A Visit With Pierre Boulez

By Henry C. Mayer

Pierre Boulez, the Grawemeyer Award Winner for Musical Composition, is the first composer of chamber music to be so honored. His reputation as a composer, conductor and pianist knows few peers.

A 1948 graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, where his principal teacher was the distinguished French composer Olivier Messiaen, Boulez composed a great deal of critically praised, highly experimental music based on the twelve-tone system, including pieces scored for electronic instruments. He was a prominent user and advocate of extending serial principles beyond melody and harmony and he included such other elements of music such as dynamics, tone color and pitch.

After being present for his lucid and enlightening acceptance lecture, we briefly visited with him and, limiting himself to his own experience, he had this to say about composition.

"For instance, how do I begin a work? Do I have a precise plan or does the work progress by itself, more or less by chance, by accident? Each time, the answer will be different - especially at different moments of one's life."

Speaking of his experience writing a piece for the piano, he noted that "this short piece has a brief introduction based on the resonant qualities of the instrument, followed by a moto perpetua which contrasts fluidity and repeated hammered notes, these two elements being constantly interrupted by very quick runs - and the entire range of the (piece) is explored."

"The piece was written but I thought it could be developed. But how? I did not know.... I found that the best way of mirroring that original piano piece was to confront it with other pianos. I thought then of two works which use piano sonority marvelously well, one by Stravinsky and the other by Bartok. I found that I wanted to add percussion but first I had to add exclusively keyboard instruments: vibraphone and marimba. [But] to fulfill the [need for] the sonority, I needed a bigger range of color and a richer texture, so I added three harps. Finally, a little later, because I needed it for variety in the sonority, I added chimes, glockenspiel, steel drums and timpani, for their range, and they are matched instruments which can easily match the harps and pianos."

"I had a very general plan but it was a plan open to what I will invent or find and it could deviate towards the unexpected. Nothing is fixed or stiff before you write.

"In composition, two words are of singular importance: recognition and surprise. You may have a perception of what you want to say ... some musical ideas you discover are very rich in possibilities and others can be of only limited use. Some of their possibilities you discover rapidly; some other ones are more hidden, and you have to work hard to discover them. And I will use again the same words: recognition and surprise, both being functions of each other, especially since the form does not exist before the work; form is a consequence of the work.

"But let us come to the piece for which I was given the Grawemeyer award; there is more curiosity about this precise piece, "Sur Incises." The title is not mysterious at all. It explains exactly the origin of the piece.

"And what about composition itself? Can it be taught? What you can certainly learn is analysis: how to look at a score and see how the composer has deduced consequences from his original idea. This "science" of deduction is to me the most important of all lessons."