A few hours before I started to write this post, the death of Pierre Boulez made the headlines. A controversial person, if I trust my Twitter timeline. Was he the chief representative of contemporary classical music? Of French contemporary classical music? A polemic person and a conductor with too much political influence? As a matter of fact, I am not sure that these questions matter. Music matters.
Composer and conductor
A 123 days have gone by since. Boulez is one of those figures that keep intriguing me. I was aware that Boulez was a demanding conductor, but initially I did not know him as a composer. I realized this when a friend of mine complained that she had to study a piano score written by Boulez. The prospect of decrypting that score did not exactly make her happy. A few months later I got stuck at an airport in South America and read by chance an interview with Boulez. I contacted my friend at once and asked for guidance. What piece should I know?
A fast Wifi connection let me download “Le Marteau sans maître” (The Hammer Without Master) on the spot. Written by Boulez, conducted by Boulez and performed by the Ensemble InterContemporain, founded by Boulez. Boulez3, if you like. Since I had plenty of time to kill, I listened to that piece several times. Dissonance? Sure. Seemingly arbitrary notes? Oh, yes. Chaos? Oh, no! It all makes sense… after some time and after a small intellectual effort. That’s the trouble with some of the contemporary classical compositions: They appeal more to the brain than to the heart!
“Le Marteau sans maître”, written between 1953 and 1955, is based on texts by the French surrealist poet René Char. The piece is a set of nine pieces for voice and instruments, not unlike Sir Birtwistle’s song cycle “Bogenstrich”. The vocal parts are partly sung, partly spoken. The instrumental parts are performed by a small ensemble composed of a flute, a viola, a guitar, a vibraphone and percussion.
Apparently Boulez was unwilling or unable to explain the structure underlying his composition. That’s why I am not going to try to second-guess the composer. The music speaks for itself. And either it speaks to you – your brain or your heart – or it doesn’t. I wouldn’t say I like the piece. But I find it very, very interesting!
Maths, music and physics
Boulez was born in 1925. He was excelling in music, physics and maths. He studied music during World War II at the Conservatoire de Paris, and became a student of Olivier Messiaen after the war. His musical style was a development of serialism*, a composition technique championed by the German composer Arnold Schönberg and later by Messiaen.
Paul Griffiths, the biographer for Oxford Music Online, explains that in piano works from the years 1951/52, “Boulez achieved a definitive conjunction of the methods of his predecessors, creating and transcending a ‘total serial’ style in which every musical aspect—pitch, duration, loudness, and attack—is organized according to serial rules.” He founded a new musical language and “Le Marteau sans Maître” is the first and best known composition of Boulez expressed in that new language.
© Charles Thibo