electric Boulez

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NYRB's Christopher Carroll looks back to the time when Boulez went electric:

Pierre Boulez, the radical modernist composer who later in his career became one of the most sought-after conductors in the world, was famous for his polemics. "I suggested that it was not enough to add a moustache to the Mona Lisa," he once said.
It should simply be destroyed. All I meant was just to urge the public to grow up and once for all to cut the umbilical cord attaching it to the past. The artists I admire--Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Berlioz--have not followed tradition but have been able to force tradition to follow them. We need to restore the spirit of irreverence in music.

"This was not simply abuse for its own sake," Carroll continues, "but an attempt to underscore what Boulez felt was the urgent need for innovation in the postwar era:"

The musical forms of the twentieth century, he believed, had been creatively exhausted. His search for the new led Boulez to a brief experiment in the early Fifties with total serialism, which applied Schoenberg's technique of serial ordering not just to pitch, but to rhythm, dynamics, tempo, timbre, and even the way in which notes were attacked. Though he soon distanced himself from the technique--later suggesting that excessive devotion to serialism was a form of "frenetic arithmetic masturbation"--for many this is the image of Boulez that has stuck: a bullying, icy modernist whose music was forbidding and academic, full of jagged asperity and rhythms that unfold in what Alex Ross aptly called "a rapid sequence of jabbing gestures, like the squigglings of a seismograph."

"Yet of all his compositions," writes Carroll, "the one that may give the most pleasure on first listening is one that must be heard in person in order to truly appreciate, and that--perhaps unsurprisingly--is hardly ever performed:"

That work is Répons, a late electronic composition for orchestra, six soloists, and an audio-acoustic system that was recently staged at the Park Avenue Armory by the Ensemble Intercontemporain. [...]

The piece, which Boulez revisited several times, ultimately extending it to a length of about forty-five minutes, is written for three separate groups: an orchestra, six soloists, and what the score calls an electro-acoustic system of computers and loudspeakers. The orchestra sits at the center, surrounded by the audience, which is in turn surrounded by six soloists playing percussion instruments--the cimbalom (a kind of Hunagarian zither); harp; vibraphone; xylophone doubled with glockenspiel; and two pianos, one of which is doubled with an electric organ. Each of these solo instruments is hooked up to the electro-acoustic system, which analyzes, transforms, and spatially rearranges their sounds, dispersing them through a set of six loudspeakers.

Boulez's Répons at the Park Avenue Armory, 2017 (Stephanie Berger)

Carroll is quite laudatory about both the piece and its performance:

Far from stifling the human element, the use of electronics in Répons helps bring it to life, giving the piece an almost living, breathing mutability. Hearing it live made it clear why Boulez once said that listening to a recording of the piece was the equivalent of looking at a photo of one of Calder's mobiles.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on October 26, 2017 3:56 PM.

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