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DVD Review

Pierre Boulez

Arthaus 109350

A Life For Music

  • Documentary: A Life For Music (Contributors: Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Roger Boulez, Peter Eotvos)
  • Igor Stravinsky:
  • Le Sacre du Printemps 1
  • Symphonies of Wind Instruments 1
1 Alter Oper, Frankfurt
1 London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
RM Creative Arthaus 109350 (DVD), Aspect Ratio: 16:9 (documentary), 4:3 (concert) 2:36 98 min (documentary) + 58 min (concert)
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In a generation or two it could well be that Pierre Boulez (1925 to 2016) is considered – perhaps along with Stravinsky and Elliott Carter – as the greatest, at least the most influential, musician and composer of the twentieth century. His rigor and discipline (as a composer of not many more than 50 works); his advocacy of the primacy of innovation, and of adherence to contemporary musicianship; his vision for IRCAM; his foundation/direction/promotion of Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique and Philharmonie de Paris; his recorded legacy with some of the world's greatest orchestras and opera houses; his articulate and persuasive arguments for the importance of music culturally and in society; and his championing of the music of his own and the immediately proceeding generations… Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky and of the Second Viennese School. Above all, perhaps, Boulez will most be remembered for the ways in which he consciously or unconsciously combined all these aspects of musicianship as the century wore on to provide a model, a framework and a structure – indeed, a series of foundational tools – with which to think about music in our time.

Yet he is not always understood. His controversial and provocative comments tend to pass for the rash summary of an extremist. Not so: take the notorious "Sprengt die Opernhäuser in die Luft!" (blow up the opera houses) in an interview with Der Spiegel in September 1967. What he was actually reacting to was the fact that opera performances were often inadequately resourced and plagued by administrative incompetence. And he was rightly intolerant of this if it's the best the institutions can manage. Instead, look a little more deeply and see just how great Boulez' achievement was. This documentary, aptly entitled "A Life for Music" goes a long way towards bringing Boulez achievement into proper focus. Some of it may surprise you too.

Lasting over 90 minutes, A Life For Music constitutes a remarkably rounded and perceptive portrait of Boulez. It uses his own words; they are spoken at speed, yet always hit home immediately; often amaze us. It uses recollections, analyses and assessments of colleagues such as Daniel Barenboim and Peter Eotvos, as well as family (his brother, Roger). The un-narrated documentary takes a loosely chronological approach from Boulez' early development, through the various phases of his life, of his education, and his work in its widest context. Yet it cuts and intersperses commentary from several decades when relevant in order to arrive at a authoritative and totally convincing summation of just how much of such significance Boulez could not have helped doing throughout his admittedly long life.

The recollections, descriptions and discussions of Boulez the pianist (and his little-known role as "ondist" for Messiaen just after the Second World War), composer, theorist, conductor, impresario, director and teacher are paced well. They are accompanied – without fuss or (visual) "effects" – by interviews, tastefully-filmed (timps and harpists in silhouette at one point) sequences of performers, by slowly-panned stills, sequences, archive footage and rostrum work, by shots of scores, many of the places with which he was associated… there is a striking few seconds of Boulez' home in Baden Baden in the snow.

The film presents Boulez particularly honestly… he describes his nervousness on first conducting the Sacre du Printemps (also in a splendid performance by the LSO on the second, concert, DVD) because, of course, of its rhythmic complexity. Boulez climbed mountains as well as moved them. He is seen as very human. Towards the documentary's end, for instance, he replies with modesty and humor to celebrations by the Cleveland Orchestra for his 85th birthday. A Life For Music was carefully and thoughtfully conceived. It's neither a "plain", factual, biography or portrait; nor a wandering composite. It's not a self-conscious collage of snippets. Rather, its director, Reiner Moritz, has obviously planned which of the many available resources would most appropriately illustrate the maestro's achievements overall. Moritz and his team did not simply assemble the visuals and sling together a "biopic", most of the elements of which can be found elsewhere. Yes, it is all factually intriguing and correct. Yes, there will be segments with which many viewers are familiar. But the overall impact is uplifting and stimulating because it's so well integrated.

Perhaps this is in some small way because the Arthaus style is sober, commanding and clean. The conclusion to which we are led, purposefully and with ample unambiguous evidence, is of just how significant and colossal were Boulez' achievements. The style and approach of A Life For Music has Boulez as an "executor" of music, as much as a "hero" or "legend". It would be hard, though, to watch the entire documentary without reaching for such epithets. The more you follow what the contributors are really saying, the more you realize that it's possible (desirable indeed) to be more nuanced in appreciating and admiring Boulez.

He was too often taken too literally or out of context … the afore-mentioned "blow up the opera houses–" is succinctly and, one hopes, definitively despatched here. Or is dubbed as a bogey to face in an unnecessary duel. His music is in fact approachable and enjoyable; not least because of its centrality to the post-tonal world. He speaks not as an iconoclast, but as a sensitive, fallible (and at times weary: there is a brief sequence where Boulez almost laments his hectic commutes) yet always perfectly informed and prepared student of the music with which he is involved. He usually shuns any attempt to "dress up" that music. He speaks plainly about what he believes Mahler would have done, for instance, had he been able to complete his Tenth Symphony, an appropriately-timed extract from which is one of the many with which the film is enriched.

And when you follow his argument, you understand how Boulez was working from a position of total involvement in his world. Not as an antagonist. Yet A Life For Music is not designed as an apologia for Boulez and the intellectual and artistic honesty which he represented. While not an unduly speculative film, it is one which aims to inform and invite reflection, rather than provoke, defend or push any one point of view. And, one knows, that was surely what Boulez life was about as well. Boulez also makes the case in several different and complementary ways for modern music. He embraces its complexity; indeed he is stimulated by complexity in all acts of creation. This understanding of modern music is based on his belief in the continuity of musical invention. So it follows, Boulez explains, that (musical) education nowadays in many environments is misguided by erecting and/or perpetuating an artificial distinction between "then and now". We are left with the impression that we were amazingly fortunate to have had Boulez. But not as a guide, or leader (which is how he is often characterized). He was an illuminator of music in fact so approachable and knowledgeable that we can all share it.

A Life For Music subtly examines Boulez' love of the new; his apartment in Baden Baden is decidedly devoid of collections of old objects. Yet, as Barenboim persuasively remarks (terming Boulez a "revolutionary"), he was probably that prominent composer in recent times who knew most about the past. Boulez loved, felt, embraced the future; yet – completely without paradox – he is convinced that it has to be a future fully informed by the past (and present). At the end of the film a younger Barenboim (the film is extremely well designed so that chronology takes second place to appreciation) asks a younger Boulez how he sees himself: as someone working in entirely new ways, or someone who is influenced by the past? By now it should come as no surprise that Boulez has no doubt of the vanity of someone who claims to be inventing something completely new. Rather, Boulez inherits the world of the Second Viennese school, of Debussy, of Stravinsky and Bartók; and then makes of them what he needs to in order to look appropriately forward himself, in his music.

Somehow, Moritz' selection of recollections and informed commentary offer a very clear picture of what inspired and excited Boulez… there is an anecdote from Roger about his brother's fascination for cars (and speed!) suggesting the childlike in him. This is followed almost immediately by the confident Pierre Boulez explaining that – since he is the chief executive of his own music – there can be nowhere to hide: no excuses. The same goes for his conducting and performance: he was a perfectionist whatever the music. On the other hand, Boulez makes it plain that he worries about the way in which recorded performances can fetishize music such that the listener is listening not to the performance – but to the score. The documentary is packed with short useful exegeses and "annotations". Boulez at one point describes the way in which the computer seemed to "invade" other aspects of music-making. And how the painter Klee provided him with "one of the greatest lessons in composition" which he ever had. But these are not introduced at random, or gratuitously. They form an integrated part of the rounded understanding we are given – incrementally &nadsh; throughout the film.

In several sequences of the documentary, Boulez also lays out very clearly aspects of his compositional process itself. Both Barenboim and Eotvos add many glosses on the exact nature of several of Boulez' works when they describe, for example, the relationship between what we actually hear and just how selective Boulez always was in adjusting both texture and dynamic and movement and stasis to arrive at exactly the sounds he wanted.

This goes some long way to explaining what really lay behind Boulez' at times combative behavior and apparently dogmatic insistence on certain performing, compositional and historico-musicological tenets. It seems entirely consistent with what we otherwise know of Boulez' greatness. As Barenboim explains, he was always polite, punctual, efficient and had due regard for others and others' feelings. Yet, when it came to meeting commission deadlines, Boulez answered to a "higher" mandate: that of the inherent musical logic of the piece on which he was working. One work he only declared ready after 22 years since its date of commissioning. This ties in with the composer's practice of at times revising works after their publication. And (as Roger says, likening his brother to a dog with a slipper) he was always extremely determined.

A more casual onlooker might be tempted to dismiss some of Boulez attitudes and insistences. But that cannot be justified. However much of a "force" Boulez was, and in however many ways, his integrity and honesty are shown by the pace and organization of this documentary always to be explicable, comprehensible, and justified. This can be additionally supported – even for skeptics – by considering Boulez' pragmatism; he loved what works, what is right, what is effective, productive – regardless of any stir (or controversy) which advocating it might bring.

The DVD of performances dating from the early 1990s of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Le Sacre du Printemps (introduced by Boulez) with the London Symphony Orchestra and Alter Oper, Frankfurt under Boulez is just as much of a treat. They are "presentations" where the location is briefly set in the Arthaus manner. And are performances which have Boulez' crisp, direct, insightful, projected traits. One knows that the qualities of the music-making originate in a deep and apparently easily-won appreciation of almost every aspect of their composition, context and composer's intentions – even though in reality they represent the result of enormous hard work, research and analysis.

One should listen to and follow these performances, perhaps, with Boulez' almost supernatural ability to hear the most minute and otherwise concealed nuance of intonation, timbre and tempo. This look at Boulez' meticulousness (in rehearsal) isn't introduced into the documentary, though, for its shock value, or as a curiosity. It illustrates just how well Boulez respected the exactitude on which great music is built. Barenboim relates an incident when a player needed "help"; so he asked Boulez for advice. Boulez' humanity in his answer strike us: he invited the younger conductor to consider that asking for that correct intonation is a very "emotional" subject for players; rather than something to which Barenboim had a bald right.

The DVDs come with a short (three and a half pages) booklet with an introduction by Moritz. There is, of course, a choice of subtitles (in English, French and German) whenever the contribution is not in whichever language has been chosen – even those for informal snatches, during rehearsals, and "overheard" passages. But the documentary speaks for itself. If you have even a minimum interest in the world of contemporary music; if you want to be clearer about Boulez, and perhaps understand better why he was such a great figure in (modern) music; if you already know the musician and his work, then this is an essential DVD so rich and full of material that it cannot fail to communicate the energy, inventiveness and rock-solid musicianship of Boulez.

Copyright © 2018, Mark Sealey