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Orientations: COLLECTED WRITINGS BY PIERRE BOULEZ edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez; translated from the French by Martin Cooper (Harvard University: $30; 541 pp.)

November 23, 1986|Herbert Glass | Glass is senior editor of Performing Arts magazine.

This hefty compilation of the composer/conductor-pedagogue's ponderings consists of magazine articles, sometimes outrageous lectures, record sleeve notes and transcriptions of interviews from 1960 to 1980.

"Orientations," like everything connected with the feisty chatelain of IRCAM (Institut de recherche et de coordination acoustique/musique), the Paris-based crucible of avant-garde composing and performing techniques, is ferocious in its intelligence, unyielding in its seriousness. It treats at considerable length--and often with mind-boggling learnedness--the relationships between music and poetry, and music and philosophy (Boulez is as intense a reader as he is a listener and writer), a good deal of it drawn from 1960s lectures to colleagues--polymaths like himself--in the futurist enclaves of Donaueschingen and Darmstadt.

Still, one perceives an element of humanity--something with which Boulez is not often credited--in his contradictoriness. He tells us that it's useless to write about music, then proceeds to disgorge hundreds of pages about music. Or, in "Demythologizing the Conductor," written in quaint, e.e. cummings-ish lower case throughout, reviles the notion of the big-time conductor, that slave to the conservative tastes of subscription audiences, as opposed to the noble specialist (e.g., Pierre Boulez). So what happens a few years later? Our man succeeds the celebrated "mime" (his word for conductors of the dancing-prancing school) Leonard Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic, where Boulez's fastidiousness earns him the title of "The French Correction."

Even the least penetrable of the entries in "Orientations" has those cocky verbal rockets Boulez's admirers have come to expect, indeed require of him. Like this zinger, from his disquisition on "Taste" (1961--the early stuff is a lot more fun): "I regard 'good taste' as the direst of calamities, because it leads inevitably to artistic creation being considered a branch of haute couture . . . ."

Of more general interest--although hardly "easy to read"--are the essays dealing with favorite composers--those on Berlioz, Debussy, Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg and Boulez's mentor, Olivier Messiaen, being particularly penetrating.

But the composer we most want to know about, Pierre Boulez, eludes the author's verbal grasp. In the several essays on his own works, there isn't the faintest suggestion of their rarefied sound, only of their mechanical workings; hardly a hint of the exquisitely finespun webs of "Pli selon pli," or of the gently percussive tinkle into which the often violent verbiage of "Le marteau sans maitre" dissolves.

Boulez always talks tough, deep and analytical. Thus, he will not concede that the sounds he himself has created are, to use an expression he'd likely consider haute couture , magical.

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