Showing posts with label Pierre Boulez. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pierre Boulez. Show all posts

Monday, October 07, 2013

The post-war world and the Darmstadt effect

I've spent the weekend at The Rest is Noise at the Southbank, hoping to learn something about the post-war years and Darmstadt. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's found this the single most tricky patch of 20th-century music history, and I reckoned that if this panoply of talks, films and concerts wasn't going to sort that out for me, then nothing would.

I got a lot more than I bargained for.

It's not every day you have the chance to hear things from the horse's mouth, and the horses in question were Schoenberg's daughter, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, and the composer Helmut Lachenmann. The event started a little late; it was such a beautiful day that they'd decided to walk over to the South Bank together.

Lachenmann expressed an objection to the part of the book-behind-the-series devoted to the so-called Darmstadt School. First, he says, it doesn't mention Bruno Maderna. But moreover, he insisted that the aura of myths and fear and domination that in contemporary music seem to surround the name Darmstadt are just that: myths. Probably based on a couple of things that Boulez might have said once, a long time ago. Stockhausen annointed the saviour of the future of music? Boulez the dominant force? Only one type of music can be allowed? Rubbish. Stockhausen was one of many people with many contrasting ideas. The place was filled with composers whose ideas were fundamentally different from one another, he declared, recalling, too, perfectly civilised discussions between Cage and Nono. How myths are built, what they consist of, what they do to our perception - these all need more consideration.

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono recalled her father's concern (NB he died in 1951) about the trend towards analysing serialist technique ahead of concern for expression, since he considered his music expressive. Asked (by muggins, who was tired of only blokes asking the questions) what she thought he'd have made of the musical world today, she said she has never tried to get inside the minds of either her father or her husband, but she does think that the standards of performance now have risen so much that a work such as his piano concerto or violin concerto can by played like music, rather than as a technical struggle.

But what constitutes expressiveness in music anyway? Lachenmann cast powerful perspective on this. (I personally don't agree with him about Rachmaninov - the idea that R is sentimental is a myth in the opposite direction - but never mind that for now...). Essentially, he suggested that emotional response lies in the listener, not the music itself. He says that a composer doesn't write to express his/her own emotion - you are not crying while you write, as you are in a ferment of creative activity. Any emotion involved comes from the person listening. The import is in the message, not the way it is conveyed. As an example, he said, if you tell someone, "Your father is dead," you don't fill those four words with huge expressive import. You say it without emotion. The person receiving the message will respond with feeling of their own. 

(This explains to me exactly why I loathe so much the exaggerated interpretations of certain of today's terribly successful performers. They get in the way of the music's message. I could name a few, but this is probably not the moment.)

One gentleman in the audience shared his own memories of Darmstadt and remarked that in contrast to a summer school in the States, the food at the German organisation was absolutely terrible and gave him very bad poisoning once. If the food had been better, he said, the whole history of music might have been altered thenceforth. Nuria pointed out that in the post-war years there wasn't very much food in Germany, and recalled an incident in which a sack of potatoes was delivered to Darmstadt, yet the person in charge of catering had never seen a sack of potatoes before, so cooked them without washing them.

There's the rub: the effect of the war. We know, in theory, that the association of marching rhythms with Nazi jackboots, the use of Wagner, Bruckner and Beethoven in Goebbels's propaganda, the building of a sense of supremacy through these great romantic masterpieces, all that was seared into the minds of the young people who saw it happening around them, in some cases lost their families, in some cases were forced to take part in the horrors themselves. But do we really feel, and empathise with, how deep that psychological shock went? It's a Clockwork Orange effect, perhaps; and within a terrible void, for the great creative voices like Stravinsky and Bartok had left Europe, while potential newcomers had in some cases been killed (think of Gideon Klein). If a fresh start had to be made, you can see why.

It sounds strange, it sounds oversimplified, but a sense of empathy was what emerged, above all, from this extraordinary couple of days. A film about Ligeti (made in 1993) told of the composer's family's fate in World War II - his father and brother were killed, his mother returned unexpectedly having survived a concentration camp - though said nothing about what happened in that time to Ligeti (pictured, right) himself. We heard from Tom Service - whose pre-concert talk before Gruppen yesterday contained the single clearest and most succinct explanation of electronic music that I've ever heard - about Stockhausen's background: his father, drafted into the German army, died somewhere in Hungary; his mother, mentally ill, was confined to an asylum, but there left to die by the Nazi regime.

We heard nothing from anybody, though, of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, surely one of the most violent and compelling voices of that era, who committed suicide in the 1960s - or if we did, I missed it. It's impossible to take in everything since so many different events are going on at once, but the website is a fabulous resource as many of the talks are posted on it after the event. Explore here.

Talks around the era included matters of DNA and also the CIA (which some say funded Darmstadt - I missed this one too, but want to read the book - Note, update this morning, Ian Pace tells me that he has explored the issue thoroughly and found it to be yet another myth). The historian Donald Sassoon spoke on literary heroes and villains, notably those of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. My former sister-in-law, the art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, gave a Bites talk about the art created by inmates of concentration camps and subsequently by others in response to the Holocaust. And the desperation, horror and nihilism of Rosselini's film Germany, Year Zero - shot in the ruins of Berlin after the war, following a 12-year-old boy's efforts to survive and feed his family - perhaps gave us the clearest insights of all into the forces that shaped these minds.

And now and then, a revelation of sorts emerges from the correlations of different artforms. How strange that those Bond villains, over the years, whether influenced or not by the Cold War, are not  politically motivated but instead represent self-interest, greed and big, soulless business versus the individual; how bizarre that both a Soviet book and an American one could trace almost the same outline of the same journey; and how intriguing that fundamentally opposed musical systems - the ultra-control of Boulez versus the chance operations of John Cage - can produce, for the listener, music that seems to inhabit the self-same aesthetic. How extraordinary that the iconoclast par excellence, Stockhausen himself, is still part of a tradition of larger-than-life German visionary composers and was inspired to create Gruppen by the sight of the Alps. (And how many times has my OH protested against my discomfort with Bruckner by saying "But it's the music of the Alps!" - yet had he been there last night, instead of on tour in Vienna, he'd probably have fled the volume of noise inside the hall).

Our cultural world is not flat. If you travel round it far enough in one direction, you arrive at the same point you'd have reached if you'd gone the other way.

Add to this some extraordinary concerts. Members of the Aurora Orchestra were at the helm on Saturday night for Stockhausen and Boulez, with pianist Nicolas Hodges and percussionist Colin Currie interacting with electronics for all they were worth in Kontakte, following the strange, aural-3D spatial effect of Gesang der Jünglinge - the odd matter of attending a live concert to listen to something non-live is another issue, of course. Boulez's Le marteau sans maitre - like Stockhausen the visionary - seemed strangely in tradition too, that of French music's attention to timbre, instrumentation, detail and delicacy. 

On Sunday afternoon we heard astonishing percussion playing from students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, performing Xenakis and Cage; and the weekend culminated in Stockhausen's Gruppen - three orchestras, one on stage, two to the sides of the RFH auditorium - with the "traditional" (I quote) two performances of the piece framing the evening on either side of more delicacy and detail, this time from Nono. Is the journey from Monteverdi and Gabrieli's antiphonies in San Marco to Stockhausen's in the RFH as great as we might think? 

The thoughts provoked by these days, the intensity of the information intake and the social whirl - old friends and new, with everyone wanting to share their impressions - will not, as you'll have gathered, fit into a single blogpost. This is a beginning, not an end; a chance for further exploration and a great deal more chewing in the months and years ahead. As for today, I don't think I'll be listening to anything at all.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Wagner Friday Historical, sort of

It's not easy to choose a Friday Historical for Wagner Woche, and this extract dates from 1976, which in the grand scheme of things is not terribly historical. Nevertheless, there's a distinct sensation of "they don't make 'em like this any more" about Gwyneth Jones's Brunnhilde and Donald McIntyre's Wotan. This is the final scene of Die Walküre in Patrice Chéreau's tremendously human and humane staging from Bayreuth, conducted by the peerless Pierre Boulez.

In case you missed my love letter to Big Richard on his birthday the other day, here's the link.

Monday, September 03, 2012


My interview with the man many consider today's greatest living composer was out in The Independent on Saturday. Read it here:

I found the Maestro on excellent form, despite the eye operation. He may be 87, but the fire of his spirit burns as strong as ever. And I'm not sure I have ever met anyone else who is so searingly intelligent, creative and wise, all at the same time. I'll be doing a longer feature in a few months' time, for International Piano Magazine, which will also involve Pierre-Laurent Aimard, but for now, I'm putting below the "director's cut" of the Indy piece, which includes a few choice out-takes: the bit about Waiting for Godot might intrigue, and, of course, I love Boulez's attitude that you can't just see something is wrong and do nothing about it.

You can see the New York Philharmonic concert in the Armory on Medici TV until 2 October, here. (Remember, JDCMB readers get discounts on Medici subscription.)


If Pierre Boulez is this energetic aged 87, imagine him at 30. Arriving at the Lucerne Festival, the composer, maestro and man of musical action is recovering from an eye operation; it obliged him to cancel his visit to the Proms, where the conductor Daniel Barenboim juxtaposed his works with the complete Beethoven symphonies. But he will not be kept back. “It forces me to stay quiet for an hour to let the eye rest,” he remarks. “But it is very difficult to stay quiet.”

Boulez remains the heart, spine and soul of musical modernism. Many consider him today’s greatest living composer. His music is demanding listening, but once you open your ears to it, it can reveal entire vistas of sonic imagination and spectral beauty. And he affirms that he would like listeners to find it beautiful. “Sometimes it’s difficult to go to this kind of beauty, which is different from other beauties,” he says, “but I want the music to bring you into a sphere where you don’t go generally.”

He is a figure wreathed in myth. Some suggest he is a “musical Stalinist” (a term used by the composer Pierre Schaeffer); others, notably his performers, praise him as the nicest person they know. 

What’s certain is that he challenges everything, in music and in life, analysing issues with visionary exactitude. Besides, he is not a talker, but a do-er. “We don’t come to the world just to look at it and accept it,” he declares. In the 1950s he became notorious for the ferocity with which he called for the past to be swept away, seeking a blank slate for musical language to break with the preceding disasters of history. 

“The ‘tabula rasa’ was something of my generation,” Boulez says. “Works like Stockhausen’s could not exist in the years 1933-45: this part of musical life was banned completely in Germany. It was the same in the USSR under Stalin. Therefore I could not adopt the Communist point of view, because we have seen that already and we know what it produces. 

“It was not tabula rasa for pleasure. It was necessity, because this generation had, for us, failed to find something important. We did not want to prolong this kind of failure. We were radical in the sense that we at least tried to establish a new way of thinking. We did not succeed all the time, either – but it was important for us to begin from scratch.”

He was, moreover, a very angry young man kicking against the ultra-conservative musical establishment in his native France, where the music that galvanised him – Berg, Schoenberg, Bartók – remained unknown. Proving the point, it was down to Boulez himself to conduct the French stage premiere of Berg’s operatic masterpiece, Wozzeck, as late as 1963. He rejected France entirely until the prime minister Georges Pompidou used the promise of state funding for a new research institute for electronic music, IRCAM, to tempt him back from Germany, where a new internationalism in music was flourishing at Darmstadt. 

Boulez’s early pronouncements – burn down opera houses, kill the Mona Lisa, and so on – have clung to his image, perhaps excessively. Not that he has truly mellowed. “I was not more radical than I am now,” he says, “but I was, I suppose, more frank. Now I see that sometimes you have to be less direct – and more effective. But when things are wrong, insufficient, or not exactly the way it should be, then you have to tell it. I did tell it, sometimes with paradox or provocation. I did not stay at this point, but people think generally of me as a man of 1950, not of today – and I have to accept that.” His attitude is much as ever: “Something unpleasant exists: simply that. And you cannot just stay in front of it without doing anything.”

Among Boulez’s more prophetic demands was an upheaval in traditional concert environments and formats. Four or five decades ago, the world was not ready to listen. Today, though, the increasing popularity of ‘classical club nights’ – spearheaded by, for example, Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei) in London, Le Poisson Rouge in New York, and a series at the Lucerne Festival – echoes Boulez’s call for informal, communicative atmospheres between audience and performers. Still, he smiles when I mention a recent performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in a south London car park. 

“It has a double meaning,” he suggests. “It can be important, or it can be just a fashion moment. But I prefer a ‘fashion moment’ to doing nothing. Recently the New York Philharmonic has done, with concerts in the Armory, what I tried to do as its music director in the Seventies. I was not successful because the time was not right.” 

In June the orchestra gave a performance in this unconventional venue on Park Avenue, including music by Boulez himself. It sold out and is streamed on the Internet until 2 October. He keeps dreaming: “Today people like to change the relationship between the sound and themselves. You could bring in improvised elements involving people’s reactions to the sound, like a fountain of music: sometimes good, sometimes not, but always with the freedom of creating.”

He is still composing, too. Currently he is trying to finish his Notations – 12 pieces for piano, some dating back to 1945, which he has been reworking for orchestra. Rumour has it that he would like to write an opera. It’s true, he says, but his plans were always beset by bad luck: intended collaborations with Jean Genet and Heiner Müller were each cut short by the author’s death. He would love to adapt Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “The great novelty of Wagner,” says Boulez, “is that of creating a myth – the myth of Wotan, the myth of Siegmund – and finally the story becomes less important than the myth itself.” Wotan in The Ring is very real in dramatic terms, but in the Beckett, the myth is Godot, who never appears: “You find yourself questioning the myth, but you cannot discuss its qualities because there is nothing there! Therefore I was interested.” 

Can we keep hoping he will tackle it – or would we be Waiting for Boulez? “If you can give me an elixir of long life,” Boulez twinkles. Still, I wouldn’t put it past him. This is a man who changed the world. Given a chance, he will not stop now. 

Pierre Boulez gives a week of masterclasses at the Lucerne Festival from 1 September and conducts the Academy Orchestra on 7 September.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bonjour, Maestro...

This summer, this man's music changed my life. Just been to Lucerne to see him. I haven't much to add to this photo other than: watch this space.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Once more unto the Boulez, dear friends...

Here's my review for The Independent of last night's Prom: Barenboim & the WEDO again, and they're just getting better and better. As is the Boulez.

And a little more of my interview with the violinist Michael Barenboim is up now at Sinifini Music. He must have nerves of steel to hold that stage alone - it was quite a tour de force.

This Prom is being televised on Friday at 7.30pm on BBC4 - at which point Barenboim & co will probably still be in full swing with the Ninth inside the hall, a short concert with an early start so that we can all get home to watch the Olympic opening ceremony. Some of us might find the WEDO a bit more interesting than 70 sheep in a stadium, but... hey ho.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Guess who I fell in love with yesterday?

Yes, it's Pierre Boulez. Hearing his Derive 2 at the Barenboim/WEDO Prom somehow resembled discovering a new deep-sea creature that cast radical new light on all our assumptions of what marine life really is. I was riveted from start to finish. Its weaving of countless ideas, its progression of entirely aural and nonspecific narrative, its amazing colours (what a collection of instruments!), all conspire to challenge one's ideas of what music is, what it means and how we listen to it.

I'm holding the fort, more or less, with the Indy's classical reviews this week - Michael and Ed are both on their travels. Here's my write-up of last night.

Obviously not everyone is going to agree about the Boulez, which is as long as, or longer than, a big romantic symphony and requires a heap of concentration. So, for a way in, try reading Tom Service's brilliant introduction to the man and his music; and then catch the concert on the BBC iPlayer (UK only) here.

[photo by Clive Barda]

Monday, March 26, 2012

How to conduct Boulez

Happy 87th Birthday, Pierre Boulez! Above, at the Lucerne Festival, the great composer-conductor helps budding maestros get to grips with his Eclat.

Unfortunately Boulez has had to withdraw from his planned appearances in London on 29 April and 8 May with the LSO - apparently he has an eye condition. Peter Eötvös will step into the breach. We wish Monsieur Boulez the speediest possible recovery.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

A writer's life...

It's an extraordinary, hot, sunny Sunday and it seems everyone wants to go and play outside - but for the few doughty souls (seen the ticket availability?) who are attending the Boulez marathon, plus those of us who have deadlines to meet, aided and abetted by our furry friends. For the latter, both writers and felines, here's some light but very true entertainment from Simon's Cat, which oddly captures my morning so far.