The Man Who Would be King

An Interview with Pierre Boulez

by Andy Carvin


As Paris repaired itself from four horrific years of Nazi occupation, the great Russian neoclassical composer Igor Stravinsky returned to the city which he had called home before the war. Thousands of Frenchmen and women gathered at the Theatre Champs-Elysees that winter to hear the premiere of Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes and Four Norwegian Moods, pieces he had written during his exile in America. But to Stravinsky's surprise, as he walked toward the conductor's podium, instead of being greeted by the cheers of endearing fans, he was pummeled with a fit of prolonged shouts and jeers.

In the audience a small group of students from the Paris Conservatoire, France's leading music academy, booed the aging Russian considered by many as the greatest composer of his time. But the young men did not boo him because he was Stravinsky - they were actually fans of his work. They booed him because the music establishment, mesmerized by his neoclassical revival, had all but deified Stravinsky, deeming his school of thought as the only school of merit. So in order to bring attention to their own avant-garde composing methods, these bold students hissed and raved in the face of the man that was both their musical hero and intellectual nemesis. And leading the fracas was a wild-eyed country boy named Boulez.

Today, some 50 years later, Pierre Boulez has established himself as one of the most influencial composers and conductors of this century. Even Stravinsky, his old rival, eventually adopted Boulez's techniques while anointing the younger man as "the greatest composer of his generation." At 68, Maestro Boulez is busier than ever - he is president and conductor of Ensemble Intercontemporain, Europe's premiere modern music ensemble, as well as the principle guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And in between conducting appearances, he continues to write music.

While in town for a month-long residence at the CSO in November 1993, Boulez brought the Ensemble to Northwestern's Pick Staiger Concert Hall for its only Midwest concert date.


Fighting for the New Idea:
Boulez and Serialism

As a young student at the Paris Conservatoire, Boulez studied under the tutelage of Olivier Messiaen, a brilliant composer who had spent much of the war imprisoned - and composing - in a Nazi camp. Through Messiaen, Boulez discovered a style known as dodecaphony, or twelve-tone music. With this method, espoused by Arnold Schoenberg and his students (including Messiaen, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern),╩a composer utilizes all twelve notes of the octave by selectively ordering them as desired. The piece is then written with variations of this scale - either forward, backward, inverted, or even as chords - creating a very strict, atonal sound.

Boulez, intrigued with works such as Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Webern's Opus 21 Symphony, began composing himself. Not satisfied with the structure of dodecaphony, he took it several steps further, demanding rigid patterns in all composing factors, such as rhythm, instrumentation and volume changes. This new method of composing, which he called serialism (he despised the term dodecaphony for its "garden of Greek roots"), became the basis of his works for the next ten years, including the pieces Polyphonie X, Structures and his most famous work, Le Marteau sans maitre.

Boulez was suddenly a part of the modern classical elite, along with friends Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio and John Cage. But as quickly as his bold new technique began, serialism began to drift.

"Serialism was a short period, mostly in the '50s," Boulez explained to art+performance, sporting his trademark coat-and-tie and armed with a bottle of mineral water. "Serialism was right for me and many of my generation because it gave us a strict discipline, but we could then go anywhere from there. I suppose it's like if you like strict counterpoint, you are held within very rigid constraints, but it forces you to find solutions where you think there are no solutions. You had both the flexibility and discipline of invention which you could not get anywhere else."

"But we went so far," Boulez continued, "it went to a point of absurdity. When I began to work on Le Marteau sans maitre ['53-'55] I was already beginning to go beyond this point, trying to make the discipline more flexible. If you have too strict a discipline, it kills your ideas. If you are flexible and not so strict, your ideas will flow. So there was this great fight within the discipline."

Boulez's "fight within the discipline" quickly metamorphosed into a fight within the composer community. His close American friend John Cage, who never placed his faith in the new serialism school, developed his own unique methods, most notably chance music (Cage flipped a coin thousands of times to determine the structure of Music of Changes). Ever determined to lead the intellectual charge, Boulez proposed a bastardized version of this technique and called it "aleatory music," alea being Latin for dice. Boulez's name stuck, though it was basically Cage's technique. This stylistic riff and appellative insult soonsolidified into lifelong animosity between the two men.

Meanwhile, Karlheinz Stockhausen quickly gained ground as the leader of the new composers, spawning vicious competition with Boulez. Though they remained friends for many years, both were often quick to criticize the other's approach. Many years later, Stockhausen said of Boulez, "I understand what Boulez is saying. . . and it's true. . . He's become a unique thing in the world. But this uniqueness by exclusion is a very special kind of quality. You can always identify his 'style.' A vaster mind, however, tries to create a polyphony of styles. . ."

As his music and methods evolved, Boulez was himself in a state of flux, simultaneously embracing and attacking the new styles developing around him.

"Boulez is very intelligent," explained Olivier Messiaen. "He understands the changes and they make him suffer. There are people who go unperturbed through change. Like Bach. Like Richard Strauss - who lived to know Debussy, Wagner and Stravinsky. But Boulez cannot. This is extremely sad because he is a great composer."

Despite the stylistic infighting, Boulez continued to compose with addictive abandon. He absorbed the poetry of Rene Char and Henri Michaux, and the art of Piet Mondrian and Vassily Kandinsky. Committed to conjuring up a unique musical style within himself, Boulez vociferously rejected the composers of the past, from Brahms and Verdi ("Dum de dum, nothing more") to his mentors Messiaen and Sch¤nberg, whom he dedicated a scathing obituary entitled "Schoenberg est mort! (Schoenberg is dead!)."

In order to compose, Boulez finds it vital to search only in the present for inspiration. "You must find your own solution," said Boulez. "I think that is the main problem with most composers. If you are merely 'quoting' others in your compositions, then that is all you are doing. That's useless. You are not adding or creating anything. You are simply quoting in a different context, without any justification or new logic.

"It's just like shopping in an antique shop. When you buy a candle from the 18th century, then a chair from the 19th century, you are not giving yourself any new style. So, each generation of composers must solve these problems. This does not mean I must be absolutely original; this means I must take out of myself that which is myself, not other things I have been simply looking at."

"History is much like the guillotine. If a composer is not moving in the right direction he will be killed, metaphorically speaking."

Ever avoiding the metaphorical guillotine, Boulez continued to lambast his fellow composers. "In 1953 and '54," Boulez recalled in a 1975 interview, "I put these composers on the map. Then, very quickly, they turned against me." But the intense competition did not slow him down - Boulez authored numerous important works, most notably Pli selon pli and Poesies pour pourvoir, based on poems by Stephane MallarmÄ and Henri Michaux, respectively. Critics hailed his work as groundbreaking, but mainstream audiences loathed much of it for its rigid, atonal nature.

Boulez, to no surprise, writes off the necessity for żsthetics in his music. "For me," he explained, "the external shock value of music matters little. The work I find really important is the one that has kind of a metaphysical truth, a truth in harmony with its time. An artist must be able to speak for his time in language of both precision and freedom. The trouble with 'beautiful' and 'ugly' as criteria is that they are tied up with superficial pleasure. I know I'm Germanic in this respect because I find sensual pleasure only a rather limited part of music. That is quite un-French, isn't it?"

A Generation of Rebels

As Boulez's fame grew in Europe, he became increasingly associated with the period's leading writers and intellectuals, including Jean Genet, Theodor Adorno and Michael Foucault. They became, in essence, the flagbearers of counterculturalism, demanding radical departures from the status quo in both society and culture. Boulez recalled his relationship with Foucault, the controversial philosopher who died of AIDS in 1984, and the undefined fraternity in which they were members:

"I met Foucault in 1951, but because we were both traveling so much out of France we did not see each other regularly until we were much older, starting around 1976. We are both of the same generation, growing up in France during the War, and our way of thinking is very close, even though we weren't always discussing our ideas together. Because we were so close, not even in terms of friends, but in terms of our surroundings, proximity, influence, it was not like we needed to speak every day.

"If you compare, for example," Boulez continued, "the intellectual and artistic trajectories of Mondrian and Webern - two people I am certain never saw or spoke to each other - you can see a very strong parallel between the two. I think with Foucault, though we did not know each other well for many years, we were immersed within the same surroundings. Our methods of deduction and structuring our ideas was very similar. So when we finally became friends, there was much of an established foundation between us."

Boulez also speaks of reknown writer and fellow Frenchman Antoine Artaud, who once defined music as "a collective of hysteria and spells."

"If you don't have that hysterical purpose in music and your expression," explained Boulez, "and you create it out of what you see or hear in daily life, then I don't think music could ever be very interesting. You must go and flush out some truth in the score, looking deep within your self. Then, that personal reflection should be apparent, so when you read the piece, you are in a sense reading yourself and not simply discovering a new work. The work speaks for you as you speak for the work."

But above all, Boulez continued to demand a total disassociation with the past. Not unlike his friend Theodor Adorno, who preached trading in several hundred years of tonal "artistic trash" for serialized, modern "radical music," Boulez spread his iconoclastic gospel to whatever audience or reader would take notice.

"It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because it does not kill the Mona Lisa," Boulez defiantly proclaimed. "All the art of the past must be destroyed."

Behind the Pulpit:
Boulez the Conductor

By the mid-'60s, Boulez was known worldwide for his unique melange of audacity and genius. He also became a celebrated conductor, seemingly overnight, appearing everywhere from the Cleveland Symphony to the Paris Opera. Pierre Souvchinsky, the eminent Franco-Russian musicologist, later said, "Boulez became a conductor because he had a great gift for this. The phenomenon of his genius is complex. He is not in a class with Ravel or Messiaen but with Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Debussy. He stands among the highest categories of creators."

Boulez's sporadic conducting stints suddenly grew at an exponential rate. By 1971, he was juggling positions as the principal conductor of both the BBC Orchestra in London and the world-renowned New York Philharmonic. Without warning, Boulez was in league with the period's finest conductors.

His seven years with the Philharmonic generated much controversy, largely due to what many considered his unusual choices in musical programming. The New York audience, which enjoyed its previous conductor, Leonard Bernstein, and his more "traditional" selections, was shocked by Boulez's more avant-garde tastes. Scores of so-called "Friday Matinee women," known for their excessive jewelry and their taste for Tschaikovsky and Mozart, demanded refunds after being terrified by the likes of Webern and Berg. Eventually Boulez, understanding the power of diplomacy, developed schedules of both old and new, thus, as he once put it, "exciting the curiosity of the snobs."

"Sometimes," Boulez noted, "in order to impose contemporary music into the concert, you must also include repertoire, also. An orchestra cannot survive without repertoire. Therefore, you have to make a compromise - not a compromise in a bad sense, but a good one. If you raise the audience's confidence by showing them you can conduct more recognizable pieces, they will follow you and trust you more."

Demolishing the Ivory Tower

Just prior to his posting at the Philharmonic, The New York Times ran a feature on Boulez which profiled his outspoken career. When asked why most of the great composers of his generation were Europeans and not Americans, he specifically blamed none other than this country's university system.

"I do not like scholars who bring only death to music," he said in the now-infamous interview. "The university situation is incestuous. . . . The university musician is in a self-made ghetto, and what is worse, he likes it there."

Now, some 20 years later, here was Boulez on Northwestern's campus, several hours before his Ensemble's concert. And true to himself as always, he matter-of-factly blamed collegiate schooling as the source of this so-called "American malady":

"The danger for composing in the United States is the university. The university is sometimes like a fortress, and there is not enough contact with the outside world. In France, we have no universities which are confined in a campus form; they are a part of the city. The intellectual and artistic life of the school is therefore a part of the city, too.

"I'm not trying to warn against a university education, like Stravinsky did," Boulez pointed out. "I simply mean that if those within the university could go outside more and interact with the resources of the city, they would be better off. For example, I saw while I was teaching at Harvard years ago that there was absolutely no interaction with the school and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Absolutely no connection. I find that detrimental for both sides, because you have a high intellectual level on one side, a high professional level on the other, and they both could learn from the other's perspective."

The Birth of IRCAM:
Blending Music and Science

Eventually, Boulez's energy and interests drifted back to France, where he received a blessing from the government to create L'Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or IRCAM. Based out of Centre Pompidou,Paris' state-of-the-art cultural hub, IRCAM would be an institute devoted to both musical composition and science. With the help of influencial modern composers such as Gyorgy Ligeti and Milton Babbitt, IRCAM evolved into one of the largest centers for avant-garde and electronic music in the world. It was also the springboard for Boulez's new Ensemble Intercontemporain, which devotes its performance efforts to various 20th century composers, from Edgar Varese and Elliot Carter to Frank Zappa and Tod Machover.

Meanwhile, Boulez's fascination with the latest in electronic equipment became more apparent in his composing efforts. His early experiments with reel-to-reel tapes and tone generators quickly progressed to the use of digital computers and MIDI electronics.

"The changes in electronic music were totally unforeseen," Boulez recalled, "especially since I began planning IRCAM and the Ensemble in 1969. But the computer invaded everything, from the analysis and the synthesis of sound to the manipulation of instruments.

"Back in the 1950s, when you were recording sounds on tape and using them in a concert, you were merely following the tape, which became very detrimental to the performance. So I pushed the research at IRCAM to examine the use of live electronics, where the computer is created for the concert situation, instantly responding to your actions. The system's language also became easier to follow; I remember when I tried to learn the electronics, it was all figures, figures, figures. These meant nothing at all to the musician. If you have to work in hertz and not notes, and then wait half an hour to process the sounds, you get completely discouraged. My goal was so that the musician could sketch his ideas very rapidly, with instantaneous sound and graphical notation. The use of computers finally brought electronics down to the level of understanding for composers. I feel very responsible for that change."

Because of the ever-changing state of electronics, Boulez often rewrites pieces which utilized obsolete technologies (he looks back on reel-to-reel performances as "crematorium ceremonies") in order to take full advantage of what is available now. By doing so, he thus destroys his own older compositions in order to create pieces for the present.

"When I was first trying to do ... explosante-fixe... in 1972, the technology was so primitive, you could not even imagine. An infinite collection of confusing wires, long and unreliable - I cannot explain the frustration I had. This is why I redid the piece in 1989."

The same fate will come of Repons, an electronic piece from 1981. "I composed Repons for wires, which was the electronic technology of its time. I then left it because I wanted to use the new technologies, especially the MIDI pianos, which can process much more information than the machines of 1983 and '84. Therefore, I will write another Repons which will use this new technology."

But even when a Boulez piece is not technologically out-of-date, he still finds reasons to rework it. Many of his pieces are considered works-in-progess so that he may add, subtrac, or scrap his music as he sees fit. Two of the pieces he conducted at the Pick-Staiger performance, Derive I et II, are typical of this process.

"My recent music," said Boulez, "is much like a family tree - one tree spawns many other trees, and so on. Derive I is from Repons, mostly music I left out, so I derived it from the piece, hence the name. Derive II is based off of studies I did for Repons. Derive III is also like that. Repons itself was my response to Poesies pour pouvoir, which I had written over twenty years earlier. As long as material from another piece is not used fully, I like to expand on it until it is exhausted. This is why they are all works-in-progress."

Into the Future and Beyond

As the hour of the Pick-Staiger performance slowly approached and Maestro Boulez's mineral water quickly dissipated, the conversation soberly turned to the future of music. Sir Georg Solti, the retired principal conductor of the CSO, had just spoken several weeks before in the same hall the Ensemble would be perfoming in that night. He had addressed several questions on how the combination of a decrease in funding for major orchestras and an increase in non-classical music would affect the next generation of performers and symphonies. While Sir Georg answered somewhat cautiously, Boulez responded confidently and reassuringly.

"I think," Boulez predicted, "there will always be the desire to write music, the desire to hear music, the desire to live in a world where art does exist. Look at Susan Sontag. She went to Sarajevo to produce Waiting for Godot to give some hope to these people. It was an extraordinary gesture.

"Because I was born in 1925, part of my youth occurred during the War, when times were very bleak. You had only one thing to look up to, and that was culture. I have never seen concert halls more full than during this period. I remember having seen a piano recital given in a hall in Paris, maybe a week before the Liberation. The atmosphere was very tense, as you can imagine. But everyone came, even without transportation, on bicycles, walking from all over. The hall was jammed."

His controversial career spanning six decades and counting, Pierre Boulez remains possibly the most celebrated - and enigmatic - composer alive today. Equally brilliant and iconoclastic, Boulez has earned his spot among the most eccentric composers of all time, along with the likes of Mozart, Paganini and Liszt. History may never make Boulez a household,but to Maestro Boulez, that would suit him just fine.

"History," Boulez insists, "seems more than ever to me a great burdon. In my opinion we must get rid of it once and for all."

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