The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez turns 90. Do you find his music both radical and sensual?

March 29, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Once the enfant terrible of new music, French composer Pierre Boulez (below in 2011 in a photo by Martin Schalk of Getty Images) turned 90 on Thursday.

pierre boulez at 90 (2011) Matin Schalk Getty Images

But now Pierre Boulez is part of the establishment. (You can hear him discuss his approach to music, and how it differs from the 12-tone composers and atonal composers, in a YouTube video at the bottom. Somehow, I find his music more interesting to discuss than to listen to.)

Maybe you were lucky enough to attend the special concert marking the event last Friday night at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. (The Ear was unable to go.) It was organized and hosted by Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill), a French-trained bassoonist who teaches at the UW-Madison and who once worked with Boulez.

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

A lot of musicians live in awe of Boulez, who has been very influential in the development of new music. They include the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini (below top), who championed his work early on, and the American conductor David Robertson (below bottom) who does so today.

Polliniplaying

David Robertson

Perhaps the best summary of Boulez (below, in a photo from his younger years from Sony Music) is the one that was researched and written by Tom Huizenga for the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio).

pierre boulez younger with scorers Sony Music

It features audio samples from Boulez’ orchestral and instrumental works, from his masterpieces and his unknown works.

To be honest, I prefer the modernist Boulez who, as the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducts and records the music of Gustav Mahler and Claude Debussy. He definitely has a point of view that clarified the older music. I like his interpretations more than I like his compositions.

I am willing to admit that his music, his modernist esthetic, is important.

But I don’t think I would go so far as to call his music “sensual.” Radical, yes. But I find the sound too jagged and rough to be sensual, despite it being French. Sensual, for me, means pleasurable. And pleasurable is not an adjective I, personally, would use to describe the music of Boulez.

But then maybe I am just being overly insensitive.

Anyway, read the NPR story and listen to the samples, and then tell us how you perceive Pierre Boulez and his music.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/03/26/395318157/the-sensuous-radical-pierre-boulez-at-90

The Ear wants to hear.


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