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Boulez In A Basketball Stadium : Electronic Avant-garde At Ucla

February 13, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Normally, I am told, Collins Court in the UCLA Wooden Center hosts basketball games. Tuesday night, thanks to the support of the the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the invasion of some stellar players from France, Collins Court became the temporary site of some ultra-elaborate quasi-electronic musical games.

This certainly wasn't your average, ordinary, obligatory fling for the experimental black sheep of the local music department. This was Big Stuff. This was Big Time, maybe even the Biggest of its admittedly rarefied kind.

This was the U.S. debut of the Ensemble InterContemporain of Paris, the performing arm of the much vaunted IRCAM. That, in case you have been buried in Glazunov glaze and Glass arpeggios for the past decade, is Pierre Boulez's multimillion-dollar educational toy: the Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music.

IRCAM is very serious. Very adventurous, in an emphatically anti-minimalist way. Very precise and demanding. Very popular as a state-of-the-art model of high-tech avant-garde chic.

Having foresworn an ongoing, time-consuming commitment to the re-creation of Mozart, Wagner, Berg and other fossils, Boulez--an enfant-terrible who celebrates his 61st birthday this year--has built himself an empire where he can break, once and for almost-all, the sound barriers of conventional instruments.

He has found his own un-Philharmonic milieu in which he can write his own rules.

The new rules were very much in evidence in the basketball stadium. A small stage in the middle of the court served as home for the primary ensemble. Six solo instruments--conventional ones--were banished to distant platforms, in each corner and at central spots at the side walls.

Behind the central stage lurked a jungle of computers, recorders and microphones, formidable boxes adorned with ominous switches, buttons and handles, a hallowed halaphone, tangles of wires and cables, shiny mini-keyboards, super-advanced tone processors, futuristic mini-monitor screens and lots of other hi-sci-fi machines. The oh-so-sophisticated equipment comprises--all or in part--something wonderful called the 4X Signal processor.

The 4X thingamajig is, we are assured, "the only computer in the world to offer the composer a choice of 1,024 sounds in real time, in synthesis or in transformation." Count 'em, 1,024! Furthermore, 4X can "make all sound simulations, from a violin to an Airbus, with an infinite variety of timbres, pitches and tempos."


The audience--a large and enthusiastic audience but not one large enough to fill all the seats--sat on folding chairs surrounding the players at floor level. The ceiling was adorned with a so-called set: a network of grids and scaffolding supporting speakers and mysterious conveyances that presumably sent electronic signals from players to technological magicians to players and, for all we know, to Uranus and back.

All this was done, of course, in the quest of illuminating distillation, variation and distortion of the original musical impulses.

If this sounds rather complicated, that is because it is.

The much ballyhooed piece d'occasion and, one hoped, piece de resistance , was Boulez's latest work in progress, "Repons." The progress in question began in Donaueschingen in 1981 in a 20-minute version. Expansions occurred for repetitions in London, Turin, Basel, Metz and Paris.

The latest version was supposed to last an hour, according to program notes and Philharmonic publicity. It stopped after 43 minutes, however, and at least one iconoclast found that not a moment too soon.

Don't get the iconoclast wrong. He found much of this supremely intellectual "response to the dialogue between man and machine" fascinating. But the best seat he could find placed him in a far corner, smack in front of an amplified xylophone. Even with music bouncing wildly and/or oppressively all around the hall, the undue stress upon this one instrument tended to throw impressions out of kilter.

More disconcerting for the lonely iconoclast, however, was the growing suspicion that Boulez was dealing here in diminishing returns. At first "Repons" grows with startling sonic and spatial impact. The solo chamber ensemble sputters and mutters in interesting timbral accents and beguiling color combinations.

Soon, urgent calls and varigated echoes resound from the separate distant soloists. Soon the mixed impulses merge in intriguing permutations and combinations. Then, slowly but irrevocably, the conversations assume cataclysmic proportions as they become mixed, magnified, blurred, dissected and supercontrapuntalized by the big electronic hand in the sky.

All this is done, mind you, with remarkable clarity, with elegant balance, with fine Gallic control, with new appreciation for the rhetorical possibilities of the grand climax. Eventually, however, the piece seems to unwind, to repeat its effects, to tread aesthetic water. Gradually, gimmickry threatens to overwhelm inspiration.

The dialogue between man and machine gets short-circuited for two reasons. The machine has a louder voice, and the man runs out of things to say.

Boulez and his merry band went through their inventive, sometimes inspired and sometimes mathematical paces, with somber exactitude.

For a compelling curtain-raiser, Alain Damiens introduced Boulez's "Dialogue de l'Ombre Double." It turned out to be a genial, delectably economic trio for live clarinet, taped clarinet and electronic mediator--mercurial in shifts of mood, pervasively whimsical in its tone and rhapsodic in its theatricality.

Damiens presided over the assorted lyrical impulses and counter-impulses and counter-counter-impulses with virtuosic aplomb.

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