- Published on Wednesday, 06 January 2016 19:24
BBC, "Composer Pierre Boulez dies at 90", BBC News, Entertainment & Arts (06 January 2016)
I know it's a bit tangential to the kinds of media items I tend to flag up here at TMR, but the news of Pierre Boulez's death - probably France's greatest living composer (until yesterday) - is something of a landmark for me. As some of you know, I used to write music for a living... for a few years anyway. (Yes, I actually managed to get some commissions, and even had a BBC performance... once.) Anyway, one of the composers who significantly impacted my musical style was Pierre Boulez, and I've had a love of his music ever since. (I know it's not to most people's tastes, but... well, neither is blue cheese... and I wouldn't be without that either!)
When I first encountered 20th-Century avant-garde "classical" music (for want of a better term) as a teenager, I found the whole scene utterly incomprehensible, and spent many hilarious hours with my friends poking fun at anything and everything that sounded even vaguely out of the ordinary. Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio, Cage, Xenakis, Birtwistle—on and on—and Boulez too, all came in for heavy doses of japing. Huge fun, of course, but a bit embarrassing now I look back at it. But there was one musical voice—formative for the avant-garde, but never limited by it — Olivier Messiaen (another Frenchman, as it happens), that had caught my attention.
A little earlier, as a tweenager, I used to listen to a little Bush radio I'd been given as a birthday present that was small enough to slip under my pillow at night, and because we were living on the south coast of England, I was occasionally able to pick up the odd broadcast (odd in both senses) from Radio France, which often seemed to play, let's say, unusual music. One night, while I was pretending to be asleep, I tuned into Radio France and quickly became transfixed by a most amazing musical world: the weird, haunting harmonies of Olivier Messiaen's 1931 orchestral piece Les offrandes oubliées. Now, to be sure, this was no example of the avant-garde, even for the 1930s, but as far as I was concerned at the time it was Really Weird Stuff—and yet, somehow, I got it. It made sense to me, in a way. I actually liked it.
And that experience stayed with me. Throughout all the japing of later years, I had this persistent sense in the back of my mind that not all of this music was the same; some of it was clearly superior. John Cage was mostly funny, and deliberately so, I'm sure—(as the composer Hugh Wood said to me once, "He's not what most people would call a composer")—and Karlheinz Stockhausen was hugely pretentious, although he did write a few pieces I admire, but there was always something about Boulez. His music was certainly challenging to listen to—it was definitely Odd Stuff, and very clearly avant-garde in the trendiest of arty ways—but listening to it, there was always that sense that he really knew what he was doing.
And, of course, he did. Later, when I started analysing some of his works for myself, I came to realise what a perfectionist he was, which is one of the reasons he didn't write as much as many composers; plus the fact that he spent a huge amount of his time as a world-class conductor. And that's where you can visually sample his perfectionism: his conducting was always precise—no nonsense—with no baton. Sometimes, with his own compositions, he required the conductor to take part in the compositional process itself, requiring them to make on-the-fly decisions as to how long sounds should last, etc., and his precise conducting style complemented that perfectly. He didn't so much conduct, I would say, as command. (Indeed, I wouldn't have liked to be an instrumentalist under his leadership, to be honest, because I think it must have been hard work, to say the least.) Anyway, I've said it a few times now: he was a perfectionist. That was Pierre Boulez—one of the towering figures of 20th/21st Century music.
A great performance of Dérive 2 by Pierre Boulez
Boulez conducting Répons with his distinctive, inimitable batonless precision
Boulez in rehearsal