Cleaning The Aural Canals

Pierre Boulez was convinced the world needed to change — and that he was the man to change it

Norman Lebrecht

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.

Take the question of identity. French to the last shimmer of a Debussyan chord, raised under the heel of German occupation, Boulez chose to make his home among Germans in Baden-Baden. He spoke fluent German and English with a self-mocking ’Allo, ’Allo accent. He composed e e cummings ist der dichter as a kind of parody, a Frenchman setting an American poet’s words to a German title.

There is a wilful evasiveness in his titles. Le Marteau sans Maître, his 1955 breach with mathematical serialism, translates as “the masterless hammer” while exercising micro-control of a mezzo voice and six instruments. Éclat, literally “high style”, is substantive, altogether unshowy. Répons evokes the responsorium of his Catholic youth. Boulez rejected all religion; his memorial service was celebrated, nonetheless, in the church of Saint-Sulpice. This is a man who hid behind self-contradictions.

He could, of course, be clinically precise, devastatingly offensive. Composers who denied the historic necessity of Schoenberg-Webern serialism he declared to be “superfluous”. Britten was “bourgeois”, Shostakovich “conservative”. At the New York Philharmonic, he replaced Mozart with Haydn and refused to programme Tchaikovsky.

He called Paris “a provincial town” and said all opera houses should be “blown up”. He likened his rival Hans Werner Henzes to “an oily hairdresser” and dismissed Franco Zeffirelli as “the Henze of opera”. A Beatles record, he said, “is cleverer than an opera of Henze’s, and shorter, too”.

His credo was the inexorable march of progress, the rule that music advanced in a linear evolution from Bach, through Haydn and Beethoven, to Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern and himself. All else was “superficial” or “useless”.

Upon this fundamentalist certainty, he was able to conduct the 1976 centenary Ring at Bayreuth, a cycle of bourgeois operas redeemed by the exactitude of his interpretation and the Spartan asceticism of his symbiotic director, Patrice Chéreau. Reactionary as it was, Boulez harnessed The Ring to his syncretic faith. Aired on BBC television as a 13-part weekly soap opera, the Boulez-Chéreau Ring was a landmark conversion of vicious past into possible future.

The essence of Boulez was an unshakeable self-confidence and an unerring ear that could pick out a false note in a huge orchestra in the thick of an atonal score. I have seen him at Abbey Road stop the London Symphony Orchestra in mid-bar and, with a forgiving wink, ask them to repeat a passage that, to my ears, sounded immaculate. The players called his sessions “a Boulez servicing”, a form of car maintenance. Cleveland and the Los Angeles Philharmonic signed up to similar work-outs.

Among musicians Boulez was a small boy in a playground, sharing in-jokes, revelling in low gossip. There was nothing austere or remote about him. On the contrary, he needed congenial company, craving it perhaps as a substitute for more intimate relationships. Glacially private where the personal was concerned, he shared his home with Hans Messmer, whom he referred to alternately as his “companion” or “valet”. When I once criticised his jacket as being a generation too old for him, he flushed and cried, “But Hans bought it for me!”

He disdained the vanities and vast entourages of regular maestros, getting by with a lone secretary and on public transport. He was always available for a chat, though he could be thin-skinned, taking prolonged offence at published criticisms a lot milder than the ones he hurled at the enemies of his imagined future. The charm, when he turned it on, was irresistible — and he knew it.

His Conservatoire teacher, Olivier Messiaen, was all too well aware that Boulez had dubbed his Turangalîla Symphony “brothel music”; but Boulez made amends by lifelong courtesies to the older man and his wife, Yvonne Loriod, taking her lonely, demented calls far into the night. Intimacy, though, was withheld. Daniel Barenboim, a friend for 52 years, said Boulez only ever used the formal “vous”.

A composer first and last, writing in the tiniest notation an editor could decipher, he began conducting because no one else could make sense of modern music. He never took a class in technique, never used a baton. “At the beginning,” he told me, “it was just a kind of agreement between me and the musicians, starting, finishing and so on.” He took posts with the BBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s because “one cannot forever bark outside like a dog . . . if you persist, it’s a sign of impotence.”

In London and in New York he invited audiences to carpet concerts, where they sat on the stage for hours after the concert and debated the fine points with musicians. In the Soviet Union, which he visited with the BBC in 1966, he demonstrated prohibited sonorities to a new generation of composers, breaching the thick membranes of Communist isolationism.

Later, he signed contracts with record companies and yielded to their persuasion to conduct popular fare; in his eighties he even directed a Mozart piece, on condition it was coupled with Alban Berg. He was a fixture at the Lucerne and Salzburg festivals, watering holes for the detested haute bourgeoisie. His jackets were still off the peg and his sympathies with young firebrands, few as they had become.

For Barenboim he was the perfect paradox, who “felt with his head and thought with his heart”. For the rest of us he was a historic personality, the embodiment of a faith that was fading as he preached it, a false god that would have failed much sooner had Boulez not lived so long.

He assured me that Ircam would vanish when he was gone; it certainly will. So, too, the rest of his empire. Aside from Pli selon pli (1962), Rituel (1975), and some of the works for solo instruments, his music will never find regular outlets. To listen to Boulez is to experience a deep cleaning of the aural canals, an equivalent of an eye test with ever-shrinking lines of text, by no means an unpleasant experience but not one to be repeated very often. In Rituel, his aching tribute to the short-lived Bruno Maderna and his most attractive piece, emotion is tempered at the last by an overwhelming debt to reason. Boulez was temperamentally incapable of letting go. What remains of his revolution is the aura of a man who insisted the world had to change, and that he alone could change it. Probably, he was right. No one today speaks about the future of music, except with a defeatist tone.
Layer upon layer of contradiction, pli selon pli, more than we will ever uncover, Boulez was more a romantic than a rationalist, dreamer more than doer. In my ear, and those of all who spent time with him, his voice will never fade. He was a compelling conversationalist, a virtuoso of mind-to-mind volleyball along a pre-set mental workout. We will not see his like again. And should we haplessly stumble into a naval war with France, let us beware, if not be too afraid, that one of their nuclear Exocets may have Boulez’s minuscule script embedded in its operating system.

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