Modern music: Boulez

Pierre Boulez has long been one of the leading voices of contemporary music, both in the development of total serialism, and as a lightning rod for criticism. Boulez's regular & respected activity as a conductor has let him remain before the public in a positive light, even if many listeners have never accepted the most modern music of the second half of the twentieth century (let alone later).

Besides his pioneering work with total serialism, the application of twelve-tone practices to all musical parameters, Boulez has developed characteristic "icy" sonorities around flute & a range of percussion instruments that have been influential throughout modern music. He has also tackled technical musical problems such as incorporating improvisation, using live electronics, and spacing of sound sources within a performance space. Live electronics have subsequently become increasingly significant in improvised music, and Boulez's contribution in that area via IRCAM might end up being his most valued by history.

Although I've learned over the years that many of the people who are most enthusiastic about Boulez's music are unhappy with his most substantive piece, Pli selon pli, it has long been my favorite. So from here, I will adopt my own narrative of Boulez's output, according to the way I hear & view his music. Others will disagree.

Boulez's earliest piece to gain wide acclaim was Le marteau sans maître (1953-55/57), for alto and six instruments. The piece captures Boulez's characteristic sound, some aspects drawn from world music, and his sense of ensemble. It continues to be popular, and unlike some of his music, was not continually revised. Personally, although Le marteau sans maître has its appeal & originality, it's not a piece I enjoy that much, with its sometimes mechanical character — a character found in a fair amount of Boulez's early music. His sound world also continued to be refined.

In a similar style, that is featuring French poetry in a multi-movement work delineated by syntactical response, but this time with a full orchestra, is the even more ambitious Pli selon pli (1957-62/83/89). As indicated by the dates, this long work was extensively revised in the 1980s. Boulez's most recent recording:

Boulez: Pli selon pli
Christine Schäfer / Ensemble Intercontemporain - Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 289 471 344

Those who find fault with Pli selon pli as a less "coherent" piece than some of Boulez's other major works tend to find even more fault with the revisions. That is, both in notation & performance, the piece becomes less what they'd like it to be in time. I do not agree, but this idea of coherence is something to address. First of all, Boulez's penchant to keep revising works after they've been released has been criticized generally, and while it might be maddening for those who would prefer a definitive sense of composition, it's Boulez's extensive and widely acclaimed experience as a conductor throughout these decades that gave him almost unequaled access to ensembles & audiences, and a chance to think through his music in those active contexts. That this experience is respected in his output is one of its strengths.

Regarding coherence, Pli selon pli is a portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), a poet who made extensive use of empty space, and included essentially (including set by Boulez) portraits of disability & failure. In that sense, there is no incoherence to Pli selon pli whatsoever; it faithfully reflects its subject matter, and Mallarmé's output continues to be one of the most significant of modern Western culture. The depiction of silence & failure is in obvious distinction to the bold statements of Boulez's youth, and the general assertiveness of Le marteau sans maître, but to my mind, forms an essential counterweight to the positivist implications growing out of the modernist style. It is, in short, a philosophical correction, and an immanent one.

Perhaps because Pli selon pli never found the same acclaim as his earlier work, Boulez never published another piece with such broad ramifications. He is continuing to compose as I write this in 2012, but either in shorter pieces, more revisions to his earlier work, indeed expanding parts of earlier works into new pieces, or in a more purely musical style. By this I mean that his major pieces since Pli selon pli tackle specifically musical problems & ideas. I do not mean to establish any strict boundary between music & philosophy or social commentary in this regard, but I do hear Boulez going more toward the "absolute" pole. That said, the ongoing acts of revision can be taken as a philosophical statement.

Boulez's most widely regarded piece since Le marteau sans maître is Répons (1980/82/84) for chamber ensemble and live electronics. Besides the use of live electronics to process the sounds of the musicians and play them back differently, they are also differentiated spatially with loudspeakers placed elsewhere in the performance space. Répons has its interesting features, including — for me, perhaps the most compelling use of electronics — precise manipulation of very high pitches. In my opinion, the material itself has a very commercial quality to it, which underscores the piece's nature as a popular musical exercise (popular being relative, of course). That the defiant & radical Boulez turned to material of this nature is somewhat unsatisfying, but finds its own fans. In any case, Répons does set important precedents with live electronics.

Since then, three other major Boulez works can be named: ...explosante-fixe... (1971-74/86/91-93; specifically referencing Stravinsky, who seems to have cast a Disney-esque shadow over Répons as well), which in its later versions continues the exploration of live electronics; Sur incises (1996-98), a six-performer elaborated version of the solo piano piece Incises (1994/2001), which nonetheless retains the flow of a solo work; and, Dérive 2 (1988/2002/2006) for eleven instruments, a labyrinthine polyphonic work generated out of small gestures.

All of this music possesses recordings conducted by Boulez on Deutsche Grammophon, although not including the latest revision of Dérive 2. The latter is available with another conductor, marking perhaps a decisive step in Boulez's reception, with some of his late ensemble music presented by someone else:

Boulez: Mémoriale; Dérive 1; Dérive 2
Fabrice Jünger / Ensemble Intercontemporain - Daniel Kawka
Naïve 782 183

Although it's not a piece with deeper multifaceted implications (a conclusion that might need revision in light of a possible parallel with Debord, one I have not seen articulated), Dérive 2 is in my opinion, Boulez's most interesting & enjoyable late work, and having this "alternate" interpretation is an important step in his discography. Dérive 2 fills one's mental attention progressively with its ever-increasing lines; the relationship of small & large is also of broad intellectual interest. The other two pieces on this program are shorter, not uninteresting, but of less consequence. (Mémoriale (1985), for Bruno Maderna, is related morphologically to the oft-revised ...explosante-fixe... franchise.)

Currently, Boulez is working on orchestrating his early Notations (1945) for piano, and has at least expressed an interest in creating a Répons 2.

Back to Modern music page.

Todd M. McComb
Original: 2 July 2002
Revised: 24 October 2012
Updated: 18 November 2012