Pierre Boulez's Répons
"Music is a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal."
Considered by many to be the finest work to come out of IRCAM, Répons marked Boulez's return to large-scale, original composition after a long period of conducting. Although Boulez does not credit Joyce as a direct inspiration, in an interview printed in the DG liner notes, Boulez indicates that Répons bears similarities to Joycean narrative technique. While that alone may not warrant a full write-up alà his Third Piano Sonata, Répons is such an incredible work that any chance to feature it is enthusiastically welcomed!
Répons is scored for an orchestra, a digital processor, six loudspeakers, and six solo instruments: a harp, a glockenspiel, a vibraphone, a cimbalom (an old Hungarian instrument similar to a large dulcimer), and two pianos. Furthermore, Répons takes into account spatial relationships between the instruments and the audience: the audience sits between the orchestra and the six soloists, who are arrayed around the outer perimeter in between the six loudspeakers.
Essentially cast as a spiralling set of dialogues between and among the orchestra and soloists, Répons uses sophisticated electronics to apply real-time effects to the solo instruments. While many attempts to wed classical music and technology result in obvious gimmickry, cheesy effects, or music that will clearly be dated within a few years, Répons uses its computers to extend the musical vocabulary and structure rather than provide a battery of futuristic sounds. The result is both beautiful and surprisingly natural, as sound is transmuted into new forms and seamlessly absorbed into the unfolding of the work as a whole.
And what a work it is. Though it forsakes traditional melody and structural development, Répons is quite unlike Boulez's earlier, more serial pieces, which aggressively follow their atonal mathematics in the pursuit of a new language. Although the pitch sequences and harmonies are still atonal, Boulez has freely drawn from other modern compositional elements, including electronic manipulation, spatial acoustics, innovative coloring, and even a quasi-Minimalist use of repetition. While Boulez has certainly drawn from these currents in the past, nowhere do they seem more balanced and transformed into something so unique. Répons is a world unto its own, where the proliferation of sounds and the multiple layering of textures seems to generate its own reason for being, like a tropical storm conjuring itself from a confluence of differing fronts. Indeed, in some ways it reminds me of Debussy's expressionistic portrait of the sea, La Mer -- Répons rolls, undulates, swirls, murmurs, surges and shimmers, alive with its own potential for infinite creation.
Répons opens with "Introduction," a six-minute segment that winds up the orchestra into shivering vortex of sound. Events occur quickly, with small figures passed from instrument to instrument like spinning plates. The music sounds precarious, as if one instrument should slip, the whole structure would come crashing down. After establishing this whirling dynamic, the piece expands to pull in the six instruments waiting at the perimeter. Section 1 wakes up the soloists and introduces the electronics. As each instrument enters, it plays an arpeggiated string of notes which are immediately absorbed into the computer and released back, transformed and multiplied, cascading down from the speakers in ripples. While it's obvious that the sounds have been electronically colored, they have a richness that elevates them beyond the cold world of squawks, drones, and bleeps usually associated with computerized classical music. The system transforms the plucked and hammered strings into beautiful new sounds, many of them having an almost liquid quality; and the percussion instruments are given a shimmer that sometimes fades into a haunting, mechanical rhythm, like the dreams of an old train submerged under water. Happily, this inventiveness continues as Répons unfolds. Section 2 develops the soloists more aggressively, building up the structure of the work in lush thickets of texture, only to have the central orchestra surge back to life in the roiling boil of Section 3. Section 4 sustains tension across the orchestral strings while the pianos bubble beneath a glassy, undulating field of electronic sound. Soon horns march closer into view, adding an ominous urgency which dissolves into the skittering soundscape of Section 5 with its tattoos of percussion and agitated strings. Section 6 churns the whirlpool, pulling the orchestra and soloists into a gyre of increasing frenzy, adding layer upon layer of sound. Nowhere in Boulez's oeuvre can I think to better apply his famous dictum of music as "organized delirium," there's so much going on here it's intoxicating. I can almost hear Willy Wonka crying, "Faster! Faster!" as the work plunges onwards. With Section 7, we momentarily enter the brooding eye of the storm. Although things aren't exactly tranquil, we can see the surrounding maelstrom more clearly, its edges sharply defined by individual instruments. Section 8 emerges from an almost jazzy vamp on the bass, and gathers instruments together in a surreal, slithery march to the Coda, which carefully winds things down in a series of slowing arpeggios and tolling, submarine bells. Répons does not so much end as it fades in the distance like a retreating storm, its thunders, flashes and gales achieving an eerie, lucid calm as seen from afar.
|Excerpts from the DG 20/21 Liner Notes
Répons was commissioned by Southwest German radio for the Donaueschingen Music Festival and was first performed on 18 October 1981, by the Ensemble InterContemporain (conducted by the composer) using technology developed at IRCAM, the musical research institute which is part of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The work is dedicated to Alfred Schlee, a longtime friend of the composer and former director of Universal Edition in Vienna. Incidentally, the work contains a hidden reference to another close friend, the conductor and patron Paul Sacher. The letters in the last name of one of this century's great musical benefactors are used as the departure point for creating the harmonic material which structures the entire composition.
The title of this work refers to the responsorial form of Gregorian Chant in which a solo singer alternates with a choir. Two things are of interest in this form: first of all, the relationship between "the one and the many" and, secondly, the spatial element introduced by the distance separating the soloist and the choir. In this simple medieval form one finds some of the musical ideas which occur throughout Boulez's work: the taking of a simple musical idea and making it proliferate, the alteration between solo and collective playing, and the movement of sound in space.
--Liner Notes written by Andrew Gerzso
|Excerpts from an Interview between Jean-Pierre Derrien & Pierre Boulez
Just as you were broaching Répons, you were also preparing orchestral versions of Notations for piano (1945), which are all very short pieces. How do you see the contrast between them?
Notations is made up of pieces virtually all based on a single idea.... Répons, by contrast, is based on different types of material. Its title refers not just to the dialogue between soloists and ensemble or to the dialogue between the soloists themselves or to the dialogue between what is transformed and what isn't, but also to the dialogue between different types of material: the term "response" is a portmanteau word.
The piece is cast in the form of a spiral, which I created in several stages. An example that comes to mind from the world of architecture is the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and which has a gently sloping, spiral-shaped interior. As visitors wander through the exhibition, they can invariably see what they are to see at close quarters the very next moment, as well as what they have just seen and which is already some distance away. I was much struck by the way in which past and present interact and exactly the same conditions are magnified or transformed as the visitor passes to a lower or higher level. To use a musical term, Répons is a set of variations in which the material is arranged in such a way that it revolves around itself.
Is there in this conception a pointer to techniques more usually associated with the novel?
Yes, of course, although this feature is also found in the asymmetrical structures of Mahler's symphonies. To return to literature, it raises the whole question of narrative structures such as are found in Proust, Joyce, Musil and Faulkner, among others. There was a time when I was particularly attracted to the novelistic technique of Kafka and Joyce: their logic consists in leading you towards something new that you none the less think you recognize. This technique involves illusion and ambiguity and is of capital importance for me.
The spiral is probably the clearest metaphor of your approach to composition: you have been writing practically the same work since you started composing, only the particular form is different for each occasion. Can one say that your approach aims at ensuring that the material remains homogeneous?
Yes, and in that sense I am not at all like musicians such as Berio or Berg or, of course, Mahler, all of whom accept heterogeneous elements and integrate them into their works. For my own part, I find it impossible to integrate extraneous elements in this way, unless I have already translated them into my own individual language. That is why I do not keep writing the same work, even though my approach is always guided by the same criteria. There is no doubt that my world is now more elaborate than it was before. It is basically the same with Proust, where the beginning and end of A la recherche du temps perdu are clearly by the same writer, but the whole nature and outline of the developments are different.
Répons has only one commercially available recording, put out on Deutsche Grammophone's 20/21 imprint. The recording is, simply put, spectacular, with IRCAM engineers doing their best to balance and spatialize the complicated sound world of Répons to stereo acoustics. (Ah, if only a DVD-A would come out....) It is coupled with Dialogue de l'ombre double, a piece for clarinet and six loudspeakers. Similar in some ways to Répons, this work features a lone soloist playing against a pre-recorded "double." Highly recommended. (The CD also won the 2000 Grammy Award for best contemporary classical album.)
Répons, Dialogue de l'ombre double
Pierre Boulez (Composer) / Deutsche Grammophon 20/21 / Released 1998
Third Piano Sonata -- (1958) A complex labyrinth of sound and theory, this infamous piece of Modernist music was partially inspired by Joyce.