The Maestro's Movable Performance

If I'd known then what I know now, would I have let him - and his two colleagues, whoever they were - ride in my taxi?

Well, probably. Yes.

The thing is, most of us ordinary types are suckers for reputation, "greatness," even notoriety. Few of us object to the idea of rubbing shoulders - even if only in the form of a doorway collision - with the famous. For them, it must be a mixed blessing to have a recognizable face. But for the rest of us, it's a staggering moment, a story to tell.

One of the pleasures of attending the annual International Festival of the Arts in Edinburgh is that if you do not see at least half a dozen figures of stage, film, music, art, or stand-up comedy walking down the street, sitting in an audience, or having a meal, then you feel cheated. It is one of the benefits of festival-going, a partial compensation for the ever-rising cost of tickets.

For the third year running, a "Festival Lecture" has been given under Edinburgh University's sponsorship. I went to the first, by George Steiner. Missed the second, by Peter Stein. Standing now outside my hotel on the opposite side of town, I was getting a little concerned that, although I had a ticket for this year's lecture, I might miss it because the taxi I'd ordered had not arrived.

As I waited, three men emerged from the hotel behind me. They asked the doorman how quickly they could get a taxi. They were obviously late. Then I recognized one of them.

Not so many years ago, I would have retreated at this point into a shell of snail-like embarrassment and pretended non-entity. But today, for whatever reason, an awful couldn't-care-less sort of boldness took hold of me. I turned and offered to share my taxi with them. I knew they were going my way.

After a moment's hesitation, they shrugged away caution and, deciding that I perhaps was not dangerous, said, yes, thanks. The taxi came.

Pierre Boulez got in first. He was eager to get moving. It doesn't do for the lecturer to arrive too late. His two colleagues followed. A polite argument did not deter Mr. Boulez from sitting on the jump seat, with his back to the driver.

"How far is it?" he asked.

"Oh, about 10 minutes or less," I said.

And then there was a long silence. The taxi lurched and swung over cobbled back streets and around steep Scottish corners. What on earth does one say to a legend who has been discussed in books and concert programs for decades? One who's ensconced firmly in the pantheon of Stravinsky, Berg, Bartk, Schnberg, Cage? What does one dare say, especially if the legend is not saying a lot, and especially if one's knowledge of modern (or any) classical music is deficient to the tune of sadness?

I mean, I wasn't going to introduce the subject of atonality or serialism and ask whether music writer Paul Griffiths was accurate in his description of the "two kinds of music" in Boulez's work "Incises": "a rapid toccata-style mobility marked by stutterings of immediate note repetition, and strummings at the bottom of the keyboard." I couldn't mention this casually just then, partly because it's difficult to memorize, and partly because it was printed in the program for the concert I was to hear that evening, and I hadn't read it yet.

To travel with the stellar may be a cosmic event (for you, if not for him), but if it were to take place in blank soundlessness, it would, I intuited, achieve only a low degree of memorability.

Fortunately, Boulez spoke. He said: "Going backward, you almost feel you are on the right side of the road."

The American (it turned out) on my right, facing the maestro, said: "You can see for the first time where you have been."

"I once tried driving in Britain," Boulez bouled on, "but I didn't trust myself." Then the conductor renowned for his exacting attention to detail, who drives his musicians to relentless levels of concentration, admitted that if his attention had lapsed while driving on the left, who knows what might have happened?

AFTER that, conversation went along comfortably and amusingly. I thanked him for the fine concert he'd conducted the night before. (I'd been there, so this was a safe topic.) And we all agreed that though the hall could have been more full, the audience could hardly have been more enthusiastic.

Boulez seemed philosophical about the difficulty of filling concert halls for modern music. Or so I thought.

His lecture made it clear he is not resigned to diminishing audiences. He advocates more audience-friendliness, far more flexibility on all sides, and modern concert halls where both audience and musicians can be easily rearranged. He favors an escape from the format of 19th-century concert halls, still the model for many architects at the end of the 20th; he wants smaller orchestras, more varied in type; more education for both adults and children about modern music.

He admitted that he and his fellow modernists did not care enough, in the early days, about their work and intentions being understood. He described his evolving "Cit de la Musique" ("City of Music") in Paris, showing how this center puts his pedagogic and popularizing ideals into practice. (It even has a host of local children playing Balinese gamelan instruments.) His aim is that "people will have no fear" of music. At the end, the audience applauded vigorously.

The critics, however, did not let us forget that this kindly faced septuagenarian was once a gadfly in the music world. Earlier photos of him hint at his spikiness. He even, we are informed, provoked everyone by advocating the destruction by dynamite of all opera houses. One critic pointed out that today Boulez's campaign for making classical music, old or new, more accessible is still paradoxically at odds with his own music. This, he contends, makes no concessions to populism.

BUT that night, after the lecture, I found myself listening to his "Sur Incises" (the latest development of a work begun in 1994 and still open to more or less endless expansion). And I enjoyed the music's openness, its interplay of pause and conversation, of the sporadic and the continuous, the consequent and the unexpected, explosive burst and an odd delicacy. It was like a series of stones being tossed with a splash into a river of silence, each time sending out shock waves and ripples of music.

Is it music? Oh, yes, it's music.

Is it uncompromising, difficult, disturbing? Could be. But that is the way art should be, n'est-ce pas?

Would I invite a man who wants to blow up opera houses to share my taxi again?

Definitely. Now I have questions ready.

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