Missionary for the Modern: A Q&A with Pierre Boulez

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By Bradley Bambarger <1998>

Pierre Boulez has gone from enfant terrible to elder statesman over the course of his five decades as composer, conductor and deep thinker about music. Yet even though some of the polemical zeal of youth has been tempered with time, he still relishes his role as missionary for the modern. For CBS/Sony, Erato and, for nearly the past two decades, Deutsche Grammophon, Boulez has created a peerless Baedeker to the sound of the 20th century, covering precursors Wagner and Mahler; and on to Schoenberg, Berg and Webern; Stravinsky and Bartók; Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen; Ligeti, Birtwistle and, of course, Boulez.

Boulez’s DG recordings with such groups as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Ensemble InterContemporain of Paris have only bolstered a reputation that began with his founding of the pioneering contemporary music concert series Domaine Musical in mid-’50s Paris and the composition of such major works as Le Visage Nuptial and Pli Selon Pli. Following years at the head of both the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Boulez returned to his native France in 1977 to direct the Institute de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) and its resident Ensemble InterContemporain.

Currently president of Ensemble InterContemporain and principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony, Boulez is renowned on both sides of the Atlantic as the sagest of musicians, able to make the densest scores come alive with crystalline clarity. Boulez made his first album for Deutsche Grammophon with Wagner’s Parsifal, recorded live in 1970 at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival, and he recorded the first complete version of Berg’s opera Lulu for DG in 1979. An exclusive DG artist since 1989, Boulez conducted an acclaimed Welsh National Opera production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande that has become a contemporary classic on video. His 1993 recording of Bartók’s Wooden Prince and Cantata Profana justly won four Grammy Awards. And in 1995, his 70th birthday year, Gramophone magazine named Boulez its Artist of the Year.

Boulez’s most recently issued recordings include Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle and a remarkable take on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with soprano Christine Schäfer. A long-awaited recording of Boulez’s Répons is due early in 1999 in DG’s new 20/21 contemporary music series.

BB: In a recent New York Review of Books essay, the scholar and pianist Charles Rosen described you as a veritable “public institution.” Do you feel like an institution?

PIERRE BOULEZ: No, no. I don’t feel at all like that. To me, a “public institution” implies that you no longer move. And I still feel a certain mobility.

BB: To forge a bond between artist and audience, do you feel that recordings have a special role in classical music, particularly with more modern repertoire?

PB: Recordings are, to me, absolutely indispensable. First, not everyone lives in a large city where they can see music performed regularly. So just as compensation for these people, recordings are necessary. Second, recordings enable people to become familiar with the music. And familiarity is necessary to understanding, particularly with new music. The only danger in recordings is that if someone listens to, say, a Brahms symphony and thinks that is the symphony.

In this way, recordings are proof that there is no such thing as “authenticity” in performance. Recordings can only offer a document of the style in a certain period. Performances are so influenced by the time in which they are made, and with distance, you can see the mannerisms ever more clearly, as when you look at an old photograph and see the old style of mustache or necktie. If you listen to the old recordings of Beethoven, for instance, you hear Wagnerized Beethoven. That was the period: Wagner was so influential that he gave this color to interpretations of Beethoven. Now with research into authenticity, people feel that Beethoven should be performed more like Haydn. I am sure that in 50 years this vision will likewise be thought of as a curiosity, if not deadly wrong.

BB: So it is still necessary for someone else to record Debussy’s La Mer — even though you and many others have done it so well?

PB: Yes, I think so. With the discovery of old tapes, there was this trend in France, you know: “Ah, when Furtwängler played the Fourth of Brahms in Berlin on the 10th of April 1942, now that was the performance of Brahms’ Fourth.” Well, I’m sure it was a very good performance, but you cannot say that it was the performance, because a performance is something transient. I am of the generation that has a certain view of Debussy, but I am sure that younger conductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen and Simon Rattle have a different view. They are of a different time, a different culture. And their recordings help reinforce the fact that no one recording can be the true La Mer.

Even as a composer, I only trust myself as a performer to a certain extent. If someone is able to spend more time with one of my scores than I am, then they will do better. They will be more free. I am able to have this view with Stockhausen, Berio and Ligeti. But with my own works, I have less distance — that distance from the head to the arm that aids performance.

BB: Many people thought they would never see the day when Boulez would record Mahler. How does Mahler figure into your recording program with Deutsche Grammophon?

PB: I wanted to record a kind of survey of 20th-century music, and for me, Mahler is the root of the Second Viennese School, to which I have strong ties. But I came to Mahler late. There was no Mahler performed in Paris until many years after the war. Not until 1958 when I lived in Germany did I hear the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. But getting to know Mahler for me has been discovering the missing link between Wagner and Schoenberg. And now I understand much better Alban Berg, who absorbed so much Mahler. Also, I’ve found that, ironically, the most emotional composers, like Mahler and Wagner, are the most fantastic architects. The balance of large-scale structure and the emotional world that is brought forth from that is what draws me to both the operas of Wagner and the symphonies of Mahler.

BB: What does Deutsche Grammophon stand for after 100 years, do you think? What does that yellow cartouche imply?

PB: For me, the name Deutsche Grammophon stands for what it always has, and that is the quality of the recording. Also, the name implies a certain artistic will. For instance, my ability to create an encyclopedia of 20th-century music, however modest, is not common. This requires an artistic will that I find in Deutsche Grammophon.

BB: Do you have any DG recordings of which you are most proud?

PB: I am not at all narcissistic in that way. I might listen to one of my recordings once or twice. But I also don’t look at old photo albums. I prefer to think of the future. I would like to record all the concerto literature of Bartók, for example. I am recording Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto and Two Rhapsodies with Gil Shaham in Chicago, and I would also like to record the three piano concertos. And I am recording Das Lied von der Erde with the Vienna Philharmonic, but I would also very much like to record the orchestral lieder of Mahler. There are also some of my own works I would like to record. I am writing a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter, but even though I know she is in a rush, there are two other pieces I must finish first. I am completing Notations, as well as a piece for three pianos, three harps and three percussion keyboards titled Sur Incises.

BB: In 1983, you wrote an article in dialogue with philosopher Michel Foucault that spoke to the public’s relative disconnection to contemporary music. What has changed in 15 years?

PB: Nothing has changed, nothing. With Foucault, he was upset and surprised that although his students had a highly cultured knowledge of philosophy and other subjects, music was practically non-existent for them. They were just listening to some vague rock’n’roll, and that’s it. But I don’t think it was, or is, the fault of the students. If musical culture would be instilled in them from a very young age, there would not be this gap. People, often the highest politicians, say, “Ah, music is for the elite.” But that isn’t true. It is basic education. In the Cité de la Musique that I helped found in Paris, I am pleading for the building of a media center with many recordings, video, connections to the Internet, connections to the museums of music and of science. I believe artistic culture brings with it more general intelligence and curiosity. It has social consequences.

BB: How vital is it that composers themselves interact with the public, that they write for an audience?

PB: Well, in many ways, I’ve devoted my life to this. IRCAM is a center for research, but the pieces commissioned by IRCAM are performed by Ensemble InterContemporain. We established a regular series of concerts to expose people to the work. With the Ensemble, such pieces as Ligeti’s Piano Concerto are part of our repertoire; we’ve performed it 20 or 30 times all over. It is the same with some pieces of mine, such as Le Marteau Sans Maître or Répons. This notion of contemporary repertoire is very important, so that it becomes familiar: As Berg said, you must play the classic as if it were modern, and you must play the modern as if it were classic.

BB: There have been some charges made in the media over the past year that you, Ligeti and other composers of your generation and aesthetic bent have helped drive the general public away from contemporary music. How do you answer that?

PB: Well, such people always speak in the vague. I will speak concretely. Recently, I gave some concerts in London of exclusively 20th-century music, including an homage to Elliott Carter. And in Chicago, we performed Mahler’s First Symphony and then Carter’s Clarinet Concerto; people stayed for the Carter, and they seemed very pleased with the piece. We performed Stockhausen’s Gruppen in Paris and Brussels, and all the concerts were full. We had a Ligeti festival in Paris and Salzburg with his opera The Grand Macabre, and the performances were completely packed. So, I don’t know what these people mean when they say contemporary music has no audience.

BB: Do you think art and commerce are reconcilable to a degree?

PB: Of course, “success” isn’t the goal of everything, although being so experimental that you lose lots of money isn’t the purpose either. But not being daring at all will not make you money in the long run, and of that I am certain. In my concert programs, I don’t want to make things difficult for the sake of being difficult, but I do try to attract people by offering something rare: a sense of adventure. Really, I am an optimist, albeit a realistic one. Progress may seem slow, yet I never give up. I am very obstinate in that way.

(Originally published in a special section devoted to the centennial of Deutsche Grammophon in the Dec. 19, 1998 issue of Billboard magazine. Pierre Boulez died in 2016 at age 90.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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