Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) [photo: Joost Evers /via Wikimedia Commons]

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) [photo: Joost Evers via Wikimedia Commons]

When I heard of Pierre Boulez’s death the other day, I realized that I had already begun to forget him—Boulez the composer, that is; his recordings as a conductor are everywhere. Boulez once figured ever so slightly in my musical geography. I’ve lived in four cities, all between the 42nd and the 46th parallel, beginning with Rochester, New York, a town with plenty of musical history. For many years, Rochester was alert to every age but the current one. But in the 1970s, Eastman School was waking up, and I heard a fair amount of new music there as a teenager. The compositional mood at Northwestern University in Evanston was relaxed, but if you took the el south to the University of Chicago you could hear the uncompromising music of Ralph Shapey. It was during this time that Boulez was most on my radar. I heard Ursula Oppens play the Second Piano Sonata. (Listen to that work on YouTube, synched to the score.) When I returned to Eastman for a graduate degree, Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer Without a Master) was required listening.

My twenties were mostly spent in Montana, where new concert music was scarce. So I donned the mantle of the avant-garde, writing a few abrasive works and enjoying the disguise. Moving to the Twin Cities in 1989 was a compromise: it was half-way to New York and a musical center that acknowledged the new without surrendering to it. Yet I haven’t heard a Boulez work in concert in the Twin Cities during the years I’ve lived here.

Yesterday I listened to Le marteau sans maître, a song cycle—more properly, three song cycles within a cycle—for voice and ensemble, written 1953-1955. It was not quite what I remembered. René Char’s poems are too elusive to go into here. The various preludes and commentaries on the poems create a maze-like structure. The ensemble, mezzo-soprano with alto flute, viola, guitar and percussion, is mezzo-tinted in every way, and no two movements are scored for the same group of instruments. There is no real bass until tam-tam and gong enter toward the end. In its eager, spasmodic rhythms, Le marteau seems to belong to the natural world. In some ways it is most impressive in its silences, opportunities to listen to the background on which this rustle of leaves and cracking of boughs unfolds. It is as impressive—and to these ears as ephemeral—as a brief shower on a sunny day.
Pierre Boulez, out of focus

Like every composer trained in the past sixty years, I have written twelve-tone music. Boulez was interested in going even farther, extending serial technique to other parameters. What a way to travel! Like spending every meal with a different family: you quickly forget where you belong, what language you’ve been speaking, even what you’ve had to eat. As the world spins ever faster, I find myself taking pleasure and some comfort in the familiar. There are things worth hanging on to, and things worth letting go of. Which is why Boulez is growing fuzzy—and I’m off to practice a trio by Papa Haydn.