(The death of Pierre Boulez today undoubtedly will generate thousands of tributes, posts and career retrospectives. Here is a full transcript of my August 2000 interview with the composer/conductor, which has not been available for some time. I preface it with an introduction that explains how it came about.)
Launching in March 2001 just before the dot-com bust, Andante.com generated lots of buzz. It aimed to be the ultimate gathering point for classical music news, feature articles, reviews, webcasts, and research material, along with its boutique historical CD label. After a promising start, the site experienced technical and financial problems, and considerably scaled back its agenda before ultimately shutting down in early 2006.
My first freelance project for Andante was a interview with Pierre Boulez that took place in London in late August 2000. The interview’s complete contents were posted as three separate installments, as presented here. I found Mr. Boulez a charming and very open interview subject, and I think he enjoyed himself, even when I disagreed with him on certain points! Andante’s founder Alain Coblence also was present during the interview, and his comments are indicated by the initials AC
Pierre Boulez: Composer/Musician’s musician
Jed Distler: Zubin Mehta claimed that Messiaen knew every note he composed.
Pierre Boulez: I don’t think you can know. I played a lot of Messiaen’s works with him being there. He had a very good ear, that’s for sure. But to say that in a complex chord he can hear everything, simply no.
JD: Neither can I. Sometimes I’ve played wrong notes in his dense, fast-moving figurations. When I play back the tape, I can’t quite hear where I made the mistakes.
PB: If you have a chord of 13 pitches for instance, and you have one pitch wrong, in the middle especially, that’s very difficult to hear. If you have two different coins, you can very well tell the difference between two coins, but if you have a hundred coins, you are really lucky to make the difference.
JD: The first time I played the piano part to your 1946 Flute Sonatine, I thought it would take me forever to learn the notes. By my twentieth performance, however, it had become much easier. Do you have the same experience conducting your own music?
PB: Yes I do. My own pieces that seemed very difficult twenty years ago, I don’t say that they are simple now but they are much easier to grasp.
JD: Are they challenging to perform?
PB: Yes, when I conduct a piece of mine for the first time I get accustomed to it. To change some tempi and to bring some freedom to the music needs experience. You don’t that the first time. It’s like clothes, only after you wear them and then you feel well in them.
JD: You’ve been leading orchestras for nearly 45 years. How have orchestras changed in terms of assimilating the kind of music for which you’re known?
PB: Stravinsky and Bartok are no more a problem. You have instrumental or ensemble difficulties, but you have them also in Brahms and Mahler. With Schoenberg, it depends on the piece. Some Schoenberg works are completely assimilated by orchestras, others less so because they are more rarely performed. If you do Ewartung, you have to work, really, because it’s a difficult piece, it’s not in the repertoire.
JD: It doesn’t play itself…
PB: Mahler doesn’t play itself. But Mahler is easier now than thirty years ago. When I do Berg’s Concerto, Altenberg Lieder, anything by him, there are no problems. There are some moments in Lulu, which are difficult, such as making accelerando over 15 to 20 pages of score. It’s very difficult to have that kind of progression.
For me, what still has to be acquired is degree of precision you need from an orchestra. This is not only because I am obsessed by precision, but also because the orchestral sonority changes completely. The clarity is suddenly there. You can really hear the score as it is written. Sometimes with a piece of Stockhausen, Berio, or myself, the precision is not in the head before looking at the score. You have to be demanding. If you have sixteen violins playing a quintuplet, they have to really be thinking a quintuplet. The kind of tempo modulation you have in Elliott Carter’s music, well, it has to be very precise otherwise it’s not effective. This type of precision is still not really in the habits, shall we say.
JD:.. probably because most musicians don’t encounter these rhythmic challenges in every day life.
PB: You have the right explanation. My InterContemporain in Paris absorbs this type of thing much, much quicker than orchestral musicians, for instance. The Violin Concerto of Ligeti had no problems for them at all by the second or third rehearsal.
JD: When you play a work of yours for the first time, are you surprised with what you hear?
PB: No. Or if I am surprised, I am surprised in the bad sense! Or if you have simply miscalculated, it’s that the balances are not right. Generally, I’m not surprised by the flow or by the form of the piece.
JD: At the same time, speaking of form, you’ve revised many of your major works over the years. One such work, Repons, had its long-awaited release by DG least year. How did advances in digital audio and computer technology affect Repons and lead you to revise it since it was premiered in the 1980s.
PB: It was composed in 1981, and revised in 1984. But after 84 I did not change anything did not revise anything. But the hardware itself completely changed. It was transferred three times from one piece of equipment to another. The problems in technology are that the instruments, let’s call them that, and are changing constantly for the better and sometimes not for the better. One says that equipment goes quicker, does more operations. That’s true in principal, but sometimes there is something you could do better with the old equipment, and you can do it with more difficulty with a new piece of equipment. For instance, there are programs that can be stored easily and then you can access a program in an easier way. And sometimes you have more difficulty doing that now on some pieces of equipment than twenty years ago. And that’s really amazing, but we are obliged to transfer the new technology each time. What started nineteen years ago with IRCAM’s 4X program is in its third generation. So that’s the problem, if you want to keep things made with the older equipment.
JD: Would you consider having DG issue a DVD audio or perhaps a super digital audio version of Repons? That might result in capturing more of the overall effect of the live performance.
PB: It’s still very difficult to really capture its effect on disc, because you cannot be surrounded by the sound. The recording is a little bit like having a picture of a mobile by Calder. You can see that it moves, but you don’t have the real thing. But there is a recording of Repons to be heard on earphones.
JD: I remember you recorded Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” with the New York Philharmonic in the 70s, for quadrophonic. The orchestra was seated around you, and you were….
PB:…constantly shifting! Yes. That was really very difficult to conduct.
JD: Do you think there’s still commercial potential for four-channel sound?
PB: I think it is plausible. The more we will go, we will have many loudspeakers because the recording will be so compact that you can have for example, six parallel tracks going to six loudspeakers. And it will reconstitute exactly in a room what happens in reality. And I think progress will go in this direction. Or to put six permanent tracks on a CD.
JD: Going back to your early piano pieces Notations (1945) and orchestrating them, how did it feel to encounter your younger self?
PB: When you are young you have ideas, but you don’t know how to develop them. You have plenty of resources but you don’t exploit them in the real sense like you exploit the mind. I began to develop the orchestral Notations when I was I was in charge of the Ring at Bayreuth, and couldn’t really compose. So therefore I thought why not take this material from far back and try to get something out of it.
JD: What made you decide to make these available again in their original piano form?
PB: I had given the manuscript to one of my colleagues in Messiaen’s class. I did not remember even that he had these pieces. When I came back to Paris in 1977 there was a radio broadcast about the students of Messiaen in the first years of his class, around 1943, 44, 45. The colleague wrote to me, “Do you agree that we use your Notations for the broadcast? ” And I said “of course” but I would like to know about the pieces. Could you send me at least a photocopy of the manuscript?” And that’s how I rediscovered them.
JD: In Le Marteau Sans Maitre, did you come up with the idea for the instrumentation which was so radical at the time?
PB: I don’t remember exactly. It was an influence of non-European musics, Balinese and also African music. The beginning of the second piece is very much under the influence of central African music with all this wood percussion and xylophone.
JD: Have you seen changes in the performance tradition of your own music?
PB: Well, there is no tradition in this sense! But I certainly have my own evolution. I have more distance. I can manipulate the material much more easily. Therefore I think I have changed myself. When I know people who have worked with me for a performance, then I can be confident because they do how I feel it. For a pianist or a violinist, of course I ask for what I want. But for a conductor, there is a different relationship between a conductor and myself. A conductor knows that I can do as I ask him. A violinist knows absolutely that I cannot do it and that makes for a different approach. I can give advice about the tempo, about the quality of sound that I want. I cannot really give advice about fingering. For a pianist, yes.
JD: Do you, or have you, played your own piano sonatas in private or in public?
PB: Yes, I perform them, but not very well. At one time I could play piano much better than now. I have no time for practicing. At least when you are conducting an orchestra you don’t need to practice [laughs]. That’s the big superiority. But if you want to play piano, you have to practice, and therefore I did not play all my piano music For instance, the 2nd movement of the 2nd sonata I could play.
J: Well it’s a slow tempo….
PB: Yes, exactly. That I could play. The full movement of the first sonata I could play when I wrote it in ’46. But after that I completely abandoned the practice of piano. I studied piano really seriously until “44. So ’46 was not that far off, I could play still.
JD: Do you compose at the piano?
PB: Never. Because we had a very hard training at the Conservatoire in Paris, in the Messiaen class. We had to take the dictation, and with all kinds of classes around. Horn class. Piano class. It was really very difficult to concentrate. But once you had this training (makes gesture), pfffffff! That is, if you are gifted. You learned to listen without sound, and being very much aware.
J: But do you think composing at the piano limited Stravinsky?
PB: Stravinsky says something and he does something. That’s different. I have read pages and pages about him, About the opening of the Symphony of Psalms. He said “if I had not composed at the piano then I never would have discovered this chord.” Maybe it’s true. But you can discover any kind of chord, if you know in your head what is going on.
JD: What do you think about the resurgence of tonality as the 21st century begins?
PB: You have the right question. I mean, music is so complex you don’t perceive anything anymore. Or you perceive the wrong things. How do you reestablish the connection between structure and perception, to speak in quite abstract vocabulary? Of course the easiest way to reestablish perception and structure is to go back to tonality, because everything is solved already. But I find that’s the wrong answer to the right question. And that’s a lazy answer.
J: But what about Schoenberg’s quote that there are plenty of pieces still to be written in C major?
PB: I think he said that with a kind of dry humor…
JD: And then Terry Riley responded by writing….
JD and PB: “In C!”
JD: What do you want to compose that you haven’t written yet?
PB: Oh, many things. I hope to have time only to do it. But certainly I will go back to vocal literature.
JD: I was going to ask you about that because you’ve been focusing mostly on instrumental music.
PB: Yes for a long time. I would like to write for choir and orchestra.
JD: What about an opera?
PB: Ah! That’s the big success of my life! (laughs) I had two encounters which were very important : one with Genet, I knew him quite well. And then he died. Then I met Heine Muller. I was really on the right track with him, we had three important meetings. And I was really expecting that he’d give me the first sketch of a play. And then he died! And of the same disease: throat cancer. So I don’t dare to ask for a third man.
JD: When you’re not writing music, conducting music, writing about music or doing interviews like this, what do you do for fun?
PB: Well, I don’t think I like fun! [laughs] I must say simply that. No, I try always to be busy with something, reading a book for instance. Or going walking, that I like very much.
JD: We’re in a lovely city for walking, in London.
PB: Yes, but I like walking in the woods especially. That’s better still!
JD: How can one learn to compose in the computer age?
PB: First, I think you have to learn by yourself. You learn through analyzing scores. Not because you have read analyses written by other people. That can be an introduction, but in the end you have to learn how to analyze the scores yourself. You have to learn how to be confronted by the scores of other composers. Then you learn how to compose. But that’s a very personal, individual task, and nobody can really teach you that.
JD: Do you know every note of your music?
PB: No. But I recognize it!
Pierre Boulez: Composers past and present
JD: How is your Mahler cycle for DG progressing?
PB: In February 2001 I record the Third Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. The Second is foreseen, but a little later, with the Chicago Symphony. As for the Eighth, we still don’t know. We have another heavy project too, Schoenberg’s Guerre-Lieder. And I think Guerre-Lieder will come first. The Eighth has been recorded more times than Guerre-Lieder, so maybe that’s less necessary than to have a new Guerre-Lieder.
JD:But I think that some people would say that it is necessary to have all the Mahler Symphonies by Boulez in one handy package!
PB: Yes, that’s true, but I’m not in a rush to do that! And before doing the Eighth I will certainly record the Kindertotenlieder and the Fahrenden Gesellen.
JD: One more Mahler question. Many years ago you recorded the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth. Do you find any of the completed versions; Deryck Cooke’s for instance, feasible?
PB: No, and that’s a definite no. At home I have the reproduction of Mahler’s the sketches for the Tenth. And they’re so sketchy that you can not really write anything with that. Deryck Cooke may have been a musicologist, but I’m sorry, he was not a composer. Certainly he did a good job, in a way, but his version has no invention. It is a caricature; it does not have any validity for me.
Alain Coblence: What do you think of composers, who do a sort of juxtaposition, you know the piece that Berio wrote based on Schubert…
PB: That’s different. That’s like for instance, Van Gogh reproducing a tableau by Millet. That I find justified because that has no pretense to authenticity. That’s an invention on something that is already there. I compare it to when you have elements of Greek vase. You reconstitute the jar, and you leave the things which are not there, you know, paint it in a kind of gray or a background color. That is when you see the form, but finally you don’t touch the Millet, and for me that’s absolutely right. Compare, for instance, the unfinished third act of Lulu. That’s a very different case than the Mahler. Berg’s partitur was written until the end. There were just two moments where the voices were not completely written out. There’s the quartet in the London scene, and there is a very short quartet where only one voice part was written out. But you can deduce the remainder from the orchestral part. Also, in the Paris scene, you have some voices not written into the chorus part, but you can reconstitute that. That’s quite easy, because you have the rest.
But the only one who could authentically complete the Mahler Tenth, and already it was too late, was the early Schoenberg. I mean the Schoenberg of Pelleas and Melisande could have done it. You see the style of Pelleas and Melisande is very close to the style of Mahler in some ways. But the Tenth Symphony was written in 1910, 1911, and by that time Schoenberg had already written his Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 16. He had gone further.
JD: It’s like the Schoenberg of the Piano Concerto returning to Guerre-Lieder, perhaps. Or the difference between the quasi avant-garde style Gyorgy Ligeti used in “Atmospheres” and his recent interest in Central African music, like in his Piano Etudes….
PB: I find even in the Ligeti the rhythmic material is more interesting than the rest of the material.
JD: Have you talked to him about that?
PB: Yes, he knows my point of view (laughs). That’s true. You cannot say that the melodic material is surprising. But the rhythmical material is really, extremely, extremely new. The way he develops for example, the 3rd movement of his Piano Concerto, or the Violin Concerto’s 4th movement. That’s really for me the most interesting piece where was influenced by the fractals. He takes a small cell and multiplies it, reducing, expanding and so on.
JD: You’ve been conducting Bruckner for the first time. Tell me about that.
PB I was discussing programs with a representative of the Vienna Philharmonic. You know, their own musicians are representing them. They choose a program with the conductor. And then they asked me “have you ever conducted Bruckner, or have you Bruckner in your repertoire?” I said, “no, I don’t think so”. ” Oh, you have never conducted Bruckner”. “No, until now I have never conducted Bruckner.” “Would you like to do that with us?” And I said, “if I do, it’s with you, because you know Bruckner better than me. I have the possibility to learn from you.” It was very funny because they asked me “what symphony”. I said, “I would like to conduct the 8th.” And they told me that when a conductor asks to conduct the 8th symphony, we ask him to wait until he is older. “But with you, we cannot do that!” (laughs)
JD: Well, when Solti was approached about conducting Bruckner he said “no, no, no. I’m too young, wait until I’m 50.”
PB: But why I chose the 8th is funny. I remembered hearing Klemperer in London doing the 8th, and it was very impressive. I told that to Lotte Klemperer, his daughter, whom I know very well. A little later, she called me. “You did not hear the 8th symphony with my father, you heard the 5th symphony!” Then I looked at the score, and I remembered, that’s true.
JD: It came back to you….
PB:…. Especially the fugue in last movement. The 8th I heard later with Barenboim.
Alain Coblence: Did Klemperer did the 8th?
JD: Yes, he did. There’s a Cologne Radio Orchestra aircheck from the fifties.. Then he recorded the 8th just before he died, but he cut that last movement to ribbons. I don’t think it’s a very good recording. But Klemperer was a big supporter of yours, and loved your work. Did he ever conduct your music?
PB: No, but he came to my rehearsals. I remember I had never met him never before. One day I was in my hotel, at 8:00 in the morning and I had a rehearsal with the BBC Symphony at 10. The telephone rang. And you know, I knew his voice, great character as he was, and he said (imitates Klemperer) ” ja, ich kommt hier”. At first I thought it was a joke from another musician. Not at all. Klemperer had actually called me to attend the rehearsal.
When I conducted Parsifal in Bayreuth, Klemperer came especially to hear it. We had dinner after the performance. “How can you conduct that? The theatrical aspect is so impossible.” Klemperer did not like Parsifal’s ceremonial aspects, its kind of pseudo religion and so on. And he hated the idea of Bayreuth as a shrine, the adoration, and also because of its Nazi past
JD: But one thing that’s always fascinated me about Parsifal, and I think this ties in with the specific electro/acoustic requirements of Repons, is that Wagner wrote Parsifal after having had the experience of hearing The Ring in the Festspeilhaus. Certainly Parsifal’s orchestration, especially the frequent overlapping entrances and shimmering string writing, seems tailor for the venue. Did you take that into account in your performances?
PB: My time in Bayreuth was a very big experience. I would not have performed Wagner in any other house after that, because I think that’s a unique theater, not only for the vision but acoustically also.
JD: But you did Tristan und Isolde in Japan…..
PB: Well, that was a Bayreuth production, and because Wieland Wagner asked me to do it. We had a lot of projects planned when he died.
JD: Another atypical but fascinating addition to your recent recorded repertoire is Scriabin. You’re the only conductor who’s truly balanced the murky opening chord in Prometheus, so you can really hear every pitch. It’s like reading the score.
PB: Scriabin is a very interesting person. There is a lot to say about his kind of mysticism, and the indications he writes in the score in French are really grotesque. But you have to go beyond that. I discovered Scriabin in a though his brother in law. Once he spoke to me about Scriabin, and I said, “well, Scriabin, I don’t know anything, I know only about his fantasy of colors and something like that.” And he told me “well you should know more about him” and he gave me the last sonatas to read. They were a completely unknown quantity to me. Specially the last five sonatas.
JD: I think the sonatas are cases where the music sounds much simpler than they it is notated.
PB: ….With double sharps, or double flats or so on.
JD: That’s true, but I’m thinking more of the rhythmic notation. I’m thinking in the 5th sonata the subdivisions don’t seem to go with what one is actually hearing, unlike, say, Stravinsky.
PB: Yes, yes.
JD: Improvisation has figured in some your musical structures. At one time, composer/instrumentalists like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt were famous for their extemporaneous playing. Do you think improvising is something that is still valid?
PB: Not very much, because you do not have a standard grammar. In the time of Bach or Beethoven there was a grammar. A relationship with chords between themselves, the structure between the chords was already completely absorbed. You had the kind of material at your disposal, which was completely available from this point of view. Not only material but relationships within the material. And not only the relationship with chords, but also the relation between melodic and rhythmic There were all kinds of relationships which were taken for granted. You don’t have that any more. Jazz can be more or less improvised, because it still has a background of harmonic conventions. Of course jazz utilizes complicated harmonic relationships. But the relationships between chords are very often given. There’s a common vocabulary with many established patterns, and it’s possible to improvise on that.
JD: What about free improvisation?
PB: You can improvise with dissonant chords, or chords which are not related, or parallel chords. That’s true. That can be a source of inspiration. Even Beethoven improvised maybe to excite himself, but he wrote the piece. And that was more important. I don’t think you can improvise his Op. 106 (the Hammerklavier Sonata)!
JD: Well, I know that the composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski improvises within the Hammerklavier, and even the Appassionata! I don’t know if I would agree with it, but he has the authority within himself to do so. He also improvises in his own work.
PB: His own music is less complicated than the opus 106.
JD: Certain things perhaps. You know my first experience of your Second Sonata was Rzewski’s performance, when I was a teenager. And it was my first experience of him as a pianist. It was quite something….
PB: Oh no, no….Rzewski’s a very good pianist, but what he composes, especially at one point when he was in a kind of political protest…
JD: You mean, his “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”….
PB: ….. it was rather really simplistic, I found. I met Rzewski in Darmstadt, in 61 or 62.
JD: I have his recording of your First Sonata.
PB: I remember he performed a piece of his at this time, which was very well written for the piano. After, he went through a period that was, for me, rather puzzling.
JD: There are only two American composers for whom you’ve devoted a complete CD. One is Elliott Carter. The other is Frank Zappa. Tell me about the Boulez/Zappa connection.
PB: It came in a very simple way. Zappa asked me to meet him. I had heard of him of course, especially in 68, 70, with the scandals about the cover for his recordings and so on and so forth. And I thought, if he asked me to meet him, it could be interesting. You never know. I met him, and found the man extremely sympathetic and interesting. Zappa wanted to break out of the kind of milieu for which he was known. I didn’t know it then, but was very much in very much admiration for Varese. Varese was the first composer Zappa discovered who struck him so much that he became Zappa’s icon. Zappa told me “I’ve written some scores for orchestra, and would you consider to look at them?”. I was just finished with the New York Philharmonic, and beginning with IRCAM and the Ensemble InterContemporain. So I told him, “you know I don’t really conduct orchestras for the time being. If you want me to conduct a work for orchestra, you have to wait for quite a long time. But if you want to write something for the the Ensemble InterContemporain, then I will perform it immediately.” And so he said, “well, I will compose for the Ensemble!” About a month later he sent me scores.
I then organized an American program with a work by Carter, a work by Zappa, and one by Ruggles. There may have been a work by Varese, I don’t remember exactly. It was a hard program from the point of view that I wanted the audience to take Zappa seriously, and not just as a joke. The reaction was interesting, as I expected. People who came for Carter said ” why Zappa?” and people who came for Zappa said “Why Carter?”. After that we recorded Zappa’s music, in his presence. He was really a very interesting character.
J; Did his music fascinate you?
PB: Yes. It was a beginning, what he gave to us. That was the first thing he’d composed like that. Then he had a project with the Ensemble Moderne, and everybody was surprised, and they tried to catch up with him. Unfortunately he died very soon afterwards.
JD: Leaping back fifty years, there were other composers beside yourself who were interested in expanding the twelve-tone vocabulary. Were you familiar with what Milton Babbitt was doing in the US?
PB: Yes, and I also knew him. But I find that’s really, for me, academic. Very much so. As much as I like Carter because he’s inventive, I don’t find that the music of Babbitt is terribly inventive to me. I did two of his works in New York.
JD: I heard one of them on the same program where you did Carter’s Double Concerto. That was the first either Babbitt and Carter’s music in concert. And my first live Ives Fourth Symphony was your performance with the New York Philharmonic. You haven’t gone back to Ives, though.
PB: Not very much. If I did, I would have to rewrite the scores.
JD: What was that like, preparing the 4th, with all its textual problems.
PB: That was a challenge. I’ve also played the Robert Browning Overture and the Three Places in New England. It’s music written by an amateur. You would have to rewrite things because it’s impossible to do justice to the ideas because they’re poorly written. He stayed an amateur all his life and he wanted to stay this way. It was a choice for him.
JD: Had Ives heard more of his orchestra music played, do you think he would have composed differently?
PB: Yes, and he would have abandoned the insurance business! If you read his diaries, Ives cannot stand the professional milieu of his period at all. He’s screaming all the time against them. He wants to be completely apart from that. In Ives’ melodies for voice and piano, that’s okay, or for small chamber pieces. But when he goes to another level, that’s when the music fails.
JD: There’s been much recent interest in the music of your contemporary Jean Barraqué, at least as far as recordings go.
PB: I knew him, of course, but I don’t find his music very interesting. His Piano Sonata is a caricature of my Second Sonata, which came first. But I am prejudiced!
Boulez on Recordings, Technology, and Education
JD: How concerned are you that recording producers and engineers accurately capture your artistic intentions both as a conductor and a composer. Or how have they succeeded or failed to do so?
PB: Before I worked for DG, I worked for CBS, for Columbia and I had a very good engineer, Andrew Kazdin. He told me “you make your balance and I will follow your balance.” Because I think it’s important not to have a kind of artificial product. He took lots of time at the beginning, placing mikes, listening to every section of the orchestra. Sometimes he’d take longer than usual. But after that, we could perform and everything went extremely quick and well. With DG I work with two or three recording teams and they are very careful about the sound. So we are on safe territory with them.
JD: Earlier, we were speaking of the NBC Orchestra’s demise because it had ceased to be profitable after the death of their music director, Arturo Toscanini. Yet, in a way, they didn’t die, because all 231 Toscanini/NBC broadcasts have been preserved. One striking development in the CD era has been the proliferation of historic material. I’ve even seen Pierre Boulez pirated discs! How else can younger listeners hear, for instance, how your mentor Hans Rosbaud conducted Berg, Webern and Stravinsky? It’s enabled a younger generation of listeners to get to know great performers of the past.
PB: I agree with you. The archives are fantastic. I wish we had archives like that for the 19th century. It’s very interesting for me to trace the origin and evolution of performing styles. At least for the last 90 years we have testimonies in sound. That’s really amazing to listen to.
JD: Do you think there’s validity in hearing, say, the first recorded performance of a Beethoven symphony, or a tape from the world premier of this or that 20th century work?
PB: I think there is some validity. Because that’s like looking at a book which is printed in the 18th century. It can be difficult to read, because the page is not distributed the same way as modern print, and so on, and from this point of view that’s very interesting. But what I would not like from this century or the next on is to be buried in archives. You have so many archives that you lose awareness of the time you live in. That’s the danger for me.
There was a broadcast on French radio, a performance of Brahms by Furtwangler. The announcer says, “that was recorded the 23rd of february 1941.” It’s not just a recording of Brahms; it’s become an immortal document. To me that’s like looking at an album of pictures. I think Proust said once: if you look at photographs then you are much more sensitive to the period than to the society classes. You know that these photographs were taken in 1880, and you don’t much care if that’s a librarian, a lawyer or an homme du monde. That’s very interesting this reflection of Proust, on how you can look at pictures. And I think in the same way, the sound of the 30’s for instance in a recording, is the sound of the thirties, the interpretation of the thirties. And then if you are in the 50’s it’s a different sound, different approach….
JD; It goes back to what we were saying about how orchestras have changed over the years…
PB: There is a recording of the Mahler Fourth Symphony with Mengelberg….
JD: Oh yes [mimics the opening measures] Dah……..dah…….dah…….big fermata, ….ya, dum, dum, ….
PB: (laughs)… and also with a glissando in the strings, and a change of position. You know, that would be unacceptable now. I also remember having heard Knappertsbusch, who was really a monument in his time. I heard the Parsifal he did in Bayreuth in 1951. The chord pizzicati are practically never together.
JD: I wouldn’t say “practically”, Maestro, I would say “never” together!
PB: Yes! [laughs]. But I suppose it was not disturbing at the time.
JD: I think gets into the danger of saying, “Oh well, Mengelberg knew Mahler, ergo this is how you should conduct the opening of Mahler 4”. But authenticity, if you have to use that word, had more than one road. Bruno Walter was only a few years younger than Mengelberg and he conducts the Mahler 4th utterly differently. And he was even more a Mahler disciple than Mengelberg. Then again, Mengelberg’s 1939 Concertgebouw was a different kind of orchestra from Walter’s 1945 New York Philharmonic.
PB: Yes, and there is difference of personality. But that’s very interesting for me, this concept of authentic performance. I don’t find that there is any kind of authentic performance because everybody takes a work and transforms it automatically, even if he thinks he is close to the text. Even things like Rite of Spring can be taken very hard, or very mechanical, or much broader, although the rhythms have to be exact. There are other qualities of the sound, for instance, the attacks of instruments that can differ from one orchestra to the next.
JD: Home computers didn’t exist when I was a composition student. We couldn’t just push a button and transpose, for instance. Most composers today, it seems, regard the computer on equal footing with pencil and score paper. Do you feel that the computer is a required tool as much as a good background in counterpoint, harmony, and ear training
PB: The computer is an extension, but cannot replace the rest of the education. If you have to write counterpoint you have to write counterpoint, the computer will not do it for you. You have to invent something. The same for geometry or algebra, there are things you have to do yourself. That’s the problem with mathematics right now, I’ve heard from people who are involved with that, people don’t know how to extract a square root, they just push a button. They cannot go further because if they don’t know the basics of arithmetic then they will never be able to assimilate mathematical reasoning. It’s the same with music. You might be able to have a computer play a scale, but you’ll never know what is a scale then, or the function of a scale. Education risks becoming superficial because you get the results without knowing the process. And for me the process is much more important than the results, at one point. If you know the process and you’ve though about the process, then you can invent other processes. But if you have known only the result, you’ll be expecting that for other problems you have to solve, you will have the result before thinking of the process.
JD: A few years ago, I experienced your one-time assistant Tod Machover’s “Brain Opera” at Lincoln Center. It was an interactive project where people could push buttons, and talk or sing into microphones. The ensuing sounds were recorded, and then used within the context of the composition. What value does technology have in democratizing musical experiences as far as creative participation and input from a wider spectrum of listeners than we’ve had before?
PB: The first think to say is that I think creativity is not really in everybody. You have a kind of inventiveness at a very low level, more or less. You can make some noise, you can clap your hands, and you can pat a little piece of wood on this table. Now you can use technology the same way and it will seem more complex, but it’s really the same low level of creativity. The material in a program that produces sounds is not your creation. What is your so-called creation, to put these sounds one after another, or to super impose them – that’s not composing anything….
JD: I suppose we’d call painting by numbers…
PB: No, it’s not that it’s more like “do it yourself”….
AC: …with an element of something very primal.
PB…cheap! It’s using material a very simplistic way which is far from what I call creativity. But these kinds of interactive tools are very important for the learning process….
J…and audience development too, perhaps,
PB: You have interactive things for programs that are established for language learning: using repetition, correcting pronunciation, and so forth. Interactive programs can teach you about form in music, to help you recognize thematic material, familiarize you with instruments, their range, their possibilities of speed. But you cannot really learn to compose this way. You can learn how to juxtapose things if they are put side by side, or are repelling each other.
JD: The world wide web has given rise to new visual art forms, combining digital technology as well as traditional film and animation techniques, yet we’ve seen little in the way of music composed expressly for the web. Is the Internet as it stands today a serious enough medium for composers?
PB: For the time being it’s not really very convincing. First, the definition of the sound is very poor, and so is the image, like the images in silent movies. So there are still some things that are in the process of developing. I cannot say how far it will go.
JD: What is the potential of the Internet for education as far as music education?
PB: When serious people can at the extremes, use the Internet, then it will be very strong. There are a lot of games, some are so-called instructive games, but in fact they’re games only. I’m not terribly optimistic from this point of view, unless you have really people who don’t look at profits, but at education. Education should be the prime goal, with non-profit organizations. That’s very important to me.
Alain Coblence: This is what Andante is going to be doing basically. It’s going to be distributing musical courses completely free and rely on foundations and governmental support.
PB: That’s the only way to do it. Because I think otherwise profit is always heavy handed and the companies eliminate all that is not profitable. Which is their goal, after all.
AC: But the distribution, the breadth of the broadcast that the Internet can contribute is extraordinary.
PB: Oh, yes. I agree with the way of doing it. Television could be also a very strong tool for education. It is not.
AC: But that is because there are commercial requirements for television to be profitable.
PB: But you can have private channels now, if you have sponsors. Look, for example, at PBS in the States. Even public television is in a difficult position. They cannot find the money even for that.
AC: But it requires much more money than to distribute programs through the Internet.
PB: That’s true, yes.
AC: It’s multiplied by a thousand. So the Internet, in a way, is a hope in terms of the distribution of educational programs. It will be much easier.
PB: But look at American radio stations. How many cultural stations are there? Very little. Universities generally sponsor them, and radio does not cost as much as television. I read about David Sarnoff, who wrote that he had a mission to educate the masses through radio and television. It did not go very far, though Sarnoff was a very powerful man, with money.
JD: Sarnoff did a lot for culture, think of the Toscanini NBC broadcasts….
PB: Yes, but when they became too costly and not rewarding enough financially….pfoof!