé. The orchestra is handled with extreme delicacy and transparency (so French) and one can hear the “inheritance” from Debussy, Ravel, and Boulez’ teacher Messiaen. The voice is not handled in anything resembling “bel canto” practice, though the colors achieved are beautiful and effective when well sung.
On the other hand, the famous Second Piano Sonata, one of the masterpieces of the piano repertoire of the twentieth century, remains an enigma to me. I can’t even sight read one measure of it to my satisfaction (nor to Boulez’ I’m sure!). The notation is so complicated, it presents an insuperable barrier. But when I hear someone else play it, I am swept into its textures.
Boulez fulfilled a certain historical role as “provocateur,” forcing people to think rather than to remain complacent in the routines of concert life and “music consumption.”
For example: “I once said that the most elegant solution to the problem of opera was to blow up the opera houses, and I still think this is true.” Yet Boulez has a legacy of revelatory opera performances that he conducted (and often recorded), including Wagner’s “Ring” cycle (the controversial Bayreuth 1976 productions by Patrice Chéreau), Parsifal, and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. His attention to precision, which one would think was a standard (but isn’t always), raised the bar for all subsequent performances.
Once thought to be too “heady,” Boulez’ conducting style has transformed over the decades to something more passionate, even “hot” at times. The guy didn’t stand a chance in his brief tenure at the New York Philharmonic (1971-1977), following the charismatic Leonard Bernstein. Boulez introduced the radical “rug” concerts, in which the seats were removed from the hall and people sat or reclined on rugs and foam pillows. Again, trying to “destabilize” and de-routine-ize the concert experience and remove the potentially stifling formality of the “temple.” The orchestra wasn’t on stage either, and wonder of wonders, the acoustics of Avery Fisher, that “lemon” of a hall, were better.
Boulez doesn’t see the label “intellectual” as an insult, something he shares with the (now retired) great pianist Alfred Brendel.
“The closed space and its attendant temptation to contemplate beautiful objects in a way that is pointless and no more than half awake is the bane of Western music.” Well, I told you he is a provocateur. He is more interested in music’s “process” and “becoming,” inhabiting a space of “permanent discovery,” not a bad mantra that more musicians should have the courage to adopt.
Boulez founded the IRCAM in Paris, a center for musical and acoustic research that permits experimentation with novel sound sources, including electronic. The underground space, adjacent to the Centre Georges Pompidou, also has flexible concert halls that can adapt to what is being performed within.
One last bon mot from the man himself: “A work of art exists only if it is the unforeseeable become necessity.”
Orientations, Collected Writings by Pierre Boulez
© 1986, Harvard University Press
(originally published in French with different title and some different content in 1981, revised 1985; this translation is by Martin Cooper)
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs