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Master of an empire of perplexities: Pierre Boulez at Ircam in 1983 (© Marion Kalter/Lebrecht Music & Arts)


Pierre Boulez is showing me around his subterranean Ircam labyrinth beside the Pompidou Centre when we come to a locked door marked “private”. “What’s in there?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you,” says the boss, his voice dropping to a whisper.

Ircam, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, was the ransom a president paid to bring Boulez home from self-imposed exile. “President Pompidou asked me outright: would you come back to France? I said: if I return it will not be to conduct an orchestra when I have better opportunities abroad. For the idea of Ircam, though, I would leave everything.”

On the phone to the Elysée, he described an idyll where scientists and composers would work with computers to invent music of the future. Without further detail, Pompidou signed on to the vision, and the cheque.

Was there more here than met my ear? That day, deep beneath the Paris pavements, Boulez whispered that behind the locked door his technical team was developing acoustic warfare devices for the French navy. I asked him to repeat that secret, to make sure I had understood him correctly. He did. I wasn’t sure whether to gulp or to giggle.

Beside me was a leader of the musical avant-garde, a man so dangerous that mothers threatened infants with a blast of Boulez if they didn’t eat their soup, a composer of idées fixes and doctrinaire ideology who, by some twist of French logic, was apparently applying his brain to making weapons for a navy whose only current war was against Greenpeace nuclear saboteurs.

Was Boulez pulling my leg? His face was straight and he was working hard to sell a legend of Ircam’s success, lately the subject of much scepticism. After seven years and millions of francs all Ircam had to show by way of breakthrough was Boulez’s own Répons, a work for orchestra and live electronics. It proved to be a pyrrhic triumph. Over the next 30 years, Boulez composed little of any consequence.

Spending four days with him for the Sunday Times magazine in 1984 — a prelapsarian age when newspapers took an interest in modernism and journalists were given time to research — it was clear to me that most images of Boulez were not just wide of the mark, they were a grotesque distortion. “The Iceman Cometh”, the New York headline that greeted him as music director of the Philharmonic, could not have been further from the physical reality of this warm and witty little man whose joy in human contact appeared limitless. Almost every other Boulez cliché seemed equally half-cocked. This was a musician who gloried in contradictions, Pierre of the multiple paradoxes.

His death, aged 90, at the dawn of this year, closes the modernist era. Never again will composers speak of music of the future as a holy grail. Belief has gone out of the system. The future is a zone of fear, music has lost its goal. So long as he lived, the entire edifice of modern music was predicated on Pierre’s empire of perplexities, where no-one knew what anything meant. The sensitive critic Peter Heyworth would write: “There is no point in pretending that I understand it . . . but it enthrals me.” Such was the Boulez complexity.

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