PRINT May 2016


Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), Paris, 1987. Photo: Martine Franck/Magnum Photos.

THE FRENCH COMPOSER, conductor, and writer Pierre Boulez was one of the signal figures in postwar contemporary music. His work first came to prominence in the 1950s, a decade described by musicologist Joseph Auner as “the era of all-encompassing theories that sought to explain human actions in terms of systems.”1 By that time, for many composers in both Europe and America, twelve-tone compositional techniques, first promulgated in the early ’20s by Arnold Schönberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, had become such a system. Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany, and Milton Babbitt in the United States were pursuing the most radical extension of dodecaphony: “total serialism,” in which a restricted number set was used to control not only pitch but also texture, timbre, duration, dynamics, and much more.

Through formidable works such as Structures I for two pianos, which Boulez completed in 1952, serialism became endowed with a sense of historical manifest destiny that encouraged the composer to famously declare that same year that “any musician who has not experienced . . . the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.”2 For those who regard Structures, or even the groundbreaking masterwork Le marteau sans maître (1953/1955), as forbiddingly distant from political and social concerns, Boulez’s compositions might be heard, musicologist Mark Carroll has noted, as a portrayal of a “French society struggling to find meaning and purpose in the post-war world order.”3 In 1960, Boulez was one of the signatories (apparently the only one from the field of classical music) to the “Manifeste des 121,” an open letter from 121 of France’s most distinguished intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir, Guy Debord, Marguerite Duras, Édouard Glissant, Henri Lefebvre, François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Françoise Sagan, censuring the use of torture by the French Army and calling for the recognition of the Algerian war as a crucial struggle against colonialism.

Nonetheless, for Carroll and perhaps others, Structures combined “a strong sense of purpose at the conceptual level” with “a meaningless aural outcome.”4 Perhaps as a consequence of the composer’s dialogue with John Cage (documented in the two men’s published correspondence5), and despite his pointed critique of the Cagean notion of chance operations in his 1957 essay “Alea,” Boulez began to see the limits of total serialism and moved to incorporate elements of open form in his Third Piano Sonata (1955–57), which allows the performer to select the order of its five movements, as well as permitting the performer choice of passages within the movements.

One of the foremost conductors of the postwar period, Boulez led the New York Philharmonic from 1971 until 1977, and in 1976 founded what remains one of the premier contemporary music groups, the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He interpreted works by composers as diverse in orientation as Richard Wagner and Frank Zappa, and was the recipient of twenty-six Grammy Awards. At the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, Boulez conducted Parsifal in 1966 and Der Ring des Nibelungen in a controversial but highly influential production staged by Patrice Chéreau in 1976, the Ring’s centennial year.

Despite not being a technologist himself, Boulez exercised extraordinary worldwide impact on the development of computer music composition and technology. In 1977, he founded the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), which became the world’s best-known center for computer music. Boulez’s vision for IRCAM promulgated a model of collaboration between composers, scientists, performers, and engineers that strongly recalled what French-American composer Edgard Varèse, noted for his concept of the “liberation of sound,” had envisioned half a century earlier.6

IRCAM’s research into psychoacoustics and the computer analysis of instrumental timbre provided the staging ground for spectralism, a widely influential aesthetic of instrumental and electronic music whose pioneers, including composers Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, based pitch and orchestration structures not on chord progressions or serial pitch collections but on the overtone features of sounds themselves. Computer-based tools for the analysis of sound were a fundamental part of the toolbox of spectralism, and IRCAM strongly supported spectral research and performances despite some spectral composers’ critiques of Boulez’s own work.7

In the IRCAM of the ’80s—I was a resident composer there between 1982 and 19848—an itinerant/institutional aesthetic divide became mapped onto a metaphorical antinomy between “large systems,” or mainframe computers, and “small systems,” such as the earliest Apple microcomputers.9 One of Boulez’s Grammys came in 1999 for his composition Répons (1981–84/1985), one of the key early works of live computer music, for six percussion soloists, chamber ensemble, and one of the most advanced digital signal-processing machines of the era, the IRCAM-designed 4X, which was capable of assembling sounds in real time and sending them literally flying in complex spatial trajectories around the performance space. But even as he was creating Répons, Boulez already saw that the ever-increasing power of microprocessors and the impending obsolescence of traditional mainframes would eventually render the small-versus-large opposition moot. Systems far more powerful than the 4X are now on every composer’s desk at home, and the visual programming language Max/MSP, developed for the Apple Macintosh at IRCAM in the late ’80s, is now used by composers, performers, and interactive artists around the world.

Throughout his long life, Boulez frequently returned to previous works and not only recomposed them to reflect new thinking, but also reused elements from them in new pieces. The “Improvisation sur Mallarmé I,” the second movement of the influential orchestral work Pli selon pli (1957–62), includes an orchestration of two of the 12 Notations (1945) for piano.10 Musicologist Jonathan Goldman speaks of “families” of works: Dialogue de l’ombre double (1982–85) was a recomposition with electronics of his Domaines (1961–68/1969) for solo clarinet and twenty-one instruments; Répons begat Dérive 1 for six instruments (1984), Incises for piano (1994/2001), and Sur Incises (1996/1998/2006) for three pianos, three harps, and three percussion instruments; and 1971’s “. . . explosante-fixe . . .”, originally an aleatoric tribute to Stravinsky for solo flute, became a piece for midi flute in 1991, as well as part of Anthèmes 1 (1991–92) for solo violin.11

This aspect of Boulez’s work as a composer recalls the notion that Schönberg termed “developing variation,” a technique in which initial themes recur in ever more novel combinations to express a telos. Schönberg saw the music of Brahms as exemplary in this regard, which in turn leads us to American composer Christian Wolff’s recollection: “When we first heard Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata in New York in 1952, we were overwhelmed—by its force and a complex intricacy we hadn’t known could exist. . . . When I heard the piece again some twenty-five years later, it sounded like another sonata in the great literature of piano sonatas, not so far, I thought, from Brahms.”12

I find it particularly poignant that, in a 1983 interview in Der Spiegel, Boulez’s great contemporary, Stockhausen, admitted that, except for his ongoing interest in Boulez’s music, “I work without interruption and have no time to follow the creations of others.” Stockhausen, Elliott Carter, Ornette Coleman, Pierre Boulez—we have lost them all in recent years. For those of us who encountered many or any of them, we cannot help but feel a certain Götterdämmerungat work as we move along in the new century.

Composer, musicologist, and experimental musician George E. Lewis is the Edwin H. Case professor of American music at Columbia University in New York.


1. Joseph Auner, Music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: Western Music in Context (New York: Norton, 2013), 191.

2. Pierre Boulez, “Serialism” (1952) in Josiah Fisk, ed., Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings, 2nd ed. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997), 419.

3. Mark Carroll, Music and Ideology in Cold War Europe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 155.

4. Ibid., 148.

5. See, e.g., Jean-Jacques Nattiez, ed., The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, trans. Robert Samuels (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

6. Pierre Boulez, “Technology and the Composer,” in Orientations: Collected Writings, ed. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, trans. Martin Cooper (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 486–94.

7. Gérard Grisey, “Tempus ex Machina: A Composer’s Reflections on Musical Time,” Contemporary Music Review 2, no. 1 (1987): 239–75.

8. See Michel Davaud, “George Lewis: ‘Rainbow Family,’” Écoutez votre siècle 8 (IRCAM—Centre Pompidou, 1984), Archives Audiovisuelles des Conférences et Concerts de l’IRCAM, video, 26:15, accessed April 8, 2016,

9. See Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 208.

10. Jonathan Goldman, The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez: Writings and Compositions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 10.

11. Ibid., 15.

12. Christian Wolff, “Experimental Music Around 1950 and Some Consequences and Causes (Social-Political and Musical),” American Music 27, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 424.