Sunday, September 15, 2013

Multiplicities Of Genius, Part One

I try not to toss around the word "genius" too casually, but there are those individuals who clear a large amount of artistic space and define it in such a way and with such an expansive impact that the term must be used. Another defining characteristic of genius is that some of their output is often misunderstood. Sometimes it is their early works that are dismissed, as in the case of Pierre Boulez, and sometimes it is the late works, as in the case of Sly Stone. Fortunately, we have occasional attempts by the record business to address the works of musicians as a whole, creating opportunities to reassess and understand the big picture. These usually take the form of door-stopping, wallet-straining box sets that are driven as much by commercial considerations as musicological concerns.

In the case of Oeuvres Complètes, the stunning 13 CD set of the music of Pierre Boulez, it's difficult to imagine the intrusion of commerce into its creation. While it does consist of mostly previously released works, it is also extremely affordable at about $56, less than $5 per disc. I suppose if Deutsche Grammophon were to sell 5,000 copies they would consider it a success. Oeuvres Completes is more of a labor of love by composer and label, and a wonderful gift for those of us who have been trying to grasp the mercury of Boulez's music since the first time we heard his now-classic work, Le Marteau sans maître.

This handsome black box is also somewhat of a practical joke. As long as Boulez is alive, his work is never complete. Not only does he continue to compose (although at 88, he's slowed down a little), but he's also known for continually revising his pieces, sometimes over the course of decades. As the first sentence of the massive booklet states: "More than anyone else's, Pierre Boulez's oeuvre has not known completion and never will." Flip the box over and it even says "Pierre Boulez: Work In Progress." So, a snapshot, then - a time-lapse photograph of nearly 60 years of compositional innovation.

Of the newly released music, the most substantial is the 43 minute Dérive II, which expands on Dérive I in both length (the original is just under six minutes) and in number of players, with an ensemble of 11 as opposed to six. Suffice it to say, it's nearly worth the price of admission - a shimmering series of rhythmic dialogues and melodic explorations. The title means "drift" and it fits, but it feels like a drift with a purpose. For the music of Boulez, Dérive II is a fairly placid listening experience, albeit with an undertow of unease. As one would expect from a modern composer, there is plenty of angular sturm und drang in other works. While he is often depicted as cooly rational, there is often the sense of an emotional maelstrom to his sound world. Speaking of the sound of Boulez, I got into an hilarious debate on Amazon when I gave a quick review of this set and mentioned that that his music often features "fantastic melodies." Someone else took issue with that and quoted Boulez as saying he had "no need" for Rachmaninoff, as if that rendered him incapable of producing notes in a sequence that could be defined as melodic. I also have no need for Rachmaninoff and other composers who dull the ear with their heavy handed application of swelling "tunes." There is melody in Boulez and active listening will reveal it. (In any case, six out of seven people found my review helpful, so take that!)

The range represented by the included works is remarkable. There are pieces for solo instruments, imaginatively assembled chamber groups, and full orchestras, occasionally featuring solo voices and choirs, and often limned with advanced electronics. Discs 1-11 feature the Oeuvre in chronological order, from 1946's Douze Notations for piano, to Une page d'ephemeride, also for piano, from 2005. The 12th disc contains historical recordings from 1950, 1956 and 1964 of works that are repeated elsewhere, giving us a chance to get a sense of Boulez's process.

The early recording of Le Marteau sans maître, while slightly brittle in sound, has a jazzy briskness that is replaced by a more contemplative quality in the version from 2005. Le Soleil des eaux in the 1950 recording of the second version is theatrical, with a tinge of hysteria and mostly lacking in the emotional impact of the fourth version from 1965. Crucially, Boulez added a mixed chorus to support and interact with the soprano, as opposed to the tenor and baritone in the earlier take. One of Boulez's earliest works, the Sonantine for flute and piano, written when he was just 20, is represented on the bonus disc by a stunning performance by Severino Gazzelloni (flute) and David Tudor (piano). This is a fully mature work that is essentially Boulez's shot heard round the world, heard here in its first definitive performance. In a word: electrifying.

Disc 13 is an hour long interview in French from 2011, which is fortunately transcribed in the extensive booklet. Boulez describes his process in general, recounts his life-changing encounter with Olivier Messiaen, and gives a brief autobiography of booing. He also delineates the precise difference between his form of improvisatory writing and that of someone like John Cage. Ever brash, he states, "...the responsibility of a composer is a responsibility that exists. If you simply spend your time playing 'heads or tails' to write a note, I say no. Because there, there's no grammar, there's no style, there's no form, there's nothing!" Grammar, style, form - three words that can be taken as a manifesto fulfilled time and time again by Boulez's remarkable music.

If you have any interest in modern classical music from the time immediately following WWII to the present, if you listen to bands that name-check Messiaen and Stockhausen, if you want to travel the edge of the cutting edge, this set is essential. Two more caveats about this "complete" business. In the case of Dérive II, there is an earlier 25 minute recording that is now "composition non grata," although it is still in print. There may be other such instances and in the interview we learn of published works that have been subsequently excised from the canon. For example, in the case of Poesie pour pouvoir for tape and orchestra from 1958, Boulez says the electronic part is "thoroughly insufficient" and "not worth the trouble" to revise. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to listen for myself and while it is a fascinating work of its time, he is exactly right. Pardon moi for ever doubting you, Maître Boulez.

Next time: The genius of Sly Stone as encapsulated in the new box set, Higher.

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