WHENEVER Pierre Boulez is around, heads turn, eyelids raise, posture improves. The French conductor-composer is not only one of the most sought-after musicians in the world; he is the most celebrated experimenter and philosophizer on where 20th-century music is headed. No one wants to be caught unaware to what's cooking at the cutting edge. Ergo, Southern California is abuzz with Boulez.
The man who said ``classical tradition is a weight on everyone's being'' and set out in the 1970s to pioneer new electronic instruments came here for about four weeks of back-to-back festivals - one with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, another 75 miles north of here at Ojai.
The first event - the ``Boulez Festival,'' which ended yesterday - included no less than six concerts, seminars, workshops, open rehearsals, and a special discussion with Frank Zappa. The Ojai Festival's three days with Boulez (tonight through Sunday) will also include five concerts, highlighted by the Arditi String Quartet playing Boulez's own works, as well as five major works by Hungarian composer Gy"orgy Ligeti.
Since he left his post as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1977, Boulez has been director of the Paris research institute known as IRCAM - Institut pour la Recherche et Coordination Acoustique-Musique, a generously funded enterprise of the French goverment, which has become a leading center of computer music.
Before the first festival began, Boulez was brought before the press for what has become a traditional fete, followed by questions and answers. Two years ago, Boulez premi`ered his life masterwork known as ``Repons,'' with the aid of a gigantic machine and a 360-degree concert hall (audience encircling musicians) at the local basketball arena. Now reporters wanted to know the future of composition and what has happened in experimental music since then.
``I don't think everybody is headed in the same direction, and that is perhaps the interesting part,'' Boulez said. ``For myself, the main problem of being a composer today is to concern oneself with the materials of music ...,'' he added, referring to the instruments, both electronic and acoustic, with which tones are made.
He noted that technological developments in instruments have an impact on how a composer conceives the content of music and how an audience hears it. ``Advances in the iron industry in the 1840s brought about the new possibilities in piano sonority and dynamics,'' he says. ``So what are the advances in today's technology that propel us forward in composition? Machines that not only perform in tandem with performers and conductors, but that interact with the whims and designs of those performers.''
Without going into great detail, Boulez explains that the languages in which musicians communicate with performing computers have become simpler than they were a few years ago. Musicians who may have been daunted by the earlier complexities find that the latest advances free them to be more intuitive in what is known as ``real time,'' which means, little or no time lag between the spontaneous act of creating music and then being able to hear that music played.
With the increasing use of intelligent machines, ``the human making of music will more closely resemble one's perfect perception of it,'' Boulez predicts. To illustrate his point, he mentions a problem violinists know a lot about. When attempting to play very high pitches on the instrument, their fingers don't allow the degree of control needed. The fingers are ``too thick to make ever smaller intervals,'' Boulez says. ``The problem is not with the hands, however; it is with the instrument.''
A similar limitation that experimental musicians are currently trying to break out of, he says, concerns tiny intervals in pitch - the tones between the notes on a piano keyboard, say, or the strings on a harp.
``There is a lot of talk among musicians of having intervals smaller than the half-tone,'' he says. ``But if you try that on a harp - which I did - you find that the inherent nature of the instrument brings it out of tune very quickly. The problem is finding a way to make these intervals safely, stably, and change them as you want. The only way to do that is with electronic tools.''
Among the computer programs now being written are ones that will enable computers to respond to audible cues from live instruments - the D-sharp of a flute, for instance. Computers will also be able to change the tempo of pre-recorded tracks at the direction of a conductor's baton. Computers can even be directed to respond to mistakes made by accompanying musicians, much as a piano accompanist might jump ahead in the music to accommodate a memory lapse by a featured singer. There are also advances in memory that allow computers to ``learn'' a performer's individual idiosyncracies.
If all this is too complex for the vast majority of musicians to think about, says Boulez, a studied avoidance of technological advances in the field is an exercise in nostalgia, ``and nostalgia is re-cooking something that was first cooked a century ago - and I don't think that is very good to eat.''
Boulez has long since outlived the enfant-terrible image he earned early in his career for characterizing orchestra colleagues who concentrated on traditional repertoire as ``dinosaurs'' and ``museum curators.''
But evidence that he still delights in his rebel role comes with a scheduled evening with rock iconoclast Frank Zappa.
``I find that there is a kind of snooty attitude from classical musicians to the music from other musical realms,'' Boulez says. ``And I find this attitude absolutely sterile.'' Having collaborated with Zappa on past compositions, recordings, and performances, Boulez says, ``I like unconventional people - that is the main reason for meeting with him.''
Overall, Boulez says the frontiers of electronic music are moving out slowly, not in great leaps and bounds. But he says public appreciation of his work is growing, as seen in the full-house audiences at the recent Avignon Festival in France, where ``Repons'' was performed six times.
``It seems when you are working on these advances day in and day out, that the gains are minute and slow,'' he says, adding that it is a full-time job just to keep up with current technological advances that may have implications for music. But when I look back to what we could do in 1982, compared to where we are now, I find now that man is much more in control of his machines and not the other way around.''