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Expect to make mistakes

Musicians tackling Boulez's technically demanding music struggle simply to rehearse a piece from beginning to end.

May 25, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Percussionist William Kraft remembers his first encounter with a Pierre Boulez score. It was 1957, and he and a few other musicians had been assembled by conductor Robert Craft to give the American premiere of Boulez's "Le marteau sans maitre" on a Monday Evening Concerts program.

"We couldn't make heads or tails of our parts," the percussionist said. "We had played Stravinsky, which was the most up-to-date stuff we had then. We thought [Boulez] was impossible, music not written by a human but by a computer. We rehearsed 60 hours. Then Bob said, 'I can't do it.' "

Fortunately, the composer, who was visiting a friend in San Francisco, came to a rehearsal and, to the musicians' astonishment, demonstrated how it all should go.

"He sang our parts!" Kraft said. "I'm looking at him. I've got this three-octave instrument and this man is singing my part. That was an eye-opener."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
Boulez score -- In a music-score illustration accompanying a May 25 Sunday Calendar story on the difficulties in the music of Pierre Boulez, the statement that "the time signature changes three times" was incorrect. The first measure shown in the illustration was marked 7/16, which then changed twice in the ensuing measures, to 5/16 and then to 6/16, for a total of two changes. The measure preceding the first measure printed was in 6/16, which would have made the first measure printed also a change, but it was not shown.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 22, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 91 words Type of Material: Correction
Time signature changes -- In a music-score illustration accompanying a May 25 Sunday Calendar article on the difficulties in the music of Pierre Boulez, the statement that "the time signature changes three times" was incorrect. The first measure shown in the illustration was marked 7/16, which then changed twice in the ensuing measures, to 5/16 and then to 6/16, for a total of two changes. The measure preceding the first measure printed was in 6/16, which would have made the first measure printed also a change, but it was not shown.

Still, after the premiere, Kraft felt obligated to say to Boulez: " 'That was pretty bad, wasn't it?' He said, 'Pas mal.'

That means "not bad" in French. And Boulez told the rest of the tale: His own ensemble had given 125 performances of the work on a recent tour. " 'The 125th was the first good one,' he told me," Kraft said.

Boulez, who dominates the Ojai Music Festival this week in the roles of music director and composer, has emerged as one of the major composers of the second half of the 20th century, whose music incorporates Schoenberg's 12-tone system as well as Stravinsky's ingenious asymmetrical rhythms. On top of that, he added a dollop of French sensitivity to tone color, and an openness to the use of modern technology such as the computer and tape.

The results are works of extraordinary organization but with sensuous appeal as well. His music shimmers and dances with exotic and acidic effects that tax to the utmost his players.

Boulez's music is "fiendishly difficult to perform and even more difficult to describe in the familiar terms of dissonant counterpoint, free serialism or indeterminism," Nicholas Slonimsky said in his revision of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. "He specifically disassociated himself from any particular modern school of music."

Rising to the task

"Every bar is some new unpredictable Mt. Everest. He likes the edge he gets by challenging the musicians."

That's how Los Angeles pianist Gloria Cheng summarizes playing Boulez. She is among an ensemble of nine musicians who will be performing his "Sur Incises" at Ojai (Boulez's titles are none too easy either: This one means "On Incises," indicating an expansion of an earlier work titled "Incises," which means "incidental clause.")

"The leaps are awkward," Cheng added, "the spacings of the chords are often large and dense, and there are many, many notes on every single page. As with lots of contemporary music, the patterns, the pitches are nothing like what we grew up practicing."

Another Ojai player, Los Angeles Philharmonic flutist Catherine Ransom, said Boulez's scores are "the kind of music that someone who doesn't really read music would say [are just] full of black dots and circles. The page is covered with specks."

Not that she's complaining. Ransom has been practicing Boulez's 1946 Sonatine for Flute and Piano (she'll play it with Joanne Pearce Martin at Ojai). "It is so worth it," Ransom said. "Like most people, I thrive on challenge. For me to play this piece, I have to be in the very best shape I can be, just to execute it. It's a motivator for me."

"It's making me learn new technique, bringing my technique up to a new level, which I love," seconds Vicki Ray, another Ojai pianist. "That's part of the payoff."

Marino Formenti, a stellar interpreter of new music, will play Boulez's Piano Sonata No. 1 at Ojai. "Every one of those pieces puts into a particular light one or more qualities that we can find also in Boulez," he said. "The sonata by Boulez is in a way the sum of all these qualities. Boulez is an incredibly varied and rich composer.

"It was a surprise for me when I discovered it as a teenager," he added. "At 14 or 15, I didn't think it was something I'd like. I liked other things then. Then I started working on it and found what it was about."

What the musicians face on the page is familiar but ratcheted up to the nth degree. Notes jump all over an instrument's range. Ransom had to look up the fingering for the top note -- an F, 3 1/2 octaves above middle C -- in the Sonatine because "I had never played that note before," she said.

Time signatures -- the music's beat -- change, sometimes from measure to measure. Instead of familiar 3/4 waltz or 4/4 march time, there are difficult compound rhythms, such as 7/16, alternating with measures of 2/16, 4/16 or 5/16. Different dynamics -- sudden shifts in loudness and softness -- occur almost on every note.

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