When local listeners last heard from French composer Pierre Boulez in March, he—or at least his compositions—empowered the gleeful demolition of the piano, the musical establishment and our way of hearing music altogether. But his metaphysical return in the form of Ensemble InterContemporain shows a different side of this enigmatic, controversial classical figure. He was, turns out, an organizational visionary.
By the mid-'70s, Boulez had evolved into an iconoclastic institutionalist. He spent much of the decade conducting the Cleveland Symphony, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and, memorably, the New York Philharmonic, bending their programming toward a more contemporary direction, often to the chagrin of established audiences.
Still, he bemoaned the lack of ensembles playing contemporary music, so he founded the Ensemble InterContemporain, or the EIC, in Paris in 1976. One of the first of its kind, the group paved the way for flexible, forward-thinking classical bodies such as Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Klangforum Wien and Alarm Will Sound. During the last four decades, Ensemble InterContemporain has performed the music of many risky composers, including Boulez, Iannis Xenakis and Frank Zappa, while commissioning new work, too. Though Boulez hasn't led the group since 1979, Ensemble InterContemporain remains, at its core, his body, the product of his restless vision.
A traditional chamber orchestra is built with sections of players using the same instrument. But the EIC consists of a collection of 31 individual soloists. That semantic shift places each of the players on the same level, so that each sound is equally important. When everyone is a soloist, it suddenly doesn't matter if a piece is written for trumpet, harp, double bass and bassoon; the group can handle it as a whole.
The term "soloists" rightly implies overwhelming virtuosity, too. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed Boulez's complex piano music with ease in Chapel Hill in March, was one of the founding members of the group. The current members, capable of playing anything a composer can imagine, continue that tradition.
Boulez "conceived [the EIC] as an instrument to forward and foster musical invention." Consider the ensemble's two performances in Chapel Hill—one of just four stops on its first American tour since 2009—as an extended exploration of such instrumental invention. All eight works seem designed to create new, impossible instruments by combining the ensemble's constituents in unexpected ways.
Take, for instance, the one Boulez piece on Wednesday's program—his massive Sur Incises for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists. Back in March, pianist Tamara Stefanovich performed Incises, which mostly barrels around the piano in an explosion of speed and intensity. Not long after writing the original work, Boulez recomposed and expanded it, resulting in Sur Incises. Despite complicated counterpoint, relentless motion and discursive structure, it treats the ensemble not as a collection of instruments but as one giant piano. The harps and percussion embellish the trio of pianos themselves, adding crispness to the attacks. It's rapturous to hear the nine pieces hit the same note as loudly as possible. The breathtaking 35 minutes flash by at a ferocious pace, far too intense for any single person to maintain.
Wednesday's show also features Edgard Varèse's 1923 work Octandre. Its unique instrumentation establishes a kind of chamber wind band, which Varèse pushes to new limits. The oboe squeals a sighing melody at the top of its range. The horn and trombone rumble at the absolute bottom of theirs. The double bass is the bouillon cube, thickening everything. These varied timbres and odd overtones fuse into a sound that strains the vocabulary of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring into something simultaneously primordial and mechanical.
The rest of the program continues these explorations at the edges of sound, as curated by the ensemble's current director, Matthias Pintscher. Olga Neuwirth molds and melts the bassoon in Torsion. Marco Stroppa's gla-dya is a series of etudes for two horns that delights in strangled squalls. Beat Furrer's linea dell'orizzonte is all about the shadows and distortions that emerge when lines of piano, electric guitar and percussion collide within a larger ensemble.
But the program's most transformative work is Cluster X, Tuesday's collaboration between the ensemble itself, sound and video artist Kurt Hentschläger and composer Edmund Campion. Hentschläger's audiovisual composition "Cluster" mixes with a new score by Campion and live processing by both. In the video, three-dimensional humanoids float like particles through space, occasionally colliding and sometimes forming schools. I imagine the music, which premiered only in October, to be a thoroughly immersive miasma, with warped sounds and synthetic instruments matching the onscreen activity. It is a 21st-century update of Boulez's challenge to his own group.
Boulez's vision for Ensemble InterContemporain helped build the framework of a currently crowded system of ensembles playing new classical music. And now, the ensemble continues to push the boundaries of just what sound can do. Four decades later, these 31 soloists play, as a tradition, music that few other groups can manage at all.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Organizational upheaval"