Boulez's gifts from Paris: a masterwork, a machine -- and possibly music's future

BOULEZ is back. The prophetic French composer who for 30 years maintained that modern music composition was pointless without new musical instruments -- and who left the New York Philharmonic nine years ago to help create them -- has returned to tour America with a masterwork. And a machine. Here on center court in UCLA's basketball pavilion (the future of music, it seems, also includes a new kind of concert hall), the foremost figure in contemporary music recently introduced American audiences to the culminating work of his three-decade quest into the frontiers of electronic sounds and compositions.

The work, ``R'epons,'' uses what creator Boulez calls ``the 4X signal processor,'' a device that can simulate anything from the violin to the Airbus in an infinite variety of timbres, pitches, and tempos.

Welcome to the future of music.

Can the concertgoer understand and appreciate the intricacies of ``R'epons''?

Mr. Boulez says, ``People have a very restrictive view of what is music, a slow movement here, a minuetto there. They must get out of those categories if art, if music, if thinking itself, is to progress.''

``R'epons'' is ``one of the most staggering pieces of music written in the century, for its amazing array of colors and sensuous textures, challenging melodies and uncompromising standards,'' says Ernest Fleischman, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which played host to the American premi`ere of the work. ``Boulez has achieved a union of art and technology, of acoustic and electronic music, of man-made but man-controlled machines, more perfectly than has ever been achieved before.''

A musical giant even before his forays into science, Pierre Boulez has spent nearly 10 years directing the Paris-based Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music (IRCAM). The goal: Cleanse music of its past, create entirely new sounds and forms by mathematically organizing all aspects -- rhythm, melody, harmony.

After resigning the directorship of the New York Philharmonic in 1977 and holing up at IRCAM in relative silence, Boulez introduced mini-versions of ``R'epons'' in Europe in 1981, '82, and '83 and then the completed work here Feb. 11. (It has since been performed in San Francisco and will be repeated in Chicago, Boston, and New York.)

The gymnasium here, rigged for ``R'epons,'' doesn't look like your average concert hall. Scaffolds bearing numerous speakers and lights ring the perimeter of the room. A small stage for conventional musicians punctuates the center; the audience wraps around three sides; and computers, recorders, mini-keyboards, and monitor screens line the fourth. The 4X processor itself is invisible offstage, but the consoles that communicate with it can be seen. Six platforms behind the audience hold various instruments for soloists: two pianos, harp, cymbalum, vibraphone, xylophone. The 31-piece orchestra at center stage is Ensemble InterContemporain, the performing arm of IRCAM.

For about 43 minutes, the dissonant, rhythmic motifs generated by the musicians are amplified, transformed, and diffused around the hall in ever more complex permutations and combinations. Boulez wheels in all directions, cueing soloists and technicians with flamboyant gestures designed to be seen from greater-than-usual distances.

At points, tape recordings are activated by the very loudness of the players. Boulez is quick to emphasize, however, that the electronic elements are not merely passive. Eleven technicians at a series of consoles are performers just as much as the players of conventional instruments.

After the first concert, which got a standing ovation here, Boulez likened ``R'epons'' to ``the liturgical form, in which the priest chants a verset and the choir or congregation answer with their r'epons. This work represents musicians in conversation with the future of musical language itself -- electronics.''

Known in the past as the outspoken revolutionary who would suffer no fools -- he once referred to his former professors at the Paris Conservatoire as ``a bunch of dead crocodiles,'' -- Boulez has mellowed in recent years.

In conversation backstage just before his second performance of ``R'epons,'' the witty and genial Boulez said, ``I have conducted enough of my own kind of work to know very well how you can become prisoner of your machine,'' referring to previous experiments with taped playbacks that merely straitjacketed the live musicians. What is intriguing about 4X is that the machine will respond in the instant itself, a live performer with the musicians. This erases the dehumanizing element of electronic music for me.''

Not everyone here was taken with the music, of course. One critic referred to the whole affair as ``ultra-elaborate, quasi-electronic musical games,'' which began to ``tread aesthetic water'' and ended ``not a moment too soon.''

But Boulez is used to criticism. He has said it drives him forward. He feels that beauty or ugliness in music is beside the point. ``The point is to be convincing in every sense, in the strength you bring, in the newness of expression, the sound. If people who like Rembrandt want only to see Rembrandt again, they should not be surprised to see Kandinsky.''

What about the state of health of ``serious'' music today?

``Normal. Not disastrous, not resplendent. It goes forward, slowly.'' Of two contemporary musical movements, Boulez prefers the minimalists for their pioneering spirit in searching rhythms and repetitions rather than the ``old forms'' of harmony and melody used by the neo-romantics. ``Why do less well what was done very well over a 100 years ago?'' he asks.

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