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Nicolas Vérin

Some thoughts after Boulez's death

25 Janvier 2016 , Rédigé par Nicolas Vérin Publié dans #Boulez, #Paris, #Robert Cahen, #Réflexions

Some thoughts after Boulez's death

The death of Pierre Boulez is certainly a turning point in music history in France.

Though I regret his incomprehension and furthermore his brutal rejection of electroacoustic music, one can only recognize the great contribution he brought about, relying on his prestige as a conductor, giving France a leading role in contemporary music. He also helped establish this music's legitimacy in the country, with a strong support from the State and local governments that is envied throughout the world.

Alas, the trend has reversed for already some time, and Boulez's passing may reinforce this tendency. Whether it be in the written press, radio (I'm not even talking of television), festivals, concert seasons, various financial aids or conservatories, the place of contemporary music seems ever shrinking.

Boulez's music was never easy for me. I started with a strong negative bias, as I was at the beginning completely invested in electroacoustic music. His views caused much harm to this genre, and I found quite inappropriate to entrust someone with such limited experience with electroacoustic music to head what became IRCAM. Eventually he succeeded to build something quite extraordinary with the Institute coupled with EIC. While one cannot but recognize his talent as organizer, one can still regret that he rather drily disbanded the original team (among whom Luciano Berio for electroacoustics, Jean-Claude Risset for the computer department and Vinko Globokar for voice and instruments research), fearing to be eclipsed and that the institute would go into multiple aesthetic directions, different to his which he always put forward, sometimes narrowly. However, with a few exceptions, only recognized composers of instrumental music were legitimated and invited there. Most of the time, their musical thinking doesn't give an essential place to sound by putting it at the core of their work. Hence many a work composed there has an electronic part that is ornemental, sometimes beautiful but seldom essential. Moreover, it is not infrequent that these works can be given without the electronic part, it being optional. I find that quite a paradox, particularly in Boulez's music, like in Anthèmes (for violin with optional electronics). If each and every sound must be justifiable by formal thought, then why are electronic sounds dispensables? The same remark applies to the principle of work in progress that Boulez much used. If structure, rigor, and hierarchy are to be placed above all, then how can one extend an existing piece, changing only its last page to go on from there? Isn't it a little bit akin to salami slicing?

One can surmise from this interview from 2011 (in French) - particularly at 4' and 6'45 - that he still thinks that sounds must be submitted to a hierarchy, be precise, limited, in short calibrated so as to form elements of a language. In such case, they are left to be mere symbols, having no value by themselves. This is missing the whole contribution of musique concrète, and one can see how his music is after all way more traditional than electroacoustic music. And what naïveté about the all mighty computer...

But I will not hold blame, as every creator feeds on paradoxes, and surely it is where most riches can be found.

Another paradox : the music Boulez composed for Symphonie Mécanique, a film by Jean Mitry. It is a piece of musique concrète, realized at Studio d'Essai of the French Radio in 1957, with assistance from Pierre Henry. One recognizes numerous sounds from the latter, as Boulez drew in the sonic pool, mostly made up of sounds created yr Pierre Henry. Ultimately, the best from this work seems to be owed to Pierre Henry.

During my years in San Diego, I studied in detail le Marteau sans maître. After three or four weeks with the score and more than a dozen of listen, I gradually admired, then appreciated and even liked it. One can say it is a pleasure to be earned! Since, I sometimes teach it and enjoy listening to it again, but I would not think of doing so otherwise.

My favorite Boulez piece is certainly Répons, though some passages seem to me rather long.

The film Robert Cahen made on that work is truly superb. One can see its beginning in the link below.

Don't hesitate to send me comments!

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Nicolas Vérin 26/01/2016 08:14

Merci Séverin et bone année à toi !
D'accord Jon sur la première phrase quoique son action est parfois aussi été généreuse, notamment dans son travail de chef d'orchestre avec les stages, master-classes, etc. Pour la deuxième phrase, seule l'avenir le dira ! Amitiés.

Jon Appleton 26/01/2016 00:30

Pauvre garçon , il a toujours voulu être Stravinsky , mais était plus intéressé par le pouvoir culturel que la générosité culturelle . Il sera une référence dans l'histoire musicale française tandis que Debussy , Ravel et même Faure seront continué à être entendu .

KRÖN 25/01/2016 22:39

Merci pour ce bel article qui donne des éclaircissements sur les positionnements de Pierre Boulez. Et une explication simple et claire sur l'opposition entre la musique concrète et la musique "symbolique" Bonne Année !

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