During Pierre Boulez's early years as an enfant terrible, he became Europe's most outspoken exponent of the Second Viennese School. Schoenberg may have been dead, but Boulez was alive and well and living in Darmstadt, that hotbed of Teutonic dodecaphonic intellectualism and experimentalism‹a kind of self-exile protesting the musical patisserie in Paris at the time. But he returned to Paris to create his own think tank there in 1977‹Ircam (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique), hidden deep in Place Stravinsky like an underground bunker.
That personal dream paid off, not only with some interesting research, but with a few musical masterworks created by a new generation of composers as well as by the master himself. One of the works by Boulez, Répons, receives a rare performance at Carnegie Hall on March 22. It was last performed in New York in 1986 at Columbia University's gymnasium. Not that it's an overly athletic work, but a conventional, 19th-century-style auditorium usually cannot accommodate the musical teams: an instrumental ensemble of 24 musicians in front of the audience, a group of six soloists surrounding the audience, and an electro-acoustic system consisting of a computer and a set of six loudspeakers distributed around the hall. Carnegie Hall will undergo a momentary makeover‹with the parquet seats covered to create an open platform‹in order to effect this Sensurround experience. Boulez will conduct the piece himself.
"From time to time, I like to play with space," Boulez explains in a phone conversation from his home in Baden-Baden, "not just for spectacular reasons but because the sonic texture is different, and the way of developing the music is very different depending on how you use the space. I have a couple of works like that, and certainly Répons is the most accomplished in this direction."
By the time Boulez created this remarkable piece‹he composed Répons in 1981 (17 minutes), expanding it in 1982 (35 minutes) and again in 1984 (45 minutes)‹he had shed his die-hard serialism. "Total serialization was a very important episode because it brought me to further action," says Boulez. That further action included freer, less dogmatic ways of organization, even incorporating chance‹but highly controlled chance. In the case of Répons, he delved deeply into the possibilities opened to him by new electronic technologies, including the spatialization and transformation of acoustical instrumental sound. It seemed that Boulez began to use "instruments for their own sexy sake, choices not of a logician but of an alchemist," as Ned Rorem writes. To be blunt, something French was happening.
"Being a student of Messiaen, I was always concerned with sonority," claims Boulez, although he admits that while he was in hot pursuit of theoretical research in the early 1950s, sonority played second fiddle to structure. But since his seminal Le Marteau sans maître in 1954, color and texture became increasingly important. "The distinction between a French and a German sound is not relevant to me," declares Boulez. "Either you are a composer with a sonic imagination or you are not."
Well, Boulez is. Just listen to the extraordinary opening of Répons. After the remarkable introduction‹a huge upbeat performed by the central ensemble, creating the most itchy feeling of anticipation‹the six soloists chime in, enhanced and transmogrified by the live electronics. The listener is suddenly jettisoned into another galaxy, carried away by a tsunami of glittering pulsations and swirls and quasars. You now find yourself somewhere over the rainbow.
"I was thinking that I could not do something timid after such a long introduction," says Boulez. "I had to make an entrance that was absolutely striking." The stunning articulation is underlined by the fact that, in performance, the soloists, initially in the dark, are suddenly illuminated. What makes the sound so dramatic is the electronically manipulated spatialization, rhythmic expansion, and timbral modification of the soloists, which include a piano, a vibraphone, a xylophone doubling a glockenspiel, a harp, a second piano doubling a synthesizer, and, the pièce de résistance, a cimbalom.
"I discovered the instrument long ago in Stravinsky's Rénard, which has a very important part for the cimbalom," says Boulez. "This was a revelation because I had never heard it before. In the family of string instruments, it is absolutely exceptional." In a surprising admission, Boulez says that the instrument "adds some charm" (what about form and function?). But more than that, the cimbalom's eerie, quasi-non-tempered sound ("it is very difficult to tune") adds to the mystery of the piece.
Mystery wrapped in sound, sound wrapped in mystery. The title of Répons refers to the medieval responsorial form in which a soloist alternates with the larger chorus. Yet this basic interaction multiplies in manifold ways in Boulez's piece, like two mirrors facing each other reflecting into infinity. There are dialogues between the larger ensemble and the soloists, between the soloists and their transformed sounds, and among the soloists themselves. Boulez describes this piece as a spiral: "The music goes from one level to the next, and is constantly shifting."
The ultimate mystery of the work is the relation between the listener and sound space. The piece offers different experiences depending on where you sit in the auditorium. And wherever you sit in the hall, you will have an experience that in some way mirrors the mysteries of Boulez's compositional process.
"I think it is very important not to decide ahead of time where you want to go, but to be surprised by yourself," says Boulez. "A work should please directly but also make you ask yourself questions. First you are in the dark, then you discover something, then when you go further you are again in the dark. You cannot explain."
Robert Hilferty's articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Opera News, Opernwelt, and New York magazine.