Betsy Jolas 

Interview by Guy Livingston, Dec.2nd 1993

Madame Jolas, your new opera, "Schliemann," on the discovery of Troy, will be premiered in May 1995, at the Opera de Lyon. Tell us about this new project.

Schliemann was the discoverer of Troy. He was a crazy archeologist at the end of the 19th century. Schliemann, when he discovered Troy, found incredible treasures of gold. He had married a Greek girl, whom he believed was a reincarnation of Helen of Troy, he put all the jewels on her, then took photographs, and sent the photographs to all the newspapers of the time. This was the end of the nineteenth century-- 'how very modern, you know' --and we still have the pictures. The gist of the opera (of the play, in fact, written by Bruno Bayen on which the opera was based), was that these treasures had been lost, during the war. Schliemann had brought them back to Germany, because Greece didn't want them, thinking he had stolen them from Turkey, and Hitler was very proud of these treasures which were placed in the Pergamon museum, situated in what became East Berlin. When the war ended, they looked for the treasures, but there were no longer there, and that is in part the subject of the opera which ends with a man saying: "The treasures have disappeared."

It so happens that the cases of treasure have just been found in Russia. Now there are four countries fighting over these treasures: Germany, Greece, Turkey, and Russia, so I might have to add a finale or something to my opera. It's a funny story. [She eventually decided not to. --Ed.]

Alain Françon will direct. This has been in the making for a while, but it was very difficult to find anyone who would pick up the task of directing after Vitez, our original director, died.

What us about the Parisian new music scene: Do you think the change of government is going to have a big effect on the IRCAM?

Nothing can have an effect on the IRCAM. I mean this can go down on the record too. Pierre Boulez knows that too. Whatever the government there's no problem. You have to admit that this is an institution that really works very well.

The IRCAM works well?

I mean it's functioning...

Well, it's good and bad. Yes it functions, but it costs so much money. I wouldn't say it's being particularly effective.
That is what you say, that's what I might say, but you know, the fact is that it continues, and it's still functioning, and nobody can even dream of questioning it. In France nobody's going to question it, no one. But there are too many "pions" [pawns/bureaucrats] that are placed now everywhere who are working in coordination, so it just cannot be moved. Most Americans think its a great place when they come from America...

Oh, sure, yes, it has a reputation for being a great place...

You think it's no longer?

No, I don't think there is much innovation going on there anymore. It seems that it has become bogged down with a very intricate bureaucracy. And it is just stuck. The idea was that the technology would serve as a seamless conduit for the composers to produce beautiful art, but it's not happening.

What I think is that the whole thing turned around the personality of Pierre Boulez. He's no longer the center of it, and the man who has taken that in charge is not a composer... What happened really, let us be very frank, is that IRCAM was built around his personality. It is very strange- well it is very clever to have done that. "Je tire mon chapeau" [Hats off] as they say, to his achievement: to be able to organize an institution to serve his own interests, and his own problems, too. This has nothing to do with my admiration for Pierre Boulez, whom I think is a great man, I really do. I just think he has problems, that's all. But he is a very important musician. I have to admire somebody who can raise (this is what my husband used to say) who can raise his problems to the height of an institution.

Well he did good stuff too, it worked well for France in that it also raised interest in contemporary music...

In a small fringe, and it put that fringe in the forefront, though it was very controlled. It's very strange; I have to admire him, because generations of composers flock around him - still, still. We flocked around him, and then comes another generation, and then another, and they're still doing it! As for me, I have a very strange and warm relationship with him when I can see him away from "la cour." [the court] I believe he's a great composer. At least he was. I don't really know if he still is. Sometimes I wonder if he is truly composing today. His talent, his genius, was so extraordinarily precocious.

I was no genius and I was not precocious, so I know what I'm talking about. I've seen precocious kids in my class. Boulez was like fire when he was eighteen or twenty. And what he brought to contemporary music is incredibly important. It still is important. I'm happy to have been through that generation and to have gone through this; I didn't miss the boat: "je n'ai pas manqué le coche." Most women did miss it, and a lot of men too. But I'm sorry about women missing it in my generation. I felt very strongly that this was the important thing going on at the time. I went through that "purgatory" as I often said, and it taught me a lot. It taught me to be rigorous for one thing, and this I don't find today. I mean -- you shouldn't regret anything -- this rigor we had, my god, you could hardly breathe. It was amazing. And it was thanks to Boulez. He was very important. But thanks to other people also, you have to remember that he was not the only one. He was the first one. He was the mover, and then came Stockhausen, and then came Berio, very close behind. These three were the movers in those years, and that lasted until about '56-'57. That was a very important time, and then they each went their own way, everyone of them went their own way. And I'm wondering whether Pierre Boulez has composed very many significant works since pli selon pli, which is a great masterpiece.

I'm not totally convinced by Répons. It was his answer to all the responsibility that he was given in this IRCAM. He had to justify his new position. After all, he didn't really write a piece using in any new way the means that he had at his disposal. I find this piece very seductive, I have to admit; he's a marvelous musician. He has an incredible ear, and his capacity for work is unbelievable. But, I think that all the other years before, he was trying to give a picture of himself that wasn't really his personality. There was a part of it that he was hiding, which was actually his Ravel side, and I think it comes out in Répons. It's very Ravel, the minute the trills come into his music. I remember him laughing when I asked him whether they were taken "from above or from below."

It's a very strange thing, he's probably the musician who best understood Debussy; nobody has spoken about Debussy as well as he has. He was the first one to really understand Debussy, and nobody conducts Debussy the way he does. But I believe deeply inside, he thinks Debussy is no way to go. Whereas I think its a way to go that has not been explored. That's where we differ. Totally! I think this is where I want to go, and I think at this point that I can do it. We've talked about that. It's hard to talk to him, but we've talked about that. It's hard to find a time when he's not surrounded by people. We used to find those times easily, but now it's very difficult. Deep inside he still has this very incredible sensitivity, which I respect in him. He's a great musician and a great French musician. There are not really so many of those.

Why do you think that is?

Because the French don't like music.

I beg your pardon?!

I don't think the French like music very much. It is a real problem. They are visual; they are very, very interested in painting and architecture, but music has always been a problem with them, although there is a greater demand for music today than there ever was, thanks in part to the encouragement of the state institutions and so on. However, and I guess it has to do with the training they get in school, the kids at school hardly ever hear music, and music is just not important, not important at all.

Maybe it's because I'm coming from the United States, but I'm so encouraged by the incredible fact that events are constantly sold out, that there's such a large public...

Are you? I suggest that you try to find out if they hear anything. I'm struck by the fact that most people are deaf. They will wildly applaud somebody who plays terribly, with a lot of mistakes. They just don't hear. They don't hear anything.

Why do they go to concerts?

Why? Because it's snobbish, because it's chic. Because it's Paris. It's become chic to go to Baroque concerts, Baroque is very chic; anything that is chic is Paris, it still is, has always been. And what is chic, is rarely French. Take the people going for Bob Wilson - they call him "Bob" as if they knew him...

- and Peter Sellars

- and Peter Sellars, but they won't even look at a French director, they won't look at a French jazzman. I see that with some of my son's friends, and my son himself. If you are not called Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis, (which they pronounce as badly as you possibly can) you're out! That's France, that's Paris. And as you know, Paris is France. You either like it or you don't.

So you think the French are more visually oriented?

Yes, very much so. And you think their taste in art is more sophisticated?
Yes, I do. For example, I am amazed by the number and the quality of the people who go to the Louvre. I don't want to say that they all go for good reasons, but they do go. I went to the Barnes exhibition and I was struck by the conversations I overheard. They were very far from stupid. If you look at television, the only artistic broadcasts that you see, besides Wednesday when they have music -- which is due to Germany and not to France -- are all visual, all painting. There is never a broadcast on a composer. Never is there one in America either. It is just impossible.

How important is it to you, that there are questions about women in music?

It's not really important to me. But since I keep getting those same questions, I have to admit that the proportion of men and women composers today has not changed since my childhood, and I am sorry to say I have no explanation for that. I like women to be outstanding, and I support them when they are, rather than men, but I do not support them when they are not. In fact I find that I am very mean to them when they are not, which is not very nice. I really want women to be outstanding, and that probably means a little more outstanding than men would be. That's one aspect of the problem, especially in the field of music. You have heard, as I have, people say that there will never be a female Beethoven. Of course there won't be! Beethoven was a man. That's a good reason isn't it? It's a stupid statement. But there might be an outstanding woman who would not be Beethoven but who would be totally different. I believe in the difference.

Do you think your compositions are different? This is a hard question to put diplomatically: do you think that there are differences between men and women in composing?

Yes, there are. But I maintain every time that this question is put to me, and it has been asked many times that I think the difference should not be defined at this point because it's too early in the game. But there is a difference. We are just not made exactly the same so we have a different kind of sensitivity. You begin to see the difference in female painting and especially in literature, when you read Virginia Woolf, or Katherine Mansfield or some of those wonderful English writers, you realize that there is a difference in the way they look at the world. A great painter, Joan Mitchell used to say to me, "you are a lady composer and I am a lady painter." She said that with a kind of bitter humor, but that was indeed the way we were considered. I think at this point we are still expected to compete with men, and for me that's not the way to look at things. I shall never forget the review I got for a piece written for numerous wind and brass instruments. The reviewer said that I had tried to be virile, just because my piece was not subdued and charming.

Which he was expecting from you?

Which probably was expected of me. These are qualities that people still expect of women artists, and I think we will have to let some time go by before changing such expectations. One thing is sure: women's art is not going to be like men's art, but it's not going to be what men think it will be either. That is all I can say at this point. It's very early still in the game. Women have only just begun to be admitted as having a mind, a creative mind.

So you think things will change though?

God knows what the world will become anyway. It might change, if women are allowed to enter the world of male creativity. People think today that throughout history there have been many female composers who did not sign their names, because being a composer was, especially in France, to be considered a fallen woman. So we've come from very far, and we have to go over this bend before we solve the problem. For indeed, admitting women composers requires more than just saying: "we're going to have women composers." We have to prove first that this is possible. Coming back to Boulez, he was very important for me at one time. I showed him my music, and he did not, at any point, question the fact that I was a woman or a man; he just looked at the music. I am forever grateful to him for that. That was so important at a point where I needed confidence. As you see -- and hear! -- I'm still writing and shall keep on as long as possible.

Paris, December 2nd, 1993