Dealing with Boulez

Dealing with Pierre Boulez is proving to be one of the biggest challenges of my project. Although his involvement with musical technology was minimal during my period of study (1946-1958), his influence on post-war French musical thought was huge. He shot to prominence in the wake of World War II with works including his Second Piano Sonata and Le marteau sans maître, and his thoughts on musical aesthetics were no less influential. Dismissing Stravinsky’s neo-classicism and developing a more gestural species of serialism, Boulez established himself as one of the foremost French composers and placed his generation at the forefront of musical developments.
His contact with Pierre Schaeffer may have been brief, but it clearly planted a seed. In 1977, after years of hounding the French government, IRCAM opened its doors. A top-notch centre for electro-acoustic music and research, the centre attracted composers associated with the musique spectrale movement. The exploratory aspect of the institution is remarkably similar to the principles held dear by Schaeffer, who considered musical research crucial to establish an experimental music.
Perhaps the most telling parallel between the two is the quest for musical expression in electro-acoustic music. Although Schaeffer stated the importance of this aspect early in his career, Boulez initially took a very different view. His work in Schaeffer’s studio was an attempt to fuse serial and concrete music, with the stable material utilised in the latter increasing the amount of compositorial control. However, his position changed during the early 1950s: Boulez began to move towards a more fluid and gestural serialism, embracing a more expressive idiom.
The differences between Schaeffer and Boulez are many, but their brief intersection was surely significant. Even today, France is renowned for its electro-acoustic facilities and the unique structure of IRCAM, an institution in which scientists work alongside musicians. Pierre Schaeffer’s oeuvre may be relatively small, but his legacy still resonates across the musical landscape of France and beyond.

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Review: Adventures of the Black Square, Whitechapel Gallery

Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Quadrilateral is the starting point for this sprawling exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Rather ambitiously, the exhibition aims to explore the currents in abstract art over a the period 1915-2015. Quite simply, this is a doomed enterprise: in its attempt to provide a comprehensive survey of the ideas and trends explored by artists from across the globe, the exhibition gradually loses coherence.

Saturation is a major problem. In the first gallery, every inch is used: prints are stacked on top of another, while TV screens and cabinets displaying magazine covers fill up floor space. By the final gallery, the impact of the works has been nullified: presented with a constant stream of works, we are not given sufficient space to trace the themes and ideas raised by the exhibition. The ‘epic’ nature of the show is all very well, but I cannot help but think that a more selective curatorial eye would have made a world of difference.

The exhibition contains some wonderful work: the hypnotic rhythm of Mondrian’s grids, or the ‘choreographed geometry’ of Oskar Schlemmer. And yet, the thematic connections needed to be tighter. Ideas jostle against one another to sometimes haphazard effect, and the show felt like a survey rather than a carefully assembled, thought-provoking selection. Matters are not helped by some basic errors in accompanying notes, as interesting as their content may be.

The exhibition contains a great deal of food for thought – particularly in tracing the relationship between abstract art and the utopic, modern cities which were springing up during the period. Ultimately, though, I left feeling unsated: as fascinating as this whistle-stop tour may be, I felt that the exhibition lacked a certain amount of depth.

L’enfant et les sortilèges: Chillingly dark Ravel from Salonen and the Philharmonia

The Philharmonia’s “City of Light” season goes from strength to strength. After an astounding performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, this concert featured yet another superlative semi-staged opera performance. The complex scenario of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges means that it rarely appears in the opera house, but this performance proposed an alternative which was just as gratifying. The impact of the opera was refined, not diminished, and brought the chilling core of the work to the forefront.

Read the full review here.

Sibelius’ Silence?

On 26th December, 1926, Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphonic Society gave the première of Tapiola, a tone poem depicting the forest spirit of the Kalevala. No-one knew that Tapiola would turn out to be the composer’s last major work; although small-scale compositions and revisions intermittently appeared, Sibelius’ oeuvre ends with an ellipsis rather than a triumphant conclusion.

Read the rest of the feature here.

A forgotten pioneer

2015 brings with it the usual flurry of events to celebrate composers’ anniversaries. This year, the birthday celebrations are for Scriabin, with 2015 marking 100 years since his birth; Nielsen and Sibelius, who both turn 150; and Arvo Pärt, a comparatively youthful 80. However, there is another figure who is significant in his absence from the spotlight, despite having died just 20 years ago. For a figure who has left such a huge legacy, particularly for composers working in film, TV or electronic music, Pierre Schaeffer’s outsider status seems puzzling.

Schaeffer began his career working in French national radio, before circumstance allowed him to turn the equipment to different ends. With the airwaves jammed during World War II, Schaeffer embarked on his first radiophonic experiments. Although his oeuvre also encompassed sonic experiments and experimental music, it is for musique concrete that Schaeffer is remembered. For this reason, his studio attracted some of the leading lights in composition: Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and even Olivier Messiaen. (Legend has it that Messiaen’s only musique concrete creation, Timbres durées of 1952, utilised a flushing toilet as one of its sound sources. Listen here.)

But just what is musique concrète? Imagine a sonic collage comprised of recorded sounds, and you won’t be far off. Originally, the genre was restricted to recordings of instruments, voice and the natural environment, but it later began to incorporate synthesised sounds. Given the nature of the sonic material, the meanings of terms such as ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’ are either greatly stretched or become redundant. Not only was Schaeffer responsible for the initial experiments which formed the basis of the genre, but also for formalising musique concrete as a compositional practice.

Schaeffer’s contribution to the genre was two-pronged: not only did he create a number of classic works himself (alone or in collaboration; see below), but he also established a theoretical framework for those approaching the genre. As well as painstakingly documenting his work, he also wrote numerous treatises which make fascinating reading. Schaeffer’s work provides a fascinating way to trace the history of sound: early in the 1950s, the introduction of the magnetic tape opened up a whole new world of possibilities, while the spatialisation of sound proved no less revelatory.

Progressive as his sonic experiments were, many did not consider Schaeffer’s work to be music. While debates on Stravinsky, 12-tone composition and Messiaen continued to play out in post-war France, he occupied a strange position. However, his compositions operate under musical principles: in his diaries, Schaeffer talks of rhythm and texture. His works explored the possibilities of a whole new branch of music, one which has inspired generations of composers since.

The legacy left by Schaeffer is much broader than this brief resumé might suggest: outside of the studio, he played a major part in establishing radio networks across North African territories. He also founded the Ocora music label to preserve African soundscapes and train technicians from numerous national broadcasting services across the continent. As musician, technician and thinker, Schaeffer certainly deserves celebration in 2015.

Listen up

Pierre Schaeffer, Cinq études de bruits (1948)

Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry, Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950)

Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry, Orphée 53 (1953)

Pierre Schaeffer, Étude aux sons animés (1958)