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Music -- September 1995

Unreconstructed Modernist

How does one account for the fall of Pierre Boulez the composer and the rise of Pierre Boulez the conductor?

by David Schiff

bousmall picture THIRTY-FIVE years ago I bought a record that changed the way I thought about music: Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître, conducted by Robert Craft. Scored for the exotic ensemble of contralto voice, alto flute, viola, guitar, and percussion (including vibraphone, but prominently bongos), Le Marteau was remotely jazzy and vaguely oriental, rhythmically frantic yet emotionally cool. It was atonal, but without the angst of most of the atonal music I knew. Heard today, it might seem quintessentially fifties--a vodka martini set to music, with instrumentation not far from what you would hear on a Chet Baker record or, with those bongos, a hi-fi demo. But at the time, I felt that I had been granted a vision of the musical future. I sat down and wrote a piece for flute, vibraphone, and bongos, to be played as fast as possible. My revelation was not unique. Le Marteau affected composers of several generations, who began to turn out flute-and-vibraphone music by the yard. Because the recording was conducted by Craft, it signaled a laying on of hands by Igor Stravinsky, who lavished praise on Le Marteau and predicted (perhaps ironically) that in twenty-five years Boulez, the enfant terrible of the European avant-garde, would be a concert staple.

It did not turn out that way. Today the avant-garde is a thing of the past. Boulez, who turned seventy in March, is far more active as a conductor than as a composer. The most recent recording of Le Marteau sans maître, widely considered the signature piece of the post-Second World War era, has never even been reissued on CD, although a forthcoming DGG disc, following a series of new releases tied to Boulez's birthday, should bring it back into circulation sometime in 1996.

Boulez remains one of the most puzzling figures in the music of our time. Although he composed Le Marteau sans maître when he was around thirty, it turned out to be the beginning of the end of his main creative phase. He has composed little new music over the past twenty years. In the wake of Boulez's turbulent years at the New York Philharmonic, in the mid-1970s, the writer Joan Peyser rolled out the Freudian machinery in her book Boulez (1976) and just sounded crass--with her suggestion, for example, that he suffered from crippling emotional inhibitions as a result of his Catholic upbringing. Today critics are more likely to see Boulez as a victim of his own vision of musical history. When modernism went out of style, they say, Boulez was left stranded. Yet the ecstatic reception Boulez receives these days when he conducts in Chicago or Vienna--neither city a bastion of modern music, from which Boulez never strays--suggests that Boulez is not so easily consigned to the historical dustheap.

I would propose a different model of Boulez's career: the typical trajectory of a mathematical genius. Like many mathematicians, Boulez had his great ideas in his early twenties, when he burst onto the Parisian musical scene as a radical composer and a scathing polemicist who intended to rewrite the history of twentieth-century music to justify his own innovations. You can hear his brash brilliance in his very first published work-- the deceptively titled Sonatine for flute and piano, which Boulez wrote in 1946, a work that was neither small nor neoclassical.

This has to be one of the most original opus No. 1s in the history of music, because it fuses the two warring schools of modern music--those of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Boulez saw that Stravinsky had revitalized rhythm, while Schoenberg--and, more important, his pupil Anton Webern--had reconfigured harmony through the twelve-tone technique. Yet when Boulez composed the sonatina, Stravinsky had apparently ceased his harmonic explorations, and Schoenberg was still using the rhythms of Brahms. Webern, the only composer who might have shown the way forward, was dead, shot by an American soldier in a freak accident that made him into a martyr for the European left. Why not combine the progressive elements of the two schools? Hurling Stravinskian rhythms at Schoenbergian harmonies, the young Boulez smashed the musical atom, releasing in the sonatina an explosion of musical violence, nervousness, and instability.

What could he do for an encore? Boulez expanded the style of the flute sonatina in two visionary cantatas based on poetry by the great surrealist René Char: Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux. In his Second Piano Sonata, written in 1948, at the age of just twenty-three, Boulez felt sufficiently confident of his grand synthesis to take on the very heights of musical accomplishment--late Beethoven. The sonata deliberately evokes Beethoven's monumental Hammerklavier Sonata op. 106, and in the recording by Maurizio Pollini the comparison seems almost valid. The sonata was a triumph of what is termed l'audace in French, chutzpah in Yiddish.

The rapid development of Boulez's music soon reached its first crisis, however. Around 1950 Boulez befriended two composers who challenged his leadership of the avant-garde: Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Where Boulez had seen the future of music emerging from a crossbreeding of elements from the past, Stockhausen and Cage called for a break with all previous music. Stockhausen reduced music to "information," while Cage refused to differentiate musical sounds from either noise or silence. Having removed any remaining mystique from music, they could impose arbitrary designs on it, including pure chance. Stockhausen wrote a piano piece whose nineteen episodes could be played in whatever order the performer chose so that no two performances would be the same. Cage introduced chance into the act of composing itself by letting the I Ching choose his notes for him. Any formal logic in these pieces would exist solely in the minds of misguided listeners.

Boulez must have felt himself outflanked. His music entered an "experimental" phase, in which he pursued "total serialization," incorporating electronic music and elements of chance into a series of works some of which were withdrawn from performance after "unsuccessful" premieres. While corresponding with Cage (their letters have now been published), Boulez composed Structures, Book I, for two pianos, a 1952 work in which systematic "pre-composition" takes the place of traditional composition; the convergence of pitches, rhythmic values, and dynamics is caused by arbitrary ordering. At times Structures still sounds like Boulez--it has the edgy violence of the earlier music, though the piece gives the listener nothing to hold on to except those vestiges of the earlier music. Unlike Boulez's earlier and later works, the music of the short-lived experimental phase sounds--judging by the few remaining recordings--nasty and astringent. But in 1953 Boulez turned again to the poetry of René Char and began to write Le Marteau sans maître. It was his second grand synthetic "solution," a fusion of his youthful style with the speculative structures of Stockhausen and even the "oriental" tinge of Cage. And this time it sounded beautiful.

Just after Le Marteau, Boulez began to conduct--often rather shakily. He rehearsed the orchestra and choir for the 1958 Parisian premiere of Stravinsky's Threni, the first completely twelve-tone piece that Stravinsky wrote; the composer himself would be at the podium on the night of the performance. It was such a disaster that Stravinsky vowed never to conduct in Paris again. Yet by 1963 Boulez could lead a knock-your-socks-off rendition of Le Sacre du printemps that challenged Stravinsky's own. There were as yet no signs that conducting would detract from composing. Boulez was engaged in several major creative projects, in particular Pli selon pli, a huge work for soprano and orchestra, described as a portrait of Stephane Mallarmé. This was clearly intended to be Boulez's masterpiece, but it disappointed many listeners, Stravinsky among them. Le Marteau sans maître was beautiful; Pli selon pli was just pretty. The music glittered and shimmered, a little too much like Ravel. The nervous energy of Boulez's earlier music was missing. In its place was an encyclopedia of coloristic subtleties and numerous opportunities for the conductor to display his skill through intricacies of rhythm and cueing. Many of Boulez's later scores are set up as games of tag-you're-it, in which the conductor shapes the piece within the act of performance. Boulez the composer was serving Boulez the maestro.

Figuring everything out at twenty-one can be dangerous. Boulez seemed to be trapped in his initial creative insight, and rather than compose he devoted himself to conducting the music that had inspired his own precocious compositions. IT would be tempting to blame the fall of Boulez the composer on the rise of Boulez the conductor. From the early 1960s on Boulez devoted more and more time to conducting--first at the British Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra, then at the Cleveland Orchestra, and finally at the New York Philharmonic, where he was the controversial music director from 1971 to 1977. He now leads his own Ensemble InterContemporain, in Paris, and guest-conducts the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. Even Boulez's conducting career is curious, though. Beginning with his earliest recordings he restricted himself to a repertory of modernists: Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Varèse, Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen--many of whose works he has now recorded two or three times. Later he added Wagner and Mahler (and, just this year, some Strauss) to the list, and also the music of a few of his contemporaries: the Italian Luciano Berio, the Hungarian György Ligeti, the Englishman Harrison Birtwistle, and two oddly coupled Americans, Elliott Carter and Frank Zappa. This is a large repertory, but it has huge gaps that no other active conductor would allow. Just among twentieth-century composers Boulez does not perform Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Poulenc, or Copland. And despite his highly publicized role as a defender of new music, he has ignored the works of the minimalists and postmodernists, including Philip Glass, John Co-rigliano, and Alfred Schnittke.

Boulez's biases suggest a direct link between the composer and the conductor:he conducts only works that relate to his own creative agenda--works that, as he says, open up "new terrain." Boulez conducts these pieces as if they were his own, stripping them of their historical roots. He is interested not in connecting Mahler with Bruckner (whom he never conducts), or Webern with Brahms (ditto), but rather in showing how Mahler and Webern point the way to Boulez. This may sound narcissistic, but it has enabled Boulez to bring unique insights to his interpretations.

If Boulez's early career can be compared to that of a math genius, in his later phase he appears to be more a master politician, in the French manner. Having exhausted his own new terrain by age thirty-five, Boulez has spent the rest of his life administering it and erecting monuments, both physical and virtual. The physical monument is IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique Musique), Boulez's personal Kremlin for research and development, at the Beaubourg, in Paris. The virtual monument is his recorded repertory.

IRCAM realizes a very French idea of a think tank-cultural monument: bring the best and brightest together in a central location, and give them total power. It's either a formula for greatness or a white elephant--the jury is still out. To date, the acoustical research conducted at IRCAM has had little impact on the music world. Répons, a piece Boulez wrote to show off his technology, toured the United States in 1986 and sounded like just another tingling and tinselly late-Boulez composition, helped not at all by its tired electronic sounds and naive light show. IRCAM has failed to produce a single major new composer, perhaps because, especially in the early years, Boulez kept out the minimalists and postmodernists, the new enfants terribles. (Boulez's inclusion of Zappa was a halfhearted gesture to the next generation.) Yet the Ensemble InterContemporain has become one of the finest twentieth-century ensembles in the world, as its recordings of Carter, Ligeti, and Webern demonstrate. And at IRCAM, Boulez, who has always seemed ill at ease in New York, takes on the contented look of the lord of the manor. BOULEZ'S recordings may have a more lasting significance. They preserve his distinctive view of modernism. Modernist music, as Boulez understands it, emphasizes color and rhythm rather than the more familiar melody and harmony. Boulez has compared the music of his favorite composers to the paintings of Klee, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. Reversing a line of Wallace Stevens, Boulez might say that music is sounds, not feelings. He engages with works that are rich in tone color, and he applies an analytic prism to them, so that every element becomes audible. At rehearsals he is notorious for taking apart a chord, tuning and balancing every instrument in the orchestra until perfection is achieved. Even his detractors admit that he has the keenest ear in the business. Boulez can be heard at his best in his new recordings of Debussy's ballet Jeux and Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra op. 10. Debussy wrote his score for a sexually suggestive Nijinsky ballet whose man and two women are dressed for tennis. Debussy was particularly proud of the orchestration, which evokes both rustling leaves in the twilight and palpitating hearts. He said that he wanted the music to sound as if it were "illuminated from behind," and that the orchestra should be "sans pied"--weightless, in flight. Boulez captures these qualities better than anyone else ever has. You can hear every flickering element in Debussy's complex textures. This new recording is also the fastest around; it whirls breathlessly into a violent frenzy when the coy flirtation of the action gets out of control--"sans pied" indeed.

It is difficult today to explain to young people the huge impact that Webern's music had in the postwar period. After his death his music, previously barely known, became the model for the younger generation and also for older composers, such as Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, who were seeking a second youth. His style, however, was reduced to predictable clichés by his endless imitators, particularly those of the younger generation. Where he once had to be rescued from obscurity, he now has to be saved from the dulling effects of familiarity, and Boulez's performances do just that. In the magical, minuscule Five Pieces, scored for an orchestra of solo instruments including guitar, mandolin, harp, harmonium, and cowbells, Webern distilled music into fleeting sparks of color, or distant, barely audible overtones. For some listeners these fragments may mark the end point of a tradition--the smallest shards remaining from the wreckage of a Mahler symphony. For Boulez, however, they marked a beginning. His performance of the Five Pieces makes them sound like music for Adam in Eden. Every color glistens, every tiny gesture tingles. The central piece, a litany played against tolling bells, reveals the moment in which music brings time to a stop. Listen to these pieces as if they came from nowhere, as if you had never heard a note of music before in your life, and Boulez will open up a new world for you--as Webern did for him so many years ago.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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