Classical: Voulez-vous Boulez?

Modernist bete-noire or champion of the new? Either way, you can't ignore him. Now a TV profile and a flurry of concerts place the composer- conductor centre-stage.
Pierre Boulez is one of Europe's longest-standing musical radicals, daubed by one journalist as "an activist before he was an artist" and an unapologetic standard- bearer for creative honesty. Talking to him at the Paris Institut de Recherche et de Co-ordination Acoustique/ Musique, or IRCAM, which he has directed since its government-funded inception in 1970, Boulez railed mercilessly against the idea of musical "elitism". "It serves as a smoke screen for people who are lazy," he told me candidly. "For me, that is all it is. Elitism camouflages their lack of responsibility. It is pure demagogy." He speaks of elevating listeners rather than "sinking" with them to a lower level. "The lower you sink, the lower you stay," he says decisively. "It's not a question of `progress', but of potentially stagnating in mud."

Boulez first came to prominence in post-war France when his fearless promotion of dodecaphony helped re-vitalise a musical culture that had been stunted under Nazi occupation. Russian new music was still frozen by Soviet cultural strictures, and so any moves towards a newfound creative freedom were widely countered by implacable opposition. "During this century we have seen the disasters of Hitler and Stalin bring culture to the lowest possible level," Boulez protests, "pressuring composers to write music that can be `immediately understood', which, of course, means that it can also be immediately forgotten. Anyone who has not learned a lesson from these terrible times must be really sick."

The question then arises whether coded protests against oppression - whether political or otherwise - can ever make for great art. Shostakovich, for example, whose music Boulez never conducts. "I have to tell you that I have very mixed feelings about this music," he says. "It is often said that Shostakovich is the `more recent' equivalent of Mahler; but I would say that to compare Shostakovich with Mahler is like comparing Meyerbeer with Wagner. The musical substance of his work is trivial. Okay, I can accept that he worked under great pressure, that he was afraid and that he rebelled discreetly. But, for me, that's not enough of an excuse."

And what about Shostakovich's more adventurous later works? Surely they are less sullied by compromise than some of his earlier pieces? Boulez is immovable. "By then, he was under less pressure - and that's all. It's very easy to listen to, but if you compare it with The Rite of Spring or the best works of Prokofiev - there's no contest. Shostakovich was at his best when he was young and spontaneous, and at his worst when he wanted to be heroic."

Other musicians straddle ideological extremes rather more easily. The conductor Sir Andrew Davis, for example, whose repertoire includes Shostakovich and who, on Monday night, will conduct an all-Boulez programme with the orchestra that the composer himself led from 1971 to 1975. The choice of programme - which includes the sensual Le visage nuptial and the imposing Notations - is of Davis's own devising. Boulez himself had no involvement in its construction. "Once my pieces are written and printed, people can make what they want with them. But I think the sequence has been well chosen."

Boulez was a relative latecomer to conducting and traces a prominent curve of development from his earlier recordings to his latest work for Deutsche Grammophon. "I don't change my performances on purpose," he confesses. "It's more a kind of organic change. I listen to records I made years ago - perhaps of Debussy or Ravel - and know that I could do better now. When I was younger, I didn't take an orchestra's individual sound into consideration: I would give much more than I received. But the more your technique improves, the freer you feel; you begin to listen, to sculpt the sound. When you are preoccupied with technique, you cannot establish a proper musical dialogue. I used to have some difficulty with tempo changes, but not now."

Boulez's latest recording ventures have included his own epoch-making Repons, one of the first releases in Deutsche Grammophon's trans-millennial "Music of Our Time" series. The importance of appropriate acoustical environments has proved a lifelong preoccupation. He prefers to conduct Wagner's music dramas only at Wagner's own Bayreuth opera house. "I cannot believe that this wonderful theatre was built as long ago as 1875 and has never served as a model for anything more recent," he says. Boulez's favoured venue for Repons is the "Music City" building at the big La Villette themed museum site situated to the north-east of Paris. "An ordinary concert hall will not do," he insists. "The space is not there and we must always fight against the architecture." He claims that the only performance of Rituel (one of his most instantly appealing works) that has ever satisfied him was at the same venue, "where I could place the instrumental groups away from each other, conduct from the centre and have the audience in the middle of the hall".

The spatial requirements of Repons were realised on the recording with the help of a "Spatialisateur" computer programme developed at IRCAM, but when it comes to the use of video, Boulez finds that pop producers have the edge. "Look at a video on MTV and see the amount of technology it takes to sustain four or five minutes of music," he says. "It's amazing. You have a sort of firework display of equipment and effects. I find myself laughing at certain Baroque concerts on video where the camera leaves the orchestra and tours the church. There, your visual options are forced by somebody else - which is very disturbing when all you want to do is listen to the music."

The ongoing development of IRCAM - which now includes an expanded pedagogical department - goes hand-in-hand with the growth of La Villette. It is Boulez's ambition is to build a bigger hall, improve the museum's coverage of 20th- century music and create a comprehensive media centre (to include books, CD, CD-Rom, CDV, Internet connections and so on). The idea is to relate existing facilities at IRCAM to those at the newly extended La Villette.

Boulez observes how our cultural history alternates warlike aggressiveness and peaceful repose. At present, we appear to be suffering the effects of cultural inertia. "Now that Europe enjoys a sort of balance between the two sides, and there is no immediate danger of a `big fight', people have become lazy," he says. "They don't want to be disturbed. But we must not be discouraged by this lack of energy. I am sure the pendulum will swing back."

Maybe it has already begun to swing. On Wednesday evening, Boulez's recent work, Sur incises, will receive its first London performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by the London Sinfonietta under the baton of composer George Benjamin. The concert will broadcast live on Radio 3, whereas later that night, on BBC2, a documentary entitled Pierre Boulez: A Life in Seven Chapters shows the composer in stimulating conversation with Radio 3 controller (and one-time BBC Symphony Orchestra producer) Roger Wright. When I spoke to Boulez, he hadn't yet seen the tape, though he seemed happy with enterprise. "I seldom do that sort of thing," he says. "I am not like an actor who speaks about my life and my activities. I compose a score, and people can judge me from that. The main source of communication for a musician, is either the work... or the performance. If people cannot imagine your world, then talking about it won't replace either the music or its performance - though, I admit, it can help."

Sir Andrew Davis conducts BBC SO at the RFH, SBC, London, Monday, 1 Feb at 7.30 pm (live on Radio 3). `Pierre Boulez: A Life in Seven Chapters', is on BBC2, Wed 3 Feb, 11.15pm; `Sur incises', QEH, London, 3 Feb, live on Radio 3. Boulez conducts his own `Pli selon pli', recorded at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival and broadcast on Friday, 5 Feb. `Repons' and `Dialogue de l'ombre double' are newly released by Deutsche Grammophon

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