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Playing with quantum mathematics, and the magic bubbles of Pierre Boulez

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) is often said to have composed difficult music: music that is difficult to perform, difficult to analyse, and difficult to listen to. And yet performers, musicologists, and audiences persist with it and, usually, feel all the better for having done so.

The latest edition of The Sound Barrier sought to explore just what it is that keeps Boulez's music so alive and interesting, despite (or maybe even because of) all its challenges.

The central piece on tonight's show is one of his greatest, and also the first work of Boulez that I got to know, when I was still in my teens and the piece itself was not much older. Le Marteau sans maître ('The Hammer Without a Master') is being performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 18 July at a concert called Traces of Passage, presented by Six Degrees Ensemble, along with music by Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen. Six Degrees's soprano, Justine Anderson joined me in the studio to talk about this iconic work of the post-war avant-garde, which in some ways holds the key to why the work of Pierre Boulez so much rewards whatever effort and time musicians, audiences, and musicologists choose to give it.

Le Marteau sans maître is composed for a small and unusual ensemble of six instruments and voice. It is in nine movements, setting three poems by French surrealist René Char. Each poem, sung by the soprano, has other purely instrumental movements associated with it: one song has a 'before' and 'after' piece, another has three instrumental 'commentaries', and another appears as a 'double' of an instrumental version heard earlier in the piece. These nine movements are entwined in a non-linear way: we don't simply hear the piece3s for the first song, then for the second, then the third. Rather, they are interspersed amongst one another in ways that create an increasing trajectory of complexity, including in the ways in which the voice interacts with the instruments, moving from a relatively simple movement (the third of the nine) in which the instruments (primarily the flute) more or less accompany the singer, through to one where the roles are more fragmented (the sixth movement) to the final movement, where the distinctions break down even further and the voice almost transforms into the flute that had originally accompanied it.

The instruments themselves are chosen to reflect a similar sort of continuity and progress, from the flute that connects with the breath of the voice, through the viola that shares with the flute a monodic quality but now produced by strings rather than breath, to the guitar the takes up the viola's strings but in a manner that is plucked rather than bowed, creating the sort of more defined sound-shapes that are then taken up in the vibraphone and xylophone. In this way the instruments represent a continuous passage of sound types, just as the overall piece represents a continuous passage of complexity, until all comes together in the final movement where, as Boulez describes it, complexity is built out of both memories of what has gone before, and virtual recreations of it, through musical reflections upon the developmental potential of earlier parts of the piece.

None of this, however, follows a simple path. Sounds and complexities are shifted about so nothing is really predictable and rather, just like René Char's poetry, the music is always presenting the ideas out of the context of the neatly ordered reality in which we think we live and move.

The result is magical: music that sounds at times like a myriad little bubbles, all coloured and shaped a little differently, mostly sparkling delicately, sometimes bouncing and bursting more heavily, always surprisingly. It calls for unimaginable precision and cohesion amongst the musicians and tends to infuriate musicologists who are always challenged by Boulez's way of creating complex structures and then diverging from them whenever he felt the need to do so. But all that it requires of the audience is an openness to hear the magic as magic, to believe in its dissipated logic, to not expect the bubbles to line up in a row but rather to delight in their caprice and effervescence.

Not that Le Marteau sans maître, or any of Boulez's music for that matter, is capricious in the sense of being trivial or fickle. Rather its caprice lies in its capacity to play with some of music's most demanding and complex tools: notes that have been intricately calibrated and placed.

But, with Pierre Boulez as the composer, it is the caprice of a veritable master: one who knows how to play with even the most delicate things, to move them about within the most complex systems of rules, and still know when to let change and chance move and place things differently. It is like a genius child, playing games with things made out of quantum mathematics.

One of the features of Boulez's music is especially remarkable in a composer who is often seen as overly academic and intellectual is the strong sense of organicism that weaves through much of it: pieces of music that Boulez continued to see as living things even after they had begin to be performed: pieces that would continue to develop, sometimes over decades, into later and larger versions of themselves, or from which little bits would be taken off and planted somewhere else to enable something entirely new to develop. It is a reflection of that notion of virtual recreation that was heard in the final movement of Le Marteau sans maître, where ideas from earlier parts of the piece are taken into new directions, where latent potentials are explored, where the seed that had emerged in one place is taken and planted somewhere else, so that it grows differently.

Sometimes works were simply revised over the years, as was Le Marteau sans maître itself, which was originally a shorter work than the final version that was completed in 1955, or the amazing Pli selon pli that went through many revisions and expansions from its beginnings in 1957 to its final version in 1989. Others started as smaller works that then formed the basis for larger works, like Incises for solo piano that formed the seed for sur Incises for three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists.

Three of the works on tonight's show were like this – three works that became the genesis of later, much larger works: Dérive 1 for six instruments, composed in 1984, that later led to Dérive 2 for eleven instruments, composed in 2006; Anthèmes 1 for solo violin, composed in 1991 led to Anthèmes 2 doe violin and electronics in 1997; and Memoriale (…explosante-fixe…Originel) for solo flute with eight instruments led to "…explosante-fixe…" for instrumental ensemble, the final version of which was completed in 1995.

Even these works had other connections. The violin theme in "…explosante-fixe…" becomes the basis of em>Anthèmes 1; the music of Dérive 1 draws on that of Messagesquisse, sur le nom de Paul Sacher for solo cello and six ensemble cellos, composed in 1976 and based on a complex alignment of the letters of Sacher's name both with pitches of notes, based on the German and French systems of pitch naming, (Es (S) is the German way of referring to E flat, A, C, H (the German notation for B), E, and Re (the French notation for D)) and with pulses, based on the Morse codes for each letter.

cummings ist der dichter, for sixteen soloists, mixed choir and instrumental ensemble seems to stand more or less on its own, a depiction of the poetry of e. e. cummings, although even this we heard in a 1986 revision of an earlier score composed in sixteen years earlier. It draws its structure from the poetry of cummings, its letters and words spread in minimalist structures on a page, interspersed with empty space, which is reflected in the score where different musical events can be chosen and timed in ways that are partly guided by the score and partly chosen by the choir director and conductor. It is another version on Boulez's trademark combination of music built on highly structured principles, but then played with in ways that give it that sort of organic fertility that is heard elsewhere in the metamorphosis of one piece to another but here within the piece itself.

Both approaches feature throughout most of what Boulez composed – the mixture of unpredicted change and ordered structure within pieces and between them. This is what can often make Boulez's music difficult, even controversial, to analyse. Different analysts will find different connections and patterns within them, and typically Boulez himself said very little about how he wrote, perhaps because he hoped that others would find their own answers to their own puzzles within the music, just as he did when he composed: always finding new puzzles to play with, and new but rarely definitive outcomes to generate.

It was in some ways a shame that I could only bring you a few of Boulez's pieces on tonight's show, and only one of the more major works. But such is the limitations of time, always a bane in presenting the music of a composer such as this for whom the creation of music was an ongoing process, where always there was something new to graft from what something else had already grown. Following those traces is as fascinating as it is difficult – but there is a shortcut to the for the audience that is not available to the performer or to the musicologist: the shortcut of simply sitting back, not looking for the threads or the placement of the details, but instead just reveling in the magic of the effervescence. All you have to do to do that is to clear your head of what convention has taught you to expect, of what logic tells you should follow what, and of what every adult has told you quantum mathematics is, and instead believe in the magic of the genius child who blows the most amazing bubbles, and then never tires of playing with them.

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