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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Pierre Boulez: "Je ne suis doué que pour ça"

by Maurice Ulrich

L’Humanité Meets Pierre Boulez : “Music Is My Only Gift “

Translated Friday 8 January 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

An exclusive exchange with the musician over the works of the latter half of the 20th century, by Stockhausen, Berio, Nono, Ligeti… and over the question of the commitment of the intellectual.

HUMA: What I now find striking about you, Pierre Boulez, is your eclecticism in the choice of the works you conduct, musicians in any case that may seem to be poles away from the kind of composer you are, for example, recently, Bruckner .

BOULEZ: Yes, because I find it boring to play the same thing over and over again. If someone now asks me to play The Rite of Spring [1], I refuse. I love this work, but still I refuse. I would rather do what I have never done before.

HUMA: You’ve twice conducted "The Firebird" under the Louvres pyramid in the last two months…

BOULEZ: Yes, but it was The Firebird, not The Rite…I’ve just given a concert in Vienna with Debussy’s Nocturnes, Schimanowski’s first violin concerto, and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. I have already conducted these works, that was ten years ago, and in the meantime I have evolved. What I find interesting is a change of “landscape”. I once did a tour with several orchestras and only a few works, each of which was repeated at least five times. It turned into a nightmare, for every time I knew where the same defects were going to reappear, the same qualities too, but it was unbearable….

HUMA: It’s been said that yours is a very intellectual relation to music. It’s an extremely sensuous relation too. What’s music to you?

BOULEZ: Oh, it’s very simple. Music is my life. They have merged. It may sound silly but music is my only gift! So I had no difficulty in making a choice. At a certain time in my life I was vaguely aware of what I wanted to do, and that was music.

HUMA: When was that?

BOULEZ : Not until I was fifteen or sixteen. I lived in a very small town where there was no musical life. The nearest town was Saint-Etienne [2], where there wasn’t much musical life either. The piano lessons settled the matter; piano lessons were common practice in those families. But I had no idea what a musical career could be like. We played in small groups, with friends, amateurs, and it was interesting indeed: at least we were actively involved.

HUMA: Your parents were rather reticent…

BOULEZ : That was because they were just as ignorant as I was. But their ignorance made them dislike the idea whereas mine incited me to embrace it.

HUMA: Could you give us a definition of music all the same?

BOULEZ: Music is a form of expression, a way to express one’s conception of the world, and the world itself. To express one’s feelings, what one hopes will touch others. The sound is there, and all kids like noise, and they all want songs. I was educated in a denominational school, there was a choir, and that was part of my musical education. We probably did not sing very well, but we were actively involved.

HUMA: You also have a passion for art in general. Your relation to Paul Klee’s paintings is well known [3], but I also discovered a photo of you with Jean Genet at a colleague’s, for example. You’ve always had an appetite for literature, the arts, and ideas.

BOULEZ: Yes, that’s true. I have known all the artists and writers of my generation, Robbe-Grillet, Butor, Claude Simon [4], painters too like Nicolas de Staël, who had a passion for contemporary music. There was no doubt a kind of intellectual emulation between us. I had frequent discussions with Michel Foucault. In the early days of IRCAM we organized a symposium with Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Roland Barthes. All three were also interested in music. So was Derrida. Barthes would have liked to sing German Lieder.

HUMA: Well, that was not really his forte. At least he is none too famous for that. …But what exactly did you talk about?

BOULEZ: All sorts of things. We talked about what we were composing or writing, but we met only informally, there were no set dates; and we were not all present at the same time, on every occasion - this was especially true of Michel Butor; but I also talked a lot about music…

HUMA: Most important in your career was the Darmstadt experience in Germany in the 1950s, with composers like you, Berio, Nono, Stockhausen, Ligeti…who may be said to have invented post-war music [5]

BOULEZ: The most interesting thing about Darmstadt was that the people who met there had been held in detention (so to speak) for six years all through the war, or even for thirteen years, since 1933, in the case of Germany. We had not been travelling, we had been shut up within the narrow confines of a national culture. Germany wanted to catch up on this. People that had been forced to remain silent started expressing themselves again, artists, journalists… Some people I had known in Berlin in the 1920s were back at their posts, in charge of radio channels, and they were propagandists of modernity. The people in charge of French radio channels were ninnies.

HUMA: For Germans, it was an opportunity to re-appropriate their culture.

BOULEZ: It was. All the reactionaries had more or less been compromised with Nazism. Those who were back were avant-garde musicians who had been branded “degenerate” artists. And then, there was a lot of money around. As T.V did not exist, all of it went to the radio channels. They put exceptional resources at our disposal.

HUMA: May I slip in a parenthetical anecdote of which you’ve just reminded me: I remember quite distinctly seeing Stockhausen rehearsing early one evening on what was then the only French TV channel. I was about fifteen at the time.

BOULEZ: Yes, maybe it was possible at that time. Television was then considered as a cultural medium.

HUMA: Let’s go back to Darmstadt.

BOULEZ: All of Europe met there. Some came from England, some from Germany of course, from France, Italy. And then some people came from Poland, from Hungary to see what was taking place as soon as they found a way. Ligeti came from 1956 onwards. From 1952 till 1955-56 I gave classes there. There was an enormous number of exchanges, controversies, rows between people who were confronting one another.

HUMA: You were by then one of the leading figures of that modernity yourself. What about your relations to people as different as Stockhausen, Berio, or Nono…?

BOULEZ: They were excellent at the time. Later on they did not actually sour but we did move away from one another. I still saw a lot of Stockhausen until the 1970s. I met Berio again when he was already quite ill. We gave a concert with some works of his and some of mine in Rome and then had dinner together afterwards. It was a beautiful occasion.

HUMA: At the time you had extremely different political, social or philosophical views. Stockausen inclined to some kind of mysticism, Berio and Nono had an interest in politics that you do not share. But still there is the same fire in the works you compose.

BOULEZ: There are deep divergences even about and in the music. I have never written music as reflexive as Stockhausen’s, my music rather originates in the act of composing itself. Berio is more heterogeneous. Nono’s austerity was extremely rigorous. And even though he was a member of the communist party, this did not make him fall in line with socialist realism and all that stuff. That was what I respected about him. He remained faithful to his ideas and tried to pass them on, independently of the party machinery.

HUMA: He had that notion (sometimes to be found in 20th century avant-garde) that art should be revolutionary in its form and content, or rather that art and revolution were intimately connected.

BOULEZ: Yes, but that was completely misunderstood and I hope you will not mind my saying that when Nono discovered what the USSR was really like, it killed him. At least he did not recover from the blow. The meaning he gave to his life collapsed.

HUMA : Are you under the impression that the Darmstadt impulse has run out?

BOULEZ: No, the spirit lives on. I was invited there but I refused because it would have been as though a ghost was back after fifty years, since I am the only survivor, and also because that period is over for me. And then it is no longer a time of discovery as it was then.

HUMA : What social explanation would you give for the fact that enthusiasm over contemporary classical music is marginal?

BOULEZ: You’re mistaken there. There have never been as many orders for works as there are now. When I was young orders were very scarce. I myself only had one in fifty years. For Les Notations. Naturally, when I was at the head of IRCAM I could not very well order one of my own works.

HUMA: Naturally, but still contemporary classical music does not command very large audiences.

BOULEZ: You may say so indeed, but it’s the same for paintings. If you exhibit a young artist, even at Pompidou, you’ll get a few hundred people. If you exhibit Kandinsky, you’ll get thousands. In music nowadays, theatres are full when Stockhausen, Liget, Berio are on the program.

HUMA: You mentioned IRCAM [6]

BOULEZ: Because I realized that in a musician’s life there was no space for experiment. You write, you play, and goodbye. You need a place where people can extend music’s potentialities. You need some kind of regular clergy in addition to the secular clergy. An abbey where people can re-focus, concentrate, meditate. I must say it was Georges Pompidou at the time who called me. I was in the countryside and I received a phone call from the Elysée palace. At first of course I believed that it was a joke… He invited me to dine with himself and Claude Pompidou and said: “We should like you to come back to France; we know what happened with Malraux but still, we should like you to come back.”

HUMA: What exactly happened with Malraux?

BOULEZ: Oh, that was just when he appointed Landowski at the head of the Music department, but never mind that. I answered that if it was for an appointment as conductor, I would refuse, but that I had a project for a foundation with a music department and that nothing had come of it yet. I had that project on my hands and so that’s how it became a department of the Centre Pompidou. We got the means and all the money we needed. And now IRCAM has become an international nexus.

HUMA: You were made out to be a dogmatic composer at the time, and your music was said to be arid.

BOULEZ: That’s stupid. If my music was so arid, do you think the theatres would be full and I would be called to play in all sorts of places all the time?

HUMA : Among your contemporaries, there are some that you have been backing. What advice would you give a young composer?

BOULEZ: I have been following Manoury, Dalbavie, Hurel…Otherwise I have developed close ties to the Luzern academy, with students aged 19 to 25, composers, conductors, instrumentalists. The syllabus is quite demanding. I would advise a young composer to work hard. Not to fall into the trap of writing to the existing format, nor to aim at originality at all costs. The idea is to try and find one’s own originality. And work hard.

HUMA: Political commitment has never been your cup of tea, but I suppose you have a specific outlook on today’s world all the same?

BOULEZ: I’m completely disorientated. When you consider a few things, the last election in the States for instance, even if the end-result is far from certain, still, it gives us a little hope. I am no sceptic, but history, I think, is a sine curve. History books depress me. Empires are built up and then collapse and then it starts all over again. For my generation who believed in history making progress, it’s been an awful disappointment. All our idealism fell to pieces. I am thinking of Budapest, of Poland in the 1950s. Basically, I have always been isolated. Not that I am a kind of old bear. I think politicians are there to serve, not to help themselves, but to come to the point, frankly, I believe that an intellectual’s commitment (like Sartre’s) is always a bit of a bazaar.

HUMA: Still, in the great Italian days, in music, the cinema, in France, with Jean Genet [7] whom we were talking about just now, important works have carried a political message, no?

BOULEZ: Yes, Genet did commit himself a lot at the end, but there was a personal dimension too: the suicide of a boy that he loved.

HUMA: There had been The Blacks before, and The Screens

BOULEZ: Surely, but an artist’s work is something else. What I mean is that it is easy to march out in the street with a small flag, but to conduct the New York symphony orchestra is quite another kettle of fish, from a sociological point of view, I can tell you. To do that takes a lot of commitment, you’ve got to fight against a social class.

HUMA: What do you mean by that:“fight against a social class”

BOULEZ: People of a social class that sit in their chairs. When we organized single-price concerts, we had people in the theatre that had never been to a concert before. That kind of fight I can wage with full command of the facts. In fact, I was unlucky to begin with. For I would have readily committed myself to support some change of policy in my own way, but the intellectual directives at the time were so stupid that it just was not possible.

[2an old industrial town in the Massif Central

[3Between 1965 and 1970, he wrote Eclat/Multiples, a hinge work the first part of which, entitled Eclat, with its echoing instruments, bears some relation to the ethereal atmosphere of Pli selon pli or even his interest in aleatoric music (the conductor being free to decide whether an instrumental part should or should not be performed) while the second segment, entitled Multiples foreshadows the more compact style of the works he was to compose later on. The score is a perfect illustration of concepts that are important to him: "smooth time" (“temps lisse”), freed from bars and tempo, as if weightless, and “striated time”, more constrained with respect to rhythm and form – which he was later to take up in his “Leçons de musique” at the Collège de France from 1976 to 1995 (published by Christian Bourgois). These notions have nothing to do with the notions of atonality or tonality, and can even coexist at times on different orchestral planes: they are similar to notions dear to Paul Klee to whom the composer dedicated his book “Le pays fertile” (Fertile Land” ) in 1989. Eclat/Multiples is considered by its author as an unfinished work, still in the making, likely to be complemented with a third part. Boulez’ way of revising his works often gives the impression that he lacks a sure hand in the act of composing, whereas it is just the reverse: like Paul Klee again, Pierre Boulez devises rules for the pleasure of breaking them.

[4French novelists who invented ’le nouveau roman’ in the 1950s and 1960s: novels could do without a plot, or psychological analysis, or without characters even, http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nouveau_roman

[5The so-called Darmstadt School of composers were instrumental in creating a style that, for a time, existed as an antidote to music of nationalist fervor, an international, even cosmopolitan style that could not be ’co-opted’ as propaganda in the way the Nazis used, for example, the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.

[6http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IRCAM. Why did you found it?


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