Prom 9: The Boulez Guide

Twitter leads the way through Dérive 2

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Barenboim and Beethoven might be the headline names, but at the first of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s Proms, it was Boulez who grabbed the limelight.

At least that was the impression I got, listening at home on the radio, and following along on Twitter. And if that sounds like I wasn’t concentrating properly, then you’re partly right. While both my ears were tuning in to Boulez’s jittery, glittery Dérive 2, I was also busy reading a real-time guide to this complex, lengthy work for 11 instruments, in the hope of understanding just what I was meant to be focusing on. Let me explain how.

Tom Service, classical music critic for The Guardian and presenter of Radio 3’s Music Matters, had put together a series of 140-character snippets to hold listeners’ hands through Boulez’s score. As the piece unfolded in the Royal Albert Hall, the Tweets were published online, offering colourful descriptions of what we were hearing. 

At moments it felt like trying to keep up with the refresh button was as hard as it would be to follow Boulez’s score – and that’s pretty tricky: Barenboim revealed he couldn’t fathom it when he first saw it – but its regular signposts through this relentless, unfamiliar (to me at least) score proved welcome. It seemed it was, too, to other Twitter followers: the handful of Tweets about Beethoven was overshadowed by an avalanche about Boulez. With the hashtag #boulezguide acting as a means of uniting listeners, it became one of the UK's 'trending', or most talked about, topics on Twitter. And although some Tweeps felt some of the descriptions were just too fanciful, there were countless others who felt this was the ideal match of technology and music.

Of course, the temptation when you’re following along on Twitter, is then to join in the conversation about the piece. And it does feel strange, even slightly wrong, to slip out of concert concentration to chatty Twitter mode. I started to wonder if Tweeting during a Prom is the equivalent of whispering in the audience? And more than one person raised the question of whether the music is second-rate if it can’t speak for itself in purely musical terms, and needs verbal explanation.

Well, that argument is at least as old as the Beethoven Symphonies which flanked the Boulez. Beethoven’s Second, after all, was described as a 'crass monster' by one critic after an 1804 performance. Today, it’s hard to imagine this incomprehension of Beethoven’s musical language. Familiarity is key: programme notes took off in popularity in the 19th century, aiming, as they did, to help people understand and be prepared for the music they were hearing. Would this gripe have been raised if the guide had been to Beethoven’s symphonies instead? I suspect not. Because it seems people find Boulez, a bit like the proverbial Marmite and Twitter itself, either overwhelmingly repellent or strangely intoxicating.