The wonderful world of Pierre Boulez
by Tim Pfaff
The young firebrand Pierre Boulez, who, no matter what you think of him or his music, must be counted among the greatest musical minds among us, announced his arrival on the scene with the Nietzschean pronouncement, "Schoenberg is dead." Ever since, his music has largely shared the reception of the predecessor he once decried: as box-office poison esteemed only by a small cadre of contemporary-music specialists. Genius at his level almost always breeds contempt, and Boulez, also one of the most powerful figures on the world music stage by dint of his unsurpassed mind and ear, has seemed to many an odious, otherworldly Klingsor in Parsifal, scheming to do in the musical fools below from his lofty perch. Nor has his silence about being gay and canny avoidance of any scandal surrounding it enlarged his fan base.
But as the musicians who appear in a new DVD about Boulez — combining Frank Scheffer's fascinating film Eclat ("great brilliance" in French), named after a Boulez composition now nearly a half-century old, and Andy Sommers' filming of a Boulez "class" on his composition "Sur incises" followed by a full performance of the piece (Juxtapositions/Ideale Audience) — make clear, they'd throw themselves in front of the Metro for the man. The regard of musicians, a notably sensitive lot, is always worth paying attention to.
Skillfully bypassing all attempts to deify Boulez, this continuously fascinating DVD humanizes him in a way that could open the world of his transfixing music to anyone willing to give it a moment. With an almost avuncular patience and kindness of the kind that could not be faked, Boulez speaks eloquently in English and (subtitled) French about his music and its origins without either talking down to you or going off into the ether. As he comments, "[In my music], you don't look always for the future. You are purely in the moment, when you perceive the sound and the evolution of the sound."
He and Sheffer together make some of his most fundamental artistic concepts arrestingly concrete. Boulez speaks of being given a book of Klee paintings in 1948 and reading Klee's comments about the "days and days" it took him to paint the backgrounds before adding what we think of as the paintings. "I try to do the same thing," Boulez says, as Scheffer's camera darts between him and pictures of fish, which move the way Boulez says that, for him, sound does, darting here and there at unexpected, largely unpredetermined moments. "The musical background is not very specific, and on that I add very precise motives, or musical cells."
Watching the Dutch Nieuw Ensemble under conductor Ed Spanjaard rehearse Eclat — with the composer's sage, calm, patient in-person guidance — is to watch, feel and in every way sense the work come alive. By the end of the film, it's clear that all that's really required to grasp this or any Boulez composition is to stay with it.
In all his compositions, a startling amount of the actual composition is left up to the performer, about which Boulez comments matter-of-factly, "The performer not knowing exactly when he will play gives the performance a tension that cannot be realized by other means." He talks almost blithely about the three phases of encountering a musical work for the first time. "In phase 1, you don't know it; you are in the dark. In phase 2, you analyze it, and you think you know it. In phase 3, you are back in the dark, because you never know why one thing is better than another one." Could this be the voice of bona fide humility?
Things get headier in the second section, Boulez' public class on "Sur incises," once a short piano-competition piece that, like most Boulez works, wouldn't stop morphing. What he takes his audience through has become a 37-minute work for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists that, he insists, was "born out of the architecture of the instruments — things felt, little by little, that you cannot explain in words."
By the end of the class, he concedes, "Contemporary music is more difficult [than earlier "classical" music] because it has to be lived out, worked through," and he means as much by the audience and players as by the composer. "You create the architecture and find the ideas, and it's all the more rewarding that you have discovered a universe you weren't aware of before hearing it."
The concert of the work, by the incomparable Ensemble Intercontemporain he created, fully bears him out. Having had your lesson, you have only to listen and wonder. Oh, and if male readers don't fall in love with one, two or all three of the Ensemble's pianists, you may have picked up the wrong newspaper.