Looking back on music's future

The music of Pierre Boulez Southbank Centre, London

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, October 14

How does Pierre Boulez's music sound through his ears? Of all the difficult and daunting questions his music seems to ask us, this seems to be the most difficult and daunting. If we could hear it as he does, would we be able to trace our passage through - as the organizers of this three-day celebration have it - the exquisite labyrinths of his music? Certainly, there are few composers who make us question the adequacy of our own listening, and this is one of his music's greatest merits, as well as one of its gravest faults.

Much of Boulez's music has a revolutionary quality, in that the composer's main concern seems often to have been to dismantle the way we hear music in general. Even now, pieces such as the second piano sonata are difficult to make sense of other than as gestures which prepare, in a variety of ways, for a music of the future.

It was in fact as the guardian of music's future that Boulez was heralded, initially by his teacher Olivier Messiaen, and later and rather more effectively by himself and the coterie of like-minded colleagues and acolytes swarming around the post-war musical nerve centre of the Darmstadt summer schools. And to be sure, few experimental artistic movements have had as profound an effect as Boulez's on the way their art has been understood more widely, not least by valorizing certain musical
traditions at the expense of others, thereby generating a kind of for-us-or-against-us progressivism which for years marginalized the work of many composers who deserved better.

It is likely that Boulez's activities as a polemicist and, later, as a conductor have had the longest-lasting effects on what audiences listen to, and how. Internationally, Boulez is perhaps better known as a conductor than a composer. His conducting activities, initially conceived as a way of ensuring his own compositions received decent performances, have also eclipsed his composing in terms of time commitments. Boulez has frequently expressed his regrets about having composed less than he would have liked, but, looking back, it is hard to decide whether the relative paucity of his output is really due to conducting or to artistic limitations implied, paradoxically, by the scale of his historical and aesthetic ambitions. A three-day "mini-festival" at London's Southbank Centre offered a rare opportunity to rehearse such questions. As often at such "immersive" events, the omissions from the programme were interesting. Sunday afternoon was given over to Pierre-Laurent Aimard's traversal, with Tamara Stefanovich, of the "complete" works for piano.

Given that description, Structures I, composed in 1951, was a notable omission, particularly so when one considers that this is the work on which principally rests Boulez's reputation as one of the chief exponents of "total" or "integrated" serialism, according to which every strand of the material is derived from a set of pre-compositional decisions. Aimard and Stefanovich did perform its successor, Structures II, however. Composed in 1962, its basic material derives from the earlier piece, but is subjected to different processes, with different implications for
interpretation and performance. Being aware of the theory only takes you so far, though, and I must confess that my primary response to three hours of Boulez's piano music was one of rising resentment. None of the music - which took in the early Notations and all three sonatas - is new to me, and some of it I have studied in detail. And yet I felt my struggle to listen with something resembling adequacy - to anticipate and respond to aspects of form and gesture - was pointless. Far from opening up my ears, I found my hearing closing up, retreating from the monochrome timbre of the instruments and the relentless disjointedness of the music.

If the afternoon's concerts reinforced some of my worst fears about the value of Boulez's music, the same evening's event restored my faith. The final concert consisted of a single work, Pli selon Pli, which Boulez had been touring in Europe for the previous month, taking with him the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble Intercontemporain and members of the Lucerne Festival Academy. Revised over a period of thirty years, the piece reached its final five-movement form in 1989. The title is taken from a line in Mallarme's sonnet "Rememoration d'amis belges" about the lifting of the mist, "fold by fold", in Bruges, revealing the buildings behind. The metaphor penetrates the entire work. Although it is a setting of three complete Mallarm9 sonnets, this is less a song cycle than a kind of exotically scored symphony during which the poetry comes in and out of focus, eventually finding itself submerged by, or perhaps sacrificed to, a music which comes to draw its supremely sensual textures from the contemplation of death.

Of all Boulez's later works, Pli selon Pli is the one which most obviously lives up to its composer's early promise to create a lasting new music. Its highly specialized instrumentation and technical demands mean that performances are bound to remain infrequent, but the chance to hear it peformed live, and with the kind of total commitment and nervous beauty brought to the vocal part by Hannigan, entails far more than the simple excitement of witnessing a rarity. What it offers, in fact, is an
experience which, in both teasing the mind and saturating the senses, gives ample room to the listener to find his own place in one of the most dazzling encounters between a musician and a poet to have emerged in the past half-century.

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