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The Language of Pierre Boulez

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This week, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents the latest in its series Beyond the Score, celebrating the 90th birthday of one Chicago’s – and the world’s – towering musical figures: the conductor, composer, and agitator Pierre Boulez.

Just about everyone in the classical music world holds Mr. Boulez in the highest esteem, though some might add to that a hint of perplexity. Barbara Jepson in The Wall Street Journal put it this way,”[He is a] pioneering composer of thorny modernist works.” She then argues “Why Pierre Boulez’s Répons Is a Masterpiece.”

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A tech rehearsal for Beyond the Score: A Pierre Dream, c. Cameron Arens

Pierre Boulez’s place as a force in 20th century music is secure. As a conductor, he is loved by audiences. Some in those audiences, however, puzzle at his compositions. Critics have suggested that Boulez’s music is overly intellectual – but don’t say that around Gerard McBurney, creator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score concerts.

Mr. McBurney points to the Brahms Requiem, which has hummable tunes, but is as tightly constructed as a 3-D puzzle. Mr. McBurney would argue that that’s intellectual music. That is not what Boulez’s music is about. Rather, he approaches harmony much like Debussy or Berlioz or Rameau: “It’s seeing harmony as a vertical chord. ‘This is a chord. Listen to this beautiful chord. We will now go up and down this beautiful chord.’ When you hear those chords, you hear he’s chosen them because to him they sound beautiful. And what he does is he then shatters those chords…[He’ll] explode it, change its coloration so that never for one nanosecond does it appear the same…you can’t hear a tune, because there isn’t a tune. He’s making you listen to something else. He’s making you listen to the color of the music. The word that Pierre Boulez uses all the time is that ‘music is about sonority.’”

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Pierre Boulez pictured with Frank Zappa, photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

That’s a different kind of listening than what many concertgoers are trained to expect. According to Mr. McBurney, “One subscriber to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra said to me, ‘a piece of music should be familiar!’ Well Boulez is saying, ‘No! A work of art should be as unfamiliar as it can possibly be. Familiarity is lazy. Familiarity,’ as we say in English, ‘breeds contempt. What a work of art should do is to worry us, muddle us, confuse us.’ That’s a very French attitude. Debussy took that attitude, too. I mean, if you want people who write like labyrinths, take Balzac, the greatest of all French novelists. Everybody gets lost in Balzac.”

 

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Pierre Boulez as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1971-1977)

 

 

These works are not about the author’s or the composer’s personal expression, but about providing a vehicle for the audience to explore and experience the self. Relating the Boulez aesthetic to that of Debussy or Faure, Mr. McBurney points out that, “Deeply in that French tradition is a resistance to the idea that art expresses what is here, now. No…art was always about lifting you into another world, a world of the imagination, a world apart.”

Listen to Gerard McBurney as he describes the musical language of Pierre Boulez:


After World War II, Pierre Boulez had developed a reputation for being a firebrand modernist. As he ascended into the ranks of influential conductors and writers on music, he ruffled feathers making pointed statements about the qualities of prominent composers and whether or not they were worthy successors to the composers of the past. Yet to meet Mr. Boulez at Symphony Center, one might be disarmed by his warm smile and gentle demeanor. Quoting an early Boulez mentor Jean-Louis Barrault, Mr. McBurney said that the young Boulez was, “Full of hope and belief, but as spiky and unpredictable as a kitten…On the one side he had this sense of humor which kept us all laughing, this charm. On the other side, his claws were never sheathed.”

Mr. McBurney sees him as “a titan of energy; he’s a leader; he loves youth; he loves young people being around him; he loves teaching, but he’s also very willing to learn about new things himself. He’s very open to other people.”

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Music stand lights are all hooded in order to reduce ambient light

Pierre Boulez first conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1969, but it was during the tenure of Daniel Barenboim that he became a regular conductor of, and frequent composer on subscription concerts. Today he holds the title of Conductor Emeritus with the Chicago Symphony, and while his health has prevented him from conducting in the last year, continues to be an artistic presence in the creation of innovative programming at Symphony Center. He’s been instrumental in the development of the Beyond the Score concerts, which employ theater, narration, video projections, and musical excerpts played live by the orchestra to deepen the audience’s understanding of a work or composer. Typically, the theater portion happens during the first half of the concert; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays the work intact during the second half.

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The moveable, Frank Gehry-designed screens which will be used for projections during “A Pierre Dream,” c. Noel Morris

The current Beyond the Score offering, “A Pierre Dream,” was titled by a longtime friend of Pierre Boulez, renowned architect Frank Gehry. The show uses Gehry’s own design for moveable surfaces upon which photos, videos, interviews, and manuscripts are projected, all coming from the last 60 years of Mr. Boulez’s career.

For the Beyond the Score shows, Gerard McBurney has forged a partnership with Mike Tutaj, a projection designer who works in theater on both sound and visual images: “My challenge as a projection designer is to make sure that I am supporting a story and supporting a piece of theater, and not just throwing up pictures to show off.” For Mr. Tutaj, using Gehry’s screens opens the show to a much more dramatic presentation: “what makes this interesting and not just a traditional screen is that we have numerous banners that can take different shapes, they interact and we’re seeing them in a way as puppets. They’re maneuvered by actors.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform music by Debussy and Boulez November 12 through 16. The Beyond the Score concert “A Pierre Dream” takes place on Friday and Sunday. Pablo Heras-Casado is the conductor.

 

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