Enfants terribles

When the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez died this January, at the age of 90, his career had encompassed, guided, and reflected the course of music in the second half of the twentieth century to an extent that would be hard to match. On April 3, NOVA performs Boulez's early Sonatina for Flute and Piano, along with his 1985 Dialogue de l'ombre double ("Dialogue of a double shadow"), offering an opportunity to reflect on, or to become acquainted with, the music of this twentieth-century titan.  

Boulez's oeuvre in particular, and the music of the twentieth century in general, astonish with their eclecticism. Throughout the century, composers adopted, adapted, and appropriated sounds, styles, and forms from around the world, and pushed the capabilities of performers and instruments (and, at times, listeners) to the breaking point––all in the name of new modes of musical expression. NOVA's upcoming concert brings together several of these trends, matching Boulez with Claude Debussy Maurice Ravel, and Utah-based composer Miguel Chuaqui.

Despite his enduring reputation as one of the fathers of musical modernism, Debussy's roots (both educational and professional) lay in the conservative training system of the Paris Conservatoire. Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, to the owner of a china shop and a seamstress, Debussy's musical talent was apparent early, and he was accepted to the Conservatoire at the age of 10. In 1909, he was appointed to the Conservatoire's Board of Directors; one of his first tasks was to compose a work for the annual Clarinet examinations, and the resulting work, the Première rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano, will appear on NOVA’s upcoming concert. This will be paired with a performance of Claire de lune, one of Debussy’s most famous works.

Maurice Ravel was born to a Basque mother and French father in the Pyrenees; he would always consider himself to have strong ties to his Basque heritage, and music infused with "Spanish" flare and motifs would appear throughout his life. He trained at the Conservatoire, and distinguished himself as a good student, but his penchant for dissonances soon led to public scandal: in 1905, for the sixth consecutive year, he failed to win the Prix de Rome (the Conservatoire's highest honor), and the public took umbrage at the slight to one of their favorite composers. The public scandal that constituted this "affaire Ravel" was matched only by the jury's scandal when they viewed Ravel's entry in the semi-final round, a fugue that included parallel fifths and ended on the interval of a major seventh. Although Ravel would always consider himself a proponent and inheritor of earlier traditions of music (he called counterpoint the most important element in his compositional toolbox, and declared that Mozart was his favorite composer), this fugue was already marked by the idiosyncratic, dissonance-infused tonal language that he would employ throughout his life. Ravel's Chansons madécasses, written in 1925-26 and on NOVA’s upcoming program, sets to music three poems by the French poet Évariste de Parny (1753-1814) which were published in 1787 and which Parny claimed were translations of Madagascan songs.

Like both Debussy and Ravel, Pierre Boulez (who was born in 1925 in the Loire town of Montbrison) was trained at the Paris Conservatoire. From a young age, he showed a strong aptitude for music –– but he showed an equally strong aptitude for mathematics, which his father (an industrialist) found far more useful. In his teens, Boulez prepared for the entrance examinations in math at the École polytechnique in Paris but, upon his arrival in the capital city in 1942, enrolled instead at the Conservatoire. Yet the rebellious streak that had landed him at the Conservatoire in the first place would soon rear its head again, and, taking umbrage at the conservative methods of the school, he began to look elsewhere for additional instruction, including studies with pupils of Arnold Schoenberg in dodecaphonic writing. His mathematical inclinations, too, would return in his musical studies: he showed great skill as an analyst of music, and prized most highly music that he found to be rigorous and “logical.”

The Sonatina for flute and piano, one of Boulez’s earliest works, is a testament both to his studies in twelve-tone music, and to his interest in rigorously composed music. In twelve-tone music (otherwise known as “dodecaphonic music” or “serial music”), an entire piece is based on a “row” or “series,” which orders the appearance of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale; the various manipulations of this row (played upside-down and/or backwards) provide the musical material for the work. Boulez, never one to settle for doing anything half-way, applied the principle not only to the pitches of a piece, but to dynamics and instrumentation as well, creating a pre-determined matrix that would dictate every single note of a work. Although not as obsessive as later works, the Sonatine is an early example of Boulez’s serial music.

While composers such as Debussy and Ravel expanded their musical languages through the adoption of exotic elements, composers in the second half of the twentieth century had another option: electronics. The use of microphones, speakers, and various electronic techniques for manipulating sounds allowed composers to expand their musical palette from within, adding effects such as echoes during the performance itself, and Boulez was an early pioneer in these techniques. Such electronic manipulations will be on display when NOVA performs Boulez's Dialogue de l'ombre double ("Dialogue of a double shadow") of 1985.

Utah-based composer Miguel Chuaqui also experiments with electronic sounds in his work. Chuaqui, who was born in Berkeley, California before growing up and receiving his early musical education in Chile, often utilizes foreign musics for inspiration in his work. Such is the case with Trance, Chuaqui’s work appearing on NOVA’s concert, which was "written during a time when [he] was listening to a lot of classical Indian music […] All the electronic sounds in the piece are live transformations of these and other sounds produced by the cello during the course of the performance.  Eventually the electronics take up these bent notes and extend them into longer and wilder gestures that quickly lead the music away from its original source of inspiration in Indian music, and towards a more abstract electroacoustic environment.”

-Kamala Schelling, 3.25.16


Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series

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