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Boulez Future: Music’s greatest living figure looks ahead

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By Dennis Polkow

Boulez.  The radical and outspoken enfant terrible who once advocated that concert halls and opera houses should be burnt to the ground as dead monuments to an irrelevant past, but who ended up being known as one of the all-time great conductors and interpreters of that past.

Boulez.  The name of the leading twelve-tone composer of his generation, the man who once advocated that serialism would become “the only musical direction of the future,” and yet who later completely abandoned it as a compositional method.

Boulez.  The frustrated artist who vowed that he would never come back to an artistic position in his native France, and yet who returned to Paris to found and lead the world’s premier experimental music research center at the Centre Pompidou for a decade and a half.

Boulez.  The defiant and arrogant lion in Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” who once attacked all established systems, but who is today as diplomatic and subdued as a pussycat and who has come to epitomize the very musical establishment he once so sharply opposed.

On the surface, at least, it would seem that Pierre Boulez is a man of considerable contradiction.  Rather, Boulez is a man of genuine paradox: a living parable and a walking twentieth-century monument.

Our greatest living figure in music, Boulez is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most significant and innovative composers.  But there is also Boulez the conductor, the champion of new music, of technology to expand music materials, the teacher, guru to rock stars, author and lecturer of international renown; in short, a man who helped reshape the course of music after World War II on a myriad of levels.

As odd a paradox as it may be, Boulez, that musical maverick and innovative anarchist forever associated with everything that is young, brash and new, will turn 85 on March 26.  That event is being celebrated worldwide all year long but nowhere as intensely as in Chicago, where Boulez remains Conductor Emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and where he served as its Principal Guest Conductor for over a decade.

Area concerts conducted by Boulez and in tribute to Boulez have been taking place all month and are climaxing this week with Boulez conducting a CSO program of Boulez, Bartók and Stravinsky (Thursday through Saturday), a Symphony Center concert of Boulez solo and chamber works complete with two world premieres commissioned in his honor (Sunday afternoon), and a lecture on Modernism at the Art Institute (Tuesday evening) given by Boulez himself.  Next week Boulez and the CSO will bring the celebration to the University of Michigan and to two concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Winding through the long corridor that leads to his basement dressing room at Symphony Center, Boulez is cordial and polite as always. It is his first morning at Orchestra Hall since flying over from Europe, and his first rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony will not be until the following day.  He is relaxed and well-rested, dressed in a sport shirt with a sport coat, and even uncharacteristically hugs an administrator there to greet him.

Having first met him over a quarter of a century ago, I note that Boulez looks remarkably the same as he did then when he was already pushing 60. No publicist would have let such a cub reporter anywhere near such an immense icon even then, but barely knowing what a publicist was at the time, after some polite conversation, he was naïvely asked point blank for an on-spot interview, and he generously agreed.

Then, as now, his memory is razor sharp.  Startlingly, he remembers the occasion of that interview and virtually every one since, right down to the detail of his getting so involved in one that we did that he talked right past the start of a concert he was to conduct with the French contemporary music ensemble that he brought here on tour.

And no, that was not unusual: despite his notorious “little black book” that Boulez meticulously takes out and uses to write down and keep track of details and appointments with his trademark handwriting that is almost eerily small, he is often late nonetheless.  No worries there this time: this is a day off and, besides, a CSO publicist who was likely not even born at the time of our first interview sits in the corner with a stopwatch.

“The biggest difference between 60 and 85 is that when you’re 60, you can look ahead that, ‘In ten years I want to do this,’ and so on, but now, you cannot look ahead with same confidence that you will be here!” Boulez jokes. “The years become more compressed, but in some ways, that can be seen as an advantage, because it forces you to focus on what is most important.”

True, Boulez is a mellower man today than the often abrasive Boulez of yesteryear, but this is not a man about to settle back in a rocking chair and look backwards at a lifetime of laurels and, yes, controversies.

Still, how does Boulez now regard the radical statements he once made about destroying the past that still seem to follow him wherever he goes?  “They were useful for their time,” he says, with no tinge of regret and a slight hint of a smile, “but their time is past. I don’t want my statements to be frozen in time: a date should always be attached to them. Certainly if you take a picture of yourself thirty years ago, that same picture cannot be used as a picture of yourself today.”

Such statements, though often incendiary, always were uttered with a specific purpose and succeeded in garnering attention and notoriety—often headlines—even decades after the fact. In the weeks after 9/11 for instance, while on tour at a music festival in Basel, Switzerland, a then-76-year-old Boulez was reportedly dragged out of his hotel bed in the middle of the night by police, handcuffed and held for three hours as a terrorism suspect supposedly based on his earlier statements about blowing up concert halls and opera houses.

“What happened was that the police came to see me early in the morning in my hotel and did ask to take my passport for a couple of hours,” admits Boulez, “and then came back and returned it. That is all. I inquired as to whom they may have confused me with, but they told me it was an order from the central police and that is all that they knew. It was all so odd because all of the town’s officials had been at the concert the night before. The chief did send me a letter of apology, but to this day, I do not know why they came.” No handcuffs, no being dragged out of bed?  “No, all invented by a Basel newspaper the next day.” Did Boulez think it had been based on his earlier radical statements?  “If so, they were rather slow to react: the last interview I had done there had been fifteen years before.”

Fascinatingly, the thinking behind Boulez’s destructive quotes have not changed over the decades, even if he makes the same points in a more genteel manner now that his status as an elderly cultural patriarch affords him that luxury. Decades before the Mona Lisa was put behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre, Boulez was preaching the mantra that, “We must destroy the Mona Lisa.”

“Well, I never meant ‘destroy’ in the literal sense of going into the Louvre and actually physically destroying the painting,” Boulez says. “I meant ‘destroy’ in the metaphorical sense of destroying it within one’s self: to keep us from being so obsessed with the past that we cannot see the importance of the now.”

Didn’t Marcel Duchamp make the same point less destructively when he placed a moustache and goatee on a cheap print of the Mona Lisa? “Not at all,” retorts Boulez, “because that doesn’t get rid of history, it only makes fun of it. One would have to completely remove the image of the Mona Lisa from the consciousness altogether to destroy history. That, in fact, is far more difficult than painting a moustache on it. The past is the past, and the more one confronts it, the more free one is from it.”

Is this why Boulez turned to conducting, to provoke a confrontation with the past?  “Actually it was for a more practical reason,” he politely interrupts, “at least at first. There was a performance of ‘Le marteau sans maître’ ['The hammer without a master'] in the late fifties and I attended a rehearsal where the musicians were obviously having a great deal of difficulty making sense of it, and the conductor was fairly lost himself.  I stepped in for him.

“At first, all of my conducting was devoted to performing new works that otherwise would not have been heard, or at least would not have been heard well. Only over time did I begin to perform works of the past, and therefore conducting definitely became my personal confrontation with the past.”

Born in Montbrison, France on March 26, 1925, Boulez came of age during the Nazi occupation of his native France and initially studied mathematics in Lyon before turning to music. Boulez’s first important compositions date from the mid-1940s as he emerged from compositional studies at the Paris Conservatory with French composer and mystic Olivier Messiaen, and René Lebowitz, who had been a pupil of Schoenberg and Webern.

Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata (1947-8) marked his own radical and mature adaptation of the atonal twelve-tone method pioneered by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Boulez would go on to apply serial principles to all aspects of music—rhythm, register, dynamics, et al—in his “Structures I” for two pianos (1951-2), fully developing that style in two large-scale works with strong literary references: “Le marteau sans maître” [“The hammer without a master”] (1953-5), after poems of surrealist René Char, and “Pli selon pli” [“Fold upon fold”] (1957-62), set to poems of Mallarmé.

After turning to conducting, initially as an avocation, Boulez was chosen by legendary conductor George Szell in the mid-1960s to become the Cleveland Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor so that Szell’s audiences would be able to hear large doses of twentieth-century music that Szell himself felt were beyond his grasp as a conductor to present convincingly. Boulez’s Cleveland recording of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” from that time revealed the work with a clarity and power that forever changed the way the public thought about the piece.

“That work is extremely important to me,” says Boulez, “but it was rarely performed even in my student days.  In one performance I heard then with Charles Munch, the sacrificial dance that closes the second part was as if both the players and conductor were driving on ice; neither were convinced.”

Boulez, for his part, says that he saw the significance of “Sacre,” as he calls it from its original French title, from the moment he saw the score, and that the transparency that became the trademark of his performances was immediately apparent. He admits that his approach to conducting the piece has been the same since he first conducted it nearly half a century ago.

“My approach to ‘Sacre,’ ‘Firebird’ and ‘Les Noces,’ the Russian Three, if you will, have been more or less the same for me, but there are scores that I approach very differently now. They say that you are an idiot if you change your mind, but I must be, because I have. I do [Alban] Berg differently now that I have conducted Mahler, because they are both from a similar sound world. I would very much like to do [Schoenberg’s] “Gurrelieder” again: I haven’t done it in thirty years, and we were going to do it here, but it became too expensive and it was cancelled. I do not shed tears about these things, but it is a regret.” Perhaps a ninetieth birthday present for Boulez from the CSO?  “Yes, perhaps!”

In 1971, Boulez would go on to simultaneously accept music directorships of London’s BBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. The New York years were particularly stormy ones, with Boulez constantly taxing the ears, minds and endurance of post-Leonard Bernstein audiences with experimental and unpopular scores and with what one critic labeled his “French arrogance.”

Boulez has always been respectful of what he calls “the irrationality of chance,” and nowhere was that made more manifest to him than in the mid-1960s when Wieland Wagner, grandson of composer Richard Wagner came to call. Wieland was a remarkably innovative and perceptive director who had instigated Regietheater after World War II, which had substituted symbolic for naturalist staging that focused on the psychology of the drama, and the two saw eye to eye immediately. Wieland wanted Boulez to conduct his own production of “Parsifal” at the composer’s own theater in Bayreuth, Germany.

“At that time,” Boulez recalls, “the only opera I had conducted was [Alban Berg’s] ‘Wozzeck,’ which his assistant had heard me do in Paris, and then Wieland heard me do some Debussy in Germany. But there is a world, if you will, between ‘Parsifal’ and ‘Wozzeck.’ ” Wieland was so confident in Boulez’s talent that he persuaded Boulez to come to Bayreuth, a “life-altering” event for Boulez.

“You know, the French have always had a fascination with Wagner, particularly with ‘Tristan’ and ‘Meistersinger’ and those were favorites of Messiaen in his classroom. But it was a kind of love-hate relationship because there was also the association of Wagner’s music with the Nazi occupation. And I said, ‘Why not?  I will give it a try.’ ” Ironically, Wieland would also direct a staging of “Wozzeck” with Boulez, and the two had made many plans together when Wieland died of cancer in 1966 at the age of 49. “Yes,” Boulez admits, “another regret: had Wieland not died so young and unexpectedly, I would have done so much more opera in my career.  More chance.”

Boulez was invited by Wagner’s surviving grandson Wolfgang to conduct his first-ever Wagner “Der Ring des Nibelungen” cycle of operas at Bayreuth for the “Ring” centennial in 1976. Boulez suggested the young French director Patrice Chéreau to direct, and their controversial contemporary staging of the work—which was also the first-ever televised Wagner “Ring” cycle—literally set the Wagnerian shrine on its ear. As with “Parsifal,” Boulez had succeeded in stripping away decades of Wagnerian performance practices and tradition for its own sake, at one point so upsetting the members of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra for attempting to get them to play more softly and chamber music-like that they were ready to strike.

At the same time, then French President Georges Pompidou was courting Boulez to come back to the land he had left in self-imposed exile over artistic freedom. “I told him,” recalls Boulez, “that I would not come back just to conduct, compose or do things I had already been doing outside of France. I would only come back if we could somehow set up the conditions for researching the most advanced technology for music.” To that end, Boulez founded the Paris-based IRCAM—The Institute for Research of Coordination between Acoustics and Music—as part of the Pompidou Centre in 1976, an institution which he directed for fifteen years and with which he is still passionately involved.

IRCAM’s goal has been to enlarge the domain of materials used for music, a mission which has been embraced by musicians of all genres and which even brought rock performers, including Frank Zappa, to Boulez. Many of Zappa’s avant-garde experiments with The Mothers of Invention were directly inspired by early works of Boulez and Zappa would later try his hand at serious music, engaging Boulez to conduct three Zappa works for orchestra on an LP called “Boulez Conducts Zappa.”

“When the imagination goes beyond the tools that we have, then the path to create new tools and new materials becomes obvious,” Boulez related in 1986. “In the history of architecture, everything changed when the new materials of concrete, glass and steel came in. Stone and wood had, in a real way, dictated the kinds of structures you could build. You could not build a Greek temple or a Gothic cathedral with steel and concrete anymore than you could build a skyscraper with marble or sandstone. It is the same in music. We have been using the same materials for hundreds of years and now the option exists to forge new music made from new materials. With electronic media, one cannot only create new sounds and timbres, but one is free to fulfill all wishes, limited only by the imagination itself.

“If I want quarter tones or sixth tones, I can instantly have them, precisely and in tune. This is not possible on conventional instruments, and this is why technology appeals to me: not for its own sake, but because it makes music possible that would otherwise not be possible.”

Boulez has written a handful of major works incorporating the cutting-edge technology that had developed at IRCAM, the largest of which—“Répons” [“Responses”] (1981-88)—was the centerpiece of an extraordinary and groundbreaking series of concerts when Boulez’s L’Ensemble InterContemporain toured the United States in 1986 with “Répons” as a work in progress. “The sound,” as Boulez himself described it at the time, “was everywhere, yet nowhere.”

Entire ripples of sound made up of digital transformations of conventional instrumental timbres made in real time engulfed the listener from every direction. Unlike early electronic music pieces, which had to be created layer by layer on tape, the transformations for “Répons”—which would go on to become a Grammy Award-winning 1999 recording that would push the limits of recording technology—were made in real time. “The absence of tape particularly attracted me,” says Boulez, “because in the past, to work electronically meant to become a prisoner of tape.  As a composer, I crave freedom.”

One of Boulez’s more recent pieces that employs this same revolutionary method will be heard on Sunday afternoon’s concert, 1997’s “Anthèmes 2” for solo violin and electronics, complete with live sound design by IRCAM technicians and engineers. This same effect is currently being employed for a large-scale stage work that Boulez has been working on for years which may well be the crowning glory of a sixty-year plus composing career which has already boasted many innovations.

Even so, throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, Boulez has been more in the public eye as a conductor than a composer.  In addition to seminal concerts and recordings with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, in 1995, Boulez became the Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra following years of sold-out Boulez-led concerts here that attracted younger audiences along with a string of landmark Grammy Award-winning recordings Boulez made here with the CSO (Boulez has won twenty-three Grammy Awards, eight of them for Chicago Symphony recordings).

Ironically, these were for recordings of earlier twentieth-century masterpieces of other composers, not for recordings of his own music and, in fact, then Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director and longtime Boulez friend Daniel Barenboim actually conducted more of Boulez’s music with the CSO than Boulez himself ever did. “I don’t like to think of my pieces as ‘the specialty of the house,’ as it were,” Boulez said when this was pointed out at the time, “that I am the only chef who can serve up my own music. The scores are out there for anyone to do.”

But the real reason that Boulez has conducted so few of his own pieces with the Chicago Symphony has more to do with the limited amount of rehearsal time given to American orchestras. He actually laughed when then Chicago Sun-Times music critic Robert C. Marsh asked him at a press conference years ago if we would ever get to hear a live “Pli selon pli”—one of Boulez’ most innovative, fascinating and large-scale compositions—conducted by him in Chicago. “It would take at least twice the normal rehearsal time,” Boulez said diplomatically. “In other words,” Marsh tersely responded while glaring at then-CSO management, “we can’t afford it.”

Even for a month-long celebration of his eighty-fifth birthday here, the only Boulez work that Boulez himself will conduct with the CSO is the short “Livre pour cordes,” his 1969 orchestration of a string quartet (“Livre pour quatuor”) from 1948-9, though he will also partially participate in a concert of his solo works and chamber music this Sunday afternoon that will include two world premieres written in his honor.

Boulez made his CSO conducting debut in 1969 on the occasion of another historic CSO debut, Daniel Barenboim as piano soloist for the Bartók First Piano Concerto. It would be another eighteen years before Boulez would come back to the CSO, but when Barenboim took over as music director in 1991, Boulez began an annual month-long series of concerts here that ultimately led to Barenboim appointing him Principal Guest Conductor in 1995.

When Barenboim announced in 2004 that he would be stepping down due to a conflict of musical vision with then-new CSO president and CEO Deborah Card, Boulez—a close friend of Barenboim who had kept coming back to Chicago largely as a favor to that friendship—indicated that his tenure as Principal Guest Conductor would end when Barenboim left.

“I really felt that I needed to show my solidarity with Daniel,” Boulez says, “but at the same time, I found myself not wanting to participate in the difficulties since I also liked the team here and had esteem for both parties. By then I had developed my own relationship with the Orchestra, which I did not want to just cast aside.”

After “discussing the matter with Daniel,” Boulez was persuaded to stay on as “Conductor Emeritus” by Card until a new music director was hired. Though Card felt Boulez out about taking the music directorship, Boulez made it very clear upfront that he had no interest in accepting any music directorship, attempting to devote his advancing years as much to composition as to an already overcrowded conducting schedule. “But, I made clear that if the musicians wanted me to take a greater role during the search for a music director, I would consider this. But I did not want to impose myself.”

With Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink brought on to take up Boulez’s old position of Principal Guest Conductor—though the “guest” was dropped from the title since there was no music director—Haitink and Boulez in effect shared much of the administrative responsibilities of a music directorship despite the fact that Card admitted at the time that the two have never been in Chicago at the same time and had reportedly not even met when this unconventional and controversial arrangement was made. “Actually, we did meet back in the early 1960s,” Boulez says, that razor-sharp memory still in tact, “in Amsterdam when he first became principal conductor of the Concertgebouw, but not again until this arrangement was made.”

It fell to Boulez to hold player auditions and he boasts of having found “a wonderful principal clarinet who even played a concert with us at Carnegie Hall, but who had other problems and did not take the position.”  The moment that Riccardo Muti was announced as the CSO’s new music director designate, Boulez immediately relinquished the audition process to Muti.

Does Boulez know Muti? “Yes, of course, I know him quite well. We won a prize together in Jerusalem [the Wolf Prize in Arts, 2000] and spent a wonderful day there together, with he and his wife. He is a very capable man who really knows his business,” Boulez assesses. “The Orchestra is in good hands.”

Despite the fact that Chicagoans may forever associate Boulez with his stellar concerts and recordings of other people’s music, and particularly for heroically stepping in to help preserve the integrity and quality of the CSO in its desperate moment of need, Boulez himself has no identity crisis about who and what he is.

“I am a composer,” he says plainly, “and that is always foremost. I turned to conducting because it allowed my works to be heard and also allowed me the opportunity to champion other new works along with neglected masterpieces of the recent past.”

Notoriously late for deadlines and a composer who frequently returns to older works to revise them, Boulez commissions have always been unpredictable.  His “Messagesquisse” (1977) for solo and accompanying cellos—which will be heard on Sunday afternoon’s concert—was originally written for legendary Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, but as Boulez explains, “it was not ready on time so we missed being able to perform it together. He only did it once, and I was not there, but he wasn’t practicing much in his later years.”

When it is suggested that Rostropovich could probably have played the pieces that Shostakovich wrote for him in his sleep, Boulez acknowledges that sleep would be the best, if not inevitable listening state to hear such music; Boulez’s immensely negative opinion of Shostakovich has not changed over the years. “I am afraid not,” he confesses, “though I have tried. I heard [the First Cello Concerto] twice over the years, and I am not saying that it made me physically sick or anything like that, but Tchaikovsky was more radical than Shostakovich. I heard the Fifth Symphony a few years back here in Chicago; it is so conventional. And Symphony Fifteen, this business of long quotes from Rossini, what a poor excuse for some imagination. If we are to play Shostakovich, why not Hindemith?

“You know, in the history of music, there are composers without whom the face of music would be completely different, and composers whom if they had never existed, it would have made no difference whatsoever.”  As a composer who has constantly craved and succeeded in bringing about innovation, it remains unspoken where Boulez stands in the pantheon of modern music by applying that same criteria: at the very top.

Boulez says he is taking off all of next year to finish his orchestration of “Notations V-VIII,” a CSO centennial commission that is overdue by nearly two decades and the world premiere of which has been rescheduled several times. “I am late, as usual,” he says. “It is difficult to predict the amount of time it will take to enter into—and, harder still, to predict how long it will take to escape from—a new work once it has come into being.” Has a premiere date been set?  “Not this time,” laughs Boulez, “not until the work is complete, but it should only take a year and I am taking a sabbatical to finish it.”

The assurance with which Boulez expresses that he will be here in two years to deliver and hear the piece is striking for someone on the verge of turning 85. “My friend Elliott Carter just turned 101 and is still composing,” says Boulez. Could Boulez imagine the same of himself?  “Yes, but no longer conducting, but composing? Yes, absolutely. Well, perhaps I could conduct a single piece or two, but I may need help holding up my arms!  But you know,” he adds with a slight smile, “I read an article over New Year’s weekend that France has the highest rate of centenarians—people 100 and older—living there in Europe.”

An avowed atheist, Boulez firmly rejected the Catholicism of his youth and has little use for organized religion of any sort. “There is a great deal of rationality in man and you can explain many things,” he related in 1999, when he was conducting Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” here and the subject of his own spirituality came up. “Sometimes, there are things that you cannot explain, and there is irrationality. That irrationality is sometimes explained away by religious sects who put together a group who share the same idols. Even scientific people talk about the Big Bang, but you finally get to whom or what began the Big Bang? You are still left with a lot of questions. These questions can be answered by faith.

“But faith means exactly that—something beyond any rationality. The right approach is to see what is irrational and accept it as irrational and not posit anything manmade in its place. Then you have an artificial screen between you and the irrational. I accept that people put a name on these question marks that we find in life. I do not see why we should put a name on these question marks, but the question marks themselves are still there, whether we give them a name or not.

“The fact that you have a question mark instead of a name doesn’t mean that you are hostile to spirituality. On the contrary, you know that spirituality exists with or without that label. I am a believer in nothing, if you will. The attitude of Zen, for instance, is appealing, or religions such as the Jewish faith or Islam which exclude any representations whatsoever. Why make fun of the Greek gods when you represent your god in the same way, with a long white beard?”

And yet, when Boulez speaks of the creative process that drives him and of a childlike curiosity that remains insatiable, even at 85, he sounds almost mystical; it is clear what kind of immortality he imagines for himself.

“I suppose I have the same problem as one of my favorite writers,” says Boulez. “Franz Kafka could never finish a work: he was always revising, always re-entering. Any work I begin is its own world unto itself, and often it is difficult to get out of these worlds. Often I would like to, and of course, I have in that I have finished works and never returned to them, but when I think that something can be improved or made more striking, stronger or larger, I have to involve myself again.

“To me, each of my compositions is like a labyrinth, and a labyrinth can go on forever.”

Click here for a breakdown on Boulez’s essential recordings.

2 Responses to “Boulez Future: Music’s greatest living figure looks ahead”

  1. donaldsinclair Says:

    Great review. His is a mind that is still moving and evolving, not set in stone. You bring this out well in your article. Such cultural enfant terribles as Boulez are easy to attack for they make incendiary remarks and do set the world on fire. But for the Basel police to rope him in for his burning the concert halls remarks shows a stolidity of misapplied purpose that would be hard to beat.

  2. Awkward Ecologies: the interpretation of sound-based music « Dugal McKinnon Says:

    [...] & Polkow, Dennis (2010). “Boulez Future: Music’s greatest living figure looks ahead.” http://music.newcity.com/2010/01/19/boulez-future-music%E2%80%99s-greatest-living-figure-looks-ahead… (accessed 17 March [...]

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