"The year 1968 was also ground zero for popular music in Germany. Karl Bartos, in 1968 a 16-year-old gifted classical musician, puts it like this: ‘We don’t have the blues in our genes and we weren’t born in the Mississippi Delta. There were no black people in Germany. So instead we thought we’d had this development in the twenties which was very, very strong and was audio-visual. We had the Bauhaus school before the war; and then after the war we had tremendous people like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the development of the classical and the electronic classical. This was very strong and it all happened very close to Düsseldorf, in Cologne, and all the great composers at that time came there. During the late forties up until the seventies they all came to Germany; people like John Cage, Pierre Boulez and Pierre Schaeffer, and they all had this fantastic approach to modern music, and we felt it would make more sense to see Kraftwerk as part of that tradition more than anything else."
Pierre Boulez, Roland Barthes, Jean-Claude Risset, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze etc (23 février 1978, Le Temps musical).
"[Boulez] reminds me a little of the character that Herbert Lom plays in the Pink Panther movies. He doesn't have the 'psychotic wink', but he has some of that nervous quality about him, as if he might -given the proper excuse- start laughing uncontrollably. I went to lunch with him in Paris, prior to the Perfect Stranger recording. He ordered something called brebis du [fill in the blank]-- I didn't know what it was. It was some kind of meatlike material on weird lettuce with a translucent dressing. He looked like he was really enjoying it. He offered some to me. I asked him what it was. He said, "the sliced nose of the cow." thanked him and went back to my pepper steak."
"I got a copy of Boulez's first sonata and the slow movement is just two pages and there were different attacks there, and it looked familiar, I don't know what, I felt something, I couldn't articulate, I'm looking at it and it's registering. About three years later I'm looking through all scores and there is a religious song of Webern, also two pages. And I look at it and I get a pencil and I get the Boulez, and I mark the attacks, the kind of attacks, and then I took the Webern, the kind of attacks was exactly the same. So, evidently, that was no accident, so, evidently Pierre felt that if he had the distribution of those kind of attacks in a short piece of approximately the same duration as Webern, he had, almost in a kind of Voodoo, it's not normal, it's '"spinnst", the Voodoo kind of sucking the blood of the enemy, you see, you are gonna get a strength, that's essentially what it is. And isn't that tradition, if we suck out the blood and the knowledge of the past, we are gonna get it's strength, it's what they refer to Reagan as the Voodoo economics? This is Voodoo tradition. Maybe there is some kind of primeval hangover? Let us talk about these things. We are not talking about history, we are talking about a few people, that's history. We are not talking about all the Kinder hanging around Darmstadt.
"I once had a wild six hour discussion walking the streets of New York with Boulez, how he is telling me, he is really telling me but he is using Ives, "Oh, Ives, the amateur!" And I think it's absolutely outstanding, I think it's absolutely incredible why one would think about Ives as an amateur. No. He wrote fantastic things, like the conception of the 4th symphony, I'm talking about the one with the four pianos, he never changed anything, Mahler was changing things all the time. Why was he [Ives] an amateur? Because he wasn't a European? A man does all these innovations, he is an amateur, I, for years, I'm still called an amateur. I'm one of the few original people writing music, I'm an amateur! Is it only that -, I never understood that John Cage is an amateur, I'm an amateur, Ives is an amateur. "
Music is a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal
"With Pierre music has to do with ideas. His is a very literary point of view. He even speaks of parentheses. All of it has nothing to do with sound. Pierre has the mind of an expert. With that kind of mind you can only deal with the past. You can't be an expert in the unknown. His work is understandable only in relation to the past."
Why compose works that have to be re-created every time they are performed? Because definitive, once-and-for-all developments seem no longer appropriate to musical thought as it is today, or to the actual state that we have reached in the evolution of musical technique, which is increasingly concerned with the investigation of a relative world, a permanent 'discovering' rather like the state of 'permanent revolution'.
We have to fight the past to survive.
Creation exists only in the unforeseen made necessary.
"The literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes. It is, of course, necessary to go beyond any idea of scandal. Since the negation of the bourgeois conception of art and artistic genius has become pretty much old hat, [Duchamp's] drawing of a mustache on the Mona Lisa is no more interesting than the original version of that painting. We must now push this process to the point of negating the negation."
Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman
Boulez is among the last of his generation alive. "All the people with whom I was very close at one point in my life - Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Nono, Bernd Alois Zimmermann - they are all gone." He and Carter are two of the very few who remain. Boulez is saddened by these deaths, but not daunted. "With Berio, with whom I kept a good relationship, we only met once a year or so, and with Stockhausen, we had almost no contact in the last decades, because he made himself alone.
"I also live rather alone. In business, in the music world, people know that I can be very friendly and warm, but that after a certain moment, the business is closed. I like to be alone: in order to concentrate on my work, the social life does not exist. It has never existed for me really. I have chosen instead the working life, because I prefer that. I like to work, otherwise I do not know what I would do."
"With a red pen, [Rene] Leibowitz began marking up the manuscript [to Boulez's first sonata], then dedicated to him. Grabbing the score, Boulez fled, shouting at Leibowitz "vous etes de la merde!" [you are full of shit!] Three years later, Boulez's publisher Herve' Dugadin asked him if the dedication should remain on the printed score. As Boulez shouted "Non!" he stabbed the manuscript with a letter opener until it was virtually in shreads."
Since it wants to be in such a perpetual situation of discovery – new domains of sensibility, experimentation with new material – is contemporary music condemned to remain a Kamchatka (Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve, remember?) reserved for the intrepid curiosity of infrequent explorers? It is remarkable that the most reticent listeners should be those who have acquired their musical culture exclusively in the stores of the past, indeed of a particular past; and the most open – only because they are the most ignorant? – are the listeners with a sustained interest in other means of expression, especially the plastic arts. The “foreigners” the most receptive? A dangerous connection which would tend to prove that current music would detach itself from the “true” musical culture in order to belong to a domain both vaster and more vague, where amateurism would preponderate, in critical judgment as in creation. Don’t call that “music” – then we are willing to leave you your plaything; that is in the jurisdiction of a different appreciation, having nothing to do with the appreciation we reserve for true music, the music of the masters. Then this argument has been made, even in its arrogant naiveté, it approaches an irrefutable truth. Judgment and taste are prisoners of categories, of pre-established schemas which are referred to at all costs. Not, as they would have us believe, that the distinction is between an aristocracy of sentiments, a nobility of expression, and a chancy craft based on experimentation: thought versus tools. It is, rather, a matter of a listening that could not be modulated or adapted to different ways of inventing music. I certainly am not going to preach in favor of an ecumenicism of musics, which seems to me nothing but a supermarket aesthetic, a demagogy that dare not speak its name and decks itself with good intentions the better to camouflage the wretchedness of its compromise. Moreover, I do not reject the demands of quality in the sound as well as in the composition: aggression and provocation, bricolage and bluff are but insignificant and harmless palliatives. I am fully aware – thanks to many experiences, which could not have been more direct – that beyond a certain complexity perception finds itself disoriented in a hopelessly entangled chaos, that it gets bored and hangs up. This amounts to saying that I can keep my critical reactions and that my adherence is not automatically derived from the fact of “contemporaneity” itself. Certain modulations of hearing are already occurring, rather badly as a matter of fact, beyond particular historical limits. One doesn’t listen to Baroque music – especially lesser works – as one listens to Wagner or Strauss; one doesn’t listen to the polyphony of the Ars Nova as one listens to Debussy or Ravel. But in this latter case, how many listeners are ready to vary their “mode of being,” musically speaking? And yet in order for musical culture, all musical culture, to be assimilable, there need only be this adaptation to criteria, and to conventions, which invention complies with according to the historical moment it occupies. This expansive respiration of the ages is at the opposite extreme from the asthmatic wheezings the fanatics make us hear from spectral reflections of the past in a tarnished mirror. A culture forges, sustains, and transmits itself in an adventure with a double face: sometimes brutality, struggle, turmoil; sometimes meditation, nonviolence, silence. Whatever form the adventure may take – the most surprising is not always the noisiest, but the noisiest is not irremediably the most superficial – it is useless to ignore it, and still more useless to sequestrate it. One might go so far as to say there are probably uncomfortable periods when the coincidence of invention and convention is more difficult, when some aspect of invention seems absolutely to go beyond what we can tolerate or “reasonably” absorb; and that there are other periods when things relapse to a more immediately accessible order. The relations among all these phenomena – individual and collective – are so complex that applying rigorous parallelisms or groupings to them is impossible. One would rather be tempted to say: gentlemen, place your bets, and for the rest, trust in the air du temps. But, please, play! Play! Otherwise, what infinite secretions of boredom!
Pierre Boulez in conversation with Michel Foucault
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.
He says little has changed in the music world since he started out, in that "20% are very interested in new things, 50% can be persuaded and 30% are in their coffins before their time. It is not a matter of good times or bad times. You always have to make an effort and you always need a strong personality to get things done. If you are timid and unadventurous, no matter how good your ideas, nothing happens. Me, I'm not a shy man. I am willing to have a go. Then it is for others to judge its worth."
“I suggested that it was not enough to add a moustache to the Mona Lisa; it should simply be destroyed. All I meant was just to urge the public to grow up and once for all to cut the umbilical cord attaching it to the past. The artists I admire – Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Berlioz – have not followed tradition but have been able to force tradition to follow them. We need to restore the spirit of irreverence in music.”