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Thread: Review: Pierre Boulez - Répons

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    Default Review: Pierre Boulez - Répons

    Pierre Boulez - Répons (1984)

    Note: To avoid “spoilers,” I wholeheartedly recommend listening to the piece before reading this article. Music is best when it is fresh and surprising, and I believe you should experience it for yourself before hearing it through the ears of another.

    I could start out by writing a big biography of Boulez (BBB), but I won’t. Boulez is such a towering figure in 20th/21st century music, both as a composer and as a conductor, that there’s nothing I could tell you that you can’t find out for yourself elsewhere. Though he has composed some of the most important works of the post-WWII era, he is best known to classical music listeners as a 26 time Grammy award-winning conductor, with hundreds of recordings of works by modern and contemporary masters from Mahler and Schoenberg to Ligeti and Stockhausen, and for bringing the musical developments and triumphs of the 20th century to wider attention and fame that it otherwise would have had. His work with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra, in addition to many others, has brought modern music almost to the mainstream, though at the age of 90 he remains annoyed at the slowness of a supposedly “fast” era which loves progress and advancement to acknowledge and accept the new paths in composition he and others have explored.

    Répons, though it uses a tone row, was written well past Boulez’s hardcore serialist phase, and almost looks backwards in form as it is presented as an updated concerto grosso. The concerto grosso is a form developed in the Baroque period which consists of a concertino (Italian for “little ensemble”) and a ripieno (It. “filling”). Though the traditional form is essentially defunct now, it has been updated many times, often appearing under names like “triple concerto” (Beethoven, Brahms) or “sinfonia concertante” (Mozart, Haydn) in the Classical and Romantic periods, and in the 20th century was famously revived by Schnittke, who combined the traditional Baroque elements with Modernist compositional techniques and instruments such as electric guitar. Boulez’s take on the form is more in line with the former, adapting the basic idea to his immediate musical environs and effectively ignoring its history, avoiding use of the name and of the Baroque trappings associated therewith.

    The opening of the piece is highly reminiscent of Messiaen, Boulez’s most important teacher and mentor, in its rhythmic and harmonic content, and especially Messiaen’s groundbreaking piece Chronochromie (1960). It soon breaks out into a lovely agitato full of absolutely gorgeous figures in the winds. Here there are some clear influences on Zappa’s late period orchestra works, featured on The Yellow Shark, especially parts of Pentagon Afternoon and Times Beach II. This highly energetic movement dies down and the concertino is at last introduced in a dazzling flurry of pitched percussion and live electronics.

    To get a sense of what is meant by “live electronics,” I’ll break from the piece proper for a moment to talk about some of the developments which precede it. Varèse, in the 1930s, wrote Ecuatorial, which combines acoustic instruments with theremins (later Ondes Martenot), then, in the 1950s, he combined orchestra with musique concrète, electronic collage music pre-constructed and played back via tape, in his late masterwork Déserts. These were important developments, although ─ due to Varèse’s obscurity ─ they were not widely felt among the music world. However, some were listening, and composers like Cage and Stockhausen were keen to take a look at further developing the interrelation of the acoustic and the electric, and, especially in the case of the latter, the electronic. While Cage dabbled purely with amplification in his Cartridge Music (1960), Stockhausen in the 1960s and ‘70s was among the first composers to seamlessly blend the two, and even more impressively to modify the signal input in a live setting and create with it an output that was distinctly electronic in nature. It has since proliferated into myriad forms, a discussion of which falls some way outside the purview of this article.

    So here is Boulez, using live electronics in his Répons, which is French for “responsorial,” referring very specifically to the electronic response to the acoustic input. It is a work of transitions of information between two layers of technology, mechanical and digital, resting on a bed of yet more layers of sound. The piece is, for me, at least, very easy listening due to the seamlessness and softness of its sound. It is, like the micropolyphony of Ligeti, a music which operates as an atmosphere more than a progression of clear-cut ideas, material developments, and sections, yet Boulez’s flair for the dramatic and his penchant for gesture offer up tantalising contradictions that make it more than one or the other. The music is very fluid, timbrally rich and sensuous, a big comfy sonic bed, but certainly not the saccharine and platitudinous Classic FM repertoire one might associate with such imagery. Its ability to fuse this with moments of great tension is striking, and the piece never once becomes dull.

    A section in the middle of the piece, sparse and “cadenzamente”*, is one of few moments in which Boulez seems to take breathing space, delighting in the slow decay of the instruments in his concertino and almost to break from, subtracting the aural sea which otherwise carries the music. As the larger structure of Répons becomes apparent, we will see that this is not the case, but for now it is one of the most surprising moments of the piece, as the electronics are laid bare. To the ears of the present day listener, a certain datedness of sound will be apparent, after all, the technology has advanced so much since then that this is positively primitive, but this is a superficial concern which one must get beyond to access the greater depths of the music and the rich rewards it offers to those who do so.

    The second half of the piece recalls at first the opening agitato, not in material but in mood, but, as one might expect, goes further, becoming brash and intense, fiery. But it is the sheer layeredness of Boulez’s orchestration which captures my attention most even here. Boulez is a composer and a conductor, and like with Mahler, who was also best known as a conductor in his own lifetime, the composer’s intimate understanding of the orchestra and orchestration is apparent in every bar, is indeed exploited to the fullest extent, sparing no expense in the creation of this deep, dense, and rich sound-world. Yet for all its internal logic and atmospheric continuity, it does not let up any in the department of surprise. Consider for a moment that, in the final quarter of its duration, Répons returns to Messiaen, but contrasts it in a most fascinating matter with something almost approaching jazz. Of course, this is just how my ears pick it up, and at no point should you confuse my interpretation with a representation of the composer’s intent, which rightfully belongs to Boulez and Boulez alone. But why is this interesting, you ask? It may be little more than an in-joke for all my belabouring of the point, but Messiaen was known to not be fond of jazz, so to hear what I think of as Boulezian facsimiles of both side by side is something which makes a nerd like myself cackle internally.

    As we reach the finale, I’m going to disgrace myself and indulge in shameless poetics. The last “cadenzamente” (yep, still using it) has both an insistence to its rhythms and an odd sparsity which, taken together, have a great sense of finality about them. The piece slows down, breaking up into fragments sporadically thrown out over a surprisingly simple and rigid meter, it almost sounds like a child’s music box fed into an algorithmic processing machine and spat back out through loudspeakers, coming to rest ultimately like distant bells ringing out across vast fields.

    Répons is, for me, one of Boulez’s towering works like Le marteau sans maître (1955), Rituel (1975), and the Notations for orchestra (1978, rev. 1999), and offers a great introduction to his post-serialist musical sensibilities, but it should also be noted that, like any of his pieces, it stands alone, as Boulez’s body of work consists not of one linear progression from the old to the new but of many distinctive and individual pieces which constantly unveil new facets of his musical thinking. Hopefully, between listening to Répons and reading this piece (and, I hope, in that order) you are interested in continuing to explore the work of this paradoxically famous yet forgotten master, who is surely among the most vital and fascinating composers of our time.

    *My horrible attempt to restyle the Italian “come una cadenza” (“like a cadenza”) into a single word
    Last edited by Crudblud; Dec-12-2015 at 00:51.

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