Composer, interpreter and conductor Pierre Boulez is unquestionably the most important “serious” musical figure of the last seven decades

No one ever accused Pierre Boulez of being easy listenin’. Despite that, the French composer, interpreter and conductor remains arguably the most influential figure in modern classical music of the entire post-war period. His significance continues still today, deep into the 21st century, despite his death last year at the age of 90.

Through much of May and June, fourteen concerts featuring almost all of Boulez’s most important works are the focus of the Internationales Musikfest, held every two years at the Konzerthaus, this year in its 38th incarnation. The series is called “Integral Boulez.” I interpret that as meaning he’s essential.

There are few composers who have actually changed the entire discourse of music. Without a doubt, Boulez is one. If he had not exploded onto the scene with his work Le Marteau sans maître (The hammer without a master) in 1955, much of today’s contemporary classical music would undoubtedly still be meandering along in harmless directions. Boulez persistently challenged easy and comfortable definitions of what music is.

Although he studied higher math before music, Boulez was not a scholarly composer, he was a revolutionary. What others had done for tonality – releasing pitches from the hierarchical structures we call major and minor – Boulez did for duration, volume, timbre and attack. This was total serialism: Rhythms within rhythms within rhythms, he created complexities of pulse that leave ears dancing but rarely give feet a moment to stomp.

It is music that is intricate, powerful and brainy. Boulez referred to it as “organized delirium.”

Volcanos of Sound

The Konzerthaus series is not a retrospective or a memorial however. It rather presents Boulez’s living legacy, performed by those who worked directly with him, some over many years – Daniel Barenboim, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Emmanuel Pahud and others, musicians with whom Boulez discussed his ideas, his vision, his internal ear. They know what they are doing.

Boulez had an astonishing command of musical detail and an ear that was legendary. It left musicians both in awe and in fear (it was said he could tell you the pitch of a dropped pin). He was eloquent, fastidious and respected by all – even those who rejected his approach to composing.

Personally, I am happiest listening to his pieces for one or two players: Sonatine for flute and piano (May 31) or the solo piano works (May 29). Maybe it’s because I indulge the illusion that my pitiable ears can hear every note. But then there are pieces like Sur Incises (May 7) where simply seeing the stage portends something special: three harps, three grand pianos and three batteries of percussion instruments – waiting.

The works for orchestra – and sometimes other electronic sounds – are loud and glorious. They swirl and swoop and fill vast spaces “like an erupting volcano,” as a U.S. music critic once wrote about Répons (Jun 19).

An adamant vision

Boulez was uncompromising. Beginning his composition studies right at the end of the war with Olivier Messiaen, he soon decried his teacher’s music as sentimental. He marched out on his next teacher, the 12-tone serialist René Leibowitz, as well. He did admit the strong influence of African drums, Balinese gamelan and Japanese court music, which he studied in the 1940s at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “I almost chose the career of an ethnomusicologist,” Boulez admitted once, “because I was so fascinated by that music. It gives a different feeling of time.”

Yes, he wrote seriously difficult music, music that moves with a different sense of time. But today there are plenty of brilliant young ensembles that are not fazed and can play it, having cut their teeth on micro-tempi and micro-tones.

Indeed, Boulez taught more than one musical generation to hear in a new way. And luckily, he taught me that listening is essential.

Internationales Musikfest: May 7-Jun 23, Konzerthaus.

3. Lothringerstraße 20

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Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.