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From the Archive: Pierre Boulez at 90

Nothing Concrete text
24 Mar 2021
37 min listen

In this week’s archive edition we find ourselves in 2015 and face to face with a force of nature, a champion of the new, a man who stood up for his beliefs; he could even get a new concert halls built – Pierre Boulez.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I’m Ben Eshmade and on this week’s archive edition we find ourselves in 2015 and face to face with a force of nature, a champion of the new, a man who stood up for his beliefs; he could even get a new concert halls built – Pierre Boulez.

Sadly the composer and conductor passed away on the 5th of January 2016. But back in 2015 the Barbican presented Boulez at 90, a series of concerts and films across March and April. So on this edition we try and find out more about the complex and intriguing man, by speaking to those closest to his music, such as conductor François-Xavier Roth.

François-Xavier Roth: Such an important performer as a conductor of the second half of the 20th Century

BE: Composer and educator Julian Anderson; Julian Anderson: And why can’t we hear it live? We’re fed up with always hearing the old CDs. They’re marvellous but we want to hear how this music sounds in the concert hall.

BE: And members of Ensemble Intercontemporain Ensemble Intercontemporain: Well it’s of course a good opportunity to come and to play for his birthday, but you know his birthday was when he was 80, 85, 90. First let’s hear from a composer from the next or next-next generation Nico Muhly. Let’s discover his thoughts on Boulez, to give us a soft-landing and helping hand into this complex yet compelling universe of sounds. Nico Muhly: It was very early in my life as a musician. I’d been listening to a lot of Messiaen and I bought the recording, Boulez’s recording, of Chronochromie and I just thought this is amazingly precise and amazingly – it was like someone had put air between all the notes. I was just immediately transfixed with this clarity and precision and sensual aggression I guess is what I thought of. I’m a little bit contrary in a sense, in that the music I think is the most warm is what everyone thinks is the most cold.

I think that early Glass and Reich is incredibly warm and I think early English choral music is incredibly warm. And I think Boulez is as well, it feels essentially like a gigantic extension of Debussy and of this sumptuous French milky textures. A few years ago, when I started to know more about him and I started to read the things that he said and I realised I could not be less interested in hearing what he has to say about anything. And I think that’s kind of cool, that’s good. I think you shouldn’t really ever listen to composers and I think.. I heard him speak a couple of years ago in New York and essentially he just said a series of contradictory statements. I think what matters is the notes are right and the rhythms are right, and that when he conducts Wagner certain things happen. Those are the things that are important. The rest of it is just noise.

BE: From composer to conductor - François-Xavier Roth has to be one of the biggest advocates of Pierre Boulez’s music. He joined me on the phone to explain why he was looking forward to conducting his music over two concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

FXR: I have the chance to be born in France, and when I was a child and especially when I was a teenager, many pieces, many works by Boulez were performed in Paris. So his music was performed, even it was not something, a part of the repertoire at the time. First time I listened to Répons, I have to say that, more than the complexity, it opened my imagination, we say in French, my imagery landscape in my body, in my mind. So it opened new ways. I always had the feeling that the music was, every time, fresh. Every time modern. Like it was written the day before. This was my impression at the beginning.

And I will never forget when I met him. It was in London before rehearsal, and he was so simple and so nice to me in the sense that he just opened his door when I had some questions. He took all the time necessary to explain me. I remember that he did conduct some Ravel with the LSO and it was fascinating for a young conductor like me, because he explained me everything I wanted to know. Why did you do that in the rehearsal, what will you do in the next rehearsal. So it was my first contact with him personally, and I have to say that it was a shock because I could never imagine that such a great musician would take so much time to explain to Mr Nobody that I was at this time, a young musician who wanted to learn about his way to do music. So it was my first contact with him.

BE: How do you think his conducting has influenced his composing, or the other way round? Do you think they’re linked in some way?

FXR: Yes, for sure, and it’s actually very interesting to see. No doubt that his experience as a conductor influences the way that he could find solutions in the music to be more efficient in a way, or more practical to play, to perform. But the experience of the conductor you can feel in the writing of the composer. But this is really something that is part of his profile. Exactly like Gustav Mahler’s music. When you see Gustav Mahler’s music, you can feel at every bar that the man who did write is used to perform with orchestra. And he knows the orchestra. With Boulez, it’s not only symphony orchestra, but it’s new forms, new ensembles that he did invent. You don’t find something similar in the composers of the 20th century. Because even Stravinsky was not such a good conductor. He did fight all the time with the orchestras he had to conduct. I have to say that his conducting is something totally unique.

First of all I have to say that for me, he is such an important performer, as a conductor, of the second half of the 20th Century. He went back to the roots of the text and the gestures of the composers, and started to give performances much more transparent than what was the same after the war. So this is the first aspect of his conducting which is very important. When you’re talking about seducing, he’s not a man of seduction spontaneously. When you look at him conducting, it’s something, the face doesn’t give any indication. But at the same time, there is this kind of purity in the sound, in the conducting gestures as well. And for me he was always a model, always a model. He did impose to listen to music that they didn’t know but they didn’t want to listen. Step by step, conducting Webern, Berg, Schoenberg’s music but also his friend Berio, Ligeti. Step by step he educated the audiences. Which is something that we have today to thank him, because I wouldn’t dare or I wouldn’t be able to conduct so easily Schoenberg or Ligeti today. So this is a second aspect of his conducting tribute.

BE: So we’ve talked about his conducting but obviously I think we should move to your conducting. How do you approach his music, how do you research or prepare yourself for these performances?

FXR: This is something that I’m very used to because I have to say that I had the chance to conduct his music since many years. What is complex as we said before is that he has conducting all his pieces, but I think that when I start working on his pieces, I just do like all the composers I conduct, I try to find what the composer wanted to do and wanted to say and wanted to hear when he did write his works. More difficult for the conductors than the players, because you have to take an abacus tune and try to understand the form and the music symbol of the work. I take it very in advance, because the music is very complex but I have to say that everytime it’s such an amazing joy to perform his music. Non-stop joy.

BE: François then guided me through some of the music in more detail he was planning to conduct back in 2015. If we start with the Second Piano Sonata, which I found quite fascinating to learn was developed through his friendship with John Cage.

FXR: Yes the Second Piano Sonata is a masterwork, no doubt. A total radical work, in a way like the First Piano Sonata by him but even more, when it was first performed, it was a shock in the music world and the performers, because it’s something so radical and also long for this kind of language. The first sonata is much shorter.

And the music is so rich, so once again, radical and I’m so happy that for this day at the Barbican we will have the opportunity to have one of the greatest pianists of our time, Jean-Frédéric Neuburger. He is really for me a genius and he will give all the richness of this sonata. Éclat/Multiples in a way works really well with the Second Piano Sonata, because it’s a conductor playing a live, huge piano which is an orchestra. And it’s really the virtuosity of the orchestra playing, also for sure, the unique aspect of this ensemble. My God, ten violas suddenly, why ten violas? With percussion, pianos, Cymbeline, mandolin, guitars. This is a unique colour, this ensemble and a new role of the interactions between the conductor and the orchestra. So I find it very interesting to have the two pieces in the same concert.

BE: Moving to the evening this is a very busy day for you, we have Notations, maybe most interesting because they’re being revised?

FXR: The Notations for orchestra is a work non-finished because he has still, I saw him ten days ago, he has still the wish to finish them. The Notations for orchestra are works that were asked by Daniel Barenboim for the Orchestra of Paris, and it’s really a very interesting process of composing, which is the Notations for piano do exist. It’s very short pieces for piano and many years after he composed them, the piano Notations, he took every piece like material for a longer piece for large orchestra. So it’s really a very interesting process, like you can see in a garden a big tree began with a small thing in the earth and it’s a masterwork for orchestra. And I have to say that today it really is in the repertoire of the orchestras.

BE: And we finish with, I think for a lot of people, one of his most famous works, Pli selon pli.

FXR: Yes, it’s a beautiful piece. I could say that with Le Marteau and Répons, it’s maybe one of the most interesting masterworks of Pierre Boulez. Yes, soprano and orchestra which is divided in many groups. It’s the part of Boulez’s music where the text is pretext for poetry. And the poetry in Boulez’s music is very important. For sure, not something which is the same with Debussy or Ravel with [Trois poèmes de] Mallarme poetry for example. But something very colourful and with many different sense of the texts that you can understand or not. I am so pleased that we will be able to perform this piece to end this amazing day.

BE: Next we find ourselves speaking to the Professor of Composition and Composer in resident at the Guildhall School of Music - Julian Anderson. He gives us some unique insights and even tips on how to understand and engage with the music. Something he was smitten with from a very early age.

Julian Anderson: I first heard Pierre Boulez’s music when I was about eleven. I can remember what it was, it was Éclat/Multiples. I had a first part that seemed just hover around in a very motionless kind of way, that I couldn’t hang on to. Now I have to say immediately that I first heard of Pierre Boulez in a quite different way from his music. Pierre Boulez was, I don’t know about household, but he was a very famous name in Britain at that time in Britain because he was Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony [Orchestra].

Catching up with his music properly was when I was thirteen, and I quickly discovered that trying to write any music like that that it’s actually very difficult to write music with that amount of colour and that amount of surprise. It’s not, you have to have an exceptional artistic ability and imagination to do that and he really has that. I still think that those features and liveliness are the principal features of a great Boulez piece, I would say. Lyricism is there in some pieces, but Boulez’s idea of a melody is not Verdi, it’s not a tune that you whistle in the street. It’s a very ornate kind of melodic writing in Boulez that’s more like something you might find in Japanese Noh plays or in maybe East Asian music or medieval music. So he naturally expanded towards those musics that attracted his ear, and Japanese music and also Balinese Gamelan was also one of those. One advice that I could advise people to listen out for in Boulez is many similar parts, but not identical, on top of each other at once. So there will be a melodic line which everyone will play but they’ll play it slightly differently from one another. So it’s more like a crowd singing if you will at a football match.

They sing a football song but they don’t all sing it at the same speed and it gets out of phase with itself, and some of them sing it in a very elaborate way, some of them sing just the basic notes of it, some sing it with a lot of accents, some don’t. Well if you transfer that to a melodic pattern in Boulez, you’ll hear the line being diffused through the orchestra like it’s in a hall of mirrors. It’s the most magical sound world, that. One of the other things I could say that people might have a little background about is that, look on the internet, look up Paul Clay. Paul Clay had a very interesting attitude towards the basic materials of his art. He was a painter, so he took just colours, lines, foreground, background, and he worked with those very little elements that a kid could work with frankly. And just examined them as if they dropped down from heaven, just there. And as a parallel I know Boulez loves reading Paul Clay’s writing and loves looking at his pictures and has been very affected by that and I think that’s got a parallel with.. Let’s just take the basic elements of sound and time and melody and harmony, examine them afresh as if they just fell down in front of you, what would you do with these tools?

And I think that’s very much also Boulez’s attitude towards society as a whole. In the early years he was polemic, he criticised a lot of what he found to be unsatisfactory, but he quickly realised saying this won’t do if you can’t do anything about it is no good. So he decided to do something about it and that’s really why he became a conductor. Because as a composer he could only do so much. One of the problems that his generation had was getting anyone to play their music. Well as a conductor he could help with that. And he used that and frankly, let’s say it, the power that came with that, in a very productive way.

BE: How?

JA: Well, to found, for example, a whole load of institutions in France that did not exist. I’ll name one of them, this Institute of Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music, rather a mouthful that. IRCAM is the short for that. Well IRCAM is basically an electroacoustic music centre, a centre for exploring and devising new ways in which science and sound can interact. Electronic music doesn’t play a huge role in Boulez’s music. He’s written only about three, substantial yes, but only three pieces that really used it properly. Of course it was very nice to be able to say to President Pompidou, what music really needs is this and then the answer well OK, if you Pierre Boulez think that then we’ll do it. I mean that’s pretty amazing to have somebody who could actually talk to the French President and then get an answer of that kind of quality. There was a number of composers, interviewed by a London newspaper, paid tribute or just said what they thought of Boulez musically and as a composer and so on.

One of the warmest tributes and most touching came from none other than the late John Tavener. John Tavener, the religious composer, Christian at first and then Orthodox and then sort of rather pan-religious later. Somebody who was always going on about the lack of spirituality in Western Contemporary Art music. So what does he have to say about Boulez? And he said ‘Boulez is, I think, a very great religious and spiritual figure in music’. And I remember thinking ‘uh?’, and then thinking again and thinking ‘hang on, I think I know what this is at’. And Tavener said ‘you just listen to one of those glorious passages of chords, glistening chords in Pli selon pli or some of his later music, which make you long almost for another world, they give you a window onto another world that doesn’t exist. And he said ‘for me they’re a symbol of paradise’ and of course paradise as a concept was an interest of John Tavener. And he said ‘I once told Boulez that in a lift’, God knows what Boulez thought. Boulez said ‘I know you believe in paradise, I don’t believe in paradise’, and Tavener said to Boulez ‘I know you don’t Pierre, but your music does’.

BE: How do you see his music affecting other composers?

JA: I’ve seen, I mean I’m only in my forties, but I’ve seen enough fashions come and go in music and society generally, to see Boulez go out of fashion and then come back into fashion again. My impression is that young composers now are perfectly happy to just listen to this music and if they find it attractive, study it with enthusiasm. They don’t I think feel the need to take on the battles. Those were his battles in his time, they have other battles to fight. They certainly have no trouble getting into that soundworld, or the soundworld that Boulez creates, and swimming around very happily in it. And they’ll take on Boulez, they’ll take on Steve Reich, they’ll take on Helmut Lachenmann, they’ll take on some of them Beyoncé, whatever it is. They’ll take on Olly Knussen, they’ll listen to all of these people happily and with enthusiasm and interest, and often with great perception. But many of them have said to me that they would really like to hear this music live. And ‘why can’t we hear it live, we’re fed up of hearing the old CDs, they’re marvellous but we want to hear how this music sounds in the concert hall’. So what I’m saying to all of them is ‘you keep saying this to me, go along and hear it, the BBC and the Barbican are doing all these pieces live, just for you, so go along and hear it’.

BE: And finally, as we attempt to explore this man and his music from every angle, we can now move finally from the conductor and composer to that of the players. I caught up with some of the members of Ensemble Intercontemporain, which the composer himself founded in 1976.

Eric-Maria Couturier: My name is Eric-Maria Couturie, I’m a cellist in Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Sophie Cherrier: My name is Sophie Cherrier, I’m a flautist in Ensemble Intercontemporain.

EC: Maybe I listen to Pierre Boulez’s music for the first time when I was very young, so I mistook it for some free jazz because I was on four years old. But later on I seriously met him as a conductor when I was working in Orchestre de Paris and we were performing Stravinsky’s [Rite of Spring] and and then I met him in real with his music, with Répons and Dérive.

SC: For me it was when I was 20 years ago when I went to the Ensemble, I’d been admitted to this Ensemble, so for me everything was new. I didn’t know nearly one thing about contemporary music. I knew Boulez of course and a bit of his music, but not so much. So I just covered everything with the Ensemble. So of course Mémoriale for solo flute later but also Sonatine and many pieces of course. Every piece is for me is composition now we know.

BE: What did you think of the music though, when you did get to perform it? What were your sort of impressions?

EC: Well my first impression was very strong because when I entered Ensemble Intercontemporain twelve years ago, I didn’t know anything about this kind of music so I really dived into it. The scores were amazing, the individual parts and also was reading his books a bit, what I could understand, and also the rehearsal were fantastic. So it was a bit shock because there were some contradictions everywhere in his conducting also, his way of writing, in the sense that it was very clear, very vertical. And also he has some softness in the way of conducting also, some lyrical pieces also. It added some for in Dérive, in the last version there are a lot of solos, very lyrical. In Mémoriale you can tell but as flutist. There are many pieces, also vocal pieces and there is a lot of images like French, what would be French music, with Debussy roots. I think it comes from here. So I discovered that and I was very impressed.

SC: When I arrived I was 20 years young, I was much far away from Eric, 30 years ago now. When you arrive you are 20 years old, you discover very great musicians and the level for me was very incredible and I was just thinking ‘what am I going to do in this ensemble?’ so. And then I have the same impression as Eric, if we speak about Boulez, one part of him is all the details and everything, can I say easy, everything when he’s conducting, he’s following the lines and is very vertical, it seems to be only technical, but I think like Eric that there’s a lot of [lyricism], even in his way of conducting and even in his music of course.

EC: One of the first images I had when I tried to audition, we have some music to play under his baton and so we followed his hand and I was just fascinated by the hand. It was like a ballet, it was so soft and so guiding also in the same way.

SC: I’m feeling I have the same impression, I always say that. Honestly we didn’t speak together about that today. Some people say ‘how, when you look at Boulez, his face’, I say ‘don’t look at his face, look at his hand. Just go in there and follow is hand. You seem to, yes there are many things coming out of one hand. This is it’. All the music, all the emotion is coming out of his hand. Of course, you look at his face when he’s conducting, it seems like there’s nothing happening but it’s not true, we have just to be with his hand.

BE: He set this up, in 1976. What were the aims you think he had, or the reason he set it up in the first place?

EC: Well there is many things about this written. The same things he wanted to create [informative] research centre, IRCAM, close to the Pompidou Museum. And also structure and offices, also rehearsal rooms and concert hall. As a city that was the aim, but [he] was the architect of all these things. And now we are enjoying very much to work in these walls, that he created for us. And also there will be another one, next to, in the Porte de Pantin in Paris, which will be a Philharmonie de Paris. The society of music was created in 1990 but I don’t know before, where did you work in 1976?

SC: Well in 1976, well I was not there in 1976, well nearly. I was there in 1980 but we had a rehearsal room in a very bad place because we didn’t have a special room for us. We were playing around in theatres like Théâtre du Châtelet, Théâtre du Great Point[-Virgule]. But the idea of Boulez was creating this, how do you say, the small world for music and this is it now. He was so, he wanted so much this big hall, which is the Philharmonie, which is being built now. He had a big fight for that to say we need in Paris a very big hall and finally, we’re going to have it so we’re happy for him and for us of course.

BE: What you’re saying is he’s a man with a great vision, musically and artistically.

SC: Exactly, he had the vision of so many things in every art, by the way, and especially in music of course, so when he had an idea like building this, he was just fighting for that for so many years so it’s good that it’s finally happened now.

BE: And it’s not just that as well. Another aspect that we haven’t touched on is the technology, he obviously was a man who wanted to push the relationship between technology and organic and electronics to its limits.

EC: I went around in the ensemble and ten, twelve years ago I was playing the pieces with electronic and everything were accomplished. But I know that it was very difficult, that electronic was another extension of the music, and sometimes in response music was acoustic, the response of electronic. They worked night and night and months and years and now we do this with the laptop, it has been so involuted until now. So for us it’s also a very nice tool because we can find also new real time programs who can follow, adjust, even correct things when it’s so fast, the program can listen and there is also a way of following, it’s amazing. And so musicians of Ensemble Intercontemporain are working also with engineers of IRCAM in a way to add some microphones, very special ones, non-contact microphones inside for example the clarinet bass, it’s very new now so it might be possible to have another way of interaction, that acoustic sound is based on electronic stuff, so we will see what will happen. But I think it can bring more horizon for creating because the composer will have another role now. I’m writing the acoustic part in the score and then we will have an assistant for all electronics, it will be the same person. They will be both creators, and also the musician will be the third creator. It’s more powerful maybe.

SC: I was there at the beginning when the machines became, trying to be in our world, and it was very difficult. It was always a good vision of Boulez and, not only Boulez but all the composers around, and it was very complicated at the beginning because the machine, it was enormous. And it was, then for example when we created ‘…explosante-fixe…’ for flute, solo with a MIDI computer, we had to play on what I was calling an automatic flute with many small, it was very complicated. We had to say to an interface ‘oh she’s playing a G’, or the interface was saying to the computer ‘OK she had played a G, on G there is and it’s coming’ and now as Eric says, after years and years, we play on our wind instruments, we just have a very small microphone and it’s just following the notes. So it’s not a question of organising, we call it recognising the sound where they come. It has taken us fifteen years, twenty years and then now.

BE: Getting back to your instruments, I thought I’d ask about that next. How does he write for the cello and flute? I know his writing is normally thought to push the instruments to their limits. EC: It’s not pushing the instruments to their edge of limit, it’s pushing the musicians to their edges. SC: For me it’s very interesting, because he has written what Sonatina, he was 20 years old so it was written 45 [years ago] and it’s still today a very difficult piece rhythmically, especially rhythmically. He pushes quite far, but not so far that. For me, what I know about Boulez, for the flute, [Le] Marteau sans maître, of course Mémoriale, even ‘…explosante-fixe…’, Sonatine, it’s possible to do everything. It’s not like Ferneyhough for example, who pushes so far that you must leave some information beside, because you can’t play everything. Boulez you can, you can do it. But what stays very difficult, especially with the Sonatine, is the rhythm with the pianist and to be in the same mood that we can have the same music coming out. I remember Pierre-Laurent Aimard was playing with us and I played it with him. He was always saying ‘each time I’m playing the Sonatine it’s like I’m going to die’, mis a mour he was saying. You can play this piece 20 times, 40 times, it’s still interesting and you have still a sort of challenge. That was for me very exciting, since years and years. I think it’s a very good programme for his 90th birthday.

BE: Next year will be the ninetieth anniversary. Is it a great opportunity to look back and maybe even look forward? It’s an amazing achievement that he’s still with us composing incredible music.

SC: Well it’s of course a good opportunity to come and to play for his birthday, but you know his birthday was when he was 80, 85, 90 and it will be always his birthday. I think it’s going to be a big event all around the world. I’m going to play for example ‘…explosante-fixe…’ in Baden Baden where he lives and then I will play Mémoriale. For me it’s very, of course playing Mémoriale in London, which is a town that he loves. He loves coming and conducting here so of course it’s very important for us. But his birthday is any day.

BE: Thanks to all the fantastic contributors to this look at the complex yet compelling world of music constructed by composer Pierre Boulez, this podcast itself originally compiled to coincide with the Boulez at 90 series at the venue. I’m Ben Eshmade.

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