Daniel Barenboim & West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: Hommage à Boulez

by Adam Rothbarth

“On the dial of Imitation
The Pendulum casts its load of granite in reverse.”

- René Char, used in Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître

In György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962), 100 metronomes are set to different speeds and wound to their maximum extent, unleashing a wall of clicking chaos for about six minutes. For most of the piece, particular meters and individual clicks are not discernible from one another; yet, as metronomes begin to drop out, and the remaining ones become distinguishable as individual voices, the work’s periodicity comes into focus, albeit a focus in which the ear’s lens struggles to keep things in frame for more than a second or two. Poème symphonique is not completely indeterminate, as ten performers each control groups of ten metronomes, with a conductor overseeing the whole venture. But the way the meters fall in the work, almost as in a game of jacks, there is the sense that the treatment of temporality and meter is largely aleatoric, which is to say that the primary factor in the flow of time in the piece is chance on the part of the technology and performers, not reason embedded in the work by the composer.

Toward the end of a performance of Poème symphonique there are moments of brilliant phasing that one would think must have made an impression on Steve Reich, who would begin premiering his own concentrated studies on this phenomenon only a few years later. The key to understanding Ligeti’s piece is to recognize that meter becomes discernible only when the music is relieved of 99 voices: coherent time is emancipated via the last metronome standing. Only when a single voice is heard is anything intelligible; anything more, and distinct time can no longer be perceived. This expresses a historical condition in which time itself is alienated. When all become one, when the collective evolves into a single revolutionary voice (or, in the case of Poème symphonique, devolves) emancipation becomes possible.

The release of Hommage à Boulez came at the same moment as the unveiling of the Pierre Boulez Saal, a new chamber music venue in Berlin that opened on March 4th. The building was designed by architect Frank Gehry, whose attractive preliminary sketch for the Saal appears as the cover art for the album. As the primary image for this release, the drawing makes the viewer/listener feel like it bears some philosophical meaning, that it is a cypher to understanding the music that lies within. The circle is not the hall itself—is was concept that needed to be interpreted and actualized, much like the recordings collected for the album, which are substantive aesthetic objects whose social meaning requires unveiling.

In a sense, the total serialism and periodicity of Boulez embodied in this album live in a similar distress: the distress of struggling to reconcile with, and move beyond, both Schoenberg and contemporary ambient music. Boulez’s rage toward Schoenberg is well known: while many felt (and continue to feel) that the composer’s atonality and eventual serialism were offensive and violent—and of course they were—Boulez felt that the composer did not go nearly far enough. His response was to start composing with total serialism, a compositional technique that used matrices to serialize not only pitch groupings and melodies, but all aspects of music, from dynamics and rhythm to timbre and meter. This way, the music would appear to have no human elements whatsoever, and would, ostensibly, be even more free. Boulez and others from the post-war generation, such as Stockhausen and Cage, wanted their works to rebel against form by grasping nothing from outside themselves, to sound as if they determined their own being exclusively from within.

The question is whether these works are self-critical in their own rebellion against established forms and their limitations, or whether they dogmatically adhered to Schoenbeg’s categories in their quest for the obliteration of the subject in service of musical free will. Dérive 2 (1988-2006/2009) is one of the centerpieces of this release, taking up almost the entire first disc with its 49 minute runtime. Dedicated to Elliott Carter on his 80th birthday, the work exhibits Boulez’s research into periodicity, the primary temporal technique used by Ligeti in Poème symphonique. The album’s liner notes read: “Contemplating Carter, Ligeti, and Nancarrow, Boulez here concerned himself with periodicity at many levels—indeed, at so many levels that the elementary phenomena of pulsation are often blurred. Paralleling the smaller pieces, the work proceeds like a river through different states, sometimes dashing through rapids, sometimes entering pools of harmonic reflection.”

At first listen, Dérive 2 sounds most like Webern, with its pointillism and its brilliant flashes of color and dissonance. It is challenging to tell whether the piece utilizes Klangfarbenmelodie—a technique favored by the expressionists in which melodies are split up across various instruments/lines—because it is difficult to tell what actually constitutes melody in this work. In an aural sense, Dérive 2 is almost anarchic, abiding nothing external, its formal law becoming simply lawlessness. Atonality is very easy to listen to today, for the shock of dissonance and the friction of being confronted with abnormal time in music have all but vanished from the listening experience. The formal order to Dérive 2, its qualities as a composition, are lost to the ear, appearing only as flourishes of sound splashing against one another. As Adorno put it, one could compose in one’s head a Webern or Schoenberg piece while listening to it; to do so with something like this is virtually impossible, leaving the listener to experience Dérive 2 more or less as an ambient work. The irony of a total organization of music is that, to the ear, it simply appears as a monolithic, atonal wash.

It is important to remember that the successes and failures of Pierre Boulez are not the album itself. Hommage à Boulez comprises some truly excellent readings by Boulez’s longtime friend and colleague, conductor Daniel Barenboim, who is here supported by his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. For this recording of Boulez’s 1955 masterwork Le marteau sans maître, the orchestra was led by the conductor himself in Berlin in 2010, giving a vivid reading that sounds here much more abrasive and modern than Dérive 2, itself getting a crystalline, workhorse-level performance from Barenboim. The two-disc package is handsome, its simple and elegant yellow, white, and black palette signifying its avant-garde quality to prospective listeners. In the end, however, these postmodern compositions have the same utility as the sketch on the cover of the album: they point towards that which is yet to be done. Like the sketch, they seem to conceal something crucial, whimsical, and perhaps even mystical. Maybe this is why when the listener opens album’s front cover, she is confronted with a smiling portrait of Boulez, who almost never smiled for photos.

Album cover for Hommage à Boulez.


Poème Symphonique by György Ligeti.


Dérive 2 by Pierre Boulez.