The Age of Boulez
Pierre Boulez and the Intermedial Artwork
Nieuw Ensemble, director Ed Spanjaard (1994)
Allegri Films, Directed by Frank Scheffer
Text Anne Ozorio
Sur Incises and Eclat [Amazon web-publication to this production]
This is another release in the Allegri Films Juxapositions series. Excellent as are they all, this one stands out because in it Pierre Boulez talks in great depth about two of his major works, Eclat and Sur Incises. It is an amazing opportunity to hear what a composer says about his work, and how it can be realised in performance. It is an essential guide for all who want to understand how his music works “from within”. By understanding a piece, Boulez says, a performer can create a personal response, rather than merely imitate what has gone before.
Sur Incises started as a test piece for piano virtuosi. This was the “seed” which developed into a piece for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists. Its first figure is a “musical slap, a sharp, quick note replicated repeatedly in different intervals and colourations”. Watching him conduct, close-up and in detail, is an education; not one muscle movement wasted, everything precise. He describes how the sounds become a “kaleidoscope”, the shapes shifting and rearranging endlessly in different patterns as they zigzag from instrument to instrument. Brilliantly, the film then uses kaleidoscopic images to illustrate, moving in time to the music. It’s extremely vivid. As Boulez says, the music has “emotional trajectory”, a sense of continuously moving forward. It is “a toccata of perpetual motion”. There is movement between the three groups of instruments as well as between individual instruments in the group. The film splits into nine smaller screens, showing each of the nine instruments interacting. Longer shots follow the more complex figurations, such as certain difficult passages on the piano, thoughtfully shown together with the notation on the score, showing how the fingering translates them into sound.
The music then goes through a transition, which Boulez said was inspired by holidays he took in the Caribbean in his youth. When Boulez described the island, the camera caught the reaction of a group of young students in the audience. Evidently one of them came from one of those places, for they all beamed with joy and recognition. It was a very human touch, the film-makers reminding us that music is there for an audience, and reaches out to all. Then came the passage in which steel drums join the timpani; metal versus skin, soft versus hard. Then the music progresses, reprising the “slap” and the “Pavlov reflex” figures, developing them yet further. Traditional classical music accepts an architecture which a composer “fills in”, says Boulez. In modern music, a composer creates the “architecture”. And so we reach the end “that falls apart”, the open-ended ending. He shows that, when he drops his arm suddenly to his sides, the players carry on developing the music unconducted. Delighted, he heard each player playing the same notes but in different orders, a natural outgrowth from what they had been playing before, but this time, on their own. The lesson is followed by a performance which means all the more having just heard Boulez speak about it. It’s beautifully played, for the musicians are his own Ensemble Intercontemporain.
The second film, made in 1994, focuses on how a conductor, Ed Spanjaard rehearses a performance with the Nieuw Ensemble. Eclat is a tricky piece because it “bursts out” of the written score, allowing the musicians to improvise and develop its themes. It is another example of the open-ended nature of new music, even though such ideas have existed in the distant past and in non-western music. Boulez and Spanjaard talk about interpretation, elucidating the complex interrelationship between the 15 instruments by diagram. It shows the formal framework of the piece on which the free improvisation will grow. The film develops in a lovely, informal way, showing the players walking to rehearsal through busy streets, and the glances of passers-by as they look into the glass-walled rehearsal room. It gives the music a “human” dimension, relating what is happening in the studio to the real life world of musicians and audiences. As the rehearsal goes on, it is interspersed with shots of Boulez talking about his techniques. It adds to the sense that this music is in development all the time, living and growing with performance. Boulez likened his dense musical textures to paintings by Paul Klee which he saw in New York in the late 1940s. Klee built up the backgrounds of his paintings meticulously, with layer after layer of colour. Only later did he add definite shapes and lines. What you see, says Boulez, “is different levels of perception”. It is that exploration of ways of listening and expression that makes music have “content” rather than mere “gesture”. In listening, says Boulez, the listener discovers himself. Great works like those of Beethoven and Schoenberg pose questions, on which the listener is obliged to ponder, and think for himself.