Music Review: A Double Dose of Pierre Boulez’s Répons

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The staging of Répons, at the Armory. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Technology, constantly new and immediately old, can be unkind to its artistic pioneers. In the early 1980s, when Pierre Boulez composed the first iteration of his electronic manifesto Répons, the idea that you could touch a single key on a piano and trigger a flourish of bleeps seemed like wizardry. Today, it’s within the capabilities of a toddler with an iPad. And yet Répons has done more than outlive its technological moment; it has preserved its magic. You don’t listen to its complex, enveloping nebulae of sound with the smirk of someone who knows how it’s done, the way you watch early Star Trek episodes. Instead, you abandon yourself to a mercurial epic, a piece that refuses to settle for sedate masterpiece status.

An ensemble of 24 musicians is seated at the center of the room — here, it was spotlighted in the vastness of the Armory’s darkened Drill Hall — with the audience seated on four sides. They strike up urgent, nimble music made of shudders, stutters, and tremolos. Individual lines spring and twirl as though each instrument were executing its own parkour event. The music bursts, subsides into pauses, then explodes again, so that all this flickering activity seems to be occurring on the skin of a great beast whose slow exhalations form the underlying pulse. While the ensemble is playing, six soloists arrayed on platforms around the audience’s outer ring are musical versions of Chekhov’s gun: You see them early and know they’ll go off sooner or later.

After a handful of minutes, the ensemble comes to an expectant pause, and a new volley of pyrotechnic sound explodes from all sides. The soloists play instruments that get hammered and plucked, their notes dying off quickly if left to nature’s course. But Boulez composed their resonances, too, prolonging each pling with electronic aftershocks. The result of all these delicate labors is a glittering panorama of sound, spread out across the Drill Hall’s acreage. A flash of piano on one hill answers a distant tinkle of harp on another, followed by a tolling glockenspiel on a third. Boulez’s music is often called atonal, a term that implies something must be lacking. Nothing is. Répons creates its own sonic environment, in which the minutest details echo the fractal geometries of the whole. You sense its order without being able to grasp it.

A generation ago, this work was Boulez’s proof of a whole array of beliefs: that humans and computers could make beautiful music together; that the institutions he founded (the Ensemble InterContemporain and the Parisian research center IRCAM) would forge the future of music; that the subsidies lavished on his ambitions were money well spent; that the hypercomplex products of his imagination could be executed in the real world. The first performance abroad was aborted by a thunderstorm that knocked out the power — but didn’t dim Boulez’s.

He died last year at 90, but the Armory show was as authentic as a posthumous performance could be. It involved musicians from his ensemble and technicians from his institute, led by his protégé, the composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, using an updated version of the software created especially for him. Even so, the piece is inherently unfixed and constantly evolving. For Boulez, no composition was ever complete; he revised this one throughout his life and would no doubt have kept on doing so for decades. The spatial arrangement he specified — with the audience, musicians, and speakers arrayed in concentric circles — means that there is no such thing as the ideal place to hear it, only varying degrees of imperfection. Perhaps to honor the score’s open-ended nature, the performers played it twice, with audience members switching seats after intermission. The second time through, I sat behind the brass players and heard a whole sedimentary layer of little fanfares that I had never noticed before. And once again, the music arrived at my ears with all its urgency and disciplined fervor, bearing the title’s imperative and plea. Don’t just sit back and let the sound wash through you: Respond!

Music Review: A Double Dose of Pierre Boulez’s Répons