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  • Letters
  • Rocco Di Pietro, Andrew Gerzso, James Moorer, Jean-Claude Risset, and Gerald Bennett

To Have Known Quality—Pierre Boulez

It was Bruno Maderna who cautioned me in the early 1970s not to listen to the gossip that passed for journalism concerning the then-emerging myths about Pierre Boulez. “What you read in the newspapers about Pierre is false,” he warned me. When Maderna died in 1973, Ernst Thomas wrote an obituary on Maderna titled “To Know Quality” (Thomas 1975), and it was quality that Pierre Boulez admired in an age that did not have much use for it.

After all, how could you have time for quality when there was so much research to be done? Experimentation did not have time for old-fashioned quality, it seemed. Yet these were the two peaks of Pierre’s concerns in music: how to experiment, and then how to have a perfectly realized work after the experiments were done. Boulez was like Varèse in this sense. So when I showed up years later in 1995 to interview him in Chicago, I presented myself as one of those failed composers he had once disparaged, but I added the caveat “failure is the only success.” [Editor’s note: The writer is alluding to a famous quote by the artist Alberto Giacometti, who had done drawings for some of Boulez’s album covers.] His evaluation of this comment, along with my having been a student of Maderna, one who now possessed a Giacometti-like attitude, sealed the interview.

I asked Boulez: “Where has modern music gone? And what happened to the great adventure of a music of the future with machines: computer music?” His answer was swift: “Modern music is very much alive, but it has gone underground like the tributary of a river.” And Boulez was hoping it would re-emerge. But sometimes, the source, as when divining a spring, cannot be easily found again. “Touché,” I said, “modern music has joined the likes of me.” We both smiled.

Pierre was a working musician, and he worried that what was once experimental in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s had now become academic. But for Boulez, things becoming academic was just a reflex reaction of life, towards which everyone and everything tends. To try to find out what had happened to the spirit of modern music was then the driving force behind my book Dialogues With Boulez (Di Pietro 2001).

In another interview I did some years later with John Chowning, John said György Ligeti had told him that he (Ligeti) was “writing computer music without the programming.” Boulez was also like this. He often said that if he were younger and had another 20 years, he would have gone into the world of computer music without relying on assistants, taking up the dream of Varèse, but there was no time.

Boulez was very much interested in paradox rather than “right understanding” as being the way things are, citing the example that most of us are in the middle of a misunderstanding most of the time, even though we think we have the right understanding, so that paradox is the new semblance of terra firma. With that said, you would have thought he was close to Postmodernism, but actually he did not think much of Postmodernism, although he followed Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, and others with real interest.

For me, the most important encounter for Boulez was his correspondence with John Cage (Boulez and Cage 1993). The shortcoming of my Dialogues was that I was unable to get Pierre to revise his ideas about Cage, which in 1995 were still unchanged. As it turned out, this was not my place anyway, since I wanted to listen to Pierre’s views.

It certainly was a paradox to me when Pierre, an abstract composer, said how much he liked the work of Francis Bacon (1909–1992), a figural artist who hated abstract art. And when I found out that Bacon admired Pierre’s abstract music, I realized that the complexity of both of their minds met in paradox.

Boulez was known as a firebrand in his youth, pushing through the screens of the...


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