PROGRAM NOTES: Wavefield Ensemble - Boulez, Dérive 2

Imagine a kaleidoscope: cardboard tube, patterns of refracting colors inside.

Imagine you made your own kaleidoscope, or rather, a bunch of kaleidoscopes, all highly elaborate, all expanding on the possibilities of modern kaleidoscope construction. New colors. New shapes. You are making modern, portable versions of the the light refracting beauty of stained glass masterpieces in old French cathedrals. One of these kaleidoscopes may have been like a wagon wheel, with colors radiating out in all directions from a central viewing point, with the ends of the spokes each refracting the light of the other spokes, asking you to wonder if it is possible to observe in all directions at once.

Now imagine that you decide to make an updated version of your original models, but it turns out you left all the originals on a remote mountain pass somewhere (maybe they were small gifts for wandering hikers), and now can only see inside your kaleidoscopes by peering through a telescope from very far away, and aligning it perfectly. Refracted light viewed through refracted light. It might take quite a long time to gather all of the needed ideas, and the process of looking from afar would transform your understanding of the originals in a way that would have been impossible to imagine while making them.

That’s maybe a bit complicated, but this is perhaps analogous to how Boulez made Dérive 2, if we understand time and distance to be loosely analogous (…of course…)

As the composer noted:

“My recent music is much like a family tree—one tree spawns many other trees, and so on. Dérive 1 is from Répons, mostly music I left out, so I derived it from the piece, hence the name. Dérive 2 is based off of studies I did for Répons…As long as material from another piece is not used fully, I like to expand on it until it is exhausted.”

Dérive 1 was a relatively short exploration of six chords derived from the name of Boulez’s friend, the philanthropist Paul Sacher. Dérive 2, begun as a 5-minute birthday present to Elliott Carter in 1988, grew into the present work by 2006.

The words “kaleidoscopic” and “river-like” are often used to describe Boulez’s music. It is intensely colorful, the patterns flow from one into another, it is difficult not just to hold onto any one idea, but difficult also to know which idea one even ought to try to grasp as they fly past. Also, despite a great deal of surface activity, one has the sense that the music is fundamentally of a single sort. After the virtuosity required for execution, this aspect – the ever changing sameness – may pose the biggest challenge for performers.

Writers about music have taken great interest in Boulez’s operations for spinning out harmonic ideas (harmonic multiplication!), and rightly so – there is a baffling quantity of pitches in this music. The quest for large forms outside the grounding structures of tonality that began with Schoenberg and Berg in the early 20th Century emerged as a central focus in Boulez’s composition. And where it seems over the course of the last generation so many composers have shifted their attention to using fewer pitches with more clearly audible relationships between them, or discarding pitch altogether in favor of noise and gestural elements in order to articulate longer swaths of time, Boulez persisted down the path he proclaimed early in his career as the only possible path.

I would like to propose, however, that we need not simply sit in wide-eared awe of the perpetual motion and deluge of auditory information.

There is a delight to studying this music and hearing the referential glimpses shining through (Debussy, Webern, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Carter, Bebop, and the works of Boulez’s own that he cites as directly related, to say nothing of the sounds of his research into computer music), but ultimately it is the imperative of every composer to create music that is knowable on its own immediate terms, in its own sounds, without a web of references necessary to understand it. We are told that Boulez, inspired by Carter and Ligeti, set out in Dérive 2 to understand the limits of periodicity. Interesting, but does this help us hear the music? I’m not sure.

We can think of Dérive 2 in a few different ways: first as the high French baroque kicked into overdrive. And just as, in some of the most florid overtures of that period, there emerges a confusion as to what is “flourish” and what is “subject” or “content”, so it is with Dérive 2. Boulez stretches this dichotomy into something closer to a spectrum: “subject” (eg: a rising scale in triple rhythm) accelerates to the point of becoming “flourish” (overlapping scales outlining a series of bell-tone arrivals that are the “new subject”), which then explodes into actual chaos (a group of overlapping solos fully unaligned with one another).

Second, one could hear Dérive 2 as a constant interplay of motion and stasis, again to the point of questioning how far these ideas can stretch until they are confused with each other. The piece opens with a single French horn note, and then immediately erupts into a collective super-melody (a single melody created by a pointillist conglomeration of many voices). As we continue, we understand that Boulez uses collective arrival on a single pitch or single chord as a cadence gesture, or as a turning point of idea. Eventually these moments of repose become entire sections en-flourished with bustling activity. Are we floating “in one place,” or are we still “moving forward”?

Finally, we could think of Dérive 2 as analogous to driving across a vast landscape, but not in the Romantic sense of “composing the Alps” (as did Strauss or Mahler, for example). This is not a journey across a turbulent psyche. It is a journey of sonic experiences. As you pass from region to region, there are mostly no firm borders, just gradual shift. Occasionally you pass a Delaware Water Gap sort of formation and understand the beginning of Pennsylvania (so to speak), but on the other side, the rocks and trees are remarkably similar to those in New Jersey. Clusters of forest give way to patches of farm land. Hills emerge and vanish. Suburban outskirts of cities all have a shocking similarity, and…after awhile, you understand that the shiny oak trees of the Southwest are not the oak trees of the Northeast. And yet, there they are, instantly recognizable, and wholly transformed.

WritingsNicholas DeMaison