Boulez. Dance. Rhythm.

From Le Marteau sans maître to Alea sands — By Robert Piencikowski

Between rite and disorder

       Sweeping aside the eternal question of the arbitrary grafting of choreography onto pre-existing music, associating the music of Boulez with dance will appear incongruous to some people and welcome to others. Paying tribute to Boulez in an evening of ballet alongside Ligeti and Stravinsky might seem a challenging prospect if one overlooks the primordial importance of rhythm in his work; his famous analysis of Rite of Spring is, however, there to remind us of it. Was he not criticised for precisely that – for sacrificing everything, or nearly everything, to the rhythmic dimension alone? As for Ligeti, if he dedicated Disorder, his first piano study, to Boulez on the occasion of his 60th birthday, wasn’t that a malicious reference to the dedicatee’s reservations concerning Ligeti’s analysis of Structures? Between the analyser and the analysed, the relationship is not without discord or ambivalence: any gift implies an exchange and naïve indeed is he who imagines he understands all the implications of that gift.

Primordial Rhythm

Le Sacre du Printemps
Le Sacre du Printemps © Julien Benhamou

       One of the decisive shocks of the Boulez experience was incontestably the realisation that it was now possible to conceive music in which rhythm was not only independent of the other elements of the composition, but could even precede them and subordinate them to its own prerogatives, taking examples like the iso-rhythmic motets of the 14th century, the stylised dances of the Baroque period, Stravinsky’s ballets and Messiaen’s rhythmic studies. The perplexity of Boulez’s critics stems largely from their determination to consider his work in terms of obsolete categories, in particular giving priority to the mere observation of sound – which with Boulez is often no more than a layer applied a posteriori to pre-existing rhythmic structures, the temporal counterpoint defining first and foremost the texture and formal articulation, given substance later in sound.

Antiphony and heterophony

Whence the reading of a score which is complex only in appearance – our western notation requiring subordination to assure the collective synchronisation of bars, resulting either in permanent metric adaptations or in awkward syncopations straddling the bar line because of their often arbitrary application to independent rhythmic groups. Such apparently insurmountable obstacles have sometimes contributed to precluding Boulez’s music from all attempts at visual transposition. In the case of works written for instrumental soloist, the problem no longer subsists in the same terms since, no longer needing to assure the synchronisation of individual parts, the notation may be either barred or unbarred according to the demands of the musical context. In compositions mixing instrumental and electronic sounds, the composer either takes the precaution of avoiding superimposing natural and artificial sources or defines sufficiently supple homogenous heterophonic textures so that the figures thus produced appear to have been instantaneously sparked off by the central instrument – thus operating a return to the very sources of antiphony.

Illusory fear

Having dealt with imaginary obstacles such as the absence of bar lines, strong beats and unequivocal formal articulation, the usual markers of progression on a arsis / thesis (movement / rest) axis – the performer is at liberty to direct his action according to moments of mobility or immobility, of action or stillness, as the music exploits the performer’s intuitive sense of the absence or presence of underlying pulsations. This is what aroused Ligeti’s curiosity and his sense of this music, so foreign to his musical upbringing, as a permanent see-sawing between order and disorder: the constant sense of excited anticipation that one feels when listening, an electric shock threatening darkly to manifest itself at any moment. This is what also intrigued Gilles Deleuze, who went so far as to base his own theoretical reflections on the Boulezian categories of temps lisse and temps strié – in other words, audible (perceptible) or inaudible metric pulsation.


Representing the invisible

Le Marteau sans maître
Le Marteau sans maître © Laurent Philippe

Pierre Boulez has conducted a good many ballets, almost invariably in the concert hall with, however, a few exceptions: The Rite of Spring (Salzbourg, 1962), Les Noces and Renard (Paris, 1965), with Maurice Béjart. Other, more episodic encounters include collaborations with Lucinda Childs and Ron Thornhill (Moses and Aaron, Amsterdam, 1995) and with Pina Bausch on her production of Bluebeard’s Castle, (Aix-en-Provence, 1998). During John Cage’s Paris visit in 1949, Boulez met Merce Cunningham but the encounter did not lead anywhere. The only attempt at long-term collaboration, the reform of the Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux (1967-68), which was to have associated Boulez, Béjart and Vilar, failed in the wake of the events of May 1968. This did not discourage Béjart, however, from meeting the challenge threefold: stimulated by Boulez’s rhythmic refinement and a plasticity in terms of sound that had not escaped his sensibilities, he choreographed Le Marteau sans maître (Milan, 1973), Pli selon pli (Brussels, 1975) and Dialogue de l’ombre double (Lausanne, 1998). Two years later, this last composition was used for a highly remarkable equestrian choreography created by Bartabas with his company Zingaro for a production entitled Triptyk, which also featured The Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms, also by Stravinsky (Paris, 2000).   

The acoustic gesture

       Whilst gaining experience as a conductor, Boulez developed the concept of the gestural score of which traces remain in Improvisation II sur Mallarmé (1957), Éclat (1965) Rituel (1975) and Répons (1981). In these works, the order in which the musical interventions are played is indicated to the watchful performers spontaneously by the conductor, thus renewing links with the etymology of the word choreography: χορεία (khoreía : «choric dance ») and γραφή (graph : « writing »), the music of sound signs – notation and aurality. The origin of this highly plastic concept lies in Boulez’s attentive observation of silent theatrical techniques during his period of apprenticeship with the Renaud-Barrault Company (1946-56), as well as of certain non-European musical practices, both ritual and scenic: Japan (Gagaku, No, Bunraku and Kabuki), Bali (Gamelan), Brazil (candomble), Central Africa (polyrhythms). The future apprentice conductor initially intended to embark on a career as an ethnomusicologist until the war in Indochina prevented him from pursuing his vocation.

Listening with the body

It is for the choreograph to trace the indissoluble frontier between the visible and the invisible, between the gesture of sound production and that produced directly from the sound source, as in those oriental graphics in which the empty spaces suggest their optical reconstitution to those who scrutinise them. The six loud-speakers in Anthèmes 2 ( a late avatar of “…explosante-fixe…”, 1971) reply to those of Dialogue de l’ombre double (rhizomorphic excrescence of Domaines, 1968): multiple reflections in reverberating sound mirrors disorientate the listener like a character lost in the hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai by Orson Welles (1947). The clarinet gives way to the violin which converses in turn with its imaginary doubles, multiplying their sound sources at the very moment they disappear – like the bow of Yehudi Menuhin, (who commissioned the first version of Anthèmes) conversing with the plectrum of Ravi Shankar.    

Robert Piencikowski is a French musicologist, Robert Piencikowski teaches musical analysis at the IRCAM college and is responsible for the archives of Pierre Boulez at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Bâle as well as those of Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Henri Dutilleux, Henri Pousseur, Vinko Globokar, Peter Eötvös, Gérard Grisey, etc.

1 Lors d’une table ronde en hommage à Pierre Boulez à l’occasion de son 90e anniversaire (Bâle, 13 septembre 2015), le compositeur allemand Wolfgang Rihm déclarait apprécier en la musique de Boulez sa Skulptizität – mot-valise associant sculpturalité à plasticité – signifiant par là une forme paradoxale de pétrification animée, par analogie avec les mobiles de Calder tant prisés par l’auteur de la Troisième Sonate pour piano.    

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