theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Pierre Boulez | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Pierre Boulez
theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Pierre Boulez
Godfather of the avant-garde on how he changed music forever
David Nice writes: it hardly seemed possible, but a pivotal figure in the 20th century music scene has died, two months short of his 91st birthday. As composer, Boulez now seems not so much a game-changer as a constant innovator in one of many strands among the possibilities of contemporary music. He even admitted in an Edinburgh Festival interview that he and his colleagues may have underestimated the role played by the audience in absorbing his avant-gardism. But on one thing everyone agreed: his fabulous ear for sonorities informed both everything he wrote and an ever-expanding repertoire as a conductor, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Wagner included. Igor Toronyi-Lalic met him in 2011.
One of the most exciting things to happen in orchestral music in recent years has been the way the music of Pierre Boulez (b 1925) has begun to escape the confines of the specialist contemporary arena and enter the musical mainstream. At the forefront of this has been Daniel Barenboim, one of Boulez's most committed champions. Tonight sees the start of Barenboim's Boulez and Beethoven cycle at the Proms. Each evening, Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will perform some of Boulez's key concertos and chamber works - including Anthèmes 2, Dialogue de l'ombre double, Le marteau sans maître and, tonight, the epic Dérive 2 - sandwiching them between double helpings of Beethoven.
Boulez had to pull out of a scheduled pre-concert talk tonight due to ongoing health problems. Here, in an interview I did with him at his home in Baden Baden last year in the run up to a Southbank retrospective, we discussed his extraordinary career as composer, conductor and all-round postwar musical colossus.
IGOR TORONYI-LALIC: Is it important for the listener to get lost in your compositions?
PIERRE BOUEZ: Yes. You no longer have pre-defined forms in music. Prior to this classical music was convenient in that you had the shape before the beginning. And you knew where you were. Even if it was a little more or less complex. But you knew that themes were repeated at certain moments and in certain tonalities. But already with Wagner you have a strong dramatic impulse. If you heard those operas rarely, would you know where he was going? In the 19th century this kind of very dramatic form - which was more drama than form - is very important. You see that also in Mahler. There is a classical frame but at the same time the narration of what he wants to express is destroying the feeling you have for the form.
There is always this idea that contemporary music is just geometrical. This is not true
Which of your works are most, and least, labyrinthine?
Dérive I (1984) or even... explosante-fixe... (1971–72) are very clear. The form is not difficult to perceive. It's done in this direction [he gestures forward]. But there are other works, like Dérive 2 (1988; revised 2002; expanded and completed 2006), that are difficult to follow for the first time.
Douze notations (1945) is very easy to follow, I'd say.
Yes. It is well defined.
Listen to Boulez's Douze notations for piano
I saw you conduct the orchestral arrangement of Douze notations (1978 to present) at the Barbican a few years ago. It got a rapturous reception and you did the last movement again as an encore. Does that happen a lot nowadays?
For this piece, and some of my other pieces, yes. Not for everything of course. Notations is compressed and short; the moments are very well defined with regard to register. The register is first in the middle, then up, then down, then in the middle again. Even for those who don't know music and who don't know what register is, you know you have to focus on something even if you can't give it a name.
When Pollini plays my Second Piano Sonata, the expression is wild. And I am very happy because, at this time, I was also very wild
Orchestrally, it is also very virtuosic, almost Romantic.
For sure. There is always this idea that contemporary music is just geometrical. This is not true. The music of Berio or Ligeti is very expressive. But each time you have to go beyond the material. If you play Beethoven's Op 106, you have to look at the form and construction otherwise you will go from one feeling to another feeling, which doesn't create a form.
Of the works that we will hear, which are the best for the beginner?
...explosante-fixe... is the easiest to grasp.
Because it is constructed in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle, which you are very aware of because of the register. Ideas are tied to register. When you change the register, you immediately change idea.
Do you think about perception as much as the abstract formalities of the work?
I am not different from other people. What I propose in a composition - if I put it in a good order - is what I can hear myself. What I conceive, I can hear. And I suppose other people can hear it also. As I say, there are some moments that are more difficult to perceive than others. But you can also play with this difference of perception according to the moment where the piece has arrived.
For some, it will always be almost impossible to enter into your strictly serial early work because you set the bar for intelligibility too high. Do you think you do this?
It's not too high. Think about Le marteau sans maître (The hammer without a master) (1953–55; revised 1957), for instance, which was the first work in which I was very careful about perception. It depends on how you perform it. If you perform it in a stiff way, in a way where you don’t go where you want to go, the people won’t follow you. But when you are sure and you can manage the expressivity of the lines, there is no problem.
Some of those early serial works are so complex formally that they force the audience to respond solely emotionally. That is, they force a response that is Romantic, in ways that would have been considered by some like you at the time as...
Yes, primitive. Do you mind when people use Romantic aesthetic tools to get to your work?
No I don't mind. On the contrary, I like it. When [Maurizio] Pollini (pictured left) plays my Second Piano Sonata (1947-48), the expression is so wild. And I am very happy with this because, at this time, I was also very wild. More wild than I am now, 60 years on.
But as a conductor you are not wild at all; you're famously controlled.
Yes, I am controlled, but I give the push to everyone else. You don't have to give a very big push. The moment you give a push in tempo you see the sonorities changing. But you don't do it yourself. If you do it yourself, the others won't do it.
Let's go back to the beginning. A lot has been written and said about how you fashioned your new serial language but what I've never quite understood is exactly why you decided to take the most extreme path open to you?
It was the period. It was immediately after the war - 1945, 1946 - and we wanted a tabula rasa. We were ready to go. People after the war, when they found a good beat or a good jacket, they’d say, “Oh, that was exactly like before the war!” And in music it was exactly the same, they wanted Stravinsky’s Neo-Classicism, and all this superficial French music of the 1920s and 1930s. That, as a generation, we did not want any more. Messiaen (pictured overleaf) was... not instrumental exactly, but he was a man who did not appreciate this kind of Neo-Classicism. We were with him from this point of view. We wanted to do something new. So in Structures, Book I (1951–52), where the responsibility of the composer is practically absent, I was extreme on purpose. Had computers existed at that time I would have put the data through them and made the piece that way. But I did it by hand. I was myself a small and very primitive computer. It was a demonstration through the absurd.
A polemical provocation.
So should we bother even to listen to it as music?
No. You can forget about it. Ligeti in his analysis of the piece - though it was correct - thought that I was thinking seriously about it as a point of departure. On the contrary, it was a turning point.
Would you rather not have this piece played any more.
I am not terribly eager to listen to it. But for me it was an experience that was absolutely necessary.
Pi-Hsien Chen and Ian Pace perform Boulez's Structures, Book I:
You're often perceived as dogmatic. But you warn early on that this new musical language that you had devised, Total Serialism, mustn't become too academic. What might strike some as being odd about that idea is that, superficially, your music does seem academic because many still don't understand what's going on.
When you compose you are doing a number of things that are provoked by what you know of previous music. And many people do not even know, or aren't familiar with, the music of Schoenberg, Webern or even Berg. So if they do not know these, how can they appreciate my past? The question to the people who are putting up question marks is, "Do you know enough?" Because if they have heard only one piece, then after two years they hear another piece, it is not really useful at all. This is the same for Wagner. If there wasn't the theatrical aspect, people would be completely lost. I'm sure.
There's another contradiction. You have been a great public communicator as a conductor and programming pioneer and have tried harder than anyone else to get young people more interested in contemporary classical music...
That's been a big part of my life.
...and yet for some it is precisely your language that has so alienated these young people, who, like it or not, are still, as a result of pop, addicted to tonality.
This problem springs from a musical life that is too stiff. You have the literature for orchestra. You have the literature for chamber music and so on. And all of it is in separate worlds. They do not communicate at all. Last year with the Orchestre de Paris I did alternate solo, chamber and orchestral music in the same concert. With lighting, we moved from one to the other very quickly. The problem is that people have no imagination for programming. Programming is done in the wrong order. What do they do now? People are booked three or four years ahead. So you make a kind of season with names first. Then when you have the names, you make the programmes. And so these programmes have no continuity or inter-relationships. You cannot make the audience aware of evolution of the music unless you have a historical perspective, in which they understand where they are each time.
Also, the same pieces are always played. Imagine a museum in Amsterdam with only two pictures: one by Rembrandt, one by Vermeer. That would not be a museum. Our own musical museum is really ridiculously small. You have seasons in which each week there is a new programme, new programme, concert, concert, concert. I stopped subscription concerts and gave a small festival where you put the accentuation on some period, composer or problem. This is very important. Then people are suddenly surprised to hear a work in different circumstances and different relationships.
Ravel tried jazz. They are not his best work. Stravinsky, too. They are not his best works. I don't believe in trends at all
What do you think of the attempt by some in classical music to absorb those languages that perhaps have more affinity with those sounds of the popular world?
This is a solution that is not a solution. And it happened already with jazz. Ravel tried jazz. They are not his best work. Stravinsky, too. They are not his best works. I don't believe in trends at all.
Do you think there is any way of re-absorbing tonality in order to engage those addicted to pop?
Think about the American repetitive music [Minimalism]. It is true that they have imagination in the superimposed periodicities. But if you use periodicity with a melodic line that is trivial or with a chord of D major for a quarter of an hour, there is a dimension that is definitely missing. It might be easy and interesting to listen to for a few minutes. But longer, it is nothing.
But the irony is that Minimalism is a bastard child of Total Serialism in that both use processes to generate material.
They took only permutation from me. But the permutation is limited if you work only with periodicity. I am not against any form of attempt. But I want that all parameters of composition are there. If you have such a big one missing, the work is impaired.
What about world music, something you've been very influenced by. Here are popular languages that could form the basis for complex music?
Well, now I speak in parenthesis. The people in Japan were the first [to compose in a Western way] because there is a strong Western tradition there. But as composers they did not know what to do. Becuase they have strong traditional music - the Gagaku (pictured left) and so on - and they have the occidental way of thinking. So, where to go? Because the instruments are built in such a way as to bring about sonorities of a special kind. And if you use them it is like putting on a kimono and thinking that you are Japanese. You are not! [Laughs.]
So one has to absorb these traditions more thoroughly to use them?
One has to absorb and to analyse. It has to become intuitive. It has to be analysed to such a deep level that it is no more imitation. You transcribe them and take the elements and use them as elements, so it is not the same vocabulary.
I didn’t like Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony. I found it terribly vulgar. And I told him... We didn't speak for five years
Let's talk about your first musical jobs, before you started composing. You worked in cabaret playing the ondes martenot and rearranging Tchaikovsky for theatre productions. How did you cope?
I coped as one does with an exercise. I was in the harmony class of Messiaen, where we had to do an exercise in the style of Schumann. You do it. It's a good, interesting exercise. As is the exercise of orchestrating Tchaikovsky Lieder. You take lines and you make arrangements like they do in Hollywood.
But this wasn't what made you such an angry young man, was it?
No, because, firstly, I was making a living. And second, the actors I was working with were very famous. Jean-Louis Barrault (pictured right) was organising rehearsals. Also it was here I got to know the possibilities of instruments better. When I was in the [Paris] Conservatoire there was big gap between the class of composition and the class of instrumentation. There was no connection whatsoever. So it was very interesting for me to discuss the practical side of things with musicians, to say, "How do you do that with the oboe?" or "How fast can you go?" and so on.
So where did your anger come from? Because your pronouncements are legendary (ie, "Anyone who has not felt... the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS"). And I also read somewhere that you were known to actually be able to vomit in response to music that you didn't appreciate.
[Laughs] That is legend. But no, I could say my opinion in a very tough way. I don't bother to do it now. Even with Messiaen [his teacher], I was very rude. I didn’t like his Turangalîla Symphony. I found it terribly vulgar. And I told him. Today, I wouldn’t tell him in this way, even though I am doubtful of the piece.
How did he respond?
He was shocked. Very shocked. And we did not speak for something like five years. He was very generous. I asked him to play my Structures, Book I (1951–52). And he agreed and we performed it.
What did he think of it?
That he didn't say. [Laughs.] But he did want to make the effort.
So why were you such an angry young man?
Because I wanted things to go in my direction. When you are young, you want people to follow you even if you aren’t convinced of your own path yourself. Of course, they don’t. The absurdity was that I wanted people to do what I wanted to do myself. After that, I thought if I don't do it no one would do it. And I was rather isolated in France. There were the [René] Leibowitz (pictured above) classes, but they were terribly academic. There was never a word on aesthetics. There was never a word of why that, why that, why did [Schoenberg] write these variations Brahms-type instead of going further with Erwartung, for instance. Things like that. You have to have a critical mind when you begin to study. Not critical in the sense that you are negative. But if you want to define what you want to do, you have to be critical in front of what you have assimilated.
So do you mean to say that your violent reaction was a reaction to people responding negatively to your work?
Yes. The music establishment [in Paris] was so against us. So, I escaped to Germany. Here the atmosphere was totally different.
But you succeeded beyond, I imagine, your wildest dreams. Your musical language became the new lingua franca.
Yes. Too much. Too franca. [Laughs.] Certainly.
I didn’t force [my musical language on anyone]. On the contrary, each time I had a student I said, ‘Please get rid of me!'
How could you have avoided this?
I tried to be myself. The first works I wrote, Sonatine for Flute and Piano (1946) and the First Piano Sonata (1946), were very different to what I was hearing generally. And certainly very different to the Schoenberg-schule, so to speak, which was very stiff and poor from the point of view of rhythmical invention.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Boulez's First Piano Sonata:
Total Serialism quickly took hold of university campuses. It became the language. Some say that it was quite authoritarian the way that it was demanded of students.
But I was never authoritarian. Never. The only moment when I taught was from 1956-65 in Darmstadt, then in Basle to make a living from 1960-63. I am not a teacher. I do not have a school or a family.
But your language has permeated almost every composer's style.
Yes, but that was not my doing.
Whose doing was it?
It was their doing, not mine.
But you provided the framework?
Yes, I provided the framework, but I didn’t force it [on anyone]. On the contrary, each time I had a student I said, "Please get rid of me!" [Laughs.]
Which were your most promising students?
There were only two of them: Jean-Claude Éloy (pictured right) and Heinz Holliger. Holliger went to compose really perfect and personal things. Éloy was taken by extreme oriental dreams. He thought he was doing Gagaku music. But Gagaku music is Gagaku. It's not occidental music.
Your new musical language created a lot of argument. There is still a lot of simmering tension between composers of different camps in every country in the world. Do you regret that this happened?
What I regret is the lack of international communication. Because for my generation in Europe, we had quite a lot of communication with the United States. Now each country is confined to itself. There is no organisation that brings Germans, Italians, French and English together. But Darmstadt did. While there were classes, speeches and so on, people were also discussing between themselves. This was the most interesting part. After you had a lecture that was controversial, people discussed it. This doesn't exist to this extent any more.
What is your daily compositional routine?
Sometimes it's not daily at all. When I have concerts to conduct, I am first taken by rehearsals and, maybe not "learning" learning, but with absorbing the scores. Especially with the repertoire I am doing, the number of rehearsals are rather tight, so you have to calculate the time precisely.
I am interested in doing an opera but not really like it is generally done: stage, pit, people. This, for me, is deadly
So you aren't starting new work but revising old ones?
Yes, changing or instrumenting.
But I thought you'd finished those?
No, they are not finished. My God, no, definitely not... [Laughs.] There are seven still to be done. I hope to finish eight and six now. I have finished five in part. I have to revise it and write a big score.
Why does it take you so long?
Because I also wanted to compose other things: Dérive 1 and Dérive 2 and, of course, Sur incises (1996-1998).
Boulez explains his masterpiece, Sur Incises:
Is there something about your compositional process that makes it take a particularly long time?
I don't spend so much time on the piece itself. But alternating with conducting and having concerts does cut through the time. It's very bad because I am reading notes that I wrote for Notations Eight from three or four years ago and I am asking myself, what exactly did I mean, my God? So you have to plunge again into a swimming pool where you are not at ease.
We'll be hearing two electronic works: Anthèmes (1991; revised and expanded 1994) and ...explosante-fixe... You explored electronic works for a while then retreated from the medium. Why?
Because the equipment wasn't sophisticated enough.
Even for Répons (1980; revised and expanded 1982; revised and expanded 1984)?
For Répons, it was. My intention is to do a second part for Répons. For this I want to use all the resources that have been discovered since then. Répons relies on the electronic state of affairs in 1981. This is 30 years ago - quite a long time.
What are the most interesting aspects of contemporary electronic music for you?
The way you can change timbre, colour and the score following. You can do score following very precisely. The score following influences the performing aspect of the written parts. So, quite a lot. With my assistant, I am doing a catalogue of new things to know what I can use.
A lot of us got very excited a few years ago when there were reports you might be doing an opera of Waiting for Godot.
Oh yes. That's a report.
There's definitely not any truth in it?
As long as I’m alive, I won’t be sure [laughs].
Is that the text you'd be most interested in using?
I am interested in doing an opera but not really like it is generally done: stage, pit, people. This, for me, is deadly. It has produced masterpieces of course. But if you compare the life of the theatre now, it does not require this kind of separation between audience and action. Like for Répons. Répons is impossible in the concert hall as it is normally organised. This is part of the interest of the musical theatre. To change the communication.
There are a lot of attempts in London at the moment to do operas in non-theatrical spaces. And it's working very well. Would you like to do that?
Yes, I would like to do that. But with opera, you generally have an adaptation of a theatre piece, and instead of speaking you have singing. This is not enough. You can multiply this. I think of Japanese theatre, where you have four people doing the same part, or the puppeteer by himself and the role being done by an electronic voice.
Again quite a radical approach. You have, however, said how endless revolution, endless change, can get quite monotonous.
You would have to organise an accident to make Stockhausen's Helikopter-Streichquartett interesting. A helicopter would have to crash or something
So can you see how this sort of eternal originality can become tiresome for people.
It depends on whether it is focused on important points. You have to organise the form. You cannot change just for the sake of changing.
Do you feel that your life has been too much about revolution?
Not enough? Really?
Really. I think, for instance, that Stockhausen was more inventive than me.
But surely things like the Helikopter-Streichquartett [in which four members of a string quartet play in independent helicopters and the music is relayed back to a hall, being performed in the skies over Salzburg, 2003, (pictured left) were dead-end innovations?
I said he was inventive. I didn't say he was critical of himself. You would have to organise an accident to make Stockhausen's Helikopter-Streichquartett interesting. One helicopter would have to fall down or something [laughs].
Since the 1980s people have, inevitably, reacted against your musical language and have been moving in new directions, for example taking up Spectralism.
Spectralism I can understand. Because if there was a big defect in serial thinking it was a lack of harmonic thinking and feeling. This was not organised at all. That was my main concern at one point. You can see why I have this obsession with register. Because registers you can see immediately. So Schoenberg's Bläserquintett, Op 26, is impossible to listen to because there is no control of the vertical dimension.
Do you think the future is Spectralism?
No. This will be an element that will be taken care of more carefully than before. But to have a vocabulary just based on that, that is also not enough.
Where do you see the most hopeful signs of a future lingua franca?
There is no lingua franca. There will be individuals. Between Debussy's Jeux and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring there is very little in common. And if you add to that at the same time [Schoenberg's] Erwartung, Op 16, there is still less common ground. I do not think that we have to think in terms of common ground. The vocabulary will be essentially the same. But the aspects of the vocabularly will be totally different.
Which composers at the moment most excite you?
Some of the French composers, Philippe Manoury (pictured right) and Marc-André Dalbavie and others around them, but they are less talented than these two.
What about New Complexity?
I am very doubtful about New Complexity. Because in general there is a lack of experience there.
But there's an immediate intensity to their work often.
There is an intensity but an intensity that is very approximate. When you have values: 5, 4, 7 and inside the 5 you have 12, 2, 4, 8, you cannot calculate that. You cannot calculate two sets of values at the same time. What you can calculate is the change of tempo because tempo is an envelope. But to have a kind of cascade of relationship of values, it's simply impossible. People have tried and sometimes they hear a quintuplet or a sextuplet with one value inside it and then if you approximate the value you have a tenth of a second difference that you cannot perceive. There is a lot of thinking around it. But it is not the right thinking because they do not analyse the perception. And when the perception is not analysed why do it? Because it will not be perceived.
A demo of IRCAM's score following technology on Philippe Manoury's Partita I for viola (Christophe Desjardins) and realtime electronics:
Of all your works which do you think is the strongest and will last longest?
I do not know and I do not care because I will not see it [laughs].
There are a couple of pieces that are memorial works. Rituel - in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1974) and Mémoriale ("...explosante-fixe..." originel) (1985) for Igor Stravinsky. How do you offer a piece to the memory of a man whose music you do not respect?
The older you get, the less ideas you have, but the more you know how to exploit them. You don't need to respect the music to respect the man. With Stravinsky there were a lot of people around him who were sometimes difficult to [laughs] adjust to, let's say.
Robert Craft, you mean (pictured left with Stravinsky)?
But Craft opened Stravinsky up to new serial avenues?
At the beginning he was good. But after that he was so frustrated as a conductor that really... He did not grow at all. He was someone who lived in a shadow. And even when there was no longer the tree, there was still the shadow.
What are you working on right now?
The way you explode the original piano pieces of Notations onto an orchestrations stage reminds me of how, when people translate a short Japanese phrase into English, what they get is something almost comically longer. The same thing seems to happen to your arrangements of Notations. How come you feel the need to expand on the originals so much?
The ideas were good but not explored enough; there was more to them. This is normal. When you are young, you have plenty of ideas and you don't know how to use them. The older you get, the less ideas you have but the more you know how to exploit them.
Boulez's Douze notations I-IV for orchestra:
You love your large scale Romantic canvases.
Yes! I loved doing Sur Incises.
Everything you do seems to be moving to a Wagnerian scale - whether one thinks of IRCAM or your orchestral works. Do you think of yourself more and more as being a Romantic?
Yes, I was... I mean I guess I am.
This interview appeared in a shorter form in The Times in September 2011
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