"He despises my music," Darius Milhaud once said, "but he conducts it better than anyone." The prominent French composer was paying his compliment to Pierre Boulez, France's leading composer-conductor, today recognized by many as the best conductor of 20th-century music ever to have taken up the baton.

Born in Montbrison, France, Boulez was a star pupil of the forward-looking Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Convervatory and blossomed at an early age into a pianist of stupefying virtuosity. The American composer Virgil Thomson called Boulez a "genius figure and a typically French one," yet Boulez admits he has never felt at home in France. An ardent antiromantic and champion of avant-garde music in the '50s, Boulez (rhymes with "fez") was labeled the enfant terriblem of French music.

"We look for new sonorities, new intervals, new forms," Boulez said. "Where it will lead, I don't know. I don't want to know." In 1955 his "Le Marteau sans Maitre," now a near-classic in chamber music repetoires, was as radical and abstractly atonal a composition as anyone had heard. For nearly 15 years the music establishment kept his works off French radio.

Without honor in his own land, Boulez took his musical prophecy elsewhere. The maestro, who also speaks fluent German and English, left France to direct the Southwest German Radio Orchestra, renowned for its mastery of new music, and later became the principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. Later he was named Leonard Bernstein's successor at the New York Philharmonic and went from there to London to conduct the prestigious BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Finally, former French President Georges Pompidou decided it was high time for the native son to return home and lured Boulez back to Paris to found and direct an institute for musical research in the basement of Pompidou's new National Center of Art and Culture. Boulez created IRCAM (L'Institute de Recherches et de Coordination Acoustique-Musique), devoted exclusively to the exploration of contemporary music, particularly the electronic and computer music so dear to the composer's heart.

For decades Boulez has been a guiding spirit in the musical vanguard which has consistently rejected the lush, 19th-century harmonies of Wagner and Mahler in order to search for new musical structures. As a composer he brings to his conducting a rare combination of imagination, intellectual strength, and articulateness, instilling brilliance and excitement in the performance of such moderns as Bartok, Schonberg, Webern, Stravinsky, and lesser-known contemporary composers. Boulez distinguished himself at the New York Philharmonic as the only person to have singlehandedly conducted Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony. The piece traditionally requires two conductors because of its multiple rhythms, but Boulez, in a splendid display of ambidexterity, carried one tempo with his right hand and the other with his left.

Boulez's personality is said to be as complicated, but as logically structured, as his compositions. He wears blue shirts and dark suits and has a cool, restrained (some would say overorganized) manner at the podium. Boulez would rather give signals to the orchestra than choreography to the audience.

We met between an afternoon and evening rehearsal of an all-Stravinsky concert he was conducting at Radio-France House on Avenue du President-Kennedy. He had just finished whistling the chorus through a particularly difficult passage. As he stood center stage waving his arms beneath a lattice of microphone wires strung from the ceiling, Boulez looked like a large spider cavorting at the hub of his web.

The interview took place in a soundproof, windowless dressing room on the second floor. Boulez does his best to avoid journalists, and his assistant warned that 15 minutes was all the time the conductor could afford. Once the interview was under way, however, the conductor leaned forward in his chair, intense and visibly engaged. He spent his two-hour rehearsal break expounding on subjects ranging from the genius of Stravinsky and the hopelessness of conducting Schonberg in Cleveland to why he sometimes feels like a closet Francophobe. Some excerpts:

Why was Stravinsky so important to the 20th-century revolution in music?

The two people who brought rhythmical change to our modern culture were Stravinsky and Bartok. Both came from other countries, cultures not included in the Western tradition. Some composers have been rhythmically energetic; take, for example, scherzos by Beethoven. But never had there been the rhythmical vitality you find in Stravinsky. I think it comes from Russian origins.

Why does so much of the new music still sound raw and unrefined?

Often when composers confront new material, the result is methods and material that are coarser than before. When you are confronting new problems you begin at more primitive levels and the music has a certain resistance to you.

To me, the very rich works are the ones which allow many different levels of understanding. They're like Russian dolls. You see one form and you open it and there is another and another and another.

The reward of the new music is much greater than in listening to Telemann, for example. With Telemann there is only one doll. That's all.But in a good score you can look at it five or six times Yes, it takes an effort. It's not Muzak. It's like the landscapes by the late Cezanne; it takes a while to see what he put into it.

Modern composers like Steve Reich have suggested that contemporary music is entering a period of what they call a New Classicism of New Romanticism. Does that ring true for you?

Those are cliches. Labels don't help at all. They obscure. Sure, you have some people who are going back to Mahler or Wagner. Between the two wars there was such a movement to neoclassicism. But what remains? Nothing, absolutely nothing. They were just period pieces.

It is said that today's music presents a variety of solutions in search of a problem, the problem being to find somebody left to listen. Yet you have a knack for attracting audiences to concerts of unfamiliar, avant-garde music. What is the secret?

First, you must make them understand there is no mystery to the music. The fact that people compose is the mystery of creation, but the technical issues of music are very simple and should not be a barrier. If they understand, for instance, how a piece of music is conceived, what is the vision of the composer, how to make comparisons with other art forms like poetry or painting, they will see that music is not an exception but part of the whole artistic landscape.

How would you explain the importance of new music to someone stuck in the rut of 19th-century music?

I try to show very clearly the past in the new works. A new work doesn't arrive just like that, from nowhere. The work is only new in comparison to other things. there are always elements of the past which are rethought and brought into another light. For instance, the other day I was explaining to an audience the difference between an academic fugue and the fugue as Bartok conceived it. When you see what is rooted in history it is very easy to grasp it.

Presumably, this is what makes it possible for you to be a champion of new composers while still conducting Beethoven and Haydn.

There's no difference for me. When you go to a museum, you don't look only at the 16th century. You go downstairs, see all the old masters and then you go upstairs and you have Picasso, five seconds later. You don't see only the masterpieces, but you see the environment of masterpieces. If you are in front of a picture which is less interesting you can move on after a few seconds or you can stay as long as you like.

But music, of course, you must absorb completely. In a concert, for instance , if you have a less-interesting piece which goes for 20 minutes you cannot contract time. That's why concert life is more difficult in the presentation of nonmasterpieces. You cannot just play a two-minute sampling. Also, if Telemann and Vivaldi is all you have listened to, that is the model you have in your head. It's the sort of music you can hear and at the same time work or write letters. People accept nonmasterpieces if they are not absorbing. It's very strange.

Does it have to do with the different ways the eye and the ear perceive things?

Certainly. The ear has to work with time. The eye has a global view, but you can't look at a painting and write a letter at the same time.

Is the American ear any different from that of the European as far as what audiences are willing to tolerate, listen to, and support?

I wouldn't compare Americans and Europeans but I would say there are some cities which are polar opposites. For instance, in Paris a certain amount of enthusiasm is created by fashion which cannot be re-created in London at all. It has its good and bad sides. The positive side is that even if it is only fashionable at the beginning, something remains.The problem is that in Paris things come and go and sometimes are forgotten quickly. And sometimes it is ridiculous what is fashionable.

American football jerseys seem to be the haute couture of the day on St.-Germain-des-Pres.

Exactly. It is never dull. Sometimes it is superficial and irritating, but it provokes movement and excitement. the other day I gave a concert with some Bartok for the first part, Berio and Stockhausen for the second part. It was a program which is not easily digested, yet the concert hall was filled. That would not happen in most cities. For me it is very important that we are not playing in a vacuum here. Paris is willing to try new things. Not always for the right reasons. This fashionability cannot sustain things for long. Fashion puts its label on it, but eventually you get rid of the fashion. You go on to serious business, but you have benefited from the fashionability in the beginning. It's like starting a car: You put on the choke to start the car but when the motor is warm you don't need the choke anymore.

What is it like to be back in Paris? Do you feel you have finally come home?

No. I don't feel especially French, I must say.

Why not?

I was brought up during the wartime with all kinds of nationalism. Now nationalism is something I cannot stand. The famous Darmstadt years [this West German city was a center of intense avant-garde musical activity in the 1950s] were important because all the European composers were meeting and didn't care whether someone was French or Italian, English, or whatever. That, for me, was important. I am as near German as I am French. Today the French are horribly nationalistic, something I dislike very much. You would think some of them were still living in the 18th century.

You were comparing the musical tastes of certain cities.What about New York?

In New York you have a difficult division between conservative and avant-garde circles. They live in the same city but are miles, even continents, apart.

And how did you, as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, straddle these continents?

The two communities were very difficult to bridge; they were ignoring each other. In America the intellectual milieu is concentrated in the universities, and the universities don't mix very easily with the rest of the world. They are physically isolated, and so there is not enough of that constant irrigation between the intellectual reservoir and the community. In France that kind of separation doesn't exist because the university is in the middle of the city.

Aren't you ignoring places like Columbia University?

Even places like Columbia are quite isolated.

What about the audiences in the Midwest? How do Schonberg and Barok go down in Cleveland?

Cleveland has a marvelous orchestra but the audience is difficult to move toward new music. They want to listen to something comfortable. When I was there I tried for one year to present all-composer programs, to make for instance, a Bartok evening, a Stravinsky evening, a Schonberg evening. It was something quite difficult for them to absorb, and there were a lot of empty seats.

Why has the American music world been so overpopulated with European conductors?

When it comes to conductors Americans have always seemed to prefer foreign accents. On the other hand, Bernstein has made a great career and he is purely American. And don't forget, Europe is filled with all kinds of American singers. Who knows why? It's unforseeable. . . . I say tant mieuxm : It's for the best. If everything could be programmed it would be a horrible world.

When is new music nothing more than highfalutin noise?

When people don't see the logic of the musical thinking and only grasp the superficial aspects, the sounds. Sometimes it is the fault of the composer. You can't say all of modern music is logical and properly constructed. Of course not. Sometimes the difficulty comes from the performance. I remember very well when I first heard some of Webern's pieces in 1946 after the war. The performances were absolutely terrible. First, because none of the great professionals would touch his music. Second, the musicians who did play it took this new musical object and examined it the way novices look at a new painting: "Is it upside down or is it turned on its side?" They didn't even know what to do when they had it in the right direction. With new music if you don't have the right balance or tempo, a performance can be absolutely destroyed. How can people tell the difference between a bad performance and a bad score? You can't. That's why I find it so amusing when I read critics who say the score was awful but the performance was extraordinary. How do they know if they haven't read the score?

Do you take all critics with a grain of salt?

Maybe two grains of salt. It is a cliche to say everything against the critics. Their situation is very difficult. I don't blame them. It's very interesting to look at the reaction of critics when they first heard [ Stravinsky's] "The Rite of Spring" in 1913. Some were very enthusiastic and others were completely destructive. The enthusiasm is often as blind as the destruction. People were outraged by the last compositions of Beethoven. Sometimes critics are intuitive and say when they feel something important had happened even though they are unable to explain why.

Is the problem simply that most critics are not trained musicians?

It's more complicated than that. It is extremely difficult for anyone to grasp a work after one or two performances. As a critic you are first influenced by the event, how the audience reacted . . .

If your seat was soft or hard . . .

Everything. If you had a bad temper or were in a good mood that evening. The morning after, the critics can offer only a snapshot, and it has no more value than a snapshot.

As far as accurate criticism goes, is there anyone you trust?

I trust myself. If I were booed off the stage and knew I had written the best thing of my life it wouldn't matter at all. That kind of an experience isn't pleasant unless you are masochistic. Really all you can say is "I have done what I wanted to do."

When "Notations" [one of boulez's newest newest works] was performed by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic last November it received the sort of rave critical response unheard of for you and contemporary music. "Notations" is simpler, more accessible, more moody and romantic, than any of your past works. It's a reorchestration of something you wrote in your 20s, isn't it?

In some works I go as far out as I can in a new direction in an attempt to discover things. Sometimes I try to enlarge my original vision. You need that sort of expansion. It's like breathing. Sometimes you need to inhale new air and afterward you must sigh. Sometimes you are off exploring and you run into a mental block so you go back and change directions. In the meantime a lot of things become brighter and clearer and you find solutions to the original problem.

How do you listen for new ideas?

My ideas come from everywhere. If I see a play, or read a book, or see some paintings at a time when I'm not composing, I see them with a kind of distance. But if I am in a period when I am looking for something, when I am really searching, the smallest pretext sparks a new idea.

For instance, I was recently struck by a Klee painting. The background must have taken days and days to work out. It is a background waiting for something. On this background you see a very precise drawing, black lines, focusing your attention. I took this Klee back in my memory and am now looking for musical material which creates contrasts between amorphous backgrounds, like clouds, which are not interesting in themselves but are interesting in their long-range movements. Then when I put some music in it which creates a fixation on something, this music can open the window on the background. When the music in the foreground is not played, the background closes.

When you look at the Klee painting can you actually hear it?

I don't hear it. It has to go through a kind of metamorphosis and absorption. I turn it into my own material. It's not like saying I will take some of this and some of that. I translate it into abstract musical structure, not sound.

Have you been influenced at all by modern musical forms such as jazz, rock, or New Wave?

Not very much, I must say. The most useful thing for me is that they have no tradition. They aren't tied to history. they live day by day. The basis of their music is very simple. The harmony and melody lines are entirely simplistic. You can understand them in a second. But they do have imagination. They find a way of behaving with instruments which is quite antithetical to our respect for all classical traditions, a respect which, at times, can be very sterile.

How does the new music reflect, if at all, currents in modern thought and society?

That is a subject which I am very careful with. Not because I am afraid to express myself. But there are often so many misunderstandings. People think if you are socially conscious your music will benefit from it. As you know, some people who are real pigs happen to be marvelous painters, and there are also some very generous people whose painting is really nothing special. It would be too easy if good will and good intentions were all you needed. If the gift is not there, it's just not there.

What are you trying to communicate with your music?

An impression of vitality, I suppose, but words so poorly describe music. What can you say after a great performance of "La Mer" except that you liked the sound or the intensity? But really what do those words mean?

The conductor has the advantage of not seeing the audience, but I've always wondered if you can actually feel the stares on your back.

More or less. I can always tell how attentive an audience is by the degree of coughing.

Shouldn't the listener be doing as much work as the performer? Do you expect a concertgoer to bring anything to one of your performances?

An open mind. that's all. You shouldn't come with preconceived ideas. For instance, if you have seen Laurence Olivier do Shakespeare first, you seem to think that is the right way. Music is exactly the same. People hear a piece when they are very young and think that is the only way to perform it. They think there is one right style, one truth. there is no truth. There is only the text and your relation to it which is constantly transforming itself. Generally people have a sentimental fixation on something they meet for the first time. There seems to be no better experience than the experience you had when you were 18 or 20.

It is marvelous when you are young, not because you are young but because you are discovering things for the first time. I will never forget the first time I saw a painting by Klee and the first time I saw Beckett. I will never forget the first time I read Joyce and Kafka, because suddenly there was a new experience in my life.

When you reread Joyce and Kafka now or go back to see one of your favorite Klees and you able to return with new eyes?

Oh yes. If you have read something two or three times you have a kind of accumulation of layers. The first knowledge, the second knowledge, the third knowledge, and it's like a spiral. It's familiar but at the same time you change your point of view.

How does your conducting feed your composing?

You learn from conducting the level of difficulty in composition which is most efficient. If you go beyond a certain level of difficulty you will have only 50 percent of your ideas realized. That's not really a very good goal. You must gear the difficulty of your composition to what and who you are writing for. If you are writing for a big group like an orchestra, the possibilities for mistakes grow. The more people, the more possibilities of errors, heaviness , slow tempo, because suddenly the density and the weight are enormous. If you write for a soloist, you know that he will take the music home and will work. But if you are writing for 18 people, even 18 very gifted people, it is harder because the reaction time and the style of playing between individuals are not easy to balance.

Are there times when you doubt your creativity?

Of course. Sometimes you wonder if you will find the solution and have to head off in another direction, like people playing chess. If you run into a barrier then you do the instrumentation on pieces you have already composed. Rather than be obsessed, let your mind rest and it works on the problem unconsciously.

As an artist you obviously can't always wait for the Muses to whisper in your ear. So how do you discipline your creativity?

I can't say I work with a specific rourine. Who knows? Sometimes I will get up at 5 in the morning and work until 10 the next day.

Twenty years ago you were a critic of electronic music. What changed your mind?

I never really changed. I thought at that time that some electronic music was very primitive. It was at a kind of do-it-yourself hobby level. Most of the equipment was no designed at all for making music. Technology has to be on the same level as your intention. You wouldn't write a difficult piece of music for a violin made from a cigar box and strings.

At IRCAM you set out to marry the talents of intuitive, irrational artists with those of pragmatic scientists. It all sounds a little utopian.

Technology is not entirely pragmatic, nor were scientists ever meant to be people who wash your dishes. The more time you spend with the technicians, especially the inventors, the more you understand their imagination. I am not trying to marry an angel and a serpent but rather two very different kinds of imaginations.

What comfort can you offer those of us who fear machines are taking over music? And do you really expect anyone to pay $15 to go and listen to a tape recorder on a bare stage?

It will never come to that. Machines are not interesting by themselves because their performance is always the same. The excitement of the concert comes from the interaction of the machine and the musicians whose gestures are always changing. You're right, it is absolutely useless to listen to a tape recorder while sitting in a concert hall and just looking at loudspeakers.

Over the last year you have begun to use a computer in your compositions. How has that experience changed the way you looked at music?

When you are composing, you are always taking shortcuts. But with the machine you have to compose completely. When I would write a C for the oboe I would know what its weight and color and length would be. But with the machine you have to formulate that kind of knowledge, because it is possible to create any sound you want. It involves learning a new set of codes and symbols. If you speak German compared to French, for instance, you have to learn to reverse your sentences and put the verb at the end. And the way you think is transformed by the language, just as the science of architecture is changed by new materials. You don't build great temples with glass and metal. The material influences the thinking. The thinking helps to create the new material and as a feedback, this new material forces thinking in other directions.

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