Pierre Boulez and his Dérive I (1984)


Sounding Now 2018
A Festival of Contemporary Musical Practices
Friday, 20 April 2018 @ 8pm
LASALLE College of the Arts • Flexible Space

About Pierre Boulez
Contributed by Mick Lim

“Schoenberg is dead”, wrote Boulez in 1952, scarcely a year after Arnold Schoenberg’s death. He wasn’t merely stating the obvious. For the 26-year-old Boulez, Schoenberg had already become irrelevant, because even though Schoenberg invented the serial technique, he merely used them to write music with traditional forms. His punches and punchlines were not reserved for composers, but for all things conservative — he would later suggest blowing up opera houses in an interview with Der Spiegel in 1967. He justified his actions as a fight against his society and against the hostility of the establishment. One must imagine Boulez belligerent and combative, fiercely opinionated and radical to a fault, and he has many pronouncements to that effect. But could he have done otherwise? Is it ever possible to be mildly radical?

Boulez’s early compositions were a combination of pushing the serial technique invented by Schoenberg to its necessary ends, extending it beyond the realm of pitch organisation, and utilising the rhythmic irregularity of Stravinsky and Messiaen. By the early 1950s, Boulez’s reputation as a composer had been cemented through masterpieces like the Second Piano Sonata, Le soleil des eaux and Le marteau sans maître. The serial techniques Boulez advocated led to his interest in open form, and Boulez spent significant amount of time revising (or rather, re-composing) older pieces, often giving performers greater degrees of freedom in performance.

Boulez left Paris in 1959, frustrated with the administration, and moved to Baden-Baden. He signed a contract to conduct 20th-century music for the radio orchestra, while maintaining his composition career. He taught at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music from 1954 and subsequently became professor of composition at the Basel Musik-Akademie between 1960 and 1963 and a visiting lecturer at Harvard in 1963.

In 1963, he staged a high-profile return from his self-imposed exile, conducting the 50th anniversary performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and Berg’s Wozzeck. By 1966, he was entrusted with Wagner’s Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival. By 1971, he was appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and offered chief conductorship of the New York Philharmonic — instead of choosing either, he took on both positions. In 1976, he conducted the Jahrhundertring (Centenary Ring) at Bayreuth. His international conducting career took precious time away from his composing activities – throughout the 70s, he wrote five works amounting to approximately an hour’s worth of music.

As if holding chief conductorships of two eminent orchestras on two continents was not enough, Boulez envisioned a musical centre for permanent experimentation, which coincided with French President Georges Pompidou’s plans. The result was the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Ircam). He was nominated director in 1972, and was in charge from its inception (1977). Ircam was heavily criticised from the outset because it was felt that the results did not justify the amount of state funds Ircam was spending and that Boulez was given too much power. Boulez responded with a 45-minute work, Répons (literally “response” in French), which simultaneously demonstrated utilisation of Ircam’s resources and his gifts as a composer. This silenced most critics. The piece which will be heard at the Sounding Now Festival, Dérive (literally “derivative” in French), is derived from Répons. Around the same time, Boulez also founded Ensemble intercontemporain, a chamber orchestra of virtuosos specialising in performances of new music. In 1992, Boulez stepped down as director of Ircam, and dedicated more time to composing and conducting.

The next two decades saw Boulez conducting Ensemble intercontemporain, a return to opera, co-founding of the City de la Musique and Lucerne Festival Academy, amongst other activities. Age eventually caught up with Boulez, and he passed away on 5 January 2016 at his home in Baden-Baden, 4 years after his last appearance as a conductor.

It is hard to imagine contemporary music of the past century without Boulez and the institutions that he founded or co-founded. We acknowledge him today as a composer and conductor, but he often also wore the hats of administrator, activist, advocate and pedagogue. And precisely because of the cultural and musical forces he worked ceaselessly to set in motion, we can’t yet proclaim “Boulez is also dead”.

Deeper with Dérive I
contributed by Christopher Johann Clarke  Shirui

“I did not want to follow the example of our dear J.Cage. But now, in the silence of your studio, you can hear the score and imagine a perfect performance. Why Dérive? Because it is a deviation of a sort on some chords and rhythms of Répons.”

A whimsical snippet from Boulez’s letter to the work’s dedicatee, Sir William Glock — the innovative former BBC Controller of Music, who, in 1984 (the year of the piece’s premiere), was taking his leave from the position of Artistic Director of the Bath Music Festival.

Premiered on 8 June 1984 in London, the piece was written, as the above suggests, as a derivative of another piece — Répons, whose first version was performed in the same year. Four years later, Boulez composed a follow-up piece, Dérive II (revised in 2006), after which the original Dérive came to be known as Dérive I.

The number 6 to Dérive I is like what the number 7 is to Rituel, a work for large chamber ensemble written in 1974-75 in memory of conductor/composer Bruno Maderna. The number is an ever-present cipher infused into every level of structure. Starting from a fragment of Répons, Dérive I uses the same six pitches as its starting point, a musical code which denotes the last name of Paul Sacher, a legendary musical benefactor and patron who commissioned many notable works in the 20th century, including Mystère de l’Instant (Henri Dutilleux) and Divertimento for Strings (Béla Bartók). The six notes which make up the series are E-flat, A, C, B, E, D spells Sacher’s name. The E-flat is represents S (via the German notation Es), the B denotes H (also via German notation), and the D denotes R (via re of solfège).


Boulez generates six sets of pitches based on the intervalic distance between the notes — to which he assigns fixed voicings. The work moves through these six harmonic spaces in constant alternation with two distinct and contrasting sections. Smooth and striated time oppose the vertical and horizontal dimensions, these fixed reservoirs of harmonies serve as a backdrop for scintillating ornamentation and dense realisations of sound worlds.

The pulse of the work is very slow (around 44BPM) but the surface of the music is different. It is decorated with series of grace notes, some a dozen or more notes long, carrying us from one beat to the next. In speaking about the piece at a workshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) in 1991, Boulez stated:

“I must be able to hear the long [notes] — of course there are ornaments, ornaments and more ornaments — but I must be able to hear these quarter note, yes? Like a clock, yes, a slow clock, but still a clock”.

The clock is in the background, veiled by lush harmonies and arabesques, but she is holding the whole show together.

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