pierre boulez, pli selon pli, and me (part one)

The link below is to a video of pli selon pli: Pierre Boulez conducting the EIC and Lucerne Festival Academy with Barbara Hannigan, soprano on September 27, 2011 at the Salle Pleyel. The performance will be available on the web through Dec. 27, 2011.


     Incredible: to see and hear this concert in a beautifully filmed performance, two days after it was give on the other side of the planet. When I think of how hard it used to be, tracking down obscure recordings of Boulez’s music, some released only in Europe! Taping things off the radio, trying to, sort of, “translate” French interviews with Boulez I’d find in the music library at the University of Washington. Laboriously xeroxing scores from that same library, which were checked out on some older friend’s card. For twenty-five years I’ve been obsessed with Boulez – obsessed! Not uncritically mind you – at times the obsession was ruthlessly critical, ferocious. But he was always, always on my mind, as I swung back and forth between infatuation and disappointment, imitation and exasperation. 

     And now here it is, 2011, and the fight is over for Boulez and I. He is 86, and has now performed and recorded his works countless times. Pli Selon Pli will no longer be withdrawn and revised, as it was countless times between the early sixties and the late eighties. The performance linked to above is thought to be the last time he will conduct this piece. I no longer have to try to imagine what obscure pieces like, say, Cummings ist der Dichter or the withdrawn Po├ęsie pour Pouvoir sound like – numerous recordings and even pdf scores are passed around the web like so many funny cat videos.

     The first recording I heard of Pli Selon Pli was the Columbia LP, checked out of the Seattle Public Library when I was probably still in high school. Whatever was the most intense, most complex music, that’s what I wanted to hear. I now see this predilection on my part was a direct continuation of the intensity and passion that bands like The Who, the Clash, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin had bred in me. I taped that recording of PSP onto cassette, and lived with it for several years.

     I also came to know Notes of an Apprenticeship, the mid-60s collection of Boulez’s essays (translated into English), also from the library. That too made a huge impression on me. Boulez, far from being the paragon of complexity he was usually made out to be, presented an aesthetic world that was refreshingly simple: “anyone who hasn’t experienced the necessity of the serial language is useless.” 

     Boulez was so punk, so brutal, so rigorous, so exacting. I loved the attitude, and that led me into the music. By this time there were plenty of people – particularly on the West Coast? –  who talked about how oppressive and exclusive they found this music, how offensive. Gerard Schwarz, the conductor of the Seattle Symphony, championed neo-Romantics like Andrej Panufnik and Stephen Albert. Some teachers at Cornish, where I studied music, were in the throes of rebellion from the academic music departments they had come up in. I thought these people were wimps

     One of the wonderful things about Cornish College was its legacy of percussion music – it was there that John Cage “invented” the prepared piano, because he couldn’t fit a percussion ensemble into the pit of the auditorium for a dance performance. The supernaturally gifted percussionist Matthew Kocmieroski led the percussion ensemble at Cornish in the years I was there, and non-percussionists like myself could join. Amazing as it seems to me now, we actually performed the second movement of PSP, Improvisation sur Mallarme No. 1, in its original version for soprano, piano, and eight percussionists. I played a part for three cymbals, I’m sure among the worst interpreters of this part the piece has ever received.

     Student ensembles non-withstanding, I was keenly aware that in Seattle I had no little to no opportunity to experience the avant-garde music I was obsessed with first hand. In 1986 I actually bought a plane ticket to San Francisco to see Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain give a performance of Repons and Dialogue de l’ombre double at the Civic Auditorium. My composition teacher in college, Bun-Ching Lam, who had some affinity for the European avant-garde, had many Bay Area friends and put me in touch with someone on whose couch I could crash.

     Even though the performance was in the evening, I was at the Civic Auditorium in the early afternoon, sniffing around to see I what I could see. Sure enough, an extensive sound check was under way, and it was a simple matter to walk in and sit down. Boulez, Andrew Gerzo, and clarinetist Alain Damians were working on the clarinet and electronics piece Dialogue, and several EIC members were milling about. I struck up a conversation with the friendly French hornist Jens McNamara, who I was surprised to discover was an American. 

     And then the sound check was over, and Boulez was done, and standing near me. 

     “Maestro Boulez, I have travelled 2,000 miles to be hear today.” [Actually I had no idea how many miles it was, I just made that number up; it’s closer to 800.]

     “Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed.” 

     I assured him that I could not be disappointed in my hero Pierre Boulez. We exchanged some small talk – I had read somewhere that he had recorded Berio’s Sinfonia – would that recording ever be available? Yes, he replied, but he had just recorded another piece of Berio’s to fill out the disc. After a few more quite trivial exchanges, I let him go, and watched him walk out of the building and down the block until he was out of site. 

     The concert that evening was fine. Perhaps I was actually was a little disappointed by the constant trills and “frenzy in one place” of Repons, but of course with so much invested in the trip, I could not admit it to myself. But the standout memory of the trip was worth the whole price of admission. During the soundcheck, while Damians played passages from Dialogue into a microphone, and other pre-recorded passages were played back in various speakers around the hall, he played a particular passage that sounded awfully close to: 

first part of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

     Boulez, busy looking over Gerzo’s shoulder, chuckled, looked up at Damians across the large auditorium and sang back to him: 

the conclusion of the phrase.

     This moment is so vivid to me –  a kind of reaching across the centuries that represented everything I wanted from this pilgrimage, from Boulez, and from Classical Music Itself. A connection, a lineage, between the past and the present, and the consoling presence of role models both living and long buried.

     Around 1988 I bought my first Compact Disc, Boulez’s second recording of PSP, on Erato, at Tower Records in Seattle. I owned that CD, and only that CD, for at least two years before I bought an actual CD player (“these things are for rich snobs, they’ll never catch on!”); by that time I had moved to Oakland. In the interim I probably listened to that disc all of three times, mostly at the bookstore where I worked, after closing. (To be continued…)

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