Pierre Boulez
Interview by Andrew Carvin and Joshua Cody (WNUR-FM, Chicago)
November 14th, 1993 in Evanston, IL., for the Paris New Music Review.


Pierre Boulez was one of the great composers of the 1950s and is one of the great conductors of all time. Above all, his interpretations of twentieth-century repertoire have made him famous, particularly the versions of second Viennese school and French impressionist works. His greatest impact on composers has been through the IRCAM, arguably the best-known electronic music center in the world. Writes commentator Norman LeBrecht, "No composer since Wagner has squeezed so much state money to pursue a personal dream. Computers, declared Boulez, were 'as necessary to a composer as a knowledge of counterpoint and fugue.'" Twenty years later, IRCAM has yielded a handful of worthwhile musical works and some minor contributions to submarine warfare but seems to have drawn no closer to the promised land. Boulez, for his part, is virtually silent as a composer, as politics, administration, and conducting consume his valuable time." We interviewed him in Chicago for our magazine, and spoke about his compostitions, the IRCAM, the Ensemble InterContemporain, and the relative merits of French and American audiences.

AC: Mr. Boulez, you are performing tonight in Chicago with the Ensemble InterContemporain. Might you describe your affiliation with the ensemble over the years?

I began with the ensemble in 1976, quite a long time ago. I attended all the auditions, and I myself, with the help of a jury of musicians, chose all of the musicians. I think that' s really the first step: to be able to choose the musicians that you want to have; and then, of course, to be able to educate them, to form them. In the ensemble, there is quite a turnover; you can imagine that, especially in an ensemble whose lifespan is over seventeen years, there will be musicians who want to go forward with their own careers. So there is quite a turnover; but at the same time, there is a kind of "tradition"--I don' t like this word, but there is kind of a... "relay" between the musicians who began and the musicians of today.

I was never the music director. I was only the president of the ensemble, because I wanted to have a different music director. We are now on our third music director. For a long period of time, Peter Eštvšs was at the head. He did a very good job with the ensemble, and then he wanted to have his own life after that; and I understand that. After a certain number of years, you need some change. Now I have as music director a young American, from California, as a matter of fact, but whose education was partly in Germany, partly in London: David Robertson. It is exactly one year ago this coming January that he began. His contact with the musicians is very good. He is only 32 or 33, so he brings new ideas and new visions: I think it is very important, after a while, to have that.

Of course, I am the one who founded the ensemble, and certainly I have a kind of special position with this ensemble. But I try, as much as possible, to avoid having my shadow constantly hanging over the ensemble.

AC: The ensemble focuses exclusively on twentieth century music.

It was founded for that, specially. You know, I have many experiences, as you can imagine, performing twentieth century music; and very often, I find that music of this century is left on the side. Or the ensembles who do specialise in modern music have no resources, or very little backing; so you see that in New York, for instance, the ensembles that perform new music are really in great trouble, because they cannot find money. And it' s the same in London, practically. An ensemble like the London Sinfonietta has a great difficulty in surviving. When I was asked to begin a new music ensemble, I said that the first condition is a permanent salary, a permanent contract, like a normal orchestra. Certainly it helps very much. You can base a certain number of things on friendships, on personal relationships; but you cannot go forever in this way, it' s not the way of life. If you have solid ties, a solid contract, and musicians who are committed--committed for good reasons, of course--then you have an ensemble that is coherent, made up of musicians who are ready to study contemporary music and make their lives--not just their livings--with that.

I say always, every period is difficult. There is no easy period.

AC: How do you find American audiences react to the twentieth-century repertoire?

Among audiences you have many types. The majority are tied to the classical and romantic repertoire; it would be foolish to deny that. But I think that when you present concerts that are well-prepared, the audience feels confident, and then you definitely have a good audience. I don' t have permanent contact with American audiences. But I know that in Paris, the concerts that we are giving have very, very good audiences.

I am always trying to make sure that the audiences are in proportion to the pieces performed. What I mean is this: I remember that last year in Paris, we gave a concert of Webern and Ligeti, and of course we had more than two thousand people in attendance. If we give a concert with composers whose names are completely unknown, with very experimental tendencies, then I know that I cannot count on an audience larger than 200 to 400 people. I give these types of concerts in a smaller hall, one that will be full, rather than performing in the same large auditorium that would be either half-empty or half-full, depending on how you want to see it. There is a strategy for concerts. You cannot perform everything in the same place and under the same conditions. When there are works which are interesting and new, and which use new techniques or new technology, then often we create a kind of "workshop," in which we explain the compositional work of the composer, along with the team with which he has worked. There is a very loyal, steady audience for this type of program, at least 150, 200 people--which is quite a few, already, if you want to sustain this type of relationship.

AC: So do you always, ahead of time, select specific works for specific concert dates?

We always have a reserve of compositions ready; we have our own bag full of scores, let' s say. When we are preparing the season, we know very well how much we can do: a certain number of concerts in this large hall, a certain number of concerts in this small hall, et cetera. We make the programs according to the size of the hall, and according also to the scores we have. If a score has to wait one year to be performed at a more suitable concert, it is better to wait one year.

AC: You once said that music should be "collective hysteria and spells."

That was a quote from Antonin Artaud, the writer, and I think that it is something that' s true. The quote does not apply exactly, like all quotes; but certainly if you don' t have a kind of... well, "hysterical" purpose, let' s say, in music--or let' s say "expressive purpose"--of bringing the people out of their selves, out of their daily lives, then I don' t think that music is very interesting. In this, music is like all the arts; but music, perhaps, more than anything else, has this aspect--music and the theatre. It brings people out of themselves to go to some truth of the score, to some very important and deep reflection--on themselves, as a matter of fact. Proust has said another thing which is very important. He said that when you read a work, the work is reading yourself, the reader. You are not just discovering the work: if it is a very important work, then the work speaks about you--and not you about the work.

AC: Would you care to speak about your involvement with serialism?

For me, serialism was a short period, in the early fifties. It was a kind of approach to the language, a consequence from what we saw in Schšnberg, and in Webern especially. Webern very particularly, because his serialism is the most simple to analyze and to grasp. And therefore we went further--just to the point of absurdity, even--to see how it was possible to organize language in another way. But this period, a very experimental and abstract period, was just for a few years. It was between, let' s say, 1951 and 1953 or 1954; because when I began to work on Le Marteau sans Ma”tre, I was already beginning to go beyond this point, to try to make the discipline very flexible. If you have too strict a discipline, it kills your ideas, because you cannot put them anywhere. On the contrary, if you have a much more flexible discipline, your ideas can find their way. I think that there was the fight, after something very strict, to find a kind of invention which was very flexible.

Serialism itself was, for me and for my generation, very helpful because it gave a very strict discipline; and then after that, one can go everywhere. I suppose that' s exactly like, in the classical language, writing very strict counterpoint. It offers very strict constraints; it forces you to find a solution where you think there is no solution. After you have done that, you have a flexibility and a richness of invention which you could not have learned anywhere else.

AC: Michel Foucault once attributed what he called his "first great cultural jolt" to French serialism, and especially to you and BarraquŽ. Did you and Foucault influence each other?

I met Foucault very early, as a matter of fact, in 1951; but for a while I did not see him, because I was out of France. And he was out of France, also. Then, when we met again, that was very late in life--I mean, not terribly late, but it was not until I came back to France, especially in 1976, that I saw him quite frequently. But I knew his books, certainly. I think we are of the same generation. Therefore the way of thinking was very close, even without speaking about it. This kind of proximity of thinking, of looking at things, does not necessarily imply that thinkers are speaking together every day. When you compare us... For instance, look at the trajectory of Webern and the trajectory of Mondrian: here are two people who never saw each other, who never spoke to each other, who were completely ignorant of the other' s work. But you can see a very, very strong parallelism between the two trajectories. And I think that with Foucault the case is similar. At a certain time we met, and then for a certain period we did not meet at all; we were informed about each other, but that was all. Afterwards, when real meetings took place much more often, there was finally the opportunity of talking to each other.

JC: Some young composers of today look upon the compositional activity of the 1950s with envy; it appears as a kind of golden age to them. It' s a perception that I think is somewhat false; nevertheless, they feel that, in comparing that time with this time, the environment of today is depressing. They could cite a lack of faith in further aesthetic progress; the impossibility of individual creative volition; a feeling of entrapment, in which there are no truly original musical gestures left, only transparent references to past historical periods. They also have the conviction that the present historical position is absolutely unique and without precedent. So these composers sometimes find recourse in a sort of "neo-romanticism," or a kind of historical collage sometimes called "post-modern." Are these feelings, and these solutions, justified to any extent?

Well, each generation has to solve its problems. I cannot solve the problems of a generation which is forty years younger than me, certainly not. I say always, every period is difficult. There is no easy period. You know, when you think of the fifties, you might think it was very easy, whereas it was not easy at all. There was always the question of whether this new discipline was not completely absurd; there were many questions. Certainly, when I look, for instance, only at Paris, I see that practically all the composers of my generation have disappeared. They made the wrong choices, or they were not courageous enough, or they were not lucid enough; there are many reasons. Or, perhaps they were politically involved, and that political involvement brought them to solutions which were very trivial; this type of thing. So, no, it was not easy! No period is really easy.

As for historical monuments as things from which one steals a bit and places them in another context: that' s not a solution at all. You must find your own solution: I think that' s the main problem. If you are only quoting in your compositions, you are quoting! And you are quoting out of context, so there is no justification and no logic. It' s just like an antique shop, where you find a candle from the eighteenth century, you find anything from the nineteenth century; you can go all over the centuries, but you are left without a style. I think certain aspects of architecture have been going through the same problems exactly: "Well, it' s not possible to simply follow Mies van der Rohe, to simply follow le Corbusier"--and so they discover the Greek column, which is not exactly a very great discovery, in my opinion. In this way, architecture has exactly the same problems as music; but these are simply problems to be solved. But collage: I am not tempted by that, at all. Therefore, I cannot understand, really... I don' t simply want to be "original," but I want to take out of myself what is myself, and not only what I am looking at.

JC: Your enthusiasm for literature and the visual arts is one of the aspects of your personality that makes you a very appealing model for other composers. I don' t know how closely you follow extremely current events in the other arts; but if you do, I was wondering if you could generalise whether or not this period seems to have relative cohesion, or is characterised rather by a particular disunity. Perhaps it' s always impossible to judge.

Yes, that' s very difficult to judge immediately, because we tend to relate value and style, especially when looking at the past. When you are in the present, that is not always the case, because some works that don' t have an immense value nevertheless may have a kind of stylistic impulse which is necessary for this period. There are some works which are much better made, let' s say, much better fabricated; and they are not interesting because they don' t bring anything. So we are always too close to the fact, although you can have your personal judgement, of course; and I have my own judgements on things.

There are many ways of approaching the problems of music nowadays. But I think there are two things which I don' t like. First, the explicit reference to the past; because I think that' s useless. Second, oversimplistic solutions, which I find really useless. Sometimes when I read some manifestos--not manifestos, but declarations--of composers who want very simple styles, and so on, I think of what we have gone through historically in 1947, 1948, when you had the Stalinists saying that people should be happy... This kind of simplistic view is completely contradictory to the human being! The human being is not simple. The human being is really complex. When you have composers behind you like Wagner or Mahler, just to take two examples, who did find solutions which are challenging to you, you cannot say that they did not exist or were too complex, so let' s do something simple. Sometimes these kinds of solutions remind me of fast-food restaurants: convenient but completely uninteresting.

JC: How important a role does popular commercial music play, in America--not only in America, I suppose, but in Europe as well?

Yes, in Europe as well... The good side to popular music is that there is a vitality that is going into it; also, that popular musicians have no repertoire , so they are free from that, practically, even if they revive songs of the Beatles, things like that; that is not repertoire . Also, what I find the most interesting--sometimes--is the sound aspect. The sound aspect is completely new; they don' t use classical instruments, so they have to use electronic instruments, or electronically-manipulated instruments. So that is the interesting side. The side which I don' t like at all concerns the stereotypes and clichŽs: this language is absurdly full of clichŽs, it' s very simplistic, and after you have three minutes of it you have 33,000 minutes of it. But I like the vitality. I wish sometimes that the classical department would have as much vitality as one finds in the popular field.

JC: Do you think there remains a large difference between the place that contemporary music holds in Europe and the place it holds in America?

No. It' s approximately the same. People are not really very different in the same type of culture and civilisation. There is a small difference here and there, but globally it is approximately on the same level. Only, if I may say so, in the university... The danger here, in the States, is that the universities are sometimes like fortresses, and that there is not enough contact sometimes with the outside world. In England, it' s very much the same situation. In France, we have no campuses, we have no universities which are closed upon themselves; the universities are in the cities. Thus the intellectual or artistic life is a unification of the university life and the life of the city. If I see any difference between the States and Europe, that' s the difference: really, it' s between France and Italy on the one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon countries on the other. German countries also have universities which are very strong.

JC: Stravinsky warned against the university education. Would you warn against it?

No, not against the education, not at all; although I' m not really expert enough to have a judgement here. Only that if you could go outside more, if there were more ties with the city itself, I think it would be for the better. I spent only a semester at Harvard [teaching], and I looked at the relationship between the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Harvard--this was thirty years ago--and there was absolutely no connection. I find this detrimental for both sides, because you have a very high intellectual level on one side, a very high professional on the other side, and they would benefit from closer contact.

JC: Has your view on electronic music changed since you began IRCAM ? Has the course of electronic music been surprising?

What was surprising, what was quite unforeseen when I began IRCAM... I began the plans for IRCAM in 1969 or 1970, quite a long time ago. I had contacts in New York, and I must say that I had contacts with Max Matthews, who was at Bell Laboratories at this time, in New York. Although he never ordered me to do anything, through our conversations he made me aware that having a room for computers was very important. That' s all that I knew, both intuitively and through speaking with him. But I was careful, because at the beginning one can' t be sure; I was careful not to give everything to the computer. But progressively, and much more quickly than we had ever thought, the computer invaded everything, from the analysis to the synthesis of sound to the manipulation of instruments--everything. It' s a tool which is very general and which can be used in very different ways. The evolution of IRCAM is thus closely tied to the evolution of computer technology.

The second thing, which was not surprising to me at all, because I had always pushed in this direction... I had had bad experiences myself in the 1950s with electronic technology. If you did something electronic [as a composer], you had something on tape. Then [as a performer] you had to follow the tape; you were absolutely squeezed into coincidence with the tape. It was completely detrimental to the performance. Therefore I pushed the research in IRCAM towards live electronics and live computer systems, so that the computer would be geared towards the concert situation, so that the computer would have an instant response to the performer.

That was my first push in this direction. The second was the attempt to make the language [of computer programming for composition] more intuitive for the composer. I remember that when I learned, or when I tried to learn, computer music, there were only figures, figures, figures, which don' t speak at all to a musician. If you see a figure in Hertz, or in the number of decibels, or if you have to wait half an hour before you have a sound, you are discouraged completely. So for me, what was important was that you could at least make a sketch very rapidly. I wanted the ability to sketch with the sound first, to have sound instantly, even if you refine it later. Also I wanted the ability to use graphics as an instant notation, even if approximate. The musician' s imagination is stimulated only by a language which speaks clearly to the intuition of a composer. So those were the two things that I felt--and still feel--responsible for.

JC: Your two recent large pieces, Repons and ...explosante-fixe..., make use of electronics. How are they related?

Originally, I did Repons with the technology of the early eighties, and I abandoned the piece because I wanted a newer technology, especially one that uses the new MIDI pianos which give so much more data than was possible in 1981 and 1984. Therefore, I left that; I will write, later, another part of Repons which will use some of this newer technology.

The central role of the flute in ...explosante-fixe... is something that comes from a long time ago. When I was trying to do ...explosante-fixe... first in 1972, the technology was so primitive, you can' t imagine. You had still the connections with wires, and so on. It was clumsy and unreliable. I cannot explain the frustration we had. In the period that followed the first version of the piece, I thought always of that. Also, I was working with a flutist, who died in between the two versions of the piece, unfortunately, at a very young age. He was also very interested in connecting instruments to computers. He invented this kind of contact with the flute, in which the flute is registered with the computer immediately. The note you play is registered not only with the keys but acoustically, so you have the two aspects electronically controlled. Progressively, I pushed in the direction of a "score-follower:" this is the computer' s capability to follow the score just as the flute plays it. With that, you can then trigger whatever you want: you can not only modify the sound of the flute--which was still interesting to me--but you can also link the flute and the instrumental score to a third part, an "artificial" score. Currently, I' m working further in this direction. I want the computer to read the data of the flutist' s performance to simultaneously modify the artificial score; for instance, if the flutist decides to play very slowly, then the artificial score will be very slow. The idea is to achieve an interaction between the player and the machine.

JC: ...explosante-fixe... has a complicated family tree, doesn' t it? I' m trying to remember all the pieces that came from it: Originel, Rituel, Memoriale ...

Rituel is different. It is based on just one chord, that' s all, which I took from the others; so it' s just the harmony. But yes, I did ...explosante-fixe... first for seven instruments; and then I saw that that was too complicated, and the machinery was so terribly inefficient. But each part was written, so I have now a reservoir of possibilities which I will exploit progressively. I began with the flute. There was a violin part, as well, and I have began to transcribe that part for a work for violin solo.

JC: A lot of your pieces are interrelated in this way.


JC: Your compositional activity seems very coherent, very consistent.

Absolutely: it' s a tree which gives another tree which is another tree. Therefore, the title DŽrive. DŽrive 1, for instance, is from Repons. Part of the material for Repons I did not use, actually, and that became the material for DŽrive 1. And DŽrive 2 is from studies I did for the part of Repons which is still not written. DŽrive 3 is derived from another piece, Le Visage nuptial. You can never use all the material. But I like these kinds of relationships. As long as the material is not used fully, then I like to have some derivations.

JC: Do you wish that you could devote more time to composition?

Yes, I wish that. I' ve wished that for a long time, already. The concerts I give generally consist of contemporary music. Not always, but mainly. But if you do contemporary music, you have to do the repertoire ; an orchestra cannot survive without the repertoire . Therefore, you have to make. . . not a compromise in the bad sense, but a good compromise. It has to do with the audience: when the audience is confident that you can conduct all the pieces, they will follow you more; because they are confident that what you do is not simply absurd.

JC: This is a local question, because we' re in Chicago... Do you find the audiences in Chicago different from those in New York?

Definitely better.

JC: Why is that?

Don' t ask me, I don' t know. A sociologist should answer that.

JC: You also conduct in Los Angeles.

Yes, Los Angeles has very good audiences also. It depends upon the continuity of the orchestra. There are a lot of factors involved. As for Chicago, you cannot decide it is this way because it is Chicago, just because of the city. I think there is, maybe, a tradition; there is a habit of going to concerts, of being more respectful. . . I don' t know.

JC: In the next few years, are you going to devote more time to composition?

Yes, to composition.

JC: Will you write an opera?

Yes--I am supposed to do so! The first thing I said to Daniel Barenboim [Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra] was that I don' t want any deadline. I have conducted opera, not quite a lot, but sufficiently enough to be aware of the difficulties. And I want to do for the opera what I did with Repons: to not have only a conventional setting. Of course, conventions are existing not just because they are conventional, but because they are efficient, for instance acoustically. Once I saw in Paris a production of Boris Goudonov. Joseph Losey, the movie director, was doing it. He wanted direct contact between the singers and the audience members. They covered the [orchestra] pits completely and placed the orchestra behind the singers, like a band shell. The contact was terribly difficult, of course, because the conductor could not see the performers; so there were only monitors, everywhere, in front of the singers, in front of the conductor. The balance was completely off! When the chorus was at the front of the stage, you could barely hear a note of the orchestra. You heard the singers out of proportion. When a singer was in front, you heard the singer with a kind of background orchestra. So you cannot simply decide, "I will put the orchestra there, I will put the singer there." You have to take into consideration the acoustical problems. I want to think about that, and to decide with the playwright how to use that. Music is much less flexible than theatre.

JC: You enjoy the theatre. Do you go to the cinema?

Rarely. I look at movies when I am lazy; when I am tired, I look at movies on television. They appear on television one year late; and most of the movies can wait a year, I suppose.

JC: But historically France has held the cinema in high regard; it is perhaps more serious than that of the United States, in some respects.

Yes, in a way: there is a conception that is tied much more directly to the author, to an individual. But not always for the better, either. It reminds me sometimes of theatre at the beginning of this century, at the end of the nineteenth century, with these kinds of psychological and family situations which are not terribly exciting. In film, in France, you have nobody the size of Beckett, for instance.

JC: Ever?

Now, I mean. You had [Robert] Bresson, for instance, who made very good films; but the best film I saw recently, not now but a few years ago, was a Russian one, by [Sergei] Paradzhanov. It was called Sayat Nova [The Colour of Pomegranates, 1972]. It lasted for only eight days in the theatre; but it was extraordinary.

JC: Tonight we' re going to hear the Ligeti Piano Concerto. One of the differences between your music and Ligeti' s is the presence of the past.

Yes: you must think of his origins. He was born in Hungary and cut off from the world for a long time. Before 1956, he had heard almost nothing new, because everything was banned in Hungary. So he discovered things when he was already 33 or 34. At 33, you are already an adult, really; so he kept this kind of traditional education for a long time. He was also very much influenced by Bartok, as a matter of fact. There is still quite a bit of Bartok there, much more than the influence of the Viennese school. When he approached my group in 1956, I was already 31. So there is always this difference between my music, let' s say, or Stockhausen' s, and his music. He is attached to another education, to another tradition; and then he chose... Of course, now his vocabulary is much richer than the one with which he began. But I think that he has kept this kind of tie with folklore tradition, and many times I find in a Ligeti work the rhythm to a Romanian or a Bulgarian dance that one finds also in Bartok. But if I may say so, Ligeti' s music is Nancarrowized, because he was also strongly influenced by Nancarrow. But in general, this notion of tradition is the big difference between my music and his.

JC: But in your music, the past is there, and it resonates; just in a different way, in a less specific way.

I think I... absorb the past, much more. Maybe that' s to exaggerate. I don' t like to write something that could have been written by somebody else. That' s really maybe the death of me! If I write something, I want that to be exclusively mine. There is influence, yes, but the influence has been so absorbed that you cannot specify it, really. I can see it, because I know the source; and if I tell someone, then they can see a relationship, vaguely. But if I don' t say a word, nobody will see it. That' s the main thing.

JC: You have remarked that you have strong affinities--spiritual affinities, I saw written once--with several visual artists and writers. Are there any specific figures in art that you feel work particularly closely to the way you work?

Yes; but I don' t want to be any of these figures! I want to be myself, that' s all. I have had contact, really, with some of the best writers in France, especially; but I don' t want to be them. I want to be me. But I recognise their influence, especially when I was younger; they had a very strong influence on me. Either RenŽ Char, or Michaux, or even people I did not know at all, like Proust, for instance. Or Beckett, whom I never met. But Genet I met quite often.

AC: When we started talking, you mentioned problems with orchestras and funding. It appears over the last few years to have been getting worse and worse; and a lot of people are afraid that it could seriously damage the orchestra system and, on top of that, the encouragement of young people to become involved in music and composition. Is this a serious problem?

I think that there are problems with funding, that' s absolutely true. But I think that' s the bill of listening to music; and the desire to compose music, and the desire to live in a world where art does exist, is really very strong. I will tell you one thing: because I was born in 1925, part of my youth was spent between 1940 and 1944, when times were very bleak, let' s say. You had only one thing to look at, that was culture, the theatre, music. And I have never seen concert halls more full than in this period.

This vision makes me optimistic, under all circumstances--and we are far from these circumstances. But certainly, barbarian conditions can kill. If you look at Sarajevo right now... I don' t know if you have read about the experiences of Susan Sontag. She was in Sarajevo in September, I think it was, and she directed En Attendant Godot, by Beckett, to give some hope to these people; and I thought it was really an extraordinary gesture.

I remember having seen, it was very striking, a piano recital given in a hall in Paris, maybe ten or eight days before the liberation of Paris. So the atmosphere was really tense, and you never knew what could happen; we could have been bombed... Because there was almost no transportation, everyone had to bicycle or walk: there was really a lot of inconvenience. . . but the hall was full.

Interview copyright 1993 and 2001 by Paris Transatlantic. All rights reserved. See interviews of related interest with Betsy Jolas and Paul Lansky.