George Benjamin I
Pierre Boulez was a composer. But he was also a conductor and a strident theoretician and debater on artistic matters. There is something of this multiple musicality in the beginning of George Benjamin’s programme with the Berlin Philharmonic. Like Boulez, Benjamin is both a composer and conductor, and like him he also studied with Olivier Messiaen; and he gained important experience at IRCAM, the institution that Boulez initiated and ran for a long time: research into the interaction of acoustic and electronic instruments introduced new ways of thinking to composition for acoustic ensembles. The title Palimpsests refers to over-writing on parchment where erased or washed out script can still be recognized or sensed. Beneath the new the old – the canzone-like opening of the piece – continually reappears. Layers of this kind – that can become more prominent, fade and flow into each other – are superb material to play with electronically, but can also produce conventionally notated scores. The world premieres of both Benjamin’s Palimpsests were conducted by Pierre Boulez, and the first of them was written as a gift for his 75th birthday.
Boulez’ musical thinking seems as far removed from Claude Debussy’s ideals of a flowing form as they are from Maurice Ravel’s colouristic explosions. And yet as a performer Boulez with his precise reading of their scores and refusal to add any atmospheric ingredients of his own made recordings of their works that set the standard for all others. He would conduct compositions by his contemporaries even if they pursued a different aesthetic to his own. He devoted entire concerts and programme series to the music of György Ligeti. The two shared an enthusiasm for pointed discussion about music and both espoused controversial viewpoints. These are expressed with regard to vocal music in two works that were created at the beginning of the 1970s. Boulez responds to the broken typography in the poems of e.e. cummings, a form of microscopy of reflective, non-grammatical speech, with the challenge of all forms of vocal articulation. Speech, sound and noises create a new syntax. While in Ligeti a dozen female voices draw clouds of sound above the stylized ring of the orchestra that are continually changing, concentrating and releasing. Both layers interpenetrate without merging – just like a palimpsest.
Pierre Boulez [1925–2016]
Cummings is the poet
for 16 solo voices and instruments [1970/1986]
to a poem by Edward Estlin Cummings
Maurice Ravel [1875-1937]
Piano concerto for the left hand in D minor [1929/30]
György Ligeti [1928–2006]
Clocks and Clouds
for 12-part choir and orchestra [1972/73]
George Benjamin [*1960]