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Day of the Giants – Pierre Boulez at 90

To honour the French composer Pierre Boulez in his 90th year, Jill Richards and Waldo Alexander are producing a Day of the Giants, on Sunday 28 June at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg. Creative Feel asked Jill Richards for more information about this special event.
According to Deutsche Grammophon, few musicians ever make a significant difference to their art form. Pierre Boulez, a towering figure in the history of modern music, has done so as composer, performer, author and thinker, challenging convention and creating a body of work that is destined to influence musicians and connect with audiences for generations to come. His work as teacher and founder of such leading musical institutions as the Ensemble Intercontemporain, IRCAM and the Lucerne Festival Academy has also been of the highest importance to the development of contemporary classical music.
Pierre Boulez, born in the Loire region on 26 March 1925, first studied mathematics, then music at the Paris Conservatory (CNSM), where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz. In 1954, with the support of Jean-Louis Barrault, he founded the Domaine musical in Paris – one of the first concert series dedicated entirely to the performance of Modern music – and remained their director until 1967. Pierre Boulez began his conducting career in 1958 with the Südwestfunk Orchestra in Baden-Baden, Germany. From 1960 to 1962 he taught composition at the Music Academy in Basel. As a composer, conductor and teacher, Pierre Boulez made his mark on the music scene as a visionary young leader of the avant-garde. He preached a compelling artistic message, one constructed out of the ruins of two world wars, in which he called for a complete revolution in musical composition and the creation of a new musical language. In 1967, Pierre Boulez famously suggested, with provocative humour, that the most elegant if most costly solution would be to burn down the world’s opera houses in order to replace tired traditions with enlightened clarity and the spirit of reason. Although he subsequently softened his attitude and went on to become a leading conductor in both the opera house and concert hall, his mission to introduce audiences to music rooted in ideas of expressive freedom, psychological complexities and the noblest of human aspirations has remained at the heart of his creative output. As a composer, conductor and teacher, Pierre Boulez has made a decisive contribution to the development of music in the 20th century and inspired generations of young musicians with his pioneering spirit. His recordings have earned him a total of 26 GRAMMY Awards and vast numbers of other prestigious awards.

Creative Feel: Not only will you explore Pierre Boulez’s work for the audience, you will actually perform some of his work for the very first time ever in South Africa?
Jill Richards: Yes, as far as I know these will be the first local performances of the three works we are going to play: Anthèmes for solo violin and live sound processing, Domaines for solo clarinet and the Second Piano Sonata. We will be introducing the works and talking about how they are made, what to listen for and what makes them so special. People only need to bring along their ears and be happy to listen.
I’ve been immersed in the Second Piano Sonata for months now, and I’m completely in love with the piece. It’s super difficult, and is definitely one of the big challenges in the piano repertoire, but engaging with Boulez’ beautiful mind via his music is a profound and wonderful process. I played his Structures Livre II for two pianos (with French pianist Dimitri Vassilakis) at the Messiaen Festival at La Meije in France. That was on the occasion of this 85th birthday, so I’m very happy to be playing the Second Sonata on this 90th birthday!
I will also be playing it at the New Music Indaba in Bloemfontein in July, and now that it’s in my repertoire I hope this is just the beginning. Every performer knows that the more often you play a great work, the better it gets.

CF: You will be also featuring the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the American John Cage because of their close connections to Boulez?
JR: It’s so interesting that these three composers – all different, massively important and pioneering – were pretty much contemporaneous.
The correspondence between Boulez and Cage is fascinating. This dates from the late 1940s to the early 50s. There was much warmth between the two, which gradually cooled as Boulez began to see the huge difference between their compositional styles. Cage was intent in removing himself from the compositional process in terms of directing the structure, while Boulez controlled the structure very tightly indeed. Boulez met Stockhausen when he was teaching at the Darmstadt summer courses and once declared, ‘Stockhausen is the greatest living composer, and the only one whom I recognise as my peer.’

CF: Could you give us a comparison of these ‘Three Giants’, in musical terms?
JR: They all had very profound influences on 20th century music, and were all geniuses in their different ways. Pierre Boulez was intent on forging his own strong and unique voice, which is like no other, and still sounds fresh and remarkable, despite his having a relatively small output. Cage opened up music in an astonishing and beautiful way. He used chance operations (from the I Ching) to structure some of his compositional processes. He is also known for “preparing” the piano – putting all sorts of hardware like nuts, bolts and screws between the strings – which gave a wonderful array of new sound colours. Stockhausen is another clear voice who transformed 20th-century music, from musical happenings and serialism and was an early exponent of electronic music.
I think that ultimately what connects them all is the strength of their convictions in what they wrote – they believed in their composing work in passionate and sometimes spiritual ways.

CF: The event will include other performances, talks, video material and discussions. You said, ‘we plan to make a day that is informative but informal. We like to connect with the audience and make it understandable – and also fun!’ What else can the audience expect on the day?
JR: Lots of interaction! We would really like to discuss with people their thoughts and feelings about what they hear. Audiences matter just as much as the performers and the composers. We will have a ‘Speakers Corner’ where people can comment on the composers, the performances, voice their own views, heckle – and be heckled! Discussion will be firmly encouraged. I really believe that music is something that belongs to everyone, and as performers, our job is to share that magical sound space where we can inhabit a world of feelings, integrity, fantasy, delight and beauty. We are also hoping to get the audience involved – nothing stressful or scary, but as something both fun and meaningful. People won’t need to have masses of musical knowledge, or understand the concert conventions. My experience has often been that those with less knowledge are the best listeners: they have fresh ears, and are able to take in the music more directly.
Another special aspect will be the ten-speaker array for Anthèmes, the solo violin work. They will be specially rigged for the concert, and Wits University lecturer Cameron Harris will be doing the live electronics.
We are very excited at having four young Johannesburg composers, Diale Mabitsela, Samora Ntsebeza, Victoria Hume and Felicity Mdhluli write new works specially for this event. They will be writing in response to aspects of Boulez’ music, and in particular the three works that Waldo, Morné and I will be performing. This will be a really special part of the day.

CF: You said that such an event is really only possible in Johannesburg – because of the vibrancy of the city, the people.
JR: Yes! I love this city because of its people, who are not only warm and friendly – they are curious, interested and interesting, and open-minded about new experiences. There is so much happening that’s new in the arts world here, and people do go out and experience it. Joburgers aren’t scared! And my experience with the previous concerts of new classical music events that I’ve put together here is that people really engage with contemporary music. It’s not surprising that Johannesburg is considered a really hip happening city.
Sunday 28 of June, Goethe-Institut, Johannesburg. This event is generously supported by the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), the Goethe-Institut and Prosound. Performers: Jill Richards (piano), Waldo Alexander (violin), Morné van Heerden (clarinet).

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