In memory of Pierre Boulez (1925–2016). This article was originally published in the September 2009 online version of MUSO Magazine.
"No, no, no, no, no." Pierre Boulez stops us again and asks for the bass section to check the tuning of their harmonics at the beginning of one of the movements of "Notations." In a piece that's so complex and detailed, it's a wonder that each of us is keeping track of our individual parts, but Boulez has been keeping track of all of us. He hears everything.
Although my father is not a musician, he knows who Boulez is, and thinks that the Lucerne Festival Academy is an amazing opportunity for young musicians to work with someone who is already a well respected master in the field. Between listening to recordings of John Adams and Boulez (and various other composer names I throw at him), my dad spends a lot of his free time playing tennis. As a good amateur player, being at a festival like this he said would be like him getting to play a set with Nadal, and then get tips from him on his serve. A fitting metaphor this week, since we just started working on Debussy's Jeux—a piece about three young people in the woods looking for a tennis ball.
Rehearsing with Boulez on these pieces is interesting because he unfolds the layers of the music, making each one pristine and clear so that when the layers are put together again, we are able to play better together and hear more ourselves. I must admit that our first reading of "Jeux" sounded more like the bounces and whimpers emerging from the court of a beginner tennis player trapped defending himself from an out‐of‐control ball machine. However, through the patience of our coaches from the Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC) and Boulez's insistence for detail and clarity, it's starting to come together.
The amount of detail and precision that we are putting into these pieces is partially about having respect for the composer and what is written, but it is also about personal respect for demanding a high quality product and a higher standard than is usually requested in a educational orchestral setting. My father always said that you have to have pride in everything you do, whether it's sweeping the floor, ironing a shirt, or writing a novel. No matter how small the task, one must have the personal pride and respect to do it well. So why do we sometimes accept less from ourselves when we are rehearsing or performing?
Working with Boulez and the EIC at the Lucerne Festival Academy, it is clear that they always demand the highest standard from themselves. The EIC premieres pieces that other players might refuse to learn because they contain techniques that no one else has figured out how to do, or because they don't make sense at a first glance. Working with mentors that live daily with such a standard for themselves and the music is incredibly inspiring. There is so much more energy that comes from a performance of this quality. When each of us takes the time and has the personal pride to really play our best at all times, the result is astonishing.
In these moments, even if normal ears could not tell you specifically what was happening, they would know that there was a spark and an energy in the orchestra that would move them. And I think Boulez can hear each one of us when this happens.