Pierre Boulez

Ensemble Musikfabrik – Stille, Label Musikfabrik

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Let’s talk about Ensemble Musikfabrik. First off, the German ensemble is responsible for some of the most memorable and fascinating concerts i’ve ever attended. Their performances during the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival remain personal favourites, both the opening weekend concert – including among other things, Georg Friedrich Haas’ I can’t breathe and Marcin Stańczyk’s marvellous Some Drops, both showcasing trumpeter Marco Blauuw – and also the concert based around the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, featuring Claudio Molitor’s hour-long act of sonic wonderment, Walking With Partch. But even more than these, the concert that remains most affectionately in my memory – one of the most exhilarating concerts of my life – was their performance at the one-off Bristol New Music festival in 2014, where the combination of Partch’s And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma with a medley of works by Frank Zappa must rank as one of the finest acts of music-making that the city’s Colston Hall had ever experienced. What all of these concerts demonstrate is Musikfabrik’s generous and warm openness to all forms of experimentation, no matter how weird or ostensibly ludicrous, in conjunction with a level of determination and commitment that’s nothing less than absolute. Only an attitude like this could have led to the Partch instruments being so painstakingly and lovingly recreated, as well as to the development of new iterations of familiar instruments, such as their double-bell brass instruments.

The ensemble’s outlook is mirrored entirely on their recorded output which, more than most, goes a long way to capturing the vivid discombobulation of their concert performances. Their most recent disc, Stille, the twelfth in their ongoing series Edition Musikfabrik, is yet another case in point. It’s true to say that a Musikfabrik concert can and often does involve a certain amount of acclimatisation, and it’s also true for Die Bewegung der Augen by Evan Johnson. As with all four works on this disc, it’s a piece exploring silence, or rather the fact that silence “is never empty” (from Johnson’s programme note). Clearly the by-product of a lot more activity (in one form or another) than is audibly apparent, Johnson’s music here sounds private, not merely behind closed doors but positively internalised and miniaturised, as though we were privy to small-scale activities and actions that would otherwise be entirely oblivious to us. Its little bursts of material surrounded by silence gradually instigate a different mode of listening, one where i came to feel like the Incredible Shrinking Man, becoming smaller and smaller to the point that its tiny sounds and gestures yawned ever more impossibly above me. Beyond this, particularly in the second and third movements, a halting lyrical streak emerges that, in such a pint-sized context, sounds enormously poignant. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Pierre Boulez – Piano Sonata No. 1

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“Vous êtes de la merde!”

i’m going to begin 2016 by looking back 70 years to the earliest acknowledged work by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated composers, Pierre Boulez. For much of his life, but particularly as a young composer, Boulez’s perceived demeanour was, to put it mildly, bellicose, and his approach to composition was rapid—an interesting fact in light of his later concern (some might say obsession) with revising his scores. These two aspects, his demeanour and his approach, came to a violent head in 1946, in the Paris apartment of Boulez’s teacher and mentor René Leibowitz, when Boulez turned up with the completed score of his first Piano Sonata, a work that Leibowitz had presumed would be worked on slowly under his supervision. Leibowitz’s disgruntled reaction involved taking the score—at the time bearing his name as dedicatee—and beginning to write on it in red pen; Boulez’s explosive response, prior to storming out, consisted of the five words above. Read more

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Pierre Boulez – Domaines

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Joyeux anniversaire, Pierre!

Today’s the day, the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and, continuing the concerto theme, the piece with which i’d like to celebrate the occasion is Domaines, for clarinet and orchestra, completed in 1969. Typically, the piece began life a decade earlier (early sketches pertaining to it, tentatively titled ‘Labyrinthe’, date back to April 1959), and also typically evolved via the material for other compositions. During the 1960s Boulez was working on a cantata for baritone and ensemble, setting texts by E. E. Cummings; this would ultimately lead, in 1970, to cummings ist der dichter, but a couple of years prior to that Boulez took material from the nascent work, together with ideas for an opera (never completed) and refashioned it into Domaines, both as a solo work as well as one involving six instrumental groups, with a gradually increasing number of players:

  1. bass clarinet
  2. marimba, contrabass
  3. oboe, horn, guitar (amplified)
  4. alto trombone, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone
  5. flute, alto saxophone, bassoon, C trumpet, harp
  6. 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos

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Pierre Boulez – Messagesquisse

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The second concerto-esque work by Pierre Boulez that i want to explore this week is Messagesquisse for cello solo and six cellos. The gestation of this piece was very much more straightforward than that of Mémoriale, being composed in 1976 as a 70th birthday present for that great champion of so much contemporary music, Paul Sacher (Boulez’s Sur incises would be another birthday present for Sacher 20 years later). The title overlaps the words ‘messages’ and ‘sketch’ at the letters “es”, being both the first letter of Sacher’s surname and the German term for the pitch E-flat. This is indicative of the kind of thing Boulez gets up to in Messagesquisse, where Sacher’s entire surname is translated into musical pitches—E♭, A, C, B♭ (H in German), E, D (presumably from the solfège Re)—forming a hexachord that is subjected to considerable serial and motivic treatment. Sixes occur elsewhere too: as well as the ensemble group of cellos, the work is structured with this many sections. Read more

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Pierre Boulez – Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel)

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This week marks the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and to mark the occasion i’m going to explore three of his concerto-esque works, beginning with Mémoriale, composed in 1985. Well, that’s not strictly accurate; one of the characteristic traits of Boulez’s output is an ongoing tendency to rethink and recompose previous work. It all began in 1971 with the death of Igor Stravinsky, when Tempo magazine invited various composers to contribute short pieces for a commemorative issue, published late that year. Boulez demured (the request was for canonic works, which he found both a strange and unappealing idea), but it began a thought process that would lead to the first incarnation, in 1972, of a work for three instruments titled …explosante-fixe…. It was soon replaced with another version for flute, clarinet, trumpet, three strings, harp and electronics, but Boulez was dissatisfied with this version too due to complexities with controlling the technology (involving an evidently cumbersome and fragile device called the Halaphone). Some years passed before, in the early 1980s, Boulez began working towards a new version, now collaborating closely with Ensemble InterContemporain’s principal flautist Lawrence Beauregard. When Beauregard died in 1985, Boulez decided to take some of the material from …explosante-fixe… and rework it into a tribute, which became Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel) for flute and eight instruments.
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