Pierre Boulez Turns 85

UPDATE: Nice piece on Boulez in LA Times.

Boulez turns 85. I could go for a whole day Boulez program, but I’m fearing I won’t be able to do much (and my attention span is too short for such a monumental feat), so maybe just a little bit here and there.

10 thoughts on “Pierre Boulez Turns 85

  1. That’s a gorgeous piece, thanks, do you know what year? I played the Second Sonata in 1981, it was one of the most exhilirating things to play and one of my best perfs., but only as I’ve gotten older have I really enjoyed hearing it as much as playing it (I have not developed a similar enjoyment of listening to Ives or even Carter that much, although I love MUCH Britten, although I’m going off on a tangent, I know). When I did the Sonata, it was like a musical athleticism, and you enjoyed hearing it while you were playing it in a different sense than when I’d listen to the tape of it later. But this piece, in particular, shows the real differentiation in this general area of difficult modern musics: You can recognize in ‘derive I’ the special kind of fineness and elegance that is always there with Boulez. I heard the NY premiere or Repons, but the acoustics at Columbia were not good in all parts of the hall, so that you could not really here the computers that were stimulated by the orchestral sound, echoing them. I heard Boulez conduct it again in 2003 at Carnegie, where they’d rearranged the entire hall and set computer musicians in boxes and the orchestra in the middle of the hall on a platform. And that was fabulous, because the acoustics of Carnegie are great to begin with, so I finally got to really hear the piece. A friend of mine had ‘been able to hear it back in 1986’ at Columbia in a different part of the auditorium, but that had been a poor choice for the premiere. Lucky for me, though, as that friend is my current publisher, and we met at the party at the Maison Francaise on the Columbia Campus after the concert.

    I think another way I’d describe Boulez’s personal sound is that it’s elegant and rich, but always lean. You can hear how he evolves from Webern, but he was able to get the resources early on to work on a much larger scale, and was famous from a very early age.

    Happy Birthday, Pierre Boulez! although, as my ex-girlfriend used to say when I was so involved with his work, ‘can Boulez ever have really been a child?’

    Beautiful stuff, isn’t it?

  2. Dérive 1 is 1984, Dérive 2 is 1987 and then he revised it later, I think. I have both on the same “Boulez Conducts Boulez” CD with Le Marteau sans maître, but I couldn’t find one with Boulez on YouTube. Glad you enjoyed it!

    I’m with you on Webern connection. If one may trace a kind of minimalist (in a wider, non-school-specific, sense) tradition of Webern, then some of Boulez’s works are definitely in it. I do also like Luigi Nono kind of minimal music, but there are some Italians that are pushing it for me (in a good way, I think) and some of, say, Scodanibbio’s stuff is barely music (whatever “music” is, of course) at all…

    I haven’t had a chance to hear any of Boulez’s works live (sad, I know, but I never had a chance).

    I do like his piano sonatas very much as well.

  3. I’m crazy about ‘Le Marteau sans Maitre’. That just reminded me that we had a kind of criticism in the 90’s, may still be going on, when PoMo sensibility started hardening off, with such critics as Kyle Gann at the Village Voice, who would say things like ‘such useless works as Le Marteau Sans maitre’. I’m trying to remember who was singing in the CD I used to listen to all the time, not Cathy Berberian, was it? She was so incredible, i remember I had Freshman Theory with Jacob Druckman at Juilliard, and he would keep saying ‘she is just TOOOOOO much’, swooning over her abilities. Also, Nadia Boulanger used to be a huge fan of ‘Madame berrrr-berrrrr=yan’. She also liked Martha Argerich, but I THINK–but am not sure–it may have been against her will, because Ms. Argerich is A TIGRESS–and very funny too. Could NOT quit fucking when she was young….But we really di lose Berberian too soon.

  4. I lost my train of thought, but I remember that Mr. Gann only seemed moderately literate at best. The Voice is a pale shadow of what it was, they started turning mostly online in 2004 and the paper became very non-radical for the first time since it began with Norman Mailer. I wouldn’t have expected the Voice to give in so easily. They fired so many of their best writers all at once, Nat Hentoff may still be there if he’s alive. They used to have Leighton kerner for classical music and Deborah Jowitt was fired a couple of years ago, one of the best dance critics. At this point, they still do things like ‘the queer issue’ and they had a funny guy for awhile that did a funny thing on Bush and Cindy (the mom of the soldier killed in Iraq who camped out in Crawford), I ought to remember his name. But little radical politics talk, which always gave the Voice a nice unbearable flavour. Even their Classifieds have been superseded hugely by craigslist though.

    I hope you get to see a live Boulez work someday. And that kind of thing does sometimes happen in L.A., if you can drive there: The American premiere of ‘Repons’ was in LA, a week or two before I first heard it at Columbia. I also heard him conduct in Paris and London during my year in Europe in 1971-2. Before Pompidou Center there was this other organization, the RATP, I think, but don’t remember what that stood for, and I think I heard him conduct the London Symphony in 1970 at Royal Albert Hall in Debussy’s ‘Nuages’, not 100% sure. About 10 years ago, they had him doing La Mer on PBS. I had long been a fan of his La Mer, way back to a 1970 LP, that is superb, but 25 years later, he conducted it in an all -business way IMO, it was very pinched, and you just can’t do that and make those parts early on in this piece, I’m hearing them right now–you know exactly the ones I mean, and THAT is something Boulez could never have written, well, it had already been done, so he can be forgiven and he’s always loved what he calls Debussy’s ‘sound world’, a sublime phrase, and god knows, so do I. Debussy has never been surpassed in musical sensuality, I think. There are ways in which he’ll always be my favourite composer, and he’s the reason I left Juilliard for two years and went to Paris (I later went back to Juilliard for 3 more years.) Toward the end of my work with Boulanger, she was coaching me in the ‘Estampes’, and told me that she knew that that is why I went to Paris. She was quite the witch that way, you know. Quite a gal, even in her late 80s, I miss her. That year is what changed my career and life around. I think I was lucky, many think I would have been better off had I just stayed at Juilliard where I coached at the time with Ilona Kabos, and become a famous pianist, but you have to love the INSTRUMENT for that, not just music. That was the difference in me and my colleagues like Andre-Michel Schub, Emanuel Ax, Jeffrey Siegel, Jeffrey Swann, Joseph Kalichstein, Gahrick Ollsohn, Boris Bloch (I accompanied him in some classes once, and he praised me, but said ‘you hate to play the piano, don’t you?’ and many others in my classes or adjacent teachers classes. It’s inconvenient not to go the straight and narrow, but what can you do? And although I did play the Boulez during my master’s year in 1981, I never would have had I not done that year with Boulanger, which trained my ear way beyond any theory classes at Juilliard, which were sloppily done in the modern way. I was forced in France to write Harmony exercises and go to Solfege classes every morning, just like Nadia went to MASS! And to think Elliott Carter is still just around the corner from me at age 103 and still composing. I never met him though, but I saw him on the street as recently as 2 years ago.

    • I wonder if Elliott Carter gets paparazzi action at all?

      Awesomeness all around! I will try and see Boulez before he dies (let’s face it, 85 is not young anymore). With all the technology and stuff, live performances are still something I miss here in the province.

  5. I was lucky to see Boulez conduct ‘Repons’ in the old horse stables at Versailles, back in the late ’90s. It being Versailles, even the horse shed is a marvel. IRCAM seemed to have decamped there for the day, and the row of 10 or so of the latest enormous Apple computers was what caught your eye as your first entered the hall. The orchestra were in the middle of the audience with soloists at 6 corners (!), all miked up to allow IRCAMisation (there’s probably a better word for it) of the sound. As we sat down my friend pointed out to me Tristan Murail sat in front of us, and Helmut Lachenmann and Gyorgy Kurtag close by. I couldn’t have put faces to composers’ names, so I’m glad he did. All in all, an evening to remember.

    • Damn, I think it would have been a great event to attend – plus it’s a kind of story you tell your kids, you know? I will be in Venice soon, and I’m wondering if I should try and see Luigi Nono’s archive (maybe Nuria, Schoenberg’s daughter and Nono’s wife will be around), but it’s out of the touristy way and it’s awkward since I’m not a musicologist or doing any sort of study on Nono, but maybe I should anyway, just for the history book?

  6. Not RATP, that has to do with the Metro, wasn’t thinking. Is ORTF, which was (or is) the Orchestre Nationale de la Radio Television Francaise (or close to that.) I can’t remember where that concert was in Paris or even what was performed that night, that was when Boulez was still conductor of the New York Philharmonic. I’ve never been inside Pompidou Center, which would have opened in mid/late 70s, I think, but saw the exterior in 1997–brilliant piece of work it is too. I do remember a sign that said ‘Pierre Boulez en colere’ or something like that, it seemed as though it was ‘his house’ because of that. It’s one of many in the 1998-2001 Arte France series ‘Architectures’, which explains that ingenious way the complex works. These are VERY good if you can get hold of them, I think the makers are Copain and Neumann.

  7. Yes, that’s it. I’ve seen most of them, maybe missed one. They’ve all always got the natural sounds around the buildings they’re talking about, and no background music, and there are two very good female voices doing the narration, one American, one English. I prefer the American in this case. But they’re first-rate.

    Amusing about ‘Carter getting paparazzi action’. no, I think only during his 100th birthday, which Boulez was very involved with, of course. I frankly don’t think 103-year-olds get much action, although Virgil Thomson, whom I did meet (and is much less lofty than Carter) used to use rent-boys.
    Oh well, so did Ethel Merman.

    Of course you should go to the Nono archive! don’t be ree-deek-oo-luss! You think not being an artist ever stopped Peggy Guggenheim?

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