Exquisite Labyrinth: The Music of Pierre Boulez

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Helen Wallace samples Boulez's Exquisite Labyrinth at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The audience enjoyed the irony: here was Pierre Boulez, the man who once demanded all opera houses be blown up, confessing that it was at Bayreuth, conducting Wagner, that he’d had an epiphany about his own compositional process. The frail but razor-sharp 86 year-old told Pierre-Laurent Aimard, curator of the all-Boulez weekend Exquisite Labyrinth at London's Southbank Centre, how he’d realised Wagner had reworked themes in Das Rheingold 20 years later in Götterdammerung: ‘Of course! you have so many ideas when you’re young, but it’s only later you know how to exploit them.’


So much for his war cry that all art of the past needed destroying. Boulez has fed off his own past for decades now. And Saturday’s concert was a rare opportunity to witness that process at work in …explosante fixe… – a melody and a set of rules for developing it – notated in 1971 in response to Stravinsky’s death. Various works derived from its material, but its namesake only reached a final form in 1993, while it also led to Anthèmes 2 in 1997. Both works reflect the inspiration of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) and the stimulus of his own material.

In a quaintly Heath Robinson set-up, with a score spread over eight music stands (so much for cutting-edge technology), violinist Clio Gould tore into Anthèmes 2 with ferocious intensity. This absorbing work for violin and live electronics (performed here by Sound Intermedia) is a playful dialogue between musician and machine, in which the violin’s performance is instantly transformed spatially, through echoing counterpoint, or by provoking another spectrum of colour and harmony. It’s the score, not the violin, that dictates the interaction, but the sheer sophistication with which Boulez achieves his enchanting synthesis is breathtaking – and makes one realise how poor and cliché-infested most attempts at such works are.

Talking of breathtaking, next up was …explosante fixe… a piece we hear as if through a breathy wall of flute sound and the patter of ghostly flute keys – the soloist here was London Sinfonietta’s Michael Cox, conducted by Peter Eötvös. Fluid, stratified waves fizz across the stage, with no sense of rhythmic or harmonic underpinning, creating a weightless, hyperventilating stream, unpredictable and shimmering. We have the sense of the solo flautist caught in a sonic hall of mirrors. I was sitting too close to piercing trumpets and bubbling winds to catch all the electronic interplay in the texture, but the glacial breath of the electronic interludes was awe-inspiring, reminiscent of Birtwistle’s great Mask of Orpheus, also created at IRCAM.

When asked about the presence of death in his works, so many of them memorials to the departed, Boulez retorted: ‘There is no birth, there is no death, there is just material and the possibility of expanding it.’ We’ve long learnt to take his gnomic utterances with a pinch of salt: this is the man who had a double suicide pact with a lover in his youth, whose Cité de la Musique is built, appropriately, on a slaughterhouse. But a crowded hall, full of listeners of all ages, was testament to the power of his own legacy: Boulez’s crystalline material will haunt us for decades to come.

 Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

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Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace