Composer / Conductor Pierre
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie
Pierre Boulez was born in 1925 in Montbrison, France. He first studied
mathematics, then music at the Paris Conservatory (CNSM), where his
teachers included Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz. In 1954,
with the support of Jean-Louis Barrault, he founded the Domaine musical
in Paris – one of the first concert series dedicated entirely to the
performance of modern music – and remained their director until 1967.
Boulez began his conducting career in 1958 with the Südwestfunk
Orchestra in Baden-Baden, Germany. From 1960 to 1962 he taught
composition at the Music Academy in Basel. As a composer, conductor and
teacher, Pierre Boulez has made a decisive contribution to the
development of music in the 20th century and inspired generations of
young musicians with his pioneering spirit. His recordings have earned
him a total of 26 Grammys and vast numbers of other prestigious awards.
The very brief biography above hardly begins to do justice to this
giant of music — not just
Twentieth Century music, but all music.
This website presentation is being prepared as we
celebrate his 90th birthday, and the honors and accolades being heaped
upon him are surely appropriate and at the same time inadequate.
He is, quite simply, Boulez, and to speak his name instantly inspires
anticipation, reverence, and respect. The rest of us can simply
thank him for all that he has done.
Though generous and open to so many, it was a distinct pleasure for me
to greet and chat momentarily with this man on several occasions.
He also graciously allowed me to sit with him twice for lengthy
interviews, both of which are presented here.
These two meetings took place in Chicago in the mid-1980s, while he was
in town for performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He
had conducted here regularly and often, but did not yet have the
official title which was bestowed about a decade later.
The interests of this man range far and wide, and so did our
discussions. We did not focus on any single item, but in the
first conversation we talked quite a bit about opera, and in the second
we spoke about his own music and his ideas concerning new music in
I began with something that haunted him even back then, and, as seen in
the box at right, later quite seriously disrupted his life . . . . . .
. . .
[With a gentle nudge] First, are you glad
that the opera houses were not blown up twenty years ago?
[Laughs] I think the
title has done more, in fact, than the article itself,
unfortunately. I don’t accept the conditions of the repertoire
generally, when you have no rehearsals and changing casts, and all
these kinds of things. I don’t accept that now any more than I
accepted it twenty years ago. Therefore, I conducted myself only
in the specialty concerts, for instance, in Bayreuth, when you don’t
have all that and you concentrate for a period of time on the
production. Many people are really sharing this opinion
now, that the time for rehearsals should be bigger, that rehearsals
should be plenty for performances, and the whole thing should not be in
an opera house. All these conditions are there, and then some in
the opera house can go further, I suppose.
BD: Even for
a piece that the conductor and the
orchestra and all in the cast have done many, many times?
depends on what is considered as many,
many times. If you have it in a repertoire
theater — even a piece which is very well known
— after six months without any rehearsal the performance
cannot be very good. You have conditions there which no
symphony orchestra would accept. They could give you at least two
rehearsals, and they’re done. One cannot forget the problems of
the opera house are much bigger than the ones of the symphony
orchestra, because you have the singers, the production, and everything
has to be rehearsed. Otherwise it is kind of a
perpetual improvisation. I am sure that you have seen this type
performance, which is just pure improvisation from beginning to end,
thrown together. I don’t think that’s any way to do it,
Devil’s advocate] There’s no
nothing there that holds it together?
That’s an idea if it works,
but each performer has his own spontaneity and they don’t go together
very well. You have no kind of connection
anymore because nobody knows what the next will do, or only knows it
vaguely. The notion of theater now has grown very
tight. For instance, when I
worked with Chéreau we had a singer who was sick, and it
was very difficult to replace him with only two days’ notice
the production is like for actors, and you know very well that actors
are not replaced that in their productions. One should consider
that the production of an opera is like
the production of a play, which is very intricate at times and should
be very enticing. If you just put one singer on the left and one
singer on the right, it is not enough to be very dramatic.
BD: Then let
me ask the ‘Capriccio question’.
Which is more important, the text or the music?
didn’t know the answer!
[Laughs] He was precisely avoiding to give an answer, and I think
you cannot give an answer. The relation between
the text and the music is a relation which is constantly
changing. You can’t say today. In Mozart arias the music is
more important, but in the
recitative you should understand absolutely what is going on, and
you should understand the words. Otherwise you don’t follow the
action and you are always in a fog, and that’s not
enticing. I am sure that in the music, even for Strauss himself,
in Ariadne you don’t need to
hear the words of Zerbinetta
to understand what she sings because coloratura is not always
for pronounced words. But the first part, the dialogue
with the Composer, especially, is important to understand.
There’s always these fluctuations in the music which the composer
composed very thoroughly, sometimes. Even in the most continuous
music, like the music by Wagner, you have places where certainly the
words are very
important. In a lot of his prose writings, Wagner says
that his text and his music are one entity, and you
cannot divide these, and I think he’s right. Even in Wagner you
should be able to understand constantly the action
and the words, but it is not, of course, that the music as a second
opera be in translation for the
language of the audience?
PB: I don’t
think that, but in a very
funny way television can do justice to the arts. Subtitles
are really the thing which can help. I had this experience
where people who looked at the Ring
by Chéreau and
myself, which was broadcast in France and in England with
subtitles. People never could understand that well the
relationship between the text and the music, but the
text was conceived with German sonorities, and the sonorities are so
really tied with the music that you cannot really take another
language — especially if people don’t know the
story, which is rather complex in the Ring.
If they don’t understand at all what is going on,
it is very difficult, and you cannot oblige people to read all
the text before, to memorize every moment. Even
then, they cannot enjoy the music at the same time because they
will use such an effort of memory. Then the music will just be
swallowed without really being conscious of it. All the attention
will be for the text, and I don’t think that would be a good
thing. But if you hear the sonorities and you can read
the words — which are two activities
— at the same time, you can really
manage very well without being disturbed. Then the audience can
react like a
musician can react when he reads the score, because he
has the time to see all these precise and very fastidiously composed
relationships between words and music. That’s an enjoyment,
because when you hear, for instance, a big splash of music, if you
understand vaguely, that’s already something, but if you
understand precisely, that’s much more satisfying.
BD: Have you
worked with the
supertitles in the theater? [Remember,
this interview dates from February of 1986.]
By and large you cannot work with
subtitles. You can understand when it’s in the sanctuary of
German art you cannot really make them.
You would have to have subtitles in three or four or five
languages. The stage would be full of subtitles, and you cannot
see the singers anymore!
BD: But here
in America there is this movement towards using supertitles
in the theater. I just wondered if this would carry out the
translation very well.
PB: I suppose
yes. If it is properly done I
suppose it is a good thing, only it should not be obnoxious. For
television it’s very simple because you put the subtitles down on the
screen and it does not impair the image so much. Sometimes, if
you have very subtle or very dark lightings and you have subtitles
really in white, it
distorts the image. But distortion of the image is not so
terrible if you understand everything which is going on. In the
theater, you’d have to put the subtitles at the top of the stage.
the way it’s done. It’s put on
a small screen at the top of the proscenium.
Yes. On the side?
BD: No, at
the very top.
PB: At the
very top, yes. So it is certainly
more difficult to read that in a theater than it is on a television
screen because the proportions are not at all the same. But if
it can be done, then I would agree, certainly.
BD: Is there
any other composer besides Wagner whose
text and music are so wedded together?
PB: I don’t
think there are because he was really the
most creative person to have created his own texts. Although
that’s very strange with Wagner because he wrote the text
sometimes fifteen or twenty years before he set it to
music. Therefore he
was changing some of the words, but not very many. I have read a
book on the difference between the sketches and the
finished score, and he doesn’t change that much. He changed
sometimes for the sonority, but that was more toward the end.
Especially in Götterdämmerung,
he changed much more for
ideological reasons. He did not know how to finish
properly, and he had trouble to finish it
because in all these years his ideology has changed completely.
He did not know, really, what to make of it,
BD: How do
you see the last five minutes of the Ring?
PB: That’s a
kind of compressed ending. For me,
the music is wonderful but the theatrical experience is not terribly
convincing, because everything happens. The Rhine is
just washing everything out. The ring has gone back and
Brünnhilde goes into the fire. Dramatically it is certainly
not the strongest part, but the music is so beautiful that you forget
it. As a matter of fact, Chéreau solved this very
beautifully. He finished with a question mark. All the
people, all the crowd was there wondering at once what was
happening. Finally the crowd was turning toward the orchestra,
absolutely listening to the music without any movement, and looking at
the audience in the dark. It was really this crowd
on the stage looking at the audience, being a mirror of the audience in
the middle of this music which was expressing just itself.
It was an extremely beautiful moment. I think the Ring, the
finishing on a question
mark. Everything will happen again; there is no conclusion.
BD: Are you a
better conductor because you are also a
PB: Well, no, I
don’t think I am a better
conductor. I think simply maybe I conduct in a different
way, because I know, really, more in depth what composition
means. I am not the only one... for instance, George Szell, to
mention him because I worked with him and was very close to him for
some years. He studied composition and has
composed, also. Furtwängler also has composed. Maybe
the compositions of Furtwängler are certainly not the best of what
he did, but he knew how to manage composition. Certainly if you
really know what composition is as a
practical matter, you are paying much more attention to some
characteristics which otherwise you would not emphasize. For
instance, if you are a composer you are paying very much
attention to the long lines, to the tension of a scene, not only
to have the exciting moments and in between you are swimming from
exciting moment to exciting moment and reaching them when they are
there. Also, if you are a composer you pay much more
attention to the continuity of the development, to what motifs are
doing. My attitude towards a motif in Wagner was not, “Oh, there
is a motif so I will throw it
out in a very loud way so everybody can recognize it.” On the
contrary, the more I studied Wagner the more I
thought that themes were part of the web, and sometimes you have to
bring them out because they are very important moments. For
instance, think of the turning point of a scene when the meaning
changes, or when you have a theme which was tied with a situation but
the situation has
changed and this motif itself is changing, the harmony is
changing. Then you have to emphasize this kind of thing, but
otherwise you distort the web if you put always the motifs
into a kind of position which is too prominent. Then you don’t
perceive texture anymore, but you perceive only these important
themes. So for me, as a composer, I’m very careful to bring
the continuity, and I am also very careful with the
instrumentation. That may
be because when you write an orchestral score, you give a great
deal of attention to the balance, to what instrument is more important
than the other and to how the instrument should meld together.
You don’t simply give a general
impression of the orchestration, but I try to be as precise as
possible, to observe as precisely as possible, the indications of
Wagner himself. There is a book on Wagner by Nietzsche. He
it, really, in a nasty way, but I think it was a big complement when he
says, “Wagner is a master of the miniature.” He thought it was
derogatory to say that,
but it is true because Wagner was extremely fastidious in his putting
together his orchestral texture.
PB: Yes, all
the details of the orchestration, which
are really very well-conceived. For instance, the balance against
three clarinets is two oboes and one
English horn, or he has two bassoons and two clarinets. Even the
weight of the instruments he’s calculated with extreme
precision, and you cannot forget that! But at the same
time you have these sweeping lines, and that’s very
difficult for me, in Wagner, to bring together the extreme precision
of this texture and in the same time the long lines of a theme.
That’s this contrast between miniature and fresco, which is so
difficult to obtain in Wagner.
BD: What do
you expect from an audience, and is
it different when you’re the composer, as opposed to the conductor?
because when I conduct
that which I have not written, I am certainly involved, but I am not
reflecting on the work in the same way that I am reflecting when it is
a work which I have written myself. When I have written
the work myself, especially when the work is fresh — a
month or so or even the previous week when it is a chamber work
— then I am not sure how to perform it. I have to do
couple of performances to be absolutely sure of how I will manage all
the things I have thought and how it translates in practical gestures
its many sonorities. This is not a difficulty, but you certainly
have to concentrate on the way of looking at your score
and saying, “Yes, I want that, and how will I realize it
properly?” But if I have an old score, for instance the scores I
written in 1950-1955 like Le Marteau
sans Mâitre, then I have no
difficulty, because the distance is such that I consider that like a
score of the past. I like them much better than I did 30
years ago, not only because I have learned quite a lot in conducting
more and more, but also the distance from the score is
benefiting these performances. It’s the same
for the classical works — the works of the past, even of the
recent past, such as the Vienna School or Stravinsky.
When I was very involved in discovering the scores, I did not know how
to manage them properly. But now that there is a distance and I
have gone through the score
quite a lot of times, it’s like a car race. The driver
has to discover a curve here and a right line in a part of
it, and then another curve. Then he knows
how to manage these curves, and all these differences in the run.
BD: A race
car driver would say that he
doesn’t know how fast he can take a curve until he’s taken it too
fast. Is there an equivalent in music?
PB: I think
that’s exactly the same
because sometimes you know that you have to give so
much more energy in one part than the other part. Then you give
energy and that’s wasted because you know that maybe
later on you have to give more energy than the previous point.
When I conducted the Ring for
the first time, I was thinking all the time, “Here I must give more,
too much because there is still to come the end of the scene,” and so
on and so forth. You have to think about that each time, and that
of course you can manage, but that’s very tiring. It might not be
a natural gesture, but when you have done it a couple of times, after
five years, for
instance, I do not have to think anymore. I was giving the
energy, and compensating sometimes when, for instance, a place was a
little bit too slow because the singer wanted to take a slightly
slower tempo. Perhaps his voice was not in as good shape
as it was previous series of performances. I can
understand that. You cannot be rigid in these performances.
have to take in consideration everything. Also
the production is very important. If a
singer has gone a little too far, you have to give way and observe what
he does on the stage. You have to listen to
that, but you react by feeling more than by
thinking. That’s the progress you make, always, when you are
with a score over a number of performances. At first you are
concentrating on the fact that you are doing that, and that, and that,
and that. Then afterwards you don’t think anymore, but you
react naturally because the score is not in your head but in your
hands. There is no transmission time, let’s say.
You have direct contact to the score with your hands. That’s the
great advantage when you
do a series of performances, that at the end you don’t have to think
anymore, but you just feel the score.
BD: Is opera then
more a collaborative art between
the conductor and the performers than a symphony?
PB: Oh yes,
much more. In each
performance I have done, I was always there from the very, very
beginning. I don’t want to be at each rehearsal of the
director, because it can be annoying for the director to have always
somebody with him. Sometimes he likes to work completely alone
with a singer and just a piano for rehearsing. But when there
are important rehearsals, then I prefer to be there. First, I can
follow what the director is doing, and second, I can tell him, “We love
movement but it does not move with the music.” Physically, if you
ask the singer to just run at this point, he cannot
sing easily a phrase after that. Or if he does this movement at
this point, it will disturb the flow of the music. I prefer to
say that before, rather than be confronted with these
problems at the last minute, when people have already studied the
production and it is difficult to change something. The
change will be always like a scar, then, but if you do the change
at the beginning, then it’s an organic process of development.
helping to mold it?
attended not all the rehearsals of Chéreau, but I attended the
main rehearsals, and I asked him, “Can I go do it this way?” and he was
very happy. We also discussed it afterwards,
right after rehearsal. I would tell him, “I think
that and that and that, but you could do more at this
place because the singer can really move there without any
problem.” The production was absolutely his invention, but at
some points I was mixing in myself,
just to give some direction according to the music and the
possibilities of the singers.
producers today getting too much power, and
taking too many liberties with scores and texts and stage directions?
scores, certainly not. Nothing was done with the score as long as
BD: But I
mean, in general?
general I don’t think the score is
touched. The score is never touched, but certainly some
productions have a super-structure of the staging
compared to the score. I don’t find it very interesting
when you have so-called ‘ideas’.
This type of production is
disturbing when you want to change the time and change the
psychological relationship, and you want to say, “Now I have understood
what he meant.” All these kinds of directions are sometimes
even very childish. But I find a production should go into the
text, and not only as a decoration. A production should really
look at what is in the music and in the text, because both are
important. When a musician has composed the music, he has the
text in front of him, and he thought of the text. With the
productions of Chéreau, of Lulu
or the Ring, certainly he
emphasizes some details. I remember something which shocked the
people, especially in the first
year, was the scene with the bird in Siegfried.
The bird was in a cage, and that shocked people out of
proportion. They wondered why he did that because it is very
strange. If you look at the text of Wagner, Wotan is
maneuvering Siegfried all the time, until the break when they fight and
both are defeated.
But until then, he maneuvers, always. Siegfried is the least
free of all people because he is constantly
maneuvered. Then this bird, which should bring him to
Brünnhilde, is also the will of Wotan, because he has to deliver
Brünnhilde. So how to show on a stage that the bird
was also the will of Wotan is very difficult.
BD: So he put
it in a cage!
PB: Wotan put
it in a cage.
though Wotan himself says that he is the
least free of anyone?
Absolutely! And it’s very difficult to show
that. You have that in the text, but if you have to show
something like that, the cage was an idea which was
not in the text of Wagner, but which was not at all against the meaning
of the text. It was just a symbolic
transcription of what the text meant, and people took it as a real
thing in spite of the fact you don’t find any
birds in a cage in the forest, especially in the wild forest! But
as a symbol of the absence of freedom of
Siegfried, it was really the best symbol.
BD: You have
said that all music
should disturb. Should the stage directions also disturb?
PB: I suppose
they should disturb. They should bring the light of our period on
a piece. You cannot even do revivals, and that’s really very
I have seen revivals of old stagings, even those of just ten or fifteen
years, and because the
art of the stage is something which is so tied with the
actuality, so tied with the period itself, immediately when you
have ten or fifteen years in between, you see a
production is aging progressively.
this be different if it were done each year
for those ten or fifteen years?
PB: Yes, if
the director himself modifies it. I would like to tell you how
reacted. Wieland Wagner’s production of Parsifal was begun in ’51. I
Bayreuth in ’66 to work with him, and during all these years it
changed constantly. It was the same production, but at the same
time it was not the same production. There were some major
changes. So in ’66 he told me, “While you are here now I want
to change it completely, because I cannot change something here and
something there when the musical direction has completely
changed.” He told me, “You bring another point of view, and
my point of view was fitting with Knappertsbusch. Now I feel
absolutely I must change that.” Unfortunately he died that year,
so we did not work on that. But
afterwards his production was maintained for a certain
number of years with somebody very competent to maintain it, but only
to maintain it. Then the production aged instantly. It
was like the scene in Rheingold
when there is no apple
anymore, and then the gods are aging instantly! This
production, without his kind of rejuvenation of each year, just was
growing older and older and older, and after a certain number of
years it could not be maintained anymore, because it was the style of
Wieland Wagner, the style of the fifties. Then you see how much
the stage production is tied with the period,
even when there was a genius. But this genius does not
survive. That was due to some circumstances, due to some very
precise meeting of some talents, and then, when those talents are
no more there, there is another generation, another time, and you
have to change completely.
BD: Is it
your basic complaint about opera
houses in general that they are dying, that they have withered on
PB: I think
my complaint is that they don’t give the
best conditions for performance.
BD: So it
really has nothing to do, then, with
PB: It has
nothing to do with repertoire, no. I
would like that the repertoire could be expanded, and people
would be more
curious and more curious to put in the repertoire of accepted
masterpieces but which are performed once in a blue
moon. Wozzeck should be
permanently included because as a story it is as exciting as Tosca. That’s
exactly the same type of opera drama, and I am sure that with good
production, and with
the music really put together very well, Wozzeck would be a
normal repertoire piece. It is not.
protesting] Some people think that it is becoming a normal
PB: If you
perform it once every four or five years, I don’t think that’s
repertoire. That’s the point. As a matter of fact, Wagner
is not terribly repertoire, either. How many times do you
see Parsifal? Parsifal is not performed very
often in all
theaters. What is performed by Wagner are the early pieces,
mainly Tannhäuser and Lohengrin and Meistersinger and
Tristan. But full cycles
of the Ring are very rarely
performed because, first of all, economical conditions are
enormous! But the theater is
there for that. If you cannot manage that, then your ability is
put into question. I don’t know if it is still the case now, but
when Solti was in Covent Garden, there was a Ring cycle at the beginning of
every season. I find that’s normal because
that’s one of the most important works of the nineteenth century; also
the operas by Mozart. You see sometimes some
performances that are terribly routine, and I don’t find them
always very exciting. For instance, if you hear Così fan Tutte,
which is a very difficult opera to perform, what you hear is not really
terribly satisfying all the time.
BD: As you
say, the repertoire should be
expanded. Are the obstacles to contemporary opera the same or
different than they were twenty or thirty years ago?
PB: They are
more or less the same. Most of the people in the opera houses do
lip service to
them due to lack of interest and conviction in presenting the
works. They don’t take the best singers. They always take
are less used in the house and can do that
assignment. World-class singers will never touch that assignment.
BD: Would a
contemporary opera work better with a
Domingo, rather than a young singer who is more into contemporary?
If he is a very good young
singer, certainly it works better. But I don’t see why a
star could not devote part of his time to a new work, if he’s
interested. And it doesn’t apply only to new works;
it applies to production. I don’t consider that either a
conductor or a singer does justice to a production if he comes only
four or five days before the premiere, and that is very often the
case. You will never expect that from even a star
actor! He will be always there for the rehearsals, and really be
involved from the beginning to the end. The singers take that
very lightly, much too lightly for my taste.
BD: Is it
possible for something to get
over-rehearsed, perhaps like a Felsenstein-type production?
You cannot exaggerate in the other
direction. If you are six months in a production, of
course everybody will be bored to death, although with
Felsenstein, it gave some stunning results, I must say. But the Lulu production was one
full month of rehearsals, and one full month of rehearsals can be
accepted by any singer for a new production if he is
conscientious. A revival takes less than that, but a
first production should be no less than one month. But the
life of an opera house is organized in such a way that people have to
sit there for rehearsals for one month, and nothing else is
proposed to them. In an opera house you
could organize in the same time concerts, recitals,
also periods of teaching which will be very profitable for
everybody. The great singers begin to teach only
when they are all out of dollars, and I find that a pity because they
only on their past for the style. But
a great singer could give some master classes when the production is in
rehearsal, or could give some recitals or some concerts with
orchestra. You could find either a similar work, or works by the
same composer who has
composed this opera, for instance. When one
rehearses Lulu, you could
give the Altenberg Lieder,
for instance, in a
concert, and that will be of interest for the singer
because he will not sit there and have the impression of doing nothing
but rehearse, which is a kind of dead period for
him. If you could excite his interest in other activities, this
would be a good thing. But the whole
conception of an opera should change to be able to propose that to the
singers. Then it will be another involvement; it will be
interesting, and they would have a tendency to stay where
they are, and not just to go from one place to another one.
Is it a mistake on the part of the
public to expect all new operas, world premieres, to be
PB: I have
looked at the programs of the opera between
1875 and 1900. There were thousands of operas which were
premiered and which never survived because they are really works of the
If you had an opera which had no success, it did
not survive after five performances at the most, and sometimes it had
performances. Look at the example of the big works of Berlioz,
which is very
typical, in a way — Benvenuto, Beatrice
and Benedict, and Trojans.
BD: Trojans was never done completely.
done completely at first, and only for a
very limited number of performances. It was not successful,
period! It was buried immediately, like all other
operas. Trojans has
musical qualities which allow it to
survive, but anything which was not immediately successful
was just dumped. What was successful in the opera
in Paris was mainly Rossini and Meyerbeer, period.
Wagner was not successful until 1890s. Otherwise, there were very
few performances. And if you look at the life of the big time of
the opera houses, there were a lot of very poor works.
the opera houses of today be doing more new works a few times and then
letting them be dropped?
PB: I don’t
say you cannot do that, because
repertoire establishes itself in a more powerful way, but in a year, if
you choose well, you could
very well do two or three first performances, and it would not really
be a burden to the house which does that. As a matter of fact,
that’s what Liebermann did when he was in Hamburg.
that’s an isolated case!
because he was Liebermann! It
needed personality to do that, and as long as you have the
personality, you have the results. It needs
conviction. You have to be convinced, and Liebermann was
convinced of that, and they needed it.
BD: Can we
ever hope for an opera from Pierre Boulez?
Yes. Maybe not an ‘opera’
in the conventional
sense, but a work for theater, certainly.
BD: Thank you
so very much for speaking with me today.
PB: You are
been very gracious. Merci
[Laughs] Très bien!
We now move ahead just over twenty months
for the second encounter in late October of 1987.
BD: [As we both
get comfortable on the sofas in his suite] So, where is music
PB: Who can
tell? [Laughs] I suppose that’s
exactly the type of question you can never answer.
BD: Is that
even a question we want to try and
certainly not. I’m not really interested
in prophecy and saying, “Oh, music goes that,
and in ten
years you will see, or fifteen years or the near future even.”
That is something which is interesting. That’s a
surprise, and if you had told me that I am now where I am, I could have
believed it or not believed it. But it would
not have been of any kind of importance because I could not
materialize myself into the future. I am certainly detached and
I’m living in
the moment, but of course I’m thinking about what I will
do. What I would think so for the future is a strong direction,
but that’s a guess
always. Nobody can tell anything.
BD: If you
can’t tell where music will be later, what direction is it heading at
PB: At this
moment there are a couple of developments which interest me. I
that’s development of music generally speaking, but there are a
couple of developments which for me are interesting. First is the
expansion of material of music. I have made very often this
comparison but it’s like
architecture at one point was really changing because of the change of
material. If you can build sky-scrapers because the
materials changed, the style has
changed as a consequence of the discovery of the new
material. That is where music is, at the
beginning of a period where a lot of new material will appear at the
disposal of the composers. The new material is like electronics,
instance. You can tell me that’s not that new because it began
something like forty years ago.
BD: Are you a
creator then of new material, or are you
a user of whatever material is around?
question is not that
simple. You don’t just have new material at your
convenience without looking for it. The thing is just to look for
new material and to investigate in this direction, and to provoke the
birth of new material. That’s a kind of action which
is reciprocal. You might have new thoughts of a musical
expression or musical intentions which cannot be
fulfilled by instruments because you cannot have the
right intervals or you cannot have the right colors or the right
material. You look at how you can do that. Generally there
is a meeting point between
the research and the creative power. The
creative power could not go without this research, but research without
creative material, power would be nothing. When I began with
colors some fifteen years ago, I was thinking of that. A musician
think and cannot find all kinds of new material if he’s not helped
either by a group of people or an institution which will care for
that. Then he’s facing then a situation which is lighter for
him because he can benefit from a group activity, although composing
and creativity will remain highly
individual. The way of using this material will remain
individual, but this discovery of the material can be a group activity.
BD: Are you
pleased with all of the new developments,
or are there some blind allies that we have uncovered?
PB: You can’t
say they’re blind allies. It depends on how the people use
Sometimes there is a possibility and composers don’t use it properly,
or they did not have enough time, or they didn’t have
enough persistence, or they will be fooling themselves with idealistic
possibilities which are not really
possible right now. So you have all kinds of difficulties and all
kinds of problems, but that’s a normal situation. I’m never
really astonished if you have problems
in your way because you know very well things are not simple.
retrospectively you think it was absolutely logical to do
that, but before this logic was discovered, this logic was
hidden and not absolutely obvious.
BD: You say ‘use
it properly’. Who makes the
decision of what is proper — is it the musical
community, is it
the audience, the critics, the historians?
what I mean, it’s a mixture of
everybody. I don’t think any kind of group makes the
law or decides what is good and what is not good. You have a vast
variety of choices with many
personalities. Of course you have personalities which are
stronger than other ones, but it’s not
always the strongest personalities who develop the background.
Certainly there are some composers who are not really at the
forefront, but who have developed ideas which are very
interesting. Let’s take, for instance from the past, the
example of Varèse and Stravinsky. The
complete works of Stravinsky are much more striking as a force in the
twentieth century, but Varèse was maybe,
in some parts, more inventive, and the fact that it was not fully
allows people to be begin with that and to take these ideas which
were not completely put to the most achievement as a
point of departure. From this point then
they can read and develop many things. On the contrary in some of
the pieces of Stravinsky that’s a universe which is closed because
all the possibilities are explored. You must be very inventive to
see what he used and how he used the methods, and then
to develop from this point something which is more important, or
differently important from what he did. But that’s much
more difficult with a composer with a very strong personality
with a composer with a less strong personality, or with an output which
is smaller or less striking at first.
BD: In your
own music, do you strive to use all of
the possibilities, everything that is in the kernels of invention?
PB: I try to use
them one by one. [Laughs] You cannot eat all the food of
the world at once! When you are having a walk in the woods, you
don’t take every path and
you don’t look at every tree. You are trying to make your way,
to go from one point to another one and even to discover
things, but you don’t explore everything. I suppose
that’s the way of a musician. It depends also from the
circumstances of his life, the points in his life, and how his mind is
working at certain moments. Sometimes you can discover vast
territory with a lot of things
which are just seen like that and which are just taken on the
surface, and sometimes he goes much deeper in a corner which is
more interesting, and he explores this corner really very deeply and to
the point where it is exhausted. Then when this is exhausted,
he can go further, and maybe find that it is not completely exhausted,
so he goes
into another corner and back to the earlier corner. We are like
animals which have the winter in
front of them, so they accumulate small things. They know they
have a fortress of their own
on which they can survive during the whole winter. When you are
very young you accumulate knowledge, and
progressively you have the opportunity of using this knowledge and of
accumulating other things. This knowledge will be part of your
life, and part of your sources of energy constantly. You see
someone at eighteen or twenty. Then when you see them after
or thirty or forty years, you don’t see them at all in
the same light. The characteristics of really important works
are mainly already made, so
you can see quite a lot of things according to your own development
because they are reflecting you very well. Works that are not
very important are not reflecting very much because they’re not good
mirrors, but very important
works are terribly good mirrors, and they reflect and they enlarge
what you are able to see of yourself. You
are drawn to something the writer says about literature, and it is
the same meaning in music. Important works speak to you not about
themselves but they speak about yourself, and that’s exactly what I
think about when confronted with the past. They are
speaking of yourself, and not the contrary.
BD: Are they
speaking about the people who are alive at
the time they were written, or are they speaking about the people today
PB: Today and
tomorrow. I was never really a
great fan of authenticity and tradition because if you think this
performance is authentic or that’s not the right tradition,
there’s no absolute values in music or in literature or
in art. That’s impossible because the relationship between a
work and its time does not change. In art you have a
theoretically does not change. There is no change of the oil
pigment, and in music the structure does not change. You
can’t tell me that music is painted and nothing changes at
all, but music to be heard has to be performed, and then the
relationship the performer with the work is also something which is
changing constantly, even unconsciously. For instance, listen to
recordings of work which were made fifty or sixty years ago. You
see the enormous difference between a work by Beethoven recorded by
Furtwängler in the 30s the same work recorded by a young man right
now. It has not the same vision, and
that’s very sane because you don’t go back to a
fixed image. This image follows you.
BD: So both
these interpretations then are valid?
BD: Are all
When you have distortions,
BD: At what
point does interpretation become distortion.
very difficult to say. Some things which seem right in a period
distortion in another one, so therefore I would not blame
distortions unless you know they are blatant oppositions to the text
itself. Yesterday I
heard a tape of Mengleburg doing Mahler in 1939. You think, “Oh
God. Did he really
mean to make these big rallentandos
all the time?” Although the
playing is of a very high quality, now it seems to us a
distortion. But at his time maybe that’s how people were
accustomed to have
the structure of the music shown in this type of very
obvious way. In his time it was certainly not a distortion
because a musician of his caliber would not have done it, but now
it seems to us a distortion. Look at baroque music, with Bach
especially. In the romantic time they were doing it so
differently. You have all the
recordings of Cortot, especially, which seem wrong to us today.
It was like the sewing machine with no
distortion at all. Everything must be ‘ta, ta, ta,
ta’. Now there’s flourishes, there are
changes of tempo and so forth. So what could have been really
rejected as a distortion in the 30s, now is accepted as
the real style!
BD: And our
style will be seen as distortion perhaps twenty-five
years from now?
Exactly! Because on what are you basing
interpretation? You are looking at some books, but you have no
documents on eighteenth century music, not to speak of seventeenth and
sixteenth century music. You have books
only to rely on. You have no proper documents from the
theoretical point of view, let’s say for the
flourishments and for embellishments of the time. You just have
books, but you do not really know how they were doing it.
You have no documents on the tuning. It’s
BD: When you
think about your own music, we have
documents. There are even recordings that you have made of
of your music.
BD: There are
also broadcasts so that we can
listen a hundred or even two hundred years from now to exactly how
Boulez conducted and
performed his own music.
PB: Yes, but
it does not mean that it was the
only way of performing my own music. I
see the difference between my own performance thirty
years ago and now of my own works. When I
listen to the old recording of Le
Marteau sans Maître, which I made in ’56 [shown at right], I am appalled by
of uneasiness, and rather stiff tempi and so on and so forth. Now
am much more at ease with the music because I have a distance.
I’ve played it quite a number of times, so now I can
take that in my hand and make something out of
it. [Boulez would make four
subesquent recordings of this work.] But thirty years ago
I was still uneasy,
and I’m sure that’s with the first performance. I am very aware
of that. The first time I perform a work
of mine is like new shoes
or a new jacket. You are feeling you have to move into
it before it feels comfortable, before you feel that you can
manage a performance. I remember very well the first time I
played Notations. I was
not too used
to how to do that, how to rehearse it properly. Even if you have
quite a lot of experience, when you are writing a
score it’s like making the swimming movements out of water.
There’s no resistance in the air.
When you have water, your movements go in a different way
because you have the resistance of water.
BD: And then
you make adjustments?
PB: I make
adjustments, yes, certainly. I am a very pragmatic person, but
even more pragmatic people than I, like Mahler for instance, did
correct the scores because they knew that sometimes an
instrument was not strong enough or this register was not proper
and on so on and so forth. You can see with
the material, not with something very simple
but in something rather complex, you have to certainly have to
be very careful with the results, with the material you are
BD: When you
have to perform a score of your own, can you divorce
yourself from it as the composer, or do you still look at it as the
composer rather than as a conductor?
PB: Only if
the work is far from me in time,
a work like Marteau, like Pli selon Pli, or something like
I don’t look at it as if I could revise it. That’s
finished. Then I go to it much more as a performer, although
I remember the way I composed it. It is very funny sometimes when
a detail does not come out I say, “Oh, I
remember I thought this way!” If you
remember you were thirty years ago in Spain, you might
say, “Oh yes, this day I was in Seville, and I
very precise day, and everything else has disappeared.”
remember just a moment of your life at this very point, and sometimes I
have flashbacks of what I did, but it has nothing to do with
performances. That’s much
more a personal remembrance than anything else.
BD: Like a
PB: Yes, like
a diary, or if I hear
the Wind Symphonies of
Stravinsky, I remember very well
the sound that Stravinsky wanted, that very dry sound that
was typical his markers. But that’s just a personal view,
BD: Is there
ever a case where someone else conducts
your music better than you do?
PB: I haven’t
that until now, but it can
happen. That depends on what generation
it is because some of my works require very classical
conducting, so there’s no problem. But in some other works there
is quite a different technique of conducting. There is free
choice, free cueing and so on, and some people are not at all
easy with that. They don’t know what to do exactly when you have
to form the material, when the material is there but not already put
together. Then you have to make the gesture
yourself, and not only just metrically make a gesture but to
make the gesture of performing with sound
bodies. You must give much more of yourself and be much more
of the material you’re handling than if you are just conducting in the
BD: This is
not a case of your leaving, perhaps, too
much for the conductor?
PB: No, I
think I don’t leave too much. That’s the kind of performance
which is asking
from the conductor something he can give which is not above
his possibilities, but he has to explore these possibilities
because they were not explored during his education, and that’s exactly
the point. Sometimes
I’m very disappointed. When I see a work like Eclat, for
instance, when you have cues to give freely which gives a
very specific tension to the work because people are not really given
cues in one, two, three, four, and so on, but they are
given ‘yes, you play; here you play; here you play’ according to what I
decide last minute. So everyone waits and so it gives a kind of
tension, which is required for
that. Some parts, where
everything was codified with one, two, three, four,
five, that’s not difficult. But the difficulty’s the art.
The tension is art. I know conductors who
would do my work very well — Abbado, for
Barenboim — but sometimes I
am amazed. I had an experience not long ago of somebody who
picked up one of my works and the tempi were really wrong, or what you
can call wrong. There are metronome marks, but I’m
not really a man who looks at 72 rather than 73. I know that you
cannot be so accurate, and that
metronome marks are just a kind of window of speed. But his speed
was much below the
speed which has been indicated!
BD: About 56
or something like that?
Yes! [Both laugh] The piece just
sagged and was unbearable to me. Then you feel very uncomfortable
when you listen, and suddenly you are like the back-seat
driver. You see the car coming to a crash and you
cannot do anything about it. I would not have been
a good instructor for driving! [Both laugh again]
BD: How can
one rehearse a piece that requires this on-the-spot
thinking in performance?
PB: It should
be rehearsed slowly first. You rehearse and wait. Tell them
I will do that so this cue and this cue for you, and you call the
instrument each time so that’s the first reaction. They know to
look at what they are to play. That’s generally not
difficult because when it’s too difficult you could not
really have this kind of attention to the cue. But you start
have a call for everybody, and then after that you do it silently
because they must react to the vision cue. You have to do it
silently and slowly, and then progressively you speed
up. Then you have to force
yourself to make a different order each time so they are
surprised. They should notice that if I do a different
order, they have to be always attentive to what I’m doing,
and not just waiting for the cue.
BD: Does any
of that kind of rehearsal technique
transfer to standard repertoire?
PB: No, this
kind of conducting does not
apply to normal repertoire, but I must say that I had it much easier
with this repertoire because my arms are completely
free. I can give just cues for entrances, or look at
the instrument and just beat the time precisely. You acquire an
independence of the arms, which is much more than you could
do in the repertoire generally. That’s
nothing to do one to the other, but you benefit from this experience.
BD: When you’re
conducting the standard repertoire,
what can you leave for the performance, or is all the work done in
PB: The work
is mainly done in rehearsal because I
don’t want the orchestra to be surprised in a bad way
because of erratic conducting. That is not really very
valuable to me. I prefer to have a very thorough
preparation, and then you give the overdrive by enjoying the
performance. Then you can
actually make a little bit more. It is still the
line you have indicated, only it’s a steeper line or a line which goes
more sudden than they expected when you
were rehearsing. But that’s not irrational compared to
what you have done. It is some kind of expansion of what you have
done, but on the same line and in the same direction. That I find
very important because then they are surprised, and they expect a
surprise because if the performance
is exactly like the rehearsal there is something missing. But if
the performance is so different from the
rehearsal and everybody’s lost and doesn’t know
what to do, you have to reinforce the
features but in the direction you have chosen to give them during the
BD: If have
three or four or six or even
eight performances of the same work or set of works, is each
performance the same, or does each
performance have a little different emphasis?
difficulty is to keep fresh when you
have four concerts sometimes one after another.
BD: So how do
you keep it fresh?
PB: You force
you are interested in music, especially when you want to hear it
properly. Maybe the first time will be more tense because it is
first time you go in front of an audience. But then there is the
excitement, and the second time you are more secure in a way, less
less nervously tense, but then you have a more musical approach.
There are different types of tension.
There is the tension, what the Germans call Lampenfieber or anxiety in
front of the audience. Then you have also pure
nervousness, which is generally not good if you don’t
dominate it. Then you have a kind of excitement with your
audience when you are assured that the work will go well. You
master all the conditions, and sometimes when you are repeating
something too many times it’s very difficult to force yourself to
overcome this once more.
BD: Think of
it as one last
although the last one is okay because, as you say
that’s the last one. It’s the ones in between that are more
BD: Do you
conduct differently on the podium than you
do in the recording studio?
PB: No, it is
approximately the same. I am maybe more
aware in a recording studio of the small mistakes, because you begin
and your ear is sharp. During a
performance, if the sweep is there
and the vitality is there, a blurb is not heard twice. You prefer
that it is not there of
course, but if it is there, you accept it. But in a
recording session you cannot. The difficulty is to
keep the tension and the vitality with the perfection, especially
when a blurb comes out. In a recording session then you begin to
make inserts, one, two, three
times, and the third time you really have to push yourself very hard
not to think ‘once more, once more, once more’. You have to keep
this freshness, and also keep the
same notion of tempo because if the insert has to be used, you
have to be very aware of the tempo fitting into it, especially if
that’s in a large part of the
work. You also need to consider the right balance so it does not
just go out. Generally what I do in recording sessions is an
entire part of the work. I cannot record just small bits, and I
make inserts only if it is really necessary. If
after two or three takes of the whole thing we don’t have it very
clear, either from the balance point of view or from
the instruments point of view, then I make
inserts. But I’m very careful not to make just juxtaposed small
BD: When you’re
giving a concert, do you ever feel that
you’re competing against the record you made?
I have no memory for my
records. Sometimes I don’t recognize them, especially recordings
that go back twenty years ago. I’m not hypnotized by photographs
of myself. I don’t look as I was at twenty-five and then at
and then at thirty-five and so on. [Laughs] It is a kind of
narcissistic enjoyment I don’t have at all!
mock horror] But you don’t disown the old records, do you???
PB: No, no, I
don’t disown my pictures either.
[Laughs even more] I was younger and that’s it, and it is the
same for recordings. I did that, and if that’s me I would not do
it now this way, or on the contrary, this
piece was rather good and I would like to do it again this way
now. So you can’t put judgments on what you have done because you
very well that recording sessions are really very demanding, and you
have very rarely the possibility of doing a recording like you want
time is measured, sometimes very strictly, and happy or not sometimes
you have to move on because it costs money! I remember very, very
well The Rite of Spring with
Cleveland Orchestra. We did this recording extremely quickly
because we had performed the work quite a number of times over two or
three years. Then I think we did the recording within four hours,
which was quite an achievement. I remember very
well the first session I had in the States, and I was told we could get
ten minutes of finished record every hour. There are all the
rules, and of course you begin and you don’t think about
the rules at the time. You go to hear some takes, and because I
had always recorded in Europe, especially in England, everything there
was calm. But here I asked the manager of the personnel how much
time we had
left, and I saw him calculating. There were not those
small machines then, and he calculated and said
twenty-seven minutes! I thought that’s a very precise
BD: In Europe
they would have said you have a
exactly! But here it was just to the minute. It teaches you
how to use the time with
the maximum of efficiency, that’s for sure, but sometimes you
would like a little more leeway during the session.
BD: Is there
ever a chance that because
of the cut and paste a recording becomes too perfect?
PB: No, it
can’t be that. [Laughs] It can’t be
that because if you are looking for perfection, you
are beginning to be tight and stiff, and then you are looking only with
the hope that the horns will not blurb again, or the strings will make
the right entrance or something
like that because you can’t have a mistake like
that. Then you are so stiff with yourself and don’t
think anymore of playing, just listening to mistakes. You have to
get over that. Mistake or
not, I will play. I admire very much the old generations.
In the 30s and 40s we were recording just like that, and
mistake or not it has been there. I find in these old
recordings that there were very few mistakes indeed. The more you
trust the take and that mistakes will be corrected, the more mistakes
you will make. I suppose that’s the difficulty of
getting through like that in a thing that is very important
to me. I notice that, for instance, with some German radio
orchestras because they are accustomed to record and edit for the
broadcasts. They record like for the recording industry.
They tape it and they make inserts and they’re
editing. Then of course you have good broadcasts, but what it
came sometimes to the concert, everybody was shaking because then there
was no way of correcting mistakes. People would not take a chance
and the performance would be not shaky, but not really
outgoing. There was always this restraint character
which came from the lack of agressivity.
BD: Do the
best concerts result from the most
PB: Oh, I think
so. You must have
it. When you give a concert, you must have a certain
aggressiveness to convince people. That’s like
actors. In film an actor can just
move a finger and everything is
magnified by the screen, but actors in the theater just do that with
the best intentions and will
not be seen. So he has to act a little more. I don’t want
music to be tight
and trivial, but certainly it has to be obvious and convincing.
Especially in a big hall with a
big orchestra, you cannot play exactly like you play a string quartet
for two other people.
about the same sized orchestra in a small
hall or a big hall. Do the subtleties change?
certainly the performance of an
orchestra changes with the hall. You are very aware of
that during a tour especially. When I was with the BBC, in each
tour we had at least a half an hour or three
quarters of an hour’s rehearsal to listen to the hall.
BD: So that
rehearsal really wasn’t for you, it was
for the orchestra?
PB: No, for
the orchestra and for me and also
for the hall. You could adjust, so on the evening you were sure
of what you were doing. Of course it was in an empty hall and for
all of them it is slightly different, but that’s not a big
adjustment. But when was on tour with the New York Philharmonic,
then you change halls every day practically, and it’s too
expensive to have a rehearsal. So you go into the hall just for
concert and then sometimes you have big surprise. You have a hall
which is dry like hell, and the next day
you have a very resonant hall. It takes a quarter of an hour at
least to make the adjustment
which is absolutely necessary. For instance in a very resonant
hall, you don’t go as quickly as in a dry hall, and sometimes in a very
you have to put the brake on your orchestra because they are going
faster and faster because they don’t hear anything particularly!
BD: If you
know that kind of tour is coming, do
you purposely put an overture at the top just to get the
adjustment in each hall?
better if you have a
short work to begin with certainly, yes.
BD: You don’t
start out with the big heavy piece?
unless you are forced to do
so. Even with a Mahler symphony sometimes
you will hear a short piece before it.
BD: Who makes
the decisions about repertoire?
depends on the countries. For
instance, with the Ninth Symphony
of Mahler generally in New York
people don’t do anything else, and you begin with that. That’s
it. But in England, for
instance, for the Proms concerts from the summer season, Proms are
longer generally than during the winter season, and then even the Ninth
Symphony be considered too short. So you have to put
either a Mozart symphony or a Mozart concerto, or anything of this
approximate duration before, which fits in the program of course.
BD: How do
you decide which pieces of music from the
vast literature you will program in the next season?
PB: It’s not
my problem anymore. [Laughs] I choose now just for a couple
of concerts I am doing, and generally I make a
special choice for very special programs which are not to do
generally with the big repertoire. I am
concentrating on pieces which I like to do, especially pieces of the
twentieth century. I don’t go back now even to the
nineteenth century. There are so many people who
are conducting nineteenth century anyway. They don’t need me.
BD: Are there
too many conductors?
PB: There are
not enough who conduct twentieth century. I’m not against the
nineteenth century repertoire, but it has to be expanded quite a
lot. You can’t live only on
seventy-five years or a hundred years of music. It’s not
enough. What I do myself is try to balance the program and to
have unity or very well balanced contrast between the
pieces. For me that’s very important because you cannot have a
uniform program. You have to have some variety, especially when
works together which are of a similar period. Then
you have to have a great variety of contrast in the personalities of
composer, or if you have different periods of history, then you can
rely on the same character reflecting in different
styles. But to make programs, you have to take into account many,
problems, not counting Union problems. If you deal only with
artistic problems, there are lots to consider,
and it’s not always easy to make programs which are appealing and
rather logical and which make a season. When I
was in charge, I tried not to be uniform but in the same time people
would remember a season more or less by a profile at least. If
not really a main theme or a main idea, but at least a kind of
profile when people say that this year I’ve heard this
work, this work, this work, this work, and then the remember it as
being interesting. I remember one of the years in New
York there was no main theme, but I did
the works related with Mr. Faust in music — The
Damnation of course by Berlioz, the Faust Symphony of Liszt, the Eighth Mahler and I planned also
Busoni Dr. Faust but it was
too much. To hear three or four pieces around this theme in the
season is not really
forcing you down to a theme, but in the same time you remember that in
this season it was this highlight. I am very much in
favor of this kind of signal given to the audience about
resisted the urge to call it a Hell of a Season!
Yes! [Both laugh]
BD: Are you
pleased with a lot of the new music that
you see coming from other composers, either European or American?
PB: Yes, I am
pleased that there is new music!
[Laughs] I realize there are always people writing, and even
a lot. If you’re in a position like I am, I receive quite a lot
of scores. I don’t read them all, of course. I
We have a reading committee for that which
changes every year because I don’t want to have the same
people always. We try to find always an
instrumentalist, a very young composer, a more mature composer,
and some conductor so that we have four different
types of personality who can judge with a very different
approach. Everybody will look more
or less with the eyes of his generation. You have
somebody of twenty-five or twenty-eight going along with somebody of
fifty, so the approach will be slightly
different. So we try to change, and I change every year
because then it’s not a house committee — which
is the worst in all cases. But it changes, and we are very, very
open. What we
ask for is that there is some kind of direction in the music, and not
go on imitation or something which is immature and not
interesting, or out of this period completely.
BD: Do you
look at the scores that are recommended
by the committee?
PB: Yes, when
the committee has
selected quite a lot of scores. Sometimes I receive complaints,
so I look at
the scores of the people who complain that they were rejected for maybe
no good reason. Generally that’s very
rare that they are rejected for bad reasons, but I leave
everything open because I don’t like to have martyrdom on my
shoulders. People should not feel that they are sacrificed to
either the spirit of the
house, or bad feelings about somebody, or personal relationships which
are bad and so on. That is completely excluded and
therefore we have a really broad choice of scores.
basically you’re pleased at what you see
PB: Yes, oh
BD: Are there
perhaps too many young composers coming
PB: Would you
ask me before the Olympic
Games if you have too many swimming pools? No.
BD: But I
might ask if you have too many swimmers.
because the more swimmers you have, the more
chance you have to have a winner. For me, that’s essential.
Of course I
can’t imagine that all these composers will be big
personalities of the future, but there must be encouragement to
produce. The relationship with the audience,
if they are selected, will teach something, and the
audience will learn something also from that. Certainly it is
more for me, as I was always against the ‘ivory
tower’. Of course you write for
yourself. You don’t write for an audience,
but you need to present yourself in front of an audience and to have
your work performed, and experience this kind of nervous tension which
in a performance. You are there and you listen to that.
When you listen alone you think it is all right, but when you listen in
the middle of the audience, your
pulse does not beat in the same way, certainly not. For these
young people to hear the work in front
of an audience is a very good lesson. I
do that, and the more we can play with a certain amount of
quality, the more I will inscribe in the programs. Maybe the
first work is not really the top, but the second or
the third will be much better.
BD: Is there
a place in the repertoire for the second
and even third-line works?
PB: Yes, I
think so. Even in the classical repertoire I am amazed. I
that the music museums are made only of peaks. I don’t like the
musical culture which is
shaped like a Swiss cheese full of holes! You see only big
works or those of a well-known composer. If you play an unknown
symphony of Haydn, you know that’s by Haydn. That isn’t very
interesting, but that’s a chain. In the art museum you have
Rembrandt, but you also see all the people
who painted in the same time and you know why Rembrandt came above the
other one because you are aware of the quality. Otherwise if you
hear the same works constantly, you don’t have any comparison.
You don’t have any historical view. It makes you look at
history like frozen things. You unpack the frozen thing, and then
you pack it back, and that’s what I find
really horrifying. For me, it is not culture.
It’s just the worst aspect of consuming.
BD: So what,
for you, is the ultimate purpose of music?
enlarge your vision of the world. It seems very pretentious to
say that, or very
Germanic in a way, as I mean Weltanschauung,
but that’s that. It’s not only entertaining
yourself with nice sounds. If it is only that, it’s
not really very rich. I like music as
part of my general culture. I go to
theater, I go to the art museum, I read a
book, so I want to have music as part of this
culture. There are of course various aspects or various levels of
culture. I don’t want to be always like that and only listen in
the most severe way. Certainly there are
different levels. I can hear a Divertimento
by Mozart and be entertained
by that. Mozart did not mean more than that, but it was always
very high-level entertaining. But if you hear Don Giovanni
or if you hear Wozzeck, you
have to be involved much more
than just spending two hours digesting so we can think of other things
where is the balance then between the artistic
achievement and the entertainment value?
value. I don’t contest this, but you cannot live only on
entertainment. Entertainment is only part of the culture, and
not the biggest part of the culture. There are layers
of culture and sometimes you want to go deeper in
yourself. Like in life, you cannot listen to
jokes all day. You listen to three or four jokes
and then that’s enough! Entertainment is a little bit like
that. If you are entertained, after a while you
see the shortcomings of the situation. Therefore I think the
musical life has to reflect all these aspects. Among historical
aspects, entertainment as really a deepening feeling about human
goes round human beings, and you cannot really exclude music of the
human being just because it is sometimes pleasant or sometimes
unpleasant. It is there not only for just listening, but to try
to understand what is impossible to express by
words. It is simply that.
BD: Are we
getting the new masterpieces coming along?
we are getting masterpieces coming
along. Every generation has put
masterpieces. It is only that you see they are masterpieces after
because you don’t see history. People who want to be
historical when they are there are not historical precisely because
these conclusions are made later. You cannot see yourself as part
of history and be out of historical context and in historical
context. That’s a view which is impossible. You do
something and then later people will tell exactly what part you
are. You can be conscious of what elements you are, more or
less. You are
conscious of your genealogical tree, though not always very
precisely. But you are aware and you know from
where you came, but for the future you
cannot know. There were readjustments that were done when the
history was sometimes very quickly severe. If I look in the
period between the two Wars in
France or in Europe generally, there was a marvelous period
before the First World War. In 1910, 1915, 1917, 1918,
there were a lot of discoveries in all
fields, especially in music. There were some great works, and
then after in this period of Two Wars,
there was a tendency to be so-called
classical, and then lots of people wanted to be historically
classical. When you see that now, you see it’s just fake.
That’s like a plastic Greek temple, for instance, and that does not fit
at all. History has been very quick to look at that in a very
severe way, and to make this period before and during the First World
War a really very, very strong period in inventiveness and
creativity. Then the period in
between was like something which is really tired and not
interesting, short of ideas and trying to fulfill an ideal which
was very artificial and uninteresting. And I
suppose on our period there will be, certainly in forty
years from now, the same type of judgments, but we cannot make
them right now. I can begin a little bit of my
trajectory, and although I don’t regret my trajectory, I see very well
the excesses of the illogicism of
this trajectory. It seemed to me logical at the time and seemed
not foolish, but it is unnecessary right now. I had
to go through this path, and if you go like [demonstrates an up and
down motion], okay. If you want to join this point, you
have to go sometimes like that, and I could have done that
really straight, but finally I had to do that to arrive where I am.
BD: You have
to have the hills and valleys in your
BD: Is the
music of Pierre Boulez great?
[Laughs] It is certainly
not for me to say that was great. That
would be the least thing I will think of.
advice do you have for young composers
just coming along, or even for middle-aged composers?
PB: They must
find their way! There is no advice to give. I was a very
teacher because I never gave any advice. I was
criticizing the pieces which were presented to me from my point of
view, and I said things from my point of view. If I would be you,
as one says
generally, I would not have written that, but I am not you, so you can
write it if you want! That’s all I can say.
I can say, for instance, technically that’s not good or the ideas are
terribly strong, or the ideas are very interesting but not expanded
properly. That I could say, all kinds of technical
remarks, but not to speak about creative ideas. That’s you.
You find your way or you don’t
find your way, but no advice will be of any help. You have a lot
of great performers who have very
poor students, and you have rather mediocre performers who are
excellent teachers and have wonderful students. I think for
composition it is almost the same. What I think you can learn in
composition is the process of writing
music. That’s certainly counterpoint, harmony and things like that in
a technical background. But once you come to composition
really, there is nothing to be taught. You can show what you did,
how is your way, how you can take a score from somebody else
and then develop something from that. That you can
teach more or less, but to compose,
really that you cannot teach. I believe very much in
the kind of shock in teaching, in composition at
least. You meet a personality, or a person meets you and then
there is a kind of explosive shock which is very
quick. If you don’t have it, you can spend years and it will never
happen, and if you have it, you don’t need years, you need only
maybe hours and it will be enough. Therefore I am highly
skeptical about teaching composition, and therefore after three years I
BD: Do you
have any advice for conductors?
PB: I have no
advice there either because myself I
have been a purely self-taught conductor. I’ve never learned
really. I learned on the spot, in the theater conducting
incidental music for a group of musicians for the Jean-Louis Barrault
theater. Then I used the
skills I found for myself progressively, and expanded them to bigger
and bigger groups, and especially for contemporary music because I was
the less expensive conductor for my own organization! I did not
have to pay myself! So I could conduct
progressively with musicians. We were new to this music in
the early ‘50s, so we learned
together how to perform it and I learned how to conduct it.
I had conducting classes twice in my life in Basel. The
composition class was also in Basel, in
Switzerland. It’s like driving a
race car or a general car. When you are
put into the car you learn to drive a car and what you have to
do. You have to put the motor on, and learn how go and to
brake! [Laughs] The brake
is very important, and that’s exactly
what is also important in conducting — how to
begin and how to stop! In between you have to learn
all by yourself.
advice do you have for audiences?
PB: To come
and listen. That’s a very simple advice, but more seriously I
would like to say they have to come with an open
mind. That’s not enough, but they need to know that we are only a
history, and even if we don’t want it, we will be pushed out.
It’s absolutely inexorable. You know you cannot
resist that. The movement of history goes very slowly
sometimes, but absolutely forward without any pity for yourself.
much more enjoyable to try to discover his own time than to resist it,
because resistance to time is painful. Try to go with it.
It’s sometimes enjoyable at
BD: Do you
conduct anymore operas anymore?
that I am against it or I don’t want to do it, but it
takes too much time. When you are
interested as I am in a production of an opera, I choose the
director, generally, or I agree with the director who is chosen, so I
want to work with him. That way the musical side and the
theatrical side are exactly on the same wavelength. For instance
when I did the Ring, in ’75 I
already began to work with
Chéreau. Then in ’76, which was première, the
direction not perfect because you
cannot do everything well for the first time
with this type of work. Then progressively we worked
and worked and worked, and then our fourth and fifth year were really
good. I involved
myself. I would not come, for instance, just eight days before
the premiere and rehearse. I don’t find that’s very, very
from the theatrical point of view. What I want is to be involved
with the director and to see what I can do.
Sometimes I can correct him, sometimes I get input from
him. That’s an exchange work and that’s
interesting, but for that you must devote two
or three months just for a single production.
BD: When we
last talked, you were thinking of writing
an opera. Has that come to pass yet?
nearer its goal than it was before. [Laughs] That’s all I
can say for the time being.
BD: Would you
conduct it, or would you rather direct
PB: I would
neither direct nor conduct, but
attend. If the project materializes, I would use quite a lot also
technique, and then I prefer to have a look at
everything. Sometimes it’s very disturbing. I’m obliged to
tell a musician to conduct
for me because where I am, once I am conducting, I am not aware of the
balance between what comes from the instruments far away because
of what I am conducting in front of me. So therefore I have to
it from the hall.
BD: I would
think that would be almost universally
true for anything you conduct — that the
podium is the worst place to listen.
no. It does not give you maybe the right
image or the definite image, but you have to sit in a seat
if you want to have perfect image. With instruments which are not
transformed or not amplified, then you can have a good picture on the
podium. But there, with the distance and with loudspeakers and
the relationship with the dynamics, then you cannot really judge
properly. Then it has to be checked, either by some collaborator
you trust or some musician you trust. For this opera, especially
with stage involved and
everything like that, I
prefer to be an observer more than a participant myself.
BD: Are you
coming back to Chicago?
PB: I cannot
tell you yet. I think I will come
back certainly, but I cannot tell you when, and under what
circumstances. [Note: Boulez
first appeared with the Chicago Symphony on subscription concerts in
February 1969 conducting Debussy’s Jeux, Bartók’s First Piano
Concerto with Daniel Barenboim,
Webern’s Passacaglia and Six
Pieces for Orchestra, and Messiaen’s Et
exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.
In 1995, he would be named Principal Guest Conductor, and in 2006
Chicago Symphony responds to your music?
PB: Oh, very
much so, yes, very much.
very open to it?
PB: There is
no problem, no problem at all.
On the contrary, our relationship is very good. It’s an
orchestra not only of reputation, but the reputation is
BD: Are there
orchestras that the reputation is not
PB: No, I
don’t say that, but sometimes you hear an orchestra and you are
disappointed by the
level which is not exactly what you expected. But here in this
case the level is extremely high.
you want or ask, you get?
PB: Oh, yes.
BD: Does that
make you ask for more?
certainly because you go quicker, and you begin here from a level where
sometimes the difficulties are hard to reach. So you
can deal much more with the music than the technicalities
because there are a lot of technicalities which are absorbed
already. For me, the main superiority of a big high-level
orchestra is precisely that. It’s not that you’re
enjoying this kind of technical approach, which is almost
perfect, but this level you begin with
allows you to go much more into performing.
BD: I am glad
we give you such an instrument to work with. Thank you again for
speaking with me today.
To read my Interview with Gidon Kremer, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Yuri Bashmet, click HERE.
© 1986 & 1987 Bruce Duffie
These conversations were recorded in Chicago on February 20,
1986 and October 26, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in
1987, 1995 and 2000; on WNUR in 2005 and 2010; and on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio in 2005, 2007 and 2010.
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
website early in 2015. My thanks to British soprano
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.