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Of similar composition

Don't be fooled by the differences between the maximalist Pierre Boulez and the minimalist Terry Riley. They're opposite sides of the same coin.

May 01, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

On March 26, Pierre Boulez celebrated his 80th birthday in Berlin by going out to lunch -- along with leading three rehearsals! Though it was a Saturday, I can't imagine he stayed out late drinking champagne. He had to be up early the next day. At 11 a.m. in the city's main concert hall, the Philharmonie, he conducted Mahler's epic Second Symphony with the Staatskapelle Berlin.

That evening, across town in the ornate opera house, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Boulez conducted yet another concert. This one featured Ensemble InterContemporain, the French new music group he founded in the 1970s, playing a demanding program of his own music. The performance completed a four-day Boulez birthday festival that also included concerts with the Chicago Symphony led by Boulez and Daniel Barenboim.

Reportedly, it was quite a do -- and completely in keeping with Boulez's stature. As composer, conductor, polemicist, institution builder and all-around visionary, he has been an indispensable figure in music since the end of World War II. Also in keeping with his stature, the event coincided with the release of a host of impressive CDs -- Boulez conducting Bartok and Mahler with the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics and the Chicago and London symphonies, plus three discs of his own music.

On Tuesday night, in a smaller town in our own state, a more modest birthday celebration will take place. The Pacific Rim Festival in Santa Cruz is honoring Terry Riley's upcoming 70th birthday (June 24) with a Kronos Quartet concert. It may be out of the way, but it is significant. It will feature Riley's new string quintet for the Kronos and pipa player Wu Man (which is to receive its premiere tonight in Berkeley). Composers John Adams and Pauline Oliveros will also be contributing works as birthday presents for Riley.

The Santa Cruz concert -- along with the fact that the only recent Riley CD is a collaboration with the poet Michael McClure that he has released himself -- is in keeping with Riley's stature: outsider artist. In 1964, as an obscure young Bay Area hippie, he wrote "In C," the work that single-handedly toppled the hegemony of the complex, mathematically organized maximalist music for which Boulez had become the famed spokesman. With "In C," Minimalism, the most influential musical style of the past 40 years, was born.

Boulez and Riley have long been held to be the very antithesis of each other. They divide the musical community. They seem to exist in radically different worlds and to appeal to radically different audiences.

Could anyone possibly be more cosmopolitan than Boulez? He lives stylishly in Paris, eats in the best restaurants and knows his wine. He is an extraordinary conversationalist who speaks rapidly and demonstrates a wickedly enjoyable sense of humor. He can be amusing and charming and hobnobs with world leaders and the cultural elite. He favors neatly tailored jackets and polo shirts and refuses to wear concert white tie and tails -- a simple tuxedo is as far as he will go. Yet his elegance is unmistakable.

Riley lives in the remote Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. He dines well too, but more simply, often on food that he and his wife grow at their Sri Moonshine Ranch (their salsa is magnificent). But then everything about Riley appears much simpler than Boulez. His speech is slower and folksy. His scores are far less adorned. He sports a long Mr. Natural beard that makes him as unmistakably of his place as Boulez is of his -- which is to say he appears as naive as Boulez does urbane.

But those are only appearances. Scratch the surface and you will find remarkable similarities between Boulez and Riley. However different their personalities, their lifestyles, their careers, their music, their involvement with the music business, they share a deep musical DNA. Indeed, in some elemental way, they complement, even complete, each other. They are the yin and yang of modern music.


Both composers come from the boonies. Boulez was raised in Montbrison, in the Loire Valley. He studied mathematics and music in nearby Lyon but came to Paris in 1942 pretty much a musical hayseed. Olivier Messiaen's class at the Conservatoire changed all that.

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