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Pierre Boulez

Friday evening In Sanders Theatre

By Joel E. Cohen

Pierre Boulez' best-known work, Le Marteau sans Maitre (Hammer Without a Master), was first performed for a public of more than musical specialists at the 1955 festival in Aix-en-Provence. The critics from the newspapers of Marseille who had come up for the festival reviewed the work. In Rencontres avec Pierre Boulez, Antoine Golea remarks that the critics were "very prudent, as if walking on tip-toes." Probably much of the audience at Friday evening's concert of music by Boulez, Horatio Appleton Lamb Lecturer 1962-63, would have understood their prudence; for whether one reacts initially with enthusiasm or horror, he knows that, after one hearing or a dozen, he has heard only a tiny fraction of what Boulez' music says. To evaluate a poem is difficult if it is written in a strange tongue.

Boulez' is a consciously strange tongue. In the first concerts of modern music after the Liberation from the Nazis, Boulez, then a 20 year old student, led a riot of students "to protest the neo-classical works of Stravinsky." In 1960, at a symposium on "Where is True Tradition?" Boulez proclaimed, "For me there is no tradition. That is a word of the theoreticians of music... The work is the important thing. The past takes on a new face after a work. I make tradition; I do not have tradition behind me..."

Learning the grammar of Boulez' music is a first step to understanding his language. The grammar has a metaphysic: it will be rational. "One system is no better than another," Boulez says. "Our Occidental tradition is no better than the Oriental or Arabic. To me, every system is good if it is consistent. The composer has a theory, from which he composes works, and when the works are consistent and in agreement with the theory, it's a good system and everthing is in order."

The grammar of Boulez' works is serialization. From the compositions of Schoenberg, Boulez took the technique of serializing notes (technically, "areas of pitch"). There are 12 notes in an octave; to oversimplify, the composer arranges the 12 notes in time, that is, selects a series, and builds an entire composition from this series. The series may be played forward in time, backward in time, upside down in pitch, and upside down and backward. By choosing this series, the composer organizes the votes of the entire composition.

But serialization can be carried further. For instance, the given series could be transposed to any one of twelve levels; thus the levels on which the series appears can in turn be serialized. Instruments play varying levels of loudness and softness, and at varying speeds; thus and tempi can be serialized. Instruments have varying timbres, and combinations of instruments vary in texture and density; the composer can serialize these, too.

In short, the composer decides what variables in the music be will serialize, selects series, and then follows the rules he has given himself; to complete the work, he arranges the unserialized variables. The composer in no way abandons his freedom through this procedure, just as a mathematician who axiomatizes a theory in no way loses the ability to invent theorems.

But listening to music as thoroughly organized as, may, Le Marteau sans Maitre, one does not hear the grammar. Commenting in Die Reihe on another work of Boulez, Gyorgy Ligeti observes: "Seen at close quarters, it is the factor of determinism, regularity, that stands out; but seen from a distance, the structure, being the result of many separate regularities, is seen to be something variable and chancy, comparable to the way the network of neon lights flashes on and off in main street; the individual lamps are indeed exactly controlled by a mechanism, but as the separate lights flash on and off, they combine to form a statistical complex."

It was at this macroscopic level that the audience was equipped to hear Boulez Friday night: even the professors of music brought or borrowed scores and pored over them, while Boulez himself sat behind the reserved section looking on. And, short of a 40 page analysis with tables and charts, one can only describe the three works on the program macroscopically, phenomenologically.

The opening Sonatina for Flute and Piano (1946) was, in Boulez' words, "my first stage on the path of serial composition." Boulez likened the four sections which follow the introduction of this single-movement work to the four movements of the sonata. At the same time, he says, there is an opposition between quasi-thematic motifs derived from the fundamental series of the work, and athematic uses of rhythmic cells, i.e., short rhythmic groups.

In sound, the Sonatina was closest to the previous musical experience of listeners. The use of recognizable melodic motifs, and occasional rhythmic stability, gave it the clearest coherence of the three works. Even after hearing the Sonatina repeatedly on records, it is impossible to say whether the performance was good or bad; one lacks a stylistic frame of reference. Only Charles Wuorinen, piano, Harvey Sollberger, flute, and Pierre Boulez can tell.

With increasing serialization, indications for the performer have become more and more exact, more and more demanding; they reached the point that the performer could no longer fulfill them, and had to decide for himself how to interpret the work. Thus, if the composer is not to step from total control to no control, he must make the performer a partner in the creation of the sounds. At the same time, Ligeti has suggested, the breakdown of the tonality which required playing in one direction (forward) only, has created forms that can be passed through in several directions in time. As a result, Ligeti says, in the Third Piano Sonata, performed by Leonard Stein, Boulez makes "the interpreter the chauffeur, who can drive in any one of a number of directions along the routes planned by the composer and signposted in advance." In its initial form (Boulez always leaves himself the option of modifying his works), the sonata consists of five segments or "formants" which can be played in various orders.

The longest, Constellation, which lasts twelve and a half minutes, must come in the middle. The score of this format consists of groups of notes on long unfolding sheets. To make it easier for the performer to observe the different techniques of performance which Boulez requires for various constellations, the text is printed in red and green. The sound oscillates regularly in register and density, and Boulez seems to try to get every possible sonority out of the piano, like Debussy extrapolated fifty years into the future.

The first format Antiphonie contains pairs of lines which can be interchanged, while the Trope is built of obbligato groups which can be variously permuted with each other, and of other groups which can be played or not as the performer pleases.

Having said all this still does not reveal what the music was like; indeed, to one who has heard the music, describing it is redundant. Yet this least programmatic of music suggests images: less the constant motion of neon lights than the silences and quick thrusts of Karate, the openness and jaggedness of a sculpture of welded scrap.

As the second half of the program, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Arthur Weisberg, performed Le Marteau sans Maitre (1955). The title and conception of the work derive from a set of poems of the same name published in 1934 by Rene Char. The poems are cruel, surrealistic visions of the war Char anticipated, and it is unfortunate that the program included none of them. An example (in translation):

Furious Craftsmanship

With the red clot at the rim of the nail

And the corpse in the basket

And plowing horses in harness

I dream with my head at the point of my Peruvian knife

In the nine movements of Le Marteau, Boulez presents three poems through the voice (Bethany Beardslee) and comments on them instrumentally. In each of the nine movements, Boulez uses a different ensemble chosen from the voice, alto flute (Harvey Sollberger), viola (Jacob Glick), guitar (Stanley Silverman), vibraphone (Paul Price), xylophone (Raymond Desroches), and percussion (Max Neuhaus). The texture of the sound is always clear, sometimes shimmering, sometimes punctiform, and always changing. With the flexibility of tempi and timbre goes an obvious fixity of notes and rhythmic patterns; certain intervals and rhythmic groupings recur constantly. And with all this planning, with all this studied freedom, the work still justifies a non-rational evaluation: it is dramatic, and worth hearing.

Producing Friday's concert must have required substantial labors of both Mr. Boulez and the Department of Music. By the end of the evening, the audience in Sanders appeared grateful. The Department should present more such concerts of new music, by Mr. Boulez and others, with artists of equal caliber. Musical education proceeds best through the ear.

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