by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 10, 2000.
These days, Pierre Boulez—composer, conductor, administrator, lawgiver, autocrat, éminence grise—is an affable, even mellow presence. He ends every performance with a self- effacing shrug, and quickly jumps off the podium in order to stand among the players. Last month, as part of a worldwide celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday, he led the London Symphony in four concerts at Carnegie Hall, and he seemed embarrassed by all the attention. The former hit man of modern music is now a bit like Brando’s Don Corleone—he no longer needs to make a display of his power.
As the orchestra launched into “Happy birthday to Pierre,” it would have been convenient to forget that Boulez in his youth was something of a holy terror. In a 1952 polemic entitled “Eventually. . .,” he wrote, with typical bluntness,“Why not play the sniper for a few moments?” He played the sniper often; he had excellent aim; he created, in the years following the Second World War, a climate of intellectual fear. He announced the supremacy of atonal, twelve-tone composition in the following terms: “Any musician who has not experienced. . .the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is useless.” The statement was arguable. Ned Rorem, for one, responded, “Omit the word ‘not,’ and I would agree.” Yet many composers were intimidated by this young man’s table-pounding certitude. Both Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky took up twelve-tone writing immediately after encountering Boulez. Even the most august composers were desperate to please him.
Not since Wagner had a composer played the bully to such effect. Boulez’s tactics were exuberantly brutal: he compared himself several times to the Bolsheviks and to the Chinese Red Guards. He placed Stravinsky in his neoclassical period at the head of the “useless.” He accused Schoenberg, after his death, of the “most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.” Webern was “too simple.” Berg suffered from “bad taste,” Ravel from “affectation.” Twelve-tone music in its extant form was overrun by “number-fanatics” who engaged in “frenetic arithmetic masturbation.” Boulez’s teacher, Olivier Messiaen, produced “brothel music.” John Cage, who was at one time an ally of Boulez, became a “performing monkey,” and Karlheinz Stockhausen, likewise, a “hippie.” The American minimalists displayed a “supermarket aesthetic,” the American serialists had a “cashier’s point of view.” Brahms was a “bore,” Tchaikovsky “abominable,” Verdi “stupid, stupid, stupid!” And so on.
Boulez has stopped issuing proclamations of this kind, but no one should be fooled into thinking that he has changed his mind.* His programs are still notable as much for what they exclude as for what they include; the borders of the canon are still tightly guarded. The great ones—their shortcomings now forgiven—are Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, and Stravinsky. A few contemporaries—Harrison Birtwistle, György Ligeti, and Elliott Carter—have written music of sufficient density to be worthy of attention. And of course there are Boulez’s own works—although his habit of incessantly revising them suggests that even they do not please him entirely. I’m reminded of a scene in Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle,” in which the oblivious Monsieur Hulot, seeking to restore symmetry to a damaged plant, trims a little on one side, trims a little on the other, and continues going back and forth until there’s not much left.
Boulez arrived in Paris from the provinces in 1942. His first significant act was to boo loudly at an all-Stravinsky concert. As a Schoenbergian atonalist, he condemned what he considered Stravinsky’s antiquated stylistic games. But he also found himself dissatisfied with twelve-tone music as it was then practiced. He was bothered by the fact that Schoenberg had radicalized harmony but still treated rhythm and form in traditional, even hackneyed ways. So he began working toward the idea of “serialism,” in which durations, dynamics, and instrumental attacks were organized along the same principles that governed the twelve-tone series. He achieved a mode of writing that was, if nothing else, internally consistent.
The fact that Milton Babbitt arrived at a similar method at about the same time shows that something was in the air. But Boulez’s music had a different temperature from Babbitt’s. It was frenzied and fragmented where Babbitt’s was neat and mercurial. Even in the fifties and sixties, as Boulez abandoned strict serialism and began to write in a more fluid, impressionist style, he remained a composer of vibration, activity, unrest. He set the profile of “modern music” as it is popularly conceived and as it is still widely practiced—a rapid sequence of jabbing gestures, like the squigglings of a seismograph.
Boulez’s early works retain their assaultive force, as Maurizio Pollini demonstrated two weeks ago when he unleashed the Second Piano Sonata on Carnegie Hall. Later compositions, however, are more uncertain in tone. In 1981, Boulez produced “Répons,” a large piece for soloists, chamber orchestra, and electronics, and has continued tinkering with it ever since. This was the flagship project for IRCAM, the electronic-music institute that Boulez founded in Paris in 1977. A recent Deutsche Grammophon recording of “Répons” makes one sympathize with the complaints that have been directed at IRCAM over the past two decades; the institute has sucked up the lion’s share of public money for contemporary French music, but its costly synthesizer, the 4X, sounds unremarkable and a little antiquated in the digital age. Boulez’s instrumental writing, meanwhile, has settled into a familiar set of mannerisms: a steady alternation of held notes and rapid figuration; a heavy reliance on drones, trills, tremolos, and other effects of filigree; a weakness for splashy percussion.
His major work of the nineties was “sur Incises,” for three pianos, three harps, and percussion. The Ensemble Intercontemporain played it last November at Carnegie Hall. It looked amazing: black pianos glowered amid the yellow shimmer of harps and the golden ambience of Carnegie. The musical effect, too, was pictorial: the piece offered a sequence of intriguing and often beautiful textures, one after the other, and then it simply stopped. The Ensemble also presented “Anthèmes II," a 1997 work for violin and electronics. The busy arpeggiation in the violin part had a Bachian flavor and threatened to lapse into G major at the end. Amid a welter of electronic echo-chamber effects and a touch of purplish lighting, the piece took on an unexpectedly trippy, New Age air.
What of Boulez the conductor and new-music guru? Works in the London Symphony mini-festival fell into three categories: first, those written for the series, by Peter Eötvös, Salvatore Sciarrino, Olga Neuwirth, and George Benjamin; then those that Boulez might consider “modern classics,” by Ligeti, Luciano Berio, and Boulez himself; and, finally, masterpieces from the first half of the century, by Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók, and Stravinsky. The new works were a mixed bag. Only Benjamin’s “Palimpsest” displayed a distinctive musical personality. Moving uneasily between withdrawn, chant-like episodes and outbursts of full-orchestral violence, it seemed like a well-observed portrait of Boulez himself. Eötvös’s “zeroPoints” was a riot of brilliant orchestration, little more. Sciarrino’s “Recitativo Oscuro,” with its grunting bassoon ostinatos, created an atmosphere of expectation that subsequent events failed to satisfy; the piece came across as an unnecessarily elongated transitional episode. Neuwirth’s “Clinamen/Nodus” aspired, in the composer’s words, to be an “accumulation of fragments,” and succeeded.
Conducting the twentieth-century masters, Boulez was in his element, although some of his choices were strange. Bartók’s early ballet “The Wooden Prince” is not Bartók at his best, and in this low-energy performance it became interminable. Schoenberg’s “Pelleas und Melisande” fared better, although it, too, threatened to drown in its own orchestration. Perhaps Boulez wanted to program some late-Romantic tone poetry in order to give his audience a spell of easy listening, but he could not reach outside his circle of canonical modernist figures, and so was limited to works of youthful excess. Boulez’s great virtues as a conductor are transparency and balance; he is not so good at character and contrast. He gave Mahler’s Sixth Symphony an uncommon lucidity but took away its ironies and neuroses. Stravinsky’s “Pétrouchka” was carried off with miraculous finesse, even though, as in the Mahler, the score’s spirit of parody went missing. Only Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra showed the conductor at the top of his game: the orchestra made everything clear and held nothing back.
Boulez’s programming is tied to a teleological theory of musical history; it spotlights assorted radical gestures in an effort to illustrate the alleged dissolution of tonality. But this narrative has itself become useless. It excludes far too many major twentieth-century composers—Sibelius, Shostakovich, and Britten, among others—to be considered a fair survey of the field. Although Boulez has lately broadened his repertory, in the course of a massive recording project for D.G., certain of his performances sound dutiful. In 1988, he said of Stravinsky’s neoclassical works, “I personally will never find them very exciting, that’s for sure.” A new disk of the “Symphony of Psalms” and the Symphony in Three Movements doesn’t suggest that he is excited by them now.
Boulez’s appearances at Carnegie Hall this season were well attended, and with good reason. Audiences receive from him a guarantee of quality: there will be nothing vulgar or cheap. But the series had a claustrophobic atmosphere. It said more about the taste of a great but ungenerous artist than about the state of music in the year 2000.
*Addendum: I spoke too soon. Boulez had this to say in January of 2000: "Well, Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It's like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler."