Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, a towering figure in contemporary music, was an enfant terrible who mellowed with age but never flagged from his crusade to push music lovers and the music establishment to let go of the past and embrace new sounds, structures and textures.
As a firebrand music student, he booed Igor Stravinsky in Paris for being too conservative, called his onetime friend John Cage a “performing monkey,” said that those who didn’t use the 12-tone composing system were “of no use” and called for the burning down of opera houses.
Many years later, however, he conducted — to great acclaim from audiences and critics alike — works by Stravinsky and other popular composers dating to the Baroque period. And he expressed admiration for select orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he regularly led as a guest conductor in a variety of works, including his own.
But the elegantly attired Boulez, who could be charming and witty in person, still could deliver barbs. He called minimalists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich “too simple to be interesting,” and he singled out the John Adams opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” as sounding “like bad film music.”
“History should be absorbed and rejected,” Boulez said in a talk in New York in 2010. “If you are drowned in a library, you never have your own personality.”
A spokesman for the Paris Philharmonic, Hamid Si Amer, confirmed that Boulez had died Tuesday in Baden-Baden, Germany. He was 90.
“The whole room shimmered,” Times music critic Mark Swed wrote in his review of the concert.
Pierre Boulez was born March 26, 1925, in the small town of Montbrison in the Loire region of France to a family that had “nothing to do with music,” he told the Guardian newspaper in a 1989 interview. He sang in the choir of the Catholic school and took piano lessons but also shined in math. Accordingly, his engineer father sent him in 1941 to the University of Lyon to further his studies that would lead to a career in engineering.
It was in Lyon that Boulez first heard a live orchestra concert and saw his first opera, according to his biographer, Joan Peyser. In 1942 he moved to Paris, enrolling in the Paris Conservatory — a hallowed arts institution founded in 1795 — against the wishes of his father.
But young Boulez did not entirely leave math behind. With a group of like-minded students, he put forth — with increasing ferocity — theories and regimens that threw over romanticism in music.
Boulez later said the group’s infamous antics — including loud protests of modern music it deemed too conservative — have been overblown. But he confirmed that he booed Stravinsky. And renowned composer Olivier Messiaen, who had Boulez in his harmony class and recognized his brilliance, said in an interview with music journalist Claude Samuel that the young Boulez was “like a lion that had been flayed alive.”
If Boulez knew of that description, it was probably a badge of honor. “Certainly I was a bully,” Boulez told the Telegraph newspaper of London in 2008. “I’m not ashamed of it at all. The hostility of the establishment to what you were able to do in the ‘40s and ‘50s was very strong. Sometimes you have to fight against society.”
Boulez adopted Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal, 12-tone serial system in composing, but took it much further, devising with other composers systems to also regulate rhythms, accents, the duration of notes and nearly every other musical element. He mostly gave up on those strict systems after a few years, but the experiments helped lead to his breakthrough work, the 1955 “Le Marteau Sans Maitre” (The Hammer Without a Master).
The score — a nine-movement setting of three poems by French surrealist Rene Char — is so dense that it put even veteran musicians to the test. Longtime L.A. Philharmonic percussionist William Kraft, who is also a composer, was in the ensemble that gave the work its U.S. premiere in Los Angeles in 1957. “We couldn’t make heads or tails of our parts,” Kraft said in a 2003 Times interview. “We thought [Boulez] was impossible, music not written by a human but by a computer.”
But Boulez, who was visiting California, came to a rehearsal and demonstrated a human sensibility behind the work. “He sang our parts,” Kraft said. “I’ve got this three-octave instrument, and this man is singing my part. That was an eye-opener.”
Even Stravinsky found the work “admirable,” writing in a note to famed composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, “Without feeling close to Boulez’s music, I frankly find it preferable to many things of his generation.”
In 1959, Boulez moved to Baden-Baden, lured by the progressive Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra that played his music and offered him increasing chances to conduct. His music brought him back to Paris after French President Georges Pompidou in 1970 invited him to create an institute devoted to electronic and computer-derived music. The result was the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics, known as IRCAM, which he headed until 1992, though he also kept a home in Baden-Baden.
John Adams was no fan of Boulez’s music, which he told the Guardian in 2005 “lacks warmth, humor, boldness and the peril of emotional risk-taking that characterizes great art.” But when it came to Boulez’s conducting, Adams said, “the precision of his performances and his recordings had a huge effect on following generations of conductors and performers. For this alone, I am immensely grateful to him.”
In 1965 Boulez was invited to guest-conduct the Cleveland Orchestra, beginning a long association with that group. He first guest-conducted the L.A. Philharmonic in January 1969.
The most prestigious appointment came in 1971 when he was named music director of the New York Philharmonic. It was not a perfect match, however. He was succeeding the charismatic Leonard Bernstein, who was beloved by the orchestra, and New York in general. Bernstein was dramatic and demonstrative; Boulez was cool and analytical. He was out after six years.
Although he felt he made gains in New York for new music, he had little good to say about tradition-bound Philharmonic audiences. “I wanted people interested in concerts,” he said in a 1999 Guardian interview, “not only in social life.”
The U.S. orchestras with which he did find favor, in L.A., Chicago and Cleveland, invited him back regularly, and he made numerous appearances at the annual Ojai Music Festival. Between 1967 and 2005, he won 26 Grammy awards for his recordings.
Boulez collaborated with architect Frank Gehry on projects that included a new concert hall in Germany that will be named after Boulez when it opens this year. Gehry said Wednesday that Boulez had a reputation as an imposing and exacting maestro, but he also could be a generous teacher. Gehry invited Boulez to a Yale course he taught on designing concert halls.
“Pierre gave his time to me and students many times,” Gehry recalled. “He would spend a whole day with them, and sometimes two days.”
No matter how popular he became, Boulez managed to closely and even fanatically guard his private life, amid much speculation about affairs and relationships. Even Peyser, known for her salacious book on Bernstein, could not dig up much on Boulez, calling her 1976 book on him “Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma.”
“I am very simple and easygoing,” Boulez said to the Guardian in 1989. “But of course you have some part of yourself which is for yourself, and not for anybody else.”
Some detractors felt Boulez was interested only in music. “He is a wonderful musician, a wonderful intelligence,” composer and conductor Lukas Foss told Peyser. “It’s a pity there is no humanity there.”
If Boulez let these sorts of comments get to him, he did not let on. And he had no illusions that he had fundamentally changed the acceptance of radically new music.
In 2008, he told the Guardian that among music-goers, “20% are very interested in new things, 50% can be persuaded and 30% are in their coffins before their time.”
But he never gave up the fight. “You always have to make an effort,” he said. “If you are timid and unadventurous, no matter how good your ideas, nothing happens.
“Me, I’m not a shy man.”
Colker is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writer David Ng contributed to this report.