Pierre Boulez – Domaines

by 5:4

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

As with Messagesquisse, the number six is all over Domaines. The clarinettist’s music—which is the same in both solo and ensemble versions—comprises six ‘cahiers’, each of which contains six ‘cells’ of material; these cahiers exist in two sets, ‘original’ and a retrograde ‘mirroir’; and Boulez’s serial approach, again like Messagesquisse, is based on six pitches. This suggests a work rooted in rigorous systemic order, but Domaines as a whole is actually as much if not more concerned with aleatoric elements, exploring the implications of leaving certain things to chance. The six portions of music contained in each cahier can be performed in two possible sequences (horizontally and vertically), while the cahiers themselves can be performed in any order. Each cahier is followed by a section played by one of the instrumental groups; both the cahiers and the groups are assigned a letter, and whichever group has the matching letter to the cahier, then plays afterward (i.e. ensemble A would follow after the soloist performs cahier A). A different order is chosen for the mirror cahiers, this time with the instrumental groups going before the soloist. This obviously provides for a large number of permutations, but the fact that there is a connection between groups and cahiers ensures that there is a certain amount of semi-dependable continuity. But a significant amount of Domaines remains structurally aleatoric and, again to refer to Messagesquisse, there’s something of a similar game taking place in Domaines too, part of which involves the listener grappling with the work’s ‘compare and contrast’ episodicity. If that’s a challenge moment by moment, it’s even more of a challenge when taking place over the 30+ minutes that Domaines occupies, particularly as so much of the material is gestural in nature; but at its most engaging, the interconnections between cahiers and groups, cahiers and cahiers (both original and mirror), and groups and groups, make for an experience that becomes fascinating, engrossing and immersive.

To get inside the work properly, it’s best to experience both versions of the work. This performance of the ensemble version was given last year by clarinettist Robert Plane with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Otto Tausk; the solo version took place at the 2011 ‘Exquisite Labyrinth’ concert series at the Southbank Centre, performed by Rozenn Le Trionnaire.

Ensemble version

Solo version

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I love Domaines. This is the first piece I really got into by Boulez, when I was about 12 or 13. I got it on a Harmonia Mundi LP, which came in a plain white sleeve that you more readily associate with a 12″ of Dutch techno. It was beautifully recorded, with a huge dynamic range that I found and still find exciting.

I understand what you mean by “episodic” but I relate to Boulez’s music in a very direct, aesthetic sense, in quite a sensual way if you like, without worrying the slightest about the structural details. I still can’t be bothered to work out which cahier is which. Thank you for giving it another run out.

[…] way the piece is performed brings to mind another work for clarinet, Boulez’ Domaines, involving an unspecified order in which fragments of music are to be played. Unlike Domaines, not […]

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