Icon: Pierre Boulez (as composer)

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 06.20.12 in Icons

The story most often told about composer Pierre Boulez is the one about the youngster who rages against the classical music machine, the kid who declared any composer not persuaded by Schoenberg’s serial method “USELESS” (the all-caps were his), and who was given to remarks such as “all art of the past must be destroyed.” Or try this bon mot, which he uttered in his 20s: “The most elegant way of solving the opera problem would be to blow up the opera houses.” This was several decades before casual suggestions of terroristic violence were read out of polite society, but then Boulez never seemed particularly suited to politeness, either.

In the popular telling, Boulez’s story is one in which he holds onto that title of enfant terrible a bit past the first fading of his youth. When Boulez tried to feed New Yorkers a steady diet of hardcore modernism, as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, audiences — and the press — bristled throughout his tenure. (Headlines in the Times often ran like so: “It’s Fun for Boulez. But…” and “The Iceberg Conducteth.”)

What’s happened in the last 20 years, however, is a lowering of hostilities on all sides of the Boulez question. While the Frenchman’s skill as a conductor has long been much admired, so, increasingly, is his own demanding, almost religiously cacophonous early music, the challenges of which have been taken up by younger generations of conservatory grads. And though he’s painstakingly slow with his own pen, Boulez’s later compositions have admitted of a certain lyricism that he might have howled against as a young man. Perhaps when Boulez said “all art of the past must be destroyed,” he was predicting, without knowing it, his own penchant for rewriting and expanding his previous works. (For this reason, it’s even more desirable than usual to own multiple recordings of the “same” Boulez piece.)

The new line is that he’s calmed down a bit, and that he’s taken a turn toward his beloved Debussy. But those statements only track if you think Debussy is not intense on his own. Better then just to allow that Boulez has slowly built up a body of work worth exploring. Besides, there are even rumors that he’s writing — gasp! — an opera based on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” to be premiered at La Scala in 2015. While the opera world waits, the rest of us have his recorded catalog of mysteries left to puzzle over — including, this year, the revelation that an old, brief piece has since been revised and extended to a length of over 50 minutes, the second-longest orchestral essay of the maestro’s career.

All Writing Is Re-Writing, or, The Maestro Who Cannibalizes Himself

For a certain type of "modern classical" fan, this disc emerged as one of the earliest (pleasant) surprises of 2012. After starting out as a miniature in the 1980s, and then being recorded by the composer himself in a 25-minute "revised edition" circa 2005, a Boulez fan could be forgiven for thinking that all the tinkering on "Derive II" had been completed.

Not so. For here we have Daniel Kawka and the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain with a version of "Derive II" that stretches over 50 minutes in length — the biggest single drop of new Boulez orchestral music in many years. (According to the composer, he's otherwise been busy orchestrating his early "Notations" for solo piano, a few of which dribble out in recordings every so often.)

So what's in there? Some ravishing writing for woodwinds, for starters — contrapuntal lines for bassoon, oboe and clarinet abound here. There are even flecks of insouciance you'd almost call jazzy, if not for the cold-water-dumping icy quality of the piano part (which harkens back to some of those original "Notations").

New Yorkers heard this new version of Derive II during the maestro's 85th birthday concert, in 2010. At the local premiere performance, I wasn't convinced of the structural necessity of opening up "Derive II" in this way, but Kawka's command of the newly conceived piece has made me into a convert. By turns harsh and lush, it's required listening for any Boulez devotee, and possibly also for other kinds of classical fans who don't regard themselves as anything of the sort.

Boulez: Pli Selon Pli; and Livre pour Cordes

Pierre Boulez

"Am I the only listener who finds Pli selon pli both pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty?" So asked Igor Stravinsky of his last interviewer, from the New York Review of Books, in 1971. The composer would have heard this version, completed in 1969 (and revised for a Deutsche Grammophone disc in 2002). And sure: Stravinsky is correct; it's a long piece, and one dedicated to a certain clenched aesthetic. But this version is preferable for this very reason — particularly to those who find the composer's late-'80s revision too pretty and not nearly monstrous enough. Halina Lukomsa's soprano punches through the mix more so than in the latter recording (which features Christine Schafer), as do the amplified mandolin and guitar parts. Coupled with the occasionally hard-to-find "Livre pour cords," this '60s-era Boulez offering has hung in the catalog for good reason. If you don't want Boulez's late-period gracefulness, the punch you're looking for can be found here.

Serial Electronica: Boulez’s Experiments with Manipulated (and Multi-Tracked) Instruments

Boulez: Répons; Dialogue de l'ombre double

Alain Damiens

When French president Georges Pompidou asked Boulez to start a center for musical research in the 1970s, the composer dreamed up with technologically oriented IRCAM (or Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). Repons, completed in 1984 but not recorded until 2000, the 40-minute piece Repons has thus far represented Boulez's own high-water mark of engagement with electro-acoustic composition. Scored for a small orchestra, six soloists and a synthesizer that reacts in real-time to live performance, the piece has a dreamy quality that has eluded some of Boulez's more savage writing for purely acoustic forces. As piano chords are refracted and spit back into the mix by IRCAM's "4x" synthesizer/processor, with a slight phasing effect, the listener may become conscious of an irony: Did it finally take electronic interference to make Boulez's music more human sounding, and less fanatically precise than the sound he goes for as a conductor? Sure. But no matter which side of the human/digital divide for which characteristic — as in the blend of fleeting piano notes and panned woodwinds in Section 5 — the blend of pristine sharpness and odd decay proves fascinating.

Boulez: Sur Incises; Messagesquisse; Anthèmes 2

Ensemble Intercontemporain

"Sur Incises" — for three trios of pianos, harps and percussionists, respectively — is the headliner here, but "Anthèmes 2" is the real stunner. For a solo violinist and a sound manipulator (who feeds the live sound back, after some processing), the piece is the cleanest representation of what Boulez has been up to at IRCAM all these years. The massed forces of pieces like "Repons" and "...explosante-fixe..." mean that it's sometimes difficult to discern where the electronics end and the live performance begins. Not so here; the bevy of tweaked sounds — airy sustains, chopped-and-screwed pizzicato moments, and kaleidoscopic glissando runs — are all clear and exposed.

The Composer’s Band: Boulez Conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain

Boulez: Le Marteau sans maitre; Derive 1 & 2

Hilary Summers

The title translates to "The Hammer Without a Master" — and yet this is the piece of Boulez's that, more than any other, has sealed his compositional reputation. Graduate students are still puzzling out its theoretical structure, but lay listeners can hear what distinguishes the work. The poetry chosen by the composer, from the pages of the surrealist-inspired René Char, fits neatly within Boulez's whimsical soundworld — one populated by six instrumentalists who make up a bizarre chamber ensemble of viola, guitar, alto flute, vibraphone, xylorimba and percussion. (There is no player to carry anything like a baseline, contributing to the composition's brittle quality.) The feeling of sonic-heft sensuality is therefore left to the single vocalist; on this recording, Hilary Summers evokes the proper mystery from the song-texts with a lushness of sound.

Pierre Boulez Conducts His Own Works

Pierre Boulez

Here's your one chance to hear "Eclat/Multiples for 25 Instruments." In the decades after this early recording with the band founded at IRCAM, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Boulez has yet to revisit the piece in the studio. It's perhaps not the sort of piece that the composer's more sensual late style could even begin to accommodate. Without a text to anchor him (as with Pli Selon Pli and Le Marteau Sans Maitre), the thing seems unwieldy — even for Boulez. But it still stuns; the attack of the Intercontemporain players sets the standard for the brutalism Boulez was after at the time. When paired with the otherwise hard-to-find "Rituel (In Memory of Bruno Maderna)" — a grieving farewell to a composer colleague, played here by the BBC Symphony Orchestra — this disc amounts to an essential document of Boulez's compositional fascinations during the 1970s.

Boulez: ... Explosante-fixe...

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Pierre Boulez: Pli selon Pli

Christine Schafer

Solo and Duo Flights

Boulez: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3

Paavali Jumppanen

"A master who worked with a very small hammer" is how the American neo-Romantic/post-Minimalist composer John Adams described Boulez upon the occasion of the maestro's 80th birthday. If this slightly tortured form of praise doesn't seem to have made much allowance for Boulez's later-period compositions, that makes sense: In a way, it was the pointillistic jugular-stabbing of these early piano sonatas that first brought Boulez attention as a composer and theorist. The bigger the forces, the more generous Boulez's sound world can seem. When it's solo instrument time, especially from the era in which Boulez's critical prose was at its polemical height, the listener may want to brace for an attack.

This is the one recording available that unites all three of the composer's piano sonatas — including the unfinished (and slightly chance-based) final sonata. And though the reputation of Boulez's Second Piano Sonata as "unplayable" has, by now, been disproven half a dozen times on record, Boulez's face on the Deutsche Grammophon cover here suggests that this traversal, by Paavali Jumppanen, has pride of place in the composer's own record collection.

As the executive director of the New York City-based International Contemporary Ensemble — a group that often appears to be everywhere, commissioning new pieces by the likes of Steve Lehman while rescuing neglected operas by Hans Werner Henze — flutist Claire Chase has done as much as anyone to rehabilitate the reputation of European-informed modernism in the city that Pierre Boulez once scandalized with much the same aesthetic.

How has she done it? Part of the answer is that Chase and her ICE cohorts are just that talented; the breath control required by a piece like Kaija Saariaho's titular work on this program isn't just a technical issue, but an interpretive one. And Chase makes the timbral subtleties of avant-garde, extended technique really sing through this program, and soulfully.

Even though no electronics are involved on the album, it feels as though the legacy of abstracted, manipulated instrumental textures has inspired much of the playlist. Kaija Saariaho's experimentations flow, after all, from Pierre Boulez's early IRCAM explorations, and so it's fitting that his early "Sonantina" is on the same program. Chase's playful mastery with the piece is a generational landmark, in that the piece doesn't feel played out of anything resembling duty (like either that of a monk to a religion, or a child to a plate of spinach). Hery playing comes off so joyfully, it almost makes you forget that you're supposed to think this music is hard going.

Bach: Partita in D major, French Suite in D minor/Boulez: Douze Notations pour piano, Incises

David Fray

Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen: Dal Niente

Eduard Brunner

Stravinsky: Three Dances from Petruschka'/ Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No.7 / Webern: Piano Variations

Maurizio Pollini

20th Century Piano Masterpieces

Various Artists