Pierre Boulez


An aptitude for mathematics almost led Pierre Boulez into a career as an engineer, but his keen sense of analysis got him instead into the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under Olivier Messiaen.  An iconoclast from the very start, any piece which did not stand up to Boulez's exacting scrutiny was dismissed as worthless, and this ruled out a very great deal of music.  When Arnold Schoenberg's pupil Leibowitz came to Paris, Boulez took the opportunity to learn as much as possible about serial music and techniques.  Soon he was to write his first published works, the first piano sonata and the cantata Le Visage Nuptial

In time Boulez was to find even Schoenberg too antiquated - the classical constructions of which Schoenberg had been so proud were deemed outmoded, and it was Anton Webern whose aphoristic works became Boulez's new model.  Fascinated by the geometric relationships between pitch and time in Webern's music, Boulez set out to follow Messiaen's tentative forays into the field of total serialism - a strict ordering of every possible compositional aspect.  Works such as the 1948 Livre pour Quatuor went some way to realising this goal, but Boulez went yet further and began to experiment with electronic music.

In order to give new works (including his own) the performances he thought they deserved, Boulez founded the Domaine Musicale concerts, insisting on thorough preparation of new works and a very selective approach to established repertoire.  It was in this capacity that he began conducting, premiering works by Igor Stravinsky, Messiaen and many others.  Boulez continues to enjoy huge success as a conductor and has made landmark recordings of virtually all major 20th century works.

An association with Karlheinz Stockhausen further kindled his interest in the possibilities of electro-acoustic music.  Boulez was given carte blanche by the French government to set up a facility for research into music technology, and this led to the building of IRCAM, an underground acoustic research centre beneath the Pompidou Centre in Paris.  Boulez has exploited the results of the work carried out at IRCAM in works such as Répons and Anthèmes

The Boulez canon is not vast, partially because of the extensive revisions he makes to his pieces, viewing many of them as ongoing projects.  The heavily analytical nature of his compositional processes make new works time-consuming, and some would say that such an approach strips Boulez's music of a great deal of humanity.  No doubt Boulez would agree, his aim being to create a music free of prior influences, but his music still contains a great deal of the sensuous sonority of his teacher Messiaen.

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