During his second piano sonata, French composer Pierre Boulez instructs players to "avoid absolutely ... what are customarily called 'expressive nuances.'" He tells them, instead, to sound percussive, violent, broken, strident, exasperated and "increasingly brutal and chopped."
"Pulverize the sound," he adds.
Boulez's tempos often change multiple times within a measure. His rhythms are jagged and harsh. He trades melodies for flurries of notes, strung together in discordant lines that fly across the piano, full of gigantic leaps between extreme registers. His harmonic language is a study of dissonance. The work is so difficult to play that pianist Yvonne Loriod reportedly started crying at the very thought of performing it. Sounds enticing, no?
This week, at UNC-Chapel Hill, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich will deliver a concert of Boulez's piano music, spanning six decades in more or less chronological order. Aimard joined Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain at age 19, and he is known for his performances of the most formidable 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. Stefanovich is a former student of Aimard's who shares his propensity toward, and talent for, contemporary music. The pair has performed this program extensively in honor of Boulez's 90th birthday. They alternate pieces over the course of the concert, ending with Structures book 2 for two pianos.
Parsing Boulez's complexity requires steady guidance, and they are two of the best at offering that.
I wish I could say there is an easy solution to this music, a way to make it as facile and familiar as the other great B composers of Western classical music. But I can't: Boulez is closer to Babbit, Berio and Birtwistle than to Bach and Brahms. He wrote difficult music, like many of his contemporaries who came of age in the middle of the 20th century. Even as a composer myself, I have not always had the easiest time penetrating Boulez's labyrinthine structures. I have, at times, found his music needlessly complex and confrontational.
Still, there is a way in to Boulez's music. His music does something. It has things to say, regardless of how opaque the language may be. But before digging in—or before showing up at UNC unprepared—it's best to understand a bit of 20th century harmonic history.
Most of the music that surrounds us is in a key, a pitch that serves as a musical home base from which the rest of the rhetoric emanates. It informs what kinds of chords we hear, how they move and how melodies are structured. In classical music, this is known as "common practice."
But in the second half of the 19th century, composers began to write music that radically expanded what it meant to be in a key. They pushed in unusual directions, making the connections to keys tenuous. Dissonance bloomed.
By the early 20th century, composers began to abandon "common practice" altogether, seeking new ways to organize pitch that allowed for more complicated dissonances. Arnold Schoenberg invented one such system after reaching a musical crisis in 1907. He fled tonal harmony entirely. Schoenberg began systematizing his practice in the early 1920s, devising what he called the 12-tone system, or "serialism." In it, the composer creates a "row," putting the 12 pitches on the keyboard in a particular order; a pitch could not be repeated until the other 11 pitches had been played. The system was controversial, but Schoenberg did gather a circle of like-minded adherents, including Anton Webern and Alban Berg, all of whom considered serialism to be music's logical next step.
Fast-forward to the end of World War II: The 20-year-old Pierre Boulez had just moved to Paris to study composition at the Paris Conservatoire with composer Olivier Messiaen. Boulez adopted Schoenberg's system as the basis of his own music. But he wanted to create a more radical break with the past, as he was convinced that those who came before him lacked the intellectual fortitude to understand the broader implications of their work. He penned polemics that denounced Schoenberg and Bartók, Stravinsky and Berg. Even his own teacher wasn't immune to the vitriol.
He began crafting a musical language to actualize his vision by altering the relationship between notes and rhythms. Instead of letting a constant pulse plod in the background, he deployed rhythm as a major compositional parameter, devising complicated rhythmic structures to match the 12-tone system's rigors. This idol-smashing verve, which musicologist Paul Griffiths calls "creation by destruction," propelled the pieces he wrote during that period, including his first two sonatas for piano. Enabled by the power of that destruction, he became one of the central figures in the post-war musical scene.
That brings us back to the question of why listening to music meant to destroy pretty much all the music that preceded it is enjoyable. What is the value of all of this nihilism, of music that gives you the sense that you're standing in a pit of quicksand with no rope?
The short answer is that Boulez's work, much like that of his occasional friend John Cage, requires us to rethink how we listen. In the absence of regular melody, harmony and rhythm, his music demands that we reprioritize what we notice, enforcing a new kind of musical hierarchy. You begin to intuit patterns, like the careful way Boulez manages the physical space of the piano. He uses rapidly rising and falling figures to move between different registers of the keyboard.
And then you might realize you don't need to worry about any individual note more than another. Since this stuff is rooted in serialism, every note and rhythm is systematized. But the vagaries of Boulez's 12-tone practice matter insofar only as they inform certain details that flash past you before you can even hear them. Instead, you start to sense recurring shapes, gestures and textures. Each iteration is subtly different, but you gradually understand how Boulez moves them, how they evolve, how they speak to each other. These pieces become mobiles or constellations, metaphors he would himself use to describe his third piano sonata and Structures book 2 for two pianos.
There are places where Boulez almost dances, where his ever-shifting rhythms settle briefly into a pattern or where he builds some beautiful sonority. These moments often pass by quickly, as Boulez tears them apart to create the raw material for his next sonic edifice. But when I listen to Boulez, those are the moments onto which I latch.
I have discovered that he has an ear for evocative sounds, even if he moves away from them too quickly. His musical architecture doesn't suggest any of his contemporaries. His rhetorical complexity points toward a version of the impossible, much like Finnegans Wake, Jackson Pollock's paintings or Samuel Beckett's plays. Much like those works, this music requires patience and a willingness to be a little bit queasy.
The payoff is, I think, worth it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Key figures"