My Encounter With Pierre Boulez (c.1992)

Have just rediscovered an old letter I wrote to a friend from Birmingham Conservatoire as a music student concerning a Composer’s Workshop given by the French composer Pierre Boulez. It has no date but the address on it makes it either my first or second year there.

“Dear Geoff,
After a composer’s workshop with Boulez, another myth tumbles into the abyss. He’s a really nice guy, warm and friendly, nothing like the cold intellectual bully his reputation suggests.

I got things off to a start by asking him about his being quoted as saying “The idea of a great English composer is a genetic impossibility” which caused general amusement all around especially when I asked whether it meant we were wasting our time. He took it in good humour replying that perhaps the only time we were wasting was in reading his old interviews. I then asked him to talk about his friendship with John Cage. He said that he knew Cage very well and like him a lot but the moment Cage became involved with Zen, he felt he couldn’t support the music as he felt it was simply a cover for Cage’s desire to remain an amateur for life, they still remained good friends though. For his own part, he felt that to impose a foreign culture onto something to which it isn’t suited was a grave error and that one should attempt to adapt it to suit one’s own ends rather than simply use it straight. I asked him what he thought of Stockhausen’s Eastern influences (his use of Noh plays etc) and he replied that the moment you can identify what Stockhausen does as a Noh play then that’s killed the effect. He compared it to somebody going to Japan, buying a Kimono and bringing it back in the hope that it would make them seem more Japanese.

He was then asked about Messiaen (with whom he studied at Darmstadt) and he said he felt slightly schizophrenic about Messiaen. He admired the way that M. approached teaching creatively rather than academically, but at the same time he was discovering the music of Webern which was to have a far profounder effect on him, and of which Messiaen showed no great interest in. The teacher who taught that area (Rene Leibowitz, a pupil of Webern) taught it so dryly and academically that it didn’t really interest him (not the topic, but the approach adopted). Alistair (Zaldua) asked him what he felt about Webern now after all this time. He replied that Berg and Webern were like two figures on a barometer clock, when it’s raining the woman comes out , when its sunny the man comes out and the woman goes in. He said that Berg and Webern were like that with him. He started out as a convinced Werbernite with no time for Berg, then found the pendulum swinging back the other way and so on.

Lee (Differ) asked him about a bust up with Nono that happened in the late 50’s. Nono dedicated a piano piece “To Pierre Boulez for his great Humanity” and then later removed it after what seemed like an argument. Boulez said that it was because he couldn’t accept Nono’s ideas that running around with a red flag was going to achieve anything and that only through art can social changes and protests be made.

After a chat about IRCAM somebody asked him about whether he saw himself as an artist concerned with self expression or as a scientist seeking to break new ground, whether his music was subjective feelings or an objective statement in the words of Stravinsky “expressing nothing but itself”. He replied that Stravinsky must have feeling a little down as he considers Stravinsky to be one of the greatest descriptive writers ever and that his own music was very subjective.

To a question about whether he was writing any new pieces, he replied that he was in the process of reworking some of his older works and adding to them (My question “Are you writing any old pieces then?” was thankfully lost). It’s something of a running joke in the music world that Boulez hasn’t actually competed anything new since Darmstadt .

I then asked him about his collaboration with Frank Zappa and he said that he’d never heard of him until a recording engineer said that there was this guy who did very eccentric experimental work who wanted to meet him and show him some scores. Boulez agreed to perform them in the context of an all American programme. The final listing turned out to be Ives, Ruggles Zappa and Carter and, according to Boulez, it worked brilliantly. He said it was fascinating to see the two worlds (Zappa fans and Carter afficionados) meeting and having each saying “What the…?” at the end. He said he admired Zappa’s energy and drive and still visits him whenever he’s in town to see what he’s produced in the studio. The last time he visited, Zappa was working on a piece for Frankfurt, and, just after Boulez left, he was taken ill with the Cancer. He said that Zappa was way ahead and above the ordinary rock star mentality. He caused a brief stir of dissent when he mentioned “pop culture” and added “if you can call it a culture.”

He was then asked about his attitude to “authentic” performances of Baroque music. He said it was an interesting exercise but he would rather make the best use of today’s instruments, particularly due to the fact that, having heard “authentic” Wagner performances conducted by contemporary (ie. Wagner’s contemporaries or near) conductors/ performers, he was made aware of how far the orchestra has traveled in terms of technical outlook etc and just how much of the orchestral practices of those days had been replaced by more sophisticated outlooks. I asked whether he could envisage an “authentic” Boulez tradition and he laughed and recounted how during the 1950’s he’d written pieces for Marimba that were impossible to play with accepted two sticks of that time and the number of arguments he’d had over playing with four sticks. He said that it was now accepted practice to use four sticks and “that’s my attitude to “Authenticism””.

One of the lecturers then asked him what British music Boulez performed and he replied “Oh, we’re back to genetics again are we?”

He gave an interesting demonstration of the difference between composition and simply juxtaposing various chords. He went through something Paul Klee once said. Klee asked a group of people to make a painting of two elements “O & l”. He discovered that the results he achieved from his pupils were quite similar. Either OlOlOlOl or lOlOlOlO. He said in a composition, one could soften either one of the elements and keep the other rigid (two diagrams showing a)wavy circle bisected by a straight line and b) a straight circle being bisected at an angle by a wavy line).

Afterwards I went up and shook hands with him saying “I really enjoyed this afternoon, genetics apart, thank you very much for coming. He said “I’d really like to know where you got that quote from, I can’t believe I said that.”

Well now. Markus Stockhausen, James Dillon and now Pierre Boulez. Good grief. To think I never thought I’d ever be accepted by the Establishment. I never thought, either, that Boulez would be as warm and approachable as he was.

We live and learn,

Even if I don’t make it as a composer I’ll have something to tell the kids. Oh, sorry, that’s out of the question.

There were some students from the official university there but they never said much. Our lot asked all the questions. Na nana na na.”

I was quite a cocky student, but then I was in my 20’s and entitled to be. One last memory I have of that day was being berated by a fellow composer who wanted to know about Boulez’s composition methods and was annoyed by the amount of time I’d spent “insulting him”. I replied that he was there as well and nobody had stopped him from asking anything.

During my time there I also met and had a couple of workshops with John Adams (at the public one, I caused him to raised an amused eyebrow by describing the “Chamber Symphony” as “Stravinsky on Acid”). I also had a 15 minute consultation with him which was most enjoyable. Composers with a sense of humor are a dying breed on the academic circuit. He gave a concert the following evening and just after it finished, he saw me talking to a friend of mine, came over, shook my hand warmly in front of everybody and said “I really enjoyed talking to you yesterday”. Which was nice.

Ah, Birmingham, Birmingham. Such a wonderful time and place.


About alanspage

what about myself?
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