Perfect Sound Forever


Renaissance Man of the Twentieth Century
by Gary Gomes
(August 2016)

While it is tempting to focus solely on popular music icons who passed so far in 2016 (Bowie, Prince, and Emerson to name a few), it is good to remember that the music world is multi-dimensional. So many different idioms exist that it is easier to focus on those we hear all the time. There are "folk" and "classical" musics from all over the world, and most of these idioms are NEVER presented through popular outlets.

Pierre Boulez represented one of the pivotal figures in the tradition we have come to know as Western classical musical. His death on January 5, 2016 represented the passing of one of the most significant and representative figures of 20th century music.

Boulez was a pioneer in the world of 20th century music--a first rank composer, the equal of Stockhausen, Ellott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, or Cage, as an innovator and composer; one of the leaders, along with Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Berio of the post-Schoenberg traditions of music, and as well, an innovator in his own right, following in the footsteps of his mentors, Olivier Messiaen and Rene Leibowitz (a pupil of Shoenberg's). His grounding with these two teachers would encourage him to forge ahead with his own language, connected as they were to the two most radical figures of 20th century music--Messiaen developed a language from Impressionism, his own synaesthesia, Indian additive rhythms, bird song and improvisation, and some of Stravinsky's early ideas, while Shoenberg (through his disciple Leibowitz) took the harmonic language of Brahms and Wagner to its logical extreme, first with the Gurre Lieder then moving onto free tonality with Pierrot Lunaire and later serialism--a system which developed tone rows as alternatives to scales, while applying European harmonic theory to them. The former developed a system that sounded like a kaleidoscope of sounds, and all of Messiaen's students bore no sonic resemblance to him. Shoenberg's system produced followers who produced similar sounding works of radical integrity-- almost puritanical in their devotion to the master. This was understandable as they were developing a new musical language which had only been touched on briefly by composers like Bach.

Boulez himself benefitted from strict parents and disciplined academics in Catholic school and completed his first courses in physics and chemistry. He then put effort into advanced math courses in preparation for a career in engineering. Accompanying an opera singer, she encouraged him to apply to the Conservatoire in Lyon. Although failing his initial audition and facing parental opposition, he applied again and was accepted.

Boulez entire career seemed to be rooted in this background of stubbornness and discipline--all the while employing an engineer's mind to the subject of modern music. The twentieth century epoch of classical music was marked by what seemed like radical changes in music tradition--but everything, from Stravinsky's polyrhythms to Schoenberg's serialism to Bartok's use of microtonal and dissonance to the Futurists and George Antheil's embrace of noise in the early twentieth century to Satie's use of ambience and Cage's chance music was an evolution of some of the most time honored traditions of both Western classical music and the musics of the world. In retrospect, even the use of electronics was yet another evolution of technology that could see its beginnings in the harpsichord, the piano, the saxophone. Mass production of standardized musical instruments and the development of well tempered tuning helped pave the way for the twentieth century investigation of multiple tonal centers--but just intonation, as anyone who has ever heard Terry Riley's The Harp of the New Albion can attest, is not necessarily any more relaxing. Just intonation has its own set of dissonances (wolf tones) that are not any easier to control than those introduced by the adoption of equal temperament. As a matter of fact, although minimalism had a certain revolutionary appeal for a short period of time, I have a general dislike and distrust of certain types of trance inducing music--apart from the beauty they can produce, they can also be boring and somewhat dulling of the intellect.

But there is a axiom that when the music changes, societies change, dating back to Plato. Were World Wars I and II the results of radical sounding music? It seems unlikely, as aside from a small flirtation with the Futurists like Martinetti in Italy, large powers that started the World Wars were mostly immersed in traditional musics--Hitler, in particular, had Richard Strauss as state composer, after Paul Hindemith refused the job. In the thirties, the radicalism that had invaded Western music between 1900 and the 1920's had largely dissipated and most classical music was in a relatively conservative place again.

However, as a matter of record, the start of the much reviled "universalist" school of music, was developed in order to avoid music being coopted for nationalistic political purposes. Nationalism was viewed as one of the causes of the World Wars and the Universalist school, based on mathematics, serialism, organization, radical experimentation, and hitherto unexplored textures dominated the "new" musical world in places like Darmstadt.

Boulez had been an advocate of universalist music, but in particular, new music. In his time with Messiaen, he studied such early twentieth century trailblazing composer as Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky, analyzing these compositions intensely. He had, in Messiaen, a teacher who allowed--no, encouraged--his students to find their individual voices. Messiaen was also a composer who recognized no boundaries, including literal transcriptions of bird songs, additive rhythms, and massive walls of sound with eerie and ecstatic romantic timbres thrown into his compositions. But with Liebowitz, he had a teacher who encouraged a rigid adherence to a system, so everything Boulez did had a balance between these two extremes. It was through Liebowitz that Boulez was also introduced to Webern, whose work was at the extreme end of the world that Schoenberg helped develop and who was a major influence on Boulez's early work, including Polyphonie X, a piece that Boulez later withdrew, but was performed and recorded twice.

The earliest part of Boulez's musical career was involved in teaching students Ondes Martenot (an early electronic keyboard), and early compositions in the serial style, as well as an early electronic music piece. Early on in his career, he gained a reputation for being a rebel within the classical world, openly booing a performance of Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes, as he felt the piece was too conservative. He also aligned fairly early on with John Cage, organizing the European premier of one of John Cage's radical piano works, and, when the latter came to study with Messiaen, developing an intense musical friendship and relationship with Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Between 1954 and 1959, he helped organize concerts (the Domaine Musicale, and the ISCM) of his own works and those of fellow composers, like Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauchaut. Significantly, he conducted his own work, Le Marteau Sans Maitre (The Hammer without a Master) , for nine voices, vibraphone, guitar, viola and flute. The piece, although rigorously organized and bearing some elements that sound superficially serial, actually reflected the development of a new compositional style. This tendency to create forms was to be present in many of Boulez's subsequent works. He was constantly evolving new forms and developed the concept of controlled chance in his work, and was continually revising his later works, viewing them to be in a state of constant reconsideration and evolution. His most significant works are often considered to be Le Marteau... ; his Piano Sonatas, Le soleil des eaux, Pli Selon Pli, Domaines, Eclat/Multiples, Repons, the Derives series, and Anthemes.


Boulez is fairly unusual in that he also had a distinguished career as a long term conductor of some of the most respected symphony orchestras in the world, including the London Symphony, the New York Symphony and the Cleveland Symphony. His repertoire included composers as diverse as Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky, Janacek, as well as his teacher Messiaen, Schoenberg (Moses and Aron is astonishing), and his contemporaries, such as Ligeti, Carter, Donatoni, Xenakis and Kurtág, and for the kids out there, Frank Kappa (this was Zappa's wholly orchestral, extremely complicated work, of course). The range of his work, especially for a composer immersed in 20th century music, was astonishing, and he was nearly universally praised for his precision as a conductor, as well as for his willingness to stay current. Messiaen once commented that, while other composers were content to work in a singular style they had developed, Boulez felt the need to maintain contact with the evolving musical world around him, which lead to his compulsion to revisit and revise his works as being under continual development, especially his latter works, which he never truly considered finished. He is credited with at least fifty-four (54) major works.

He also made a significant contribution to the technology associated with electronic music, acting as founder and director of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic/Music) from 1977-1992 (see IRCAM developed several innovative software programs, did pioneering work on FM synthesis, and provided dozens of composers with access to state of the art musical computing equipment, from Harrison Birtwistle to the aforementioned Mr. Zappa.


Although Boulez's main fame is as a conductor (with 27 Grammys no less), his most significant contributions may be the way that he continued the innovations developed by Messiaen, Bartok, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Nono, Xenakis, Stockhausen, and other major innovators in the light of an increasingly conservative and reactionary musical environment that started developing in the classical music world--and elsewhere--starting in the early 1980's. The development of new languages and daring techniques has been slow to develop, limited mainly to loud guitar orchestras, neo-romantic, and minimalistic initiatives since the 1970's. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these systems, the sense of intellectual rigor in music seems to have been abandoned wholesale. Boulez stands without replacement as a man who could stride several musical worlds with ease, while providing innovating challenging music for the world. The idea of constant creation of new musical languages seems to be too much for the world now--and this has been replaced by specialists. The world is a poorer place for this, and Boulez's absence from the musical world will be felt more deeply in the long term than virtually any other departure from the musical world in this terrible year of 2016.

Also see our article on Boulez's ...explosante-fixé...

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