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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,

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