Percussionist William Kraft remembers his first encounter with a Pierre Boulez score. It was 1957, and he and a few other musicians had been assembled by conductor Robert Craft to give the American premiere of Boulez’s “Le marteau sans maitre” on a Monday Evening Concerts program.
“We couldn’t make heads or tails of our parts,” the percussionist said. “We had played Stravinsky, which was the most up-to-date stuff we had then. We thought [Boulez] was impossible, music not written by a human but by a computer. We rehearsed 60 hours. Then Bob said, ‘I can’t do it.’ ”
Fortunately, the composer, who was visiting a friend in San Francisco, came to a rehearsal and, to the musicians’ astonishment, demonstrated how it all should go.
“He sang our parts!” Kraft said. “I’m looking at him. I’ve got this three-octave instrument and this man is singing my part. That was an eye-opener.”
Still, after the premiere, Kraft felt obligated to say to Boulez: “ ‘That was pretty bad, wasn’t it?’ He said, ‘Pas mal.’
That means “not bad” in French. And Boulez told the rest of the tale: His own ensemble had given 125 performances of the work on a recent tour. “ ‘The 125th was the first good one,’ he told me,” Kraft said.
Boulez, who dominates the Ojai Music Festival this week in the roles of music director and composer, has emerged as one of the major composers of the second half of the 20th century, whose music incorporates Schoenberg’s 12-tone system as well as Stravinsky’s ingenious asymmetrical rhythms. On top of that, he added a dollop of French sensitivity to tone color, and an openness to the use of modern technology such as the computer and tape.
The results are works of extraordinary organization but with sensuous appeal as well. His music shimmers and dances with exotic and acidic effects that tax to the utmost his players.
Boulez’s music is “fiendishly difficult to perform and even more difficult to describe in the familiar terms of dissonant counterpoint, free serialism or indeterminism,” Nicholas Slonimsky said in his revision of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. “He specifically disassociated himself from any particular modern school of music.”
Rising to the task
“Every bar is some new unpredictable Mt. Everest. He likes the edge he gets by challenging the musicians.”
That’s how Los Angeles pianist Gloria Cheng summarizes playing Boulez. She is among an ensemble of nine musicians who will be performing his “Sur Incises” at Ojai (Boulez’s titles are none too easy either: This one means “On Incises,” indicating an expansion of an earlier work titled “Incises,” which means “incidental clause.”)
“The leaps are awkward,” Cheng added, “the spacings of the chords are often large and dense, and there are many, many notes on every single page. As with lots of contemporary music, the patterns, the pitches are nothing like what we grew up practicing.”
Another Ojai player, Los Angeles Philharmonic flutist Catherine Ransom, said Boulez’s scores are “the kind of music that someone who doesn’t really read music would say [are just] full of black dots and circles. The page is covered with specks.”
Not that she’s complaining. Ransom has been practicing Boulez’s 1946 Sonatine for Flute and Piano (she’ll play it with Joanne Pearce Martin at Ojai). “It is so worth it,” Ransom said. “Like most people, I thrive on challenge. For me to play this piece, I have to be in the very best shape I can be, just to execute it. It’s a motivator for me.”
“It’s making me learn new technique, bringing my technique up to a new level, which I love,” seconds Vicki Ray, another Ojai pianist. “That’s part of the payoff.”
Marino Formenti, a stellar interpreter of new music, will play Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 1 at Ojai. “Every one of those pieces puts into a particular light one or more qualities that we can find also in Boulez,” he said. “The sonata by Boulez is in a way the sum of all these qualities. Boulez is an incredibly varied and rich composer.
“It was a surprise for me when I discovered it as a teenager,” he added. “At 14 or 15, I didn’t think it was something I’d like. I liked other things then. Then I started working on it and found what it was about.”
What the musicians face on the page is familiar but ratcheted up to the nth degree. Notes jump all over an instrument’s range. Ransom had to look up the fingering for the top note -- an F, 3 1/2 octaves above middle C -- in the Sonatine because “I had never played that note before,” she said.
Time signatures -- the music’s beat -- change, sometimes from measure to measure. Instead of familiar 3/4 waltz or 4/4 march time, there are difficult compound rhythms, such as 7/16, alternating with measures of 2/16, 4/16 or 5/16. Different dynamics -- sudden shifts in loudness and softness -- occur almost on every note.
On top of all that, there are constant directives that embroider on the usual notes a composer hands to a player: “very dry and without pedal” reads a piano score, or “full sound, without harshness, and only very loud.”
Formenti said there’s a lot of hard work behind every performance. “Of course, I can’t play such a piece at once,” he said. “I wish I could. Basically I play much slower, or sometimes I play in tempo with plenty of holes.”
Then there’s work away from the piano, reading the score and hearing it in the imagination, plus some kind of structural analysis to discover how the piece is held together.
“It’s a terrifying experience to be so exposed,” said pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who is scheduled to play Boulez’s “12 Notations.”
“He wrote it for himself, so I thought it might not be too difficult. That was wrong! It is really, really, really inconvenient to play. Inconvenient is not the right word. It’s fast and there is a lot of crossing of hands, and the rate of mistakes is so high, I don’t know what to do. The moment of truth comes the day after the performance -- particularly when you play something the first time -- because you become aware of everything that was completely wrong.”
Almost everyone emphasizes how long it takes, how slowly they start, describing a painstaking, one-section-at-a-time process. “That makes it a lot more possible to wrap your brain around it,” flutist Ransom said.
Martin Chalifour, Los Angeles Philharmonic principal concertmaster, who will play “Anthemes 1" at Ojai, is willing to start with more mistakes. “If you try to make it note perfect, learning by sections, you don’t get the whole picture at all,” Chalifour said. “So my approach this time is to go by the right tempo, just to feel how it unfolds. The only resource you have then is trying to fake it well.
“But I feel it’s more important to have the right rhetorical gestures in some of the episodes than to have every note exactly correct. I’m going to try to make it worth it in a theatrical way. It should be a display of the extreme possibility of the instrument. My tendency as a performer is always make a beautiful sound. I need to get away from that, if just for those few minutes.”
Is there any room for the player to interpret such music?
“Interpretation starts happening the minute the performer lays his or her hands on a piece,” Cheng said. “This is extremely meticulously notated, but any performer is going to bring his or her natural touch, concept of sound, physical technique and life experience to the piece.”
As for all the directions, “the specificness of the notation is what gives me something for my imagination to embrace,” the pianist said. “Otherwise I don’t know what to do with it, especially in a piece that’s abstract.”
But, she said, “it’s a grueling process. A lot of it is delayed gratification. You start on Page 1, and it doesn’t sound like much until you can actually play it, which could be months later. You’re going on faith and absorbing the language as you go. I reached the end, Page 68, on my first run-through only two weeks ago. I started sometime in February.
“I always think of [learning] contemporary music as getting to know a new person. You don’t really know what you’re going to get on the first day. Some new acquaintances end up being mere acquaintances. Some you never want to see again. Some become lifelong friends."The difficulties are there, Formenti feels, not because the composer is trying to alienate players and audience, but because Boulez wants to be honest.
“For a real artist, there is nothing that is more hateful than the faking of emotions or the cliche,” Formenti said. “Boulez and the music of this generation of composers still has the reputation of being hard, intellectual and unemotional. For me, it’s anything but this.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Pierre Boulez on inspiration and interpretation
How do you assess the difficulty of your music?
I don’t think it is so difficult. It is performed. The difficulty is there but it’s not an impossible difficulty. You have to train and learn the language, that’s all.
Do musicians play your works better now than they did years ago?
Yes. Things that seem difficult are not easy but are easier. There is a different training; the works are more familiar, and [the musicians] have performed during this time a couple of the works. They are more accustomed to the practical side of the technique.
Your works are so carefully notated, does that leave room for interpretation?
Interpretation is really a gesture on the frame. The frame is there. If you do a crescendo, for instance, you can do it by taking the tempo a little bit back to have more force or you, on the contrary, give the gesture in this [forward] direction, and both are valid. [As a composer,] you write down a certain number of things, but there are things you don’t write because they are impossible to be written down. So [there is] a certain amount of freedom, even in things which are carefully notated. Sometimes, I’m pleasantly surprised at what comes back.
Where do you get your musical ideas?
Ideas come from everything and from anything. If you are in a spirit of creating, every meeting, everything you just happen to see, to listen to or to read is something that you grasp immediately for your own work. I find it very interesting to take maybe a minute idea, a very small idea, and develop it completely. It’s the method of Wagner and Mahler, essentially.
At a time when people are worrying about future audiences for classical music, what are the chances for performances of serious new music?
I don’t want to speak too badly about performers, but many are not very courageous and curious. Mainly, people are ready to listen to new music. If they like it immediately or not, you have to be persistent and brave.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A page covered in specks
What makes Boulez difficult? The number of notes, the speed and the constantly changing dynamics and rhythm, all without the safety net of familiar patterns. None of it is unique to Boulez, but few composers demand so much at once. This is a four-measure fragment of Boulez’s Sonatine for Flute and Piano. The top line is the flute part, the two bottom lines are the pianist’s part.
1. The time signature, indicated on a line between the two parts, changes three times (seven then five then six 16th notes to a bar), and triangles and open brackets along the line indicate rhythmic subdivisions within the bar. Two notes are linked per bracket, three notes per triangle, creating the feel of two plus two plus three.
2. There are abrupt leaps across the piano’s range, a jump of three octaves for example, and mid-bar shifts between the bass and treble clefs.
3. Almost every note is marked to be played in a particular way (dots mean staccato, more-than signs mean accents, longer more-than or less-than signs mean loud to soft or vice versa). No direction lasts very long and they double up. Each specific notation is also affected by the overall direction for this section of the work: “tres progressivement,” “molto staccato,” as well as (in French) “more and more rapid and turbulent....”
Ojai Music Festival
Where: Libbey Bowl,
Ojai Avenue at Signal Street, and other locations in Ojai
Price: $15 to $70
Contact: (805) 646-2053 or www.ojaifestival.org.