Boulez 2000

Steve Koenig

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

The ever-adapting Pierre Boulez hit Carnegie Hall this year in a series called Making Music 2000. Utilizing his IRCAM tekkies and Ensemble InterContemporain, Boulez reveals a solid foundation, despite the changes and modifications he brings to composition.

The first concert in the series, at the Weill Recital Hall, formerly Carnegie Recital Hall, presented an all-Boulez program which ranged from his earliest to most recent pieces. The Sonatine for flute and piano, from 1946, in early recordings was choppy; you could hear the construction more than the music. Here, flutist Sophie Cherrier used fluid tonalities, and with pianist Florent Bouffard, revealed the piece’s inherent rhythm. The piano playing was very physical, and the flute had a multiphonic, rich, almost phlegmy sound. The Douze Notations for piano, composed a year earlier, also belied any stodginess and the dozen utterances (I’d hesitate to call them studies) were both individually exciting, and as a whole, coherent. Structures, livre II, for two pianos, 1961, kept to the mid-register for the first part, and the second part played with lots of zig-zags. The beautiful sonorities brought to mind a world of Messiaen piano, doubled. Trading and overlapping phrases made this seem an abstract kind of boogie-woogie, ending with one extremely long note slowly dying away. Pianists Dimitri Vassilakis and Hideki Nagano were clearly in a single mind-space.

After intermission, we heard Messagesquisse, for six cellos plus solo cello, and then the tiny 1994 piano piece, Incises, performed by Vassilakis, so short there’s barely anything to say about it. The most recent piece of the afternoon was first commissioned for the Donaueschingen Festival. Making its United States premiere was Antheme II, for violin and electronics, composed from 1992-1997. Boulez told the audience about its construction, starting with a keyboard because “theoretically,” he explained,” a key is a key…If it works for the violin, it works for the whole family.” The piece works in movement from electronic to acoustic to electro-acoustic. Boulez talked of “transgressing the world you have in front of you” and using micro-intervals, making them precise and audible, and using rhythm as well as intervals. He mentioned the problems of getting the proper spatial distribution in Weill Hall because “in small spaces, it [the effects of the computer] works very little, but it spite of the proximity” the piece forged ahead with Hae-Sun Kang on violin and Andrew Gerzso the sound technician. Sadly, for all that work, the piece neither moved nor impressed me as did the rest of the program. I don’t believe the prefect spatial acoustics would have changed my reaction to the piece itself.

The release of Répons this year in Deutsche Grammophon’s 20/21 Series of contemporary music is a revelation (DG 289 457 605-2). Boulezians (Boulezers?) have been looking forward to a recording of this piece ever since the maestro-compositeur toured it with more equipment and roadies than all the rocks bands in the world combined. A friend wagged that it would have been cheaper for the French government to fly all of the audiences worldwide to Centre Pompidou to hear Répons. I missed its performance at Columbia University, but most of my spies were amazed at the piece, composed and recomposed from 1981-1984, and longing for recordings.

The thing that strikes me first is that this piece is very French. It has to do with the use of the woodwinds, clearly in lineage from (shudder!) Chausson, Fauré, Poulenc; you get the idea. The gestures, of course, are more modern, but the roots are clear. The electronic program is cleanly integrated with the orchestra and the soloists, and although the title refers to call-and-response, in other words, a concerto, it is the movement of themes from group to group in smooth transition that strikes the most. It is so busy, and yet everything is clearly audible and sensible, even to those not used to thorny music. The notes tell me that arpeggiated chords by the musicians are in turn arpeggiated by the computer program.

As spatial relationships and sonorities are a prime factor in this music, it is notable that this two-channel stereo recording is rich with detail, and yet one can hear the forest, the trees, and the electronic windchimes with richness a clarity; an amazing feat of sound engineering.

The other piece on the disc is the eighteen-minute Dialogue de l’ombre double, for clarinetist Alain Damiens with electronics, realized here also by Andrew Gerszo. Damiens is a master interpreter, with two CD gems of modern solo clarinet on Adda 581066 and 581277, both titled Clarinette on the disc labels, but with the respective composers on the traycard spines. Choose Berio and Stockhausen, or Xenakis and Globokar. Better yet, take both while you can get them. Back to Boulez.

Dialogue begins with a note and the clarinet playing circles around it, winding up back at the tonic note. The electronics kicks in and swirl further. There’s hocketing and a lot of waiting for the echo to fade so the next note could be played. Like Antheme for violin, I think I’d prefer this piece as was, without the added effects. There’s clearly motion and melody, and at least for my taste, Boulez’ programs simply clutter up these solo pieces, unlike the ensemble pieces I’ve heard, where the electronics enrich the sound and the composition.

Next issue we’ll continue with Boulez’ sojourn into the new century at Carnegie Hall, and his conducting of Foss, Berio and his own works including the wonderful Sur Incises.