Another couple of interesting concerts here in Basel. I say in Basel, but the first was actually in Germany. One of the curiosities of this city is that its suburbs are in three countries: Switzerland, Germany and France. It goes a long way to explaining why everyone seems fluent in at least three languages.
I headed a bit further into neighbouring territory on 13th, however: to the Konzerthaus Freiburg (see first photo), where the Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg were playing Lachenmann’s Tableau, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 3 and Berio’s Sinfonia.
I was there mostly for the Berio, which I’ve never heard in concert. It was every bit as brilliant as I’d hoped, especially the crazy parody in the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Lachenmann – an immensely tall and impressive figure – was present for the performance of his Tableau. The work, I confess, left me nonplussed. Despite, to borrow a phrase from my more enthusiastic companion, the work being like a beautiful garden of sound, I had difficulty connecting these sounds into a comprehensible whole.
On 16th I headed to Bahnhof für Neue Musik, a little bit, perhaps, like Basel’s version of Nonclassical in London. It has a similar relaxed approach to concert going and makes use of a pretty interesting venue: the Gare du Nord Station near the border with Germany. There is a rather grand, if slightly faded, bar. You are then free to take your drink into the concert area, which used to be the station’s first class waiting room (second photo).
The concert programme consisted of Ensemble Phoenix Basel playing two works by young composers that had been awarded prizes by the group: Vladimir Guicheff Bogacz’s bulle apenas and Matthias Renaud’s Concerto for Piano and Ensemble. Both were written in response to John Cage’s Sixteen Dances, which formed the second half. Of the two, Vladimir Guicheff Bogacz’s was easily the most successful, partly because of the relative reserve with which it deployed the four available percussion players. It was a trap that Matthias Renaud’s Concerto did not, sadly, avoid; the work becoming a chaotic barrage of percussion sounds and extended techniques. It was a relief when the Cage came, which was an object lesson in deploying generous resources, using few notes, to maximum effect.
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One curiosity here has been the difference in pricing and audience attendance at the concerts I’ve been to. The large hall at Freiburg, Germany was completely sold out for a concert that consisted of mostly newish music. It cost €11. The Gare du Nord concert was 30 CHF (almost the same in euros); the Feldmann, Ligeti, Stahnke concert earlier in the month was 50CHF (which nearly provoked a wallet attack). These are prices that make me, a person that is enthusiastic about new music, think twice. They seem to have the same effect on others: neither Swiss concert was well attended.
DG have just reissued Boulez’s Le Domaine Musical collection, which can be added to my earlier guide to the composer’s recordings. It features performances from the seminal Paris concerts between 1956 and 1967, including works by Stockhausen, Berio, Messiaen, Varese, Kagel, Henze, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and, of course, Boulez. Perhaps, most intriguing of all, is the inclusion of two works by Giovanni Gabrieli, presumably to give context to other compositions on one of the programmes. Gabrieli as sixteenth century modernist, perhaps?
Also just reissued on the same label is Max Richter’s 2004 album The Blue Notebooks both on CD and vinyl, the latter being a sure sign of its popularity. I’d check it out on Spotify first if you are in any way tempted: you will either love or hate its zen-like simplicity.
Two Naxos disks containing chamber music that is neglected for different reasons. The first is a collection of music for violin and piano by little-known composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). If you’d like to get an idea of the style it’s worth checking out his disk of chamber music with clarinet, available on Spotify. It’s not at all what I expected: by turns romantically lyrical, quirkily dissonant and ascetically controlled. Whilst Bernstein is well-known for his musicals and handful of choral and orchestral pieces, a new disk explores some of his music for piano, including an early Piano Sonata and his Anniversaries, a sequence of short pieces written for people close to him. Also on Naxos is a disk of two Malcolm Arnold films scores, The Roots of Heaven and David Copperfield played by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
On WERGO Rolf Reim’s new disk contains four works, all of which draw upon story telling and theatricality to achieve their effect. The style is uncompromising but, at the same time, full of lightness and humour. This is particularly apparent in Lenz in Moskau, for trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano, two drums and recorded voice where a story is unfolded simultaneously in voices and instruments, the brilliantly sardonic interjections being easily as pictorial as the spoken text. Also on WERGO this month is Detlev Mueller-Siemens’ new disk TRACES, which contains four works for chamber ensemble written between 2002 and 2009; and Charlotte Seither’s Equal Ways of Difference that has five works written for combinations of violin, cello and piano.
On Métier David Gorton’s powerfully uncompromising new disc contains Orfordness for piano, Austerity Measures II for oboe and string quartet, Fosdyke Wash for piano and string quartet and the Second Sonata for Cello, with electronics. Orfordness, which also lends its name to the title of the disc, includes taped USAF messages about a UFO sighting. ‘This is eerie, this is strange’, says one of the men in the recording, a description that could well be applied to this unnervingly creepy music.
Sure to be popular is the Tallis Scholars’ Tintinnabuli, a programme of works celebrating the 80th birthday year of Arvo Pärt. Extracts are available to listen to here. The performances, typically of this group, sound gorgeous.
Two, as yet, unreleased disks worth looking forward to. Tomorrow NMC release a new disk of horn music by Peter Maxwell Davies, Gerald Barry, Colin Matthews, Huw Watkins, David Matthews, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Robin Holloway with the Nash Ensemble, Huw Watkins on piano and Paul Watkins on cello. At the time of writing extracts were not available, thought that sure to change on release day. Less imminent, though available now for pre-order, is Tyondai Braxton’s label debut on NMC on May 12th with HIVE, a recording of eight pieces that debuted at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2013. Scout I, the last track on the disk is available to listen to now.
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Despite waxing lyrical about the joys of being on the road, the comfort of a Pembrokeshire Christmas almost persuaded me to give up my nomadic lifestyle. I have finally, however, dragged myself away God’s own county and am back in Basel, Switzerland. Not particularly adventurous, perhaps, but the need for change has to be balanced by the need to get on with projects – for now Basel is the best place to continue work on the Dutilleux sketches, which is increasingly looking like it might occupy me for the next ten years.
It’s exciting to be back in a city with a thriving cultural life. On Friday I heard the Basel Sinfonietta play Ligeti’s Hamburgishes Konzert, Manfred Stahnke’s Trace Des Sorciers and Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light at the Musiksaal.
I’d heard the Stahnke in rehearsal the day before, where it had left me pretty unconvinced; there seemed to be little sense of structural cohesion and the players appeared to struggle with the microtonal tuning. It was strange, therefore, to be so won over in the concert. The balance was better in the hall and the many generous ideas did seem to form a larger narrative. A reminder not to rush to judgement.
The Sinfonietta played the Ligeti manfully, in particular Olivier Darbellay coped superbly with the extravagant extremes of tessitura in the solo horn part. The work remains, however, frighteningly difficult to perform. Four natural horns trying to pitch complex chords is a recipe for ensemble problems.
The Feldman presents its own issues, though here this is to do with balance and control in a long, essentially static, span. The Sinfonietta played brilliantly, however, with conductor Michael Wendeberg allowing the work to unfold without fuss. It was a disappointment when the piece ended, so hypnotically had it held me.
Boulez seems to be much on musicians’ lips in Basel. He is, by all accounts, in poor health and may not be able much to take part in his 90th birthday celebrations. One Boulez in Basel story crops up again and again, however, and is worth retelling.
Boulez had a long association with Paul Sacher, the founder of the city’s famous music library, and, until his death in 1999, would stay with him when visiting the city. This no longer being an option, in 2001 Boulez stayed in a local hotel. This was, unfortunately, just after the terrorist attacks in New York.
On seeing his name pop up somewhere on a computer, the local police did a background check on what, to them, was an entirely unknown figure. It had somehow found its way onto a list of possible suspects, perhaps because of some of his famously intemperate remarks about burning down opera houses and destroying all art of the past.
Given the attitude of Muslim extremists to music and other forms of art, as so disgustingly demonstrated by Isis recently, it is perhaps not surprising that the police were somewhat alarmed. Boulez was raided at his hotel, his passport and train ticket seized. After further investigations, and presumably some red faces, the situation was ironed out.
I’m told that the next time he visited Basel the Chief of Police was on hand to welcome him with a large bouquet.
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Harpsichord Music by Graham Lynch and François Couperin. Assi Karttunen (harpsichord). Divine Art dda25120.
Alex Ross describes Graham Lynch’s style as puzzling ‘over the classic distinction between ‘tonal’ and ‘atonal’, writing in praise of the neither-here-nor-there.’ It’s a pretty good analysis, though in the context of the works on this disk it, perhaps, underplays the extent to which the music is made up of recognisable (and therefore accessible) tonal elements. I’d also be coy about using the word ‘atonal’. Whilst often correct in the sense of being ‘not tonal’, the surface of the works abound with generous and attractive melodic writing and, even when the harmony is nicely unpredictable, the extensive use of pivot pitches always keeps the music centred.
Beyond the River God, for example, presents three tonally derived ideas at the outset: a spread extended chord, a lovely melody and rocking homophonic chords. They appear throughout, sometimes obviously in a cyclical sense, sometimes appearing to lurk under the surface directing harmonic traffic. Ay! is tonal (though always interestingly so), being made up of flowing arpeggios that are given point and poise by the gradually emerging tango rhythms beneath. Admiring York Waterfall and Present-Past-Future-Present are more stark, with In Peterna lying somewhere in between.
Structural matters are handled with admirable lucidity. The shape of Beyond the River God derives from Lynch’s use of the rondeau/couplet idea associated with the seventeenth century school of French clavecinists, most notably, François Couperin (five of whose works appear on the disk). In Admiring Yoro Waterfall the opening group of material, notably a two note whole tone figure, features several times, then gives way to a more obviously pictorial representation of the waterfall before returning at the end, all occurring over a carefully worked out pitch ground plan. The Six Strings from In Petenera elucidates a repeated phrygian idea based round a single pitch. Present-Past-Future-Present opens with a thoroughly explored ‘walking’ idea that reappears in the final movement. All the works also have a strong feeling of cadence, often underlined by a moment of silence before the launching of a new phrase, making the musical shapes easy to follow. Only in Sound Sketches did I feel that the musical argument was, perhaps, a little too pared down, neither the simple ground plan or arpeggiated surface providing enough interest. It is, anyway, only a very small piece at the end of the disk.
The pitfalls of a generous (nearly 80 minute) programme of music on a instrument with limited means of dynamic and timbral variation are obvious enough. In some ways, interpolating the music of Couperin with that of Lynch was a necessary practicality; the disc contains all of Lynch’s harpsichord music to date which, by itself, would not have been enough to fill the disk. It also, however, provides a happy solution to the ‘lack of contrast’ issue – the ear is never tired by one style or the other. Also, I have to say, the quality of Lynch’s writing is very much a match for that of his illustrious predecessor. Not that it’s a matter of competition, since the two styles sit very comfortably together: though, Beyond the River God excluded, Lynch seems to want to avoid drawing comparisons between his style and that of his antecedents, in its lucidity, fecundity and understanding of the medium there are definite parallels.
I’m not in a position to judge the authenticity of the ornamental minefield of the Couperin except to say that the performances strike me as stylish and assured. In the Lynch Karttunen plays with verve, commitment and a total grasp of the structural issues at play. A highly rewarding disk.
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If you’ve not already been, Christian Marclay’s solo exhibition continues throughout March at the White Cube Bermondsey. It features his new video installation Pub Crawl in which he ‘coaxes sound from the empty glasses, bottles and cans that he finds abandoned on the streets of East London during early morning walks. In a series of projections that run the length of the gallery’s corridor, these discarded vessels are hit, rolled and crushed, forming a lively sound track that echoes throughout the space.’ The exhibition also features shorts concerts on 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th in which the London Sinfonietta will play new commissions that respond to the space.
At Wigmore Hall on 4th the Britten Sinfonia première a new work by Dutch composer Joey Roukens whilst Magnus Lindberg’s new piece will played by Leila Josefowicz (violin) and John Novacek (piano) on 19th. Both works are, as yet, untitled. Pitch up to learn more.
On 8th at the Barbican there is the chance to see the UK première production of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland with a multimedia staging by Netia Jones, which will combine ‘the darkly imaginative illustrations of gonzo-artist Ralph Steadman with live action, interactive animated projections, eye-popping costumes and choreography.’
On 31st March at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff BBCNOW under Jac van Steen
will workshop new works by Charlie Barber, Gareth Churchill, John Cooney, Nathan James Dearden, Jordan Hirst, Ray Leung, Nicholas Mills and John Senter. Several of these pieces will then be selected for public performance the following day.
An Englishman in New York, Thomas Adès makes his NYPhil conducting debut on 12th, conducting the US première of his own Totentanz alongside works by Beethoven and Berlioz. On 7th the NYPhil present one of their Contact! concerts, this time exploring music from Nordic countries, including premières from Per Nørgård, Kaija Saariaho and Ðuro Živković.
Also in New York there are two residencies at The Stone, a space dedicated to experimental and avant-garde music. The first, beginning on 17th, features composer/accordionist Guy Klucevek and will feature three world and seven New York premières. The second, beginning on 26th, features composer Lukas Ligeti with a number of guest artists including Marilyn Crispell (piano), Susie Ibarra (percussion) and Eyal Maoz (guitar).
In France, finally, Dai Fujikura’s new opera Solaris receives its première on 5th March at Théâtre des Champs Élysées, with a subsequent performance on 7th. It is based upon the same 1961 Stanislaw Lem novel that inspired the famous film adaptation by Andreï Tarkovsky. Ensemble Intercontemporain are conducted by Erik Nielsen.
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A bit of good news for anyone interested in the future of ENO.
For the last couple of years Arts Council England have been implementing vicious cut to the funding of ENO, one of our most innovative opera companies. In a press release today, however, they announced ‘special funding arrangements’ for the organisation, effectively an enormous capitulation. The release is as follows:
12 February 2015
The Arts Council today (12 February) announces that two organisations, English National Opera and Colchester’s firstsite gallery, will not be admitted into its National portfolio of organisations for 2015-18. Instead they will be placed under special funding arrangements.
The proposed new National portfolio was announced on 1 July 2014 but confirmation of membership is subject to negotiating a funding agreement. As well as showing they will produce excellent work, all companies offered National portfolio status must demonstrate their business plans and their governance are robust enough to ensure the organisations are sustainable over a three-year funding term. In the case of these two companies the Arts Council has continuing concerns which it wants to see addressed.
The special funding arrangements with ENO and firstsite, which will run for two years, and one year respectively, will allow the Arts Council to work closely with each company as they review their business models and governance and to set rigorous milestones to monitor their progress. Entry to the portfolio at a later date will be possible, but will depend on the extent of progress made.
The Arts Council will take decisions on the future funding of both organisations following the implementation of these special arrangements.
English National Opera
ENO is offered funding for two years. The agreement will combine elements of the NPO and transition funding agreements previously proposed in July 2014. £12.38m revenue funding per year, with an additional £6.13m of transition funding, will be made available to the company over the two years to enable it to operate and make changes to its business model.
A considerable amount of work has been undertaken by English National Opera to address the challenges identified during the Arts Council’s Opera and Ballet analysis and the risks highlighted in its National portfolio application. However, a number of significant risks associated with the proposed business plan remain.
This decision has been taken following a period of working very closely with ENO on their proposed funding agreement, further detailed analysis of their business model by financial consultants and recent uncertainty about ENO’s senior leadership team.
firstsite is offered funding for one year. The funding agreement will combine elements of NPO revenue funding (£814,517) and transition funding, to be confirmed, which will enable firstsite to operate and restructure.
This decision has been taken following a consultation period with key local stakeholders and funding partners, revised financial accounts from firstsite and an independent analysis of the organisation.
Althea Efunshile, Acting Chief Executive, Arts Council England said: “The Arts Council’s role is to ensure that we get the best value for the taxpayer’s money by investing in well run companies who delight audiences with brilliant work.
“With the very occasional exception, all the organisations we fund do just that.
“No one is doubting that ENO is capable of extraordinary artistic work but we have serious concerns about their governance and business model and we expect them to improve or they could face the removal of our funding. The challenges are similar for firstsite.
“However, we believe these organisations can inspire audiences long into the future and it is our hope and expectation that this happens.”
The National portfolio now includes of 668 arts organisations (NPOs) and 21 Major Partner Museums (MPMs). 46 arts organisations join the portfolio and 60 leave. A final list of NPOs and MPMs will be published on 31 March.
The investment in NPOs for 2015/16 will be £339.5million, compared to £341.4m in 2014/15.
For more information and a wry take on this volte face, have a look at this article by Norman Lebrecht.
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From March 19th–22nd the biennial London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music is holding a small series of events to keep the spirit of the festival going in its fallow year (the next full festival being in 2016). Cheekily, but appropriately, labelled ‘Between the (Y)ears’ this mini festival looks pretty interesting.
The theme is contemporary Italian music. It kicks off on 19th with a harp workshop with Gabriella Dall’Olio that explores the writing in Donatoni’s Marches. Both performers and composers are invited to attend. Later that evening the piece will be performed at a wine and nibbles reception along with pieces by Berio, Sollima, Bozzol and Gwyn Pritchard.
On 20th there is a concert by ensemble in residence Flame with guests Laura Monaghan (soprano) and Simone Beneventi (percussion). They will perform Zeno Baldi’s In Punta – a new work from the festival’s 2015 call for scores, as well as pieces by Pierluigi Billone, Giacinto Scelsi and the two festival artistic directors Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari. Later the same evening there will be a video concert featuring Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari and Andrea Cavallari’s Three Flags II.
The final day (Sunday 22nd) features a midday coffee and music concert with another new work from the 2015 call for scores, Lorenzo Troiani’s Sotterranee. In ombra. The other composers on offer are Luciano Berio, Francesco Filidei, Franco Donatoni, Beat Furrer and Luisa Valeria. The festival ends with a closing cocktail and concert at 6pm.
The festival takes place at The Warehouse and The Cello Factory, close to Waterloo in London. Tickets are available here.
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There are three new albums on Naxos worth exploring this month: wind band music by Salvador Brotons that includes his Symphony No. 6 and Symphonic Movement No. 7; Patric Standford’s Symphony No. 1 and Cello Concerto; and Argentinian composer Osias Wilenski’s Oboe Concerto and other works.
If you can get past the numinous packaging of Voces 8's new album Lux on Decca, there are some good things to be found on it, including works by Ola Gjeilo, John Tavener, Eriks Esenwalds, Rihards Dubra, Patrick Hawes, Will Todd and Paul Mealor. The modern works are broken up with some appropriately spiritual, though always welcome, lollipops: Tallis’s O Nata Lux, Allegri’s Miserere and a section from Rachmaninov’s Vespers.
Jagoda Szmytka’s new CD Bloody Cherries on WERGO explores physicality of sound and how it relates to the physicality of performance. It includes 7 works: 3 for amplified ensemble, the others for various combinations of amplified ensemble, amplified voices, transducer, electric guitar, cello, flute, piano and drums. The other new release on the label is a programme for saxophone, including works by Arturo Fuentes, Paulo Ferreira Lopes, Juan Camilo Hernández Sánchez, Phivos-Angelos Kollias, Tom Mays, Bernd Schultheis and Agostino Di Scipio.
There are two works for keyboard on Divine Arts. Masque is a follow-up album to Carson Cooman’s well-received disk of organ music Litanies. It features his Preludes and Fugues 1–9, Preghiera and Symphony for Organ played by Erik Simmons on the instrument at Laurenskerk, Rotterdam. Beyond the River God, finally, features the harpsichord music of Graham Lynch and François Couperin.
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If some of Boulez’s pronouncements have given the impression of narrow-mindedness in accepting the music of others, his work as a conductor suggests rather the reverse.
Celebrating this part of his career, DG has just released a 44 CD set of Boulez’s recordings of twentieth century works for the label. Whilst much of this includes the usual suspects – the second Viennese school and Boulez’s own works – there is also a great deal which isn’t, including Bartok, Debussy (as far back as Prélude à l’apres-midi), Ravel and plenty of pre-serial Stravinsky. It comes in a rather nice limited edition box set, for £102 in the UK and $223 in the US.
DG is marketing this as the ‘complete’ Boulez 20th century recordings, which it clearly isn’t, since it doesn’t contain a single performance from his DG Mahler cycle. If you wish to have that, the 14 disk set is available at just £37 ($55). I’m aware that Boulez gets mixed reviews in this repertoire, though I think some of the more frequent criticisms – that he can be brilliantly analytical and clear, but sometimes soulless – are often exaggerated. My own favourite Mahler symphony is No. 6 (‘the only sixth, despite the Pastoral’, as Alban Berg said) and Boulez’s interpretation of it with the Vienna Philharmonic (included in this cycle) is brilliant: tempi are ideal, he takes the crucial first movement repeat and the two most powerful parts, the slow movement and vast final movement are superbly shaped and devastating in their impact. I can’t imagine, therefore, that the rest of the set isn’t worth exploring too.
If the 44 CD DG set is a little too much to purchase all at once you can also buy many of the recordings in smaller sets concentrating on one or two composers at a time. There is Boulez conducts Debussy and Ravel (6 CDs, £18.79/$32), Boulez conducts Stravinsky (6 CDs £20/$26) and Boulez conducts Bartok (8 CDs, £30/$30). Particularly recommended is Boulez’s complete survey of the works of Webern (6 CDs, £22/$30). No one understands this repertoire better than him, and that shows in the crystalline clarity of these performances. Also an obvious recommendation is the composer conducting his own complete works (13 CDs, $68/£44).
Boulez has dabbled more than a little in the world of opera. Two productions, both with Patrice Chéreau directing, stand out: his Wagner Ring Cycle for the 1976 centenary performance at Bayreuth and his Janáček From the House of the Dead in 2007. The former was hugely controversial, some believing that Boulez’s conducting lacked the necessary expressivity, was too fast and the singing uneven. Despite this, the production did win many admirers, as this article in The Guardian makes clear. It is available on DVD at DG (having originally been released on Philips). The Janacek, a DVD I own and like a great deal, is an easier recommendation.
Another handsome boxed set worth considering was released at the end of 2014: Sony Classical’s 67 CD survey of the recordings made by Boulez for CBS/American Columbia (67 CDs, $187/£89). Again there is plenty of twentieth century repertoire here including Schoenberg, Berg, Varese, Stravinsky, Berio, Carter, Messiaen and works by Boulez himself. Less well-known is Boulez’s fondness for Berlioz, represented here with recordings of Symphonie Fantastique; Lelio, ou Le Reour a la vie; excepts from Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyens and Beatrice et Benedict; Carnaval Romain; Les Nuits d’été; and La Mort de Cléopâtre. Most fascinating of all are the real rarities: Handel’s Water Music, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Wagner’s rarely heard work for choir Love-Feast of the Apostles.
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On March 26th Boulez will turn ninety. Even at this grand old age he hasn’t entirely cast off the image of enfant terrible, the man responsible for some of the most intemperate remarks in the history of twentieth century music, including, yes, that one about wishing to burn down all opera houses.
It is an image which, even now, clouds my judgement of his music. There was Boulez the quasi-mathematician who serialised the composer out of the musical process. Boulez, who wished to rip up the past ('It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All art of the past must be destroyed.'), Boulez who branded any musician who didn’t feel the necessity of the serial method as ‘OF NO USE’ (his capitals).
Boulez’s influence on European cultural life has not, in my opinion, always been healthy. His insistence that his way was the way, looks extraordinarily misguided today. How sad that some composers felt that they had to fall into line with serial orthodoxy or be branded a failure. Neither was this something experienced just by his contemporaries.
I have often pondered the influence that Boulez had on the most significant member of the older generation – Igor Stravinsky – even if it operated indirectly. It’s a curious fact of Stravinsky’s life, especially given his status as probably the greatest composer of the twentieth century, that he was so keen to be accepted by his peers. That surely was a factor in his decision, at the suggestion of Robert Craft, to adopt the serial method.
(You can see this facet of Stravinsky’s character in this superb film by János Darvas where, at 32 minutes, he remembers, with some rancour, an imagined rebuff from Benjamin Britten. A minute before this you also see him, rather too humbly in my opinion, taking advice from Boulez about a mistake in one of his serial works.)
Of course I acknowledge the greatness of these late works – after all, Stravinsky was a superb craftsman; how could they be anything else? Also, I know that many composers (myself included) have benefited from Stravinsky’s rotational take on the serial system. Despite this, I cannot, however hard I try, love them so much as those that came before. I sometimes find myself wishing that Stravinsky had had the confidence to stick to his compositional guns.
One can also forget the institutional power that Boulez has wielded, especially in France. When President Georges Pompidou was looking for a figure to set up a music section as part of a new cultural institution it was Boulez he invited for dinner. When it came to cultural/political influence Boulez, quite literally, ate at the top table.
The meal with the President eventually resulted in IRCAM. Boulez was not, perhaps, the ideal man to wield such institutional power, since he has never been stylistically openminded when dispensing patronage. I think especially of the music of Henri Dutilleux. Despite Dutilleux commissioning the 1948 version of Boulez’s Le soleil des eaux he was not programmed in Boulez’s Domaine Musical concerts, was snubbed by Boulez at the première of his First Symphony and had to wait many years to receive a commission from Ensemble Intercontemporain (a commission he never fulfilled). A style which, however tenuously, retained elements of tonality was, to Boulez, infra dig.
The irony is that Boulez’s own compositional trajectory and also recent interviews, show that he was less dogmatic than he pretended. The early total serial works culminated in Structures I, the ‘ascetic attitude’ of which Ligeti described as ‘akin to compulsion neurosis’. Subsequent works, beginning with Le marteau sans maître, however, showed a loosening of approach to the serial method and even the granting of freedom to performers, especially in allowing them to choose a route through a work (e.g. Third Sonata, Pli selon pli or Domaines).
In a recent interview Boulez has also acknowledged his need to balance the ‘constructivism’ he encountered (and even found ‘a burden’) in the works of the Second Viennese School with a freer approach. He also has talked about how music cannot be compared with science, in that in science things progress, whereas the music of a particular time is not to be considered superior to that of an earlier epoch. It is surely not a huge mental leap to realise that, if works are not to be judged by the mere fact of their chronological position in the canon, then neither should they judged by how completely they adopt the most cutting edge techniques.
So, in this ninetieth birthday year, what are we left with? We are left with the works. A composer is not to be judged by his personal life, writings, in the institutions or colleagues he has championed or the other composers he has conducted. He is only to be judged by his works.
Even here, however, I remain ambivalent. The early experiments with total serialism seem to me to be little more than curiosities of the time. Something that was as inevitable as, say John Cage’s 4’33” and, like it, more of a thought experiment than art. I even find Le marteau sans maître, acknowledged by many as a key twentieth century masterpiece, as curiously colourless, despite the influence of gamelan and the like.
I have listened to most of the works following Le marteau. A few have really grabbed me – I cannot forget, for example, the exhilaration I first felt on hearing the orchestral version of Notations, a work of tremendous power – though others have left me bemused. Even with the latter category, however, it is impossible to reject them outright. Sometimes I listen to a piece of music and I know straight away I don’t like it, usually because I can see through it. I have never had this feeling when listening to Boulez. A cynic would point to the obfuscatory complexity of his scores, which tends to make easy judgements difficult. I disagree; with Boulez one always senses a profound musical intelligence at work. This commands respect and a desire to understand better.
For many aficionados, then, 2015 will be a chance to wish Boulez a hearty ‘Happy Birthday’ and revel in performances of his works. I wish him many happy returns too. I will not so much be revelling in his works, however, but trying to understand them. Like parts of his oeuvre, it is likely to remain a work in progress.
Some videos worth exploring
2014 interview with BBVA Foundation
2012 interview with Universal Edition
2011 Boulez on Mahler
2010 round table discussion, including interesting information about the founding of IRCAM
2010 Boulez on Cage
2009 interview on winning the Kyoto Prize
1995 interview in Amsterdam. Bad sound but Boulez is articulate and witty, so worth a look
Musical creativity and mathematics
Boulez talking about Pierrot Lunaire and his own Eclat (subtitles in Spanish)
Boulez talking about his Sur Incises
Boulez at Biennale Musica 5th October 2012. Interviewed by Robert Piencikowski and Claude Samuel
Pierre Boulez talking to Michele Dall'Ongaro
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