Sunday, January 31, 2010

19th-Century Concept, With a Few Upgrades

PAT METHENY, the jazz guitarist, has lately spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about robots. Actually, that’s putting it mildly: he has been downright obsessed with robots, and with getting them to do his bidding. “I haven’t slept more than four hours a night for six months now,” he said one day last fall at a makeshift rehearsal space in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, the former home of a Byzantine Catholic church.

Wearing a T-shirt and faded jeans, his tousled mane tucked under a baseball cap, Mr. Metheny stood before a 14-foot-high, 35-foot-wide wall festooned with musical instruments: an imposing, circuit-wired one-man band. The contraption itself seemed byzantine, all the more so when it sprang to life in a mechanical whirl: beaters tapping cymbals, levers gliding over strings, mallets cascading across a vibraphone.

Mr. Metheny closed his eyes and hunched over his guitar, bringing a human touch to “Expansion,” the centerpiece of his new album, “Orchestrion” (Nonesuch). With its shifting tonal center and fluttering groove, the tune combined aspects of post-Coltrane jazz and Brazilian pop with cinematic breadth. So beyond the obvious technical feat — thousands of moving parts, executing a programmed score — the performance dazzled on a basic level. Mr. Metheny and the unmanned orchestra were making his kind of music.

“This is something I’ve literally been dreaming about since I was 9,” said Mr. Metheny, who, at 55, has three gold albums and 17 Grammy Awards to his name. Easily one of the most enterprising jazz musicians of his generation, he has worked in an array of settings, from folkish duos to boppish trios to the heartland sprawl of the Pat Metheny Group. But robots were a new wrinkle, and Mr. Metheny seemed eager to explain himself. He did so in the midst of preparations for a grueling tour, which kicks off on Monday in Champagne, France, and concludes with shows at Town Hall in Manhattan on May 21 and 22.

Mr. Metheny, who grew up in Lee’s Summit, Mo., traces his intrigue with musical automation to an antique player piano in the basement of his grandfather’s house in Wisconsin. Later he learned about orchestrions, the pneumatically driven mechanical orchestras that flourished in the 19th century, before the advent of commercial recording. Though impressed by the Jules Verne-ish mechanisms, he was struck by their musical limitations. “I thought, ‘Why couldn’t it be something else?’ ” he said. “Honestly it struck me as such an obvious thing to do. I’m kind of stunned nobody’s really approached it.”

Voluble and amiably intense, Mr. Metheny gives the impression of a restless intellect governed by quiet discipline. He first made his name as a teenage prodigy under the wing of the vibraphonist Gary Burton, who consulted on the orchestrion’s mallet selection. “I’ve learned never to underestimate Pat,” Mr. Burton said. “He makes things work that most of us wouldn’t dare to try.”

The progressive current in Mr. Metheny’s music runs deep. His albums, notably with the Pat Metheny Group, have pushed the envelope not only in terms of early-adopter synthesizer use (an interest shared with his founding partner in the band, the keyboardist Lyle Mays) but also with regard to harmony, texture and compositional form.

Along the way he became a gear-head touchstone. In the 2009 Mike Judge film “Extract” a pair of guitar store employees reverently drop his name in an inept flirtation with a customer. A different sort of geek might be drawn to “Orchestrion,” given its whiff of Victorian futurism, a hallmark of the steampunk aesthetic. “There’s an awful lot of overlap between what Pat is doing and what we do as steampunks,” C. Allegra Hawksmoor, an editor at Steampunk Magazine, said in an e-mail message. (Asked about that subculture, Mr. Metheny seemed wary: “It’s not really on my radar.”)

Style, in any case, has rarely been the prime motivator for Mr. Metheny, who earnestly uses the word “research” to describe the music-making process. He said “Orchestrion” was especially valuable because it led him to new methods, a new frame of possibilities. “The record is a viable portrait of what I’m hearing right now,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have gotten to that result any other way.”

It was about five years ago that he began to sense that the technology for a modern orchestrion was in reach. Mark Herbert, his longtime guitar technician, had designed a mechanical instrument with solenoids, which employ electromechanical rather than pneumatic energy. Bells went off for Mr. Metheny, who already owned a Disklavier, the solenoid-powered piano made by Yamaha.

His interest led him to Eric Singer, a Brooklyn engineer and musician doing similar work with a confab he called Lemur (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots). Among Mr. Singer’s breakthrough inventions was a guitar-bot, which resembles the junky droid in the movie “Short Circuit” but works remarkably well as a musical device. Soon Lemur had been commissioned to build an orchestra. “Being Pat Metheny with his grand vision, he wanted one of everything,” Mr. Singer said.

What complicated the assignment was Mr. Metheny’s high standard for dynamics. Each instrument needed to be not only hair-trigger responsive to his signals but also capable of a range of volume. The robots receive their orders from Mr. Metheny’s computer, on which he runs two different software programs — or, no less effectively, from his guitar or keyboard. (He said he plans to incorporate some robotic free improvisation on the tour, as a counterweight to his intricately plotted compositions.)

In the end Lemur created most but not all of the rig. Mr. Herbert provided at least one solenoid guitar, while Ken Caulkins, who has done animatronics work for Disneyland, made some pneumatic pieces, including an electric bass. A Chicago pipe organ company created two cabinets filled with jugs and bottles, to be played with blasts of air.

“Everything came in months late,” Mr. Metheny said of the instruments, which began arriving last March, along with a daunting challenge. “There’s some hardcore technical reasons why most mechanical music doesn’t groove that hard,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Man, if it should be able to do anything, it should be able to do that.’ So one of my first tasks was to go through, solenoid by solenoid, and find out how each one felt the beat. And then figuring out software compensations for that latency. That took weeks.”

Then there was the music, some of which he had composed ahead of time.

“None of it worked,” he said. “It didn’t feel good, it didn’t sound good. It wasn’t happening.” So he went back to Square 1. “I very quickly had to find out what they were good at,” he recalled, referring to the robots. “What can they do, what can’t they do? And there’s a whole bunch that they can’t do. But I kind of wrote for their strengths.”

Remarkably, “Orchestrion,” recorded in October, shows few traces of herky-jerky compromise. “Entry Point,” the first tune completed, is a study in subtle undulation. “Spirit of the Air,” with its percussive pulsations, recalls both Steve Reich and vintage Pat Metheny Group albums like “Still Life (Talking).” The album’s only truly awkward moment occurs in “Soul Search,” during a flirtation with swing — not a robot strength, it turns out, even with cymbals on loan from Jack DeJohnette.

But then there’s the shimmering, labyrinthine title track, an overture of palpable ambition. “A percussion ensemble could play it, and I hope one will someday,” Mr. Metheny said. “But it would require the world’s greatest virtuosos practicing for two months.” (Of course the humans would then play it better, he clarified.)

He acknowledges but deflects the megalomaniacal implications of the work. “A big part of my interest as a bandleader has been in trying to discover and illuminate my favorite potentials in each setting,” he said in a follow-up e-mail message. “This is a setting with lots of potential, but not many reference points. In fact, basically none.” In the same message, which exceeded 1,800 words, he compared “Orchestrion” to the Stevie Wonder album “Music of My Mind,” in which Mr. Wonder played nearly every instrument himself. “This is exactly that — but live,” he said.

Steve Rodby, the bassist in the Pat Metheny Group, and an associate producer of the album, made the same analogy. “To me this record is so much more about Pat than it is about the robots,” he said. “It has this intrinsic liveliness — I almost said ‘lifelike quality’ — that comes from the fact that it’s not sampled instruments. It’s real sound in the air, and Pat’s in there improvising.”

In that sense the live “Orchestrion” experience is bound to overshadow the album, provided Mr. Metheny’s road crew can sustain it. During a second visit to the church, issues of transport — for a solo tour with eight and a half tons of equipment — were a pressing concern.

“I anticipate this tour as being a deeply character-building experience,” Mr. Metheny said. (At any mention of potential malfunction he knocked on the wood floor.) Leif Krinkle, a Lemur robot builder, was inspecting equipment nearby, as was David Oakes, Mr. Metheny’s technical director of many years, who will run the tour.

“Some of these things aren’t done being built,” Mr. Oakes said. He pointed to one input mechanism. “That’s hardly road worthy: a two-by-four with wires taped to it. And it’s not like I can call up and order a Fender Twin case for these. Every case has to be custom designed. I’m building them myself.”

Mr. Metheny interrupted from across the room. “Leif’s never heard this,” he called, cueing up “Expansion,” his showcase piece. And for the next eight or nine minutes the room once again filled with movement and sound, every bit as uncanny as before. Bringing the tune in for landing, Mr. Metheny looked up expectantly.

“It was nice to hear it as music,” Mr. Krinkle said, “rather than seeing every little thing that needs to get work done.” There was a meaningful pause.

“Looks like a big to-do list to me,” Mr. Oakes said, not joining in the ensuing laugh.

“Me too,” Mr. Metheny agreed. But he was beaming.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Mathematical Mind of Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) was a polymath, a man given to many disciplines including engineering, music, architecture and mathematics. Best known for his avant garde music, Xenakis used the mathematical rules of the natural world to explore the spacial texture of sound, color and architecture. Described by Milan Kundera as "the prophet of "insensibility," his musical pieces had the ability to both unnerve and enrapture his audiences. At the core of his work was his study of mathematics and science, disciplines that he used to explore the visual and sonorous origins of art. A collection of over 60 works on paper by Xenakis including pre-compositional sketches, architectural drawings and graphic mathematical notations are on display in the exhibition Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary at the Drawing Center in SoHo.

Xenaxis was born in Romania to a bourgeois Greek family. At a young age he was educated in European art and music, although his formal studies led him to a degree in civil engineering. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Xenakis joined the armed Greek Resistance. After surviving an injury that caused him to lose his left eye, he arrived as a refugee in Paris in 1947 where he became an apprentice in the atelier of Le Corbusier. Quickly rising to prominence in the studio, he collaborated with the famed architect on major projects in Chandigarh, India and Lyon, France, where he designed the undulating glass surfaces of Sainte Marie de La Tourette.

After establishing himself with some stability at the atelier, Xenakis began to explore a passion for creating music. Although his first compositions were originally met with disdain by the composer Arthur Honegger, he found a mentor in Olivier Messiaen who instructed a number of members of the musical avant garde including Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Just as Russian constructivist Kasimir Malevich rejected representation for geometric abstraction at the beginning of the twentieth century, Xenakis and his contemporaries looked to move beyond the serial harmonic framework of classical music. In 1954, after years of obscurity in the musical community, Xenakis completed his first large-scale work, Anastenaria. The final movement of the triptych, Metastaseis, was characterized by a completely unique approach. When performed for the first time at Donaueschingen in 1955, the piece created a "sound cloud" that consisted of an aural mass built with the strings in the orchestra so overwhelming that it was almost palpable.

In 1958, Le Corbusier, entrusted Xenakis to take charge of the design for the Philip's Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair. The structure, designed using hyberbolic paraboloids, inscribed the sweeping curves of Xenakis' early aural symphonies into actual physical space. Although successful as an engineer, Xenakis left the studio of Le Corbusier in 1959 to focus on music. He continued to write symphonies that attempted to express complicated mathematical ideas such as probability theory and Markov chains. His interest in the geometric mass of sound led to a fascination with theoretical spaces, including optical architecture. In the 1960s and 1970s, Xenakis started designing site specific spectacles known as polytopes that combined elements of sound, color and performance to transform sites, such as the ruins of Persepolis, into otherworldly electro-acoustic realms.

At the very center of Xenakis' work was his hand, the tool that he used to transform the flat surface of paper into the three-dimensional musical, architectural and optical manifestations of his multi-faceted genius.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

One Singular Auteur, Through Another

STEVEN SODERBERGH’S modus operandi is that no film he makes is like anything he’s made before. The one exception has been the “Ocean” series, which from first (“Ocean’s Eleven”) to last (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) was designed to make money and did. But once Mr. Soderbergh could add that particular genre of moviemaking to his résumé — in Hollywood, the franchise is a genre — he put it aside and returned to being the consummate anti-auteurist auteur, bouncing from the guerrilla epic “Che” to the coolly soft-core “Girlfriend Experience” to the comic corporate exposé “The Informant!”

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Mr. Soderbergh observed that his career would have been easier if he had been able to make himself into a more marketable brand. Instead, he said with some relish, he’s like that “imported mustard that you buy at Trader Joe’s.”

His latest movie will not be any help in the branding department. It is his smallest and most modest feature-length work, one in which his hand is nowhere evident, except in his refusal to employ the rules specific to its genre: the documentary biopic. The subject of the film, “And Everything Is Going Fine” — which has its premiere next Saturday at Slamdance in Utah — is the monologuist-writer-actor Spalding Gray.

Some months after Gray’s death (a presumed suicide by drowning) in 2004, Mr. Soderbergh had heard that Kathleen Russo, Gray’s widow, was interested in making some kind of documentary about her husband. Mr. Soderbergh, who had directed the film of Gray’s monologue “Gray’s Anatomy” (1996), told Ms. Russo he’d like to be involved.

“Kathie thought there was something to be done with all the material that was left,” he said. “I knew from the first that I was never going to shoot anyone talking about him, as there would be in a conventional documentary, but I thought there might be some place for his journals, either read by other actors or as text on the screen. I paid to have 25 years of them transcribed before I became convinced it had to be, literally, just his voice.”

Over the course of three years Mr. Soderbergh and his editor Susan Littenberg distilled about 15 hours of film and video recordings of Gray’s performances, his television interviews and home movies of his childhood and his life with Ms. Russo and their children. The resulting 90-minute collage opens with a clip from his first monologue, “Sex and Death to the Age 14,” and ends with a faded image of the infant Spalding wrapped in his mother’s arms.

“Steven told me that he wanted Spalding to tell the story, as if it was his last monologue,” Ms. Russo said by phone from Sag Harbor, N.Y. “And I think he accomplished that.”

The title, “And Everything Is Going Fine,” is lifted from a comment Gray repeated like a refrain during one of his performances and reflects the way all of his monologues immediately plunge you into a drama in process. “I looked at his work as a stream that you can step into at any moment and sort of get what’s going on,” Mr. Soderbergh said. He said he stepped into Gray’s stream of consciousness himself when he saw Jonathan Demme’s 1987 film of Gray’s best-known monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia.”

“When I saw ‘Swimming,’ I had the sensation that I assume a lot of people did: that my mind works like that too. The constant spinning and digressing and organizing seemed so genuine. I identified with the struggle to filter experience in such a way that it at least seems to make sense, which is an ongoing, sometimes futile process.”

While Gray’s body of work is the inverse of Mr. Soderbergh’s, in that all of his monologues are part of on continuing autobiographical impulse, Gray’s achronological storytelling has had an influence on Mr. Soderbergh’s most formally ambitious films like “The Limey” and “Che,” which collapse memory and prophecy into an extremely active present.

After reading Gray’s 1992 roman à clef “Impossible Vacation,” Mr. Soderbergh offered Gray a role in his third feature, “King of the Hill,” partly because he wanted to know more about how Gray’s mind worked. “And Everything Is Going Fine” has a clip of Gray describing the phone call during which Mr. Soderbergh asked him to be in the movie.

Mr. Soderbergh told Gray that, like the protagonist of “Impossible Vacation” (a barely disguised version of Gray named Brewster North), the character he wanted Gray to play was ruled by regret. Mr. Soderbergh also told him that the character commits suicide, which, as Gray recounted it, clinched the deal.

“What’s so bizarre in all this,” Mr. Soderbergh said, “was the central role suicide played in his life.” Gray’s mother committed suicide when she was 52, and his work is haunted by his memory of that act and his fear that he would be compelled to repeat it. “It’s right at the core of the work, and it’s discussed in such a wide-ranging way,” Mr. Soderbergh said. “And maybe that’s what frightened me when I heard about his accident.”

In 2001 Gray was in a car wreck that fractured his skull and crushed his hip. “You didn’t have to be a genius,” Mr. Soderbergh said, “to know that Spalding’s equilibrium was very precarious, and I was really scared that this would weaken his ability to sort things out in the way that he always did, by working.”

Mr. Soderbergh said he shared what he described as Gray’s need “to keep making art in order to get out of bed in the morning.” So he felt an admittedly irrational fear that what Gray suffered would somehow “splash onto him.” His anxiety was so great, he said, that he never made contact with Gray after the accident.

“I was totally absent in a way that is inexcusable to me,” he said. “And this entire movie is in part an act of contrition. The irony is that I spent the better part of three years immersed in something I tried to avoid. But as Spalding would say, ‘What are we to do with any of this except make a piece of art?’ ”


Monday, January 11, 2010

Eric Rohmer, New Wave Filmmaker, Dies at 89

Eric Rohmer, the French critic and filmmaker who was one of the founding figures of the internationally influential movement that became known as the French New Wave, and the director of more than 50 films for theaters and television, including the Oscar-nominated “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), died on Monday. He was 89.

His producer, Margaret Menegoz, announced his death in Paris, Agence France-Press reported. Relatives said he had been hospitalized a week ago but gave no further details about his condition, the news agency said.

Aesthetically, Mr. Rohmer was perhaps the most conservative member of the group of aggressive young critics who purveyed their writings for publications like Arts and Les Cahiers du Cinéma into careers as filmmakers beginning in the late 1950s. A former novelist and teacher of French and German literature, Mr. Rohmer emphasized the spoken and written word in his films at a time when tastes — thanks in no small part to his own pioneering writing on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks — had begun to shift from literary adaptations to genre films grounded in strong visual styles.

His most famous film in America remains “My Night at Maud’s,” a 1969 black-and-white feature set in the grim industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand. It tells the story of a shy, young engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who passes a snow-bound evening in the home of an attractive, free-thinking divorcée (Françoise Fabian).

The conversation, filmed by Mr. Rohmer in a series of carefully but unobtrusively composed long takes, covers philosophy, religion and morality, and while the flow of words at times takes on a distinctly seductive subtext, the encounter ends without a physical consummation. But a bond is formed between the two characters that movingly re-emerges five years later, when they meet again in the brief postscript that closes the film.

“My Night at Maud’s” was the third title in his “Six Moral Tales,” a series of films that Mr. Rohmer began in 1963, though for economic reasons it was the fourth to be filmed. In each of the six films, a man who is married or engaged finds himself tempted to stray but is ultimately able to resist. His films are as much about what does not happen between his characters as what does, a tendency that enchanted critics as often as it drove audience members to distraction.

“I saw a Rohmer movie once,” observes the Gene Hackman character in Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves” (1975). “It was kind of like watching paint dry.”

In his private life, Mr. Rohmer was reclusive if not secretive. “Eric Rohmer” was, in fact, a pseudonym, one of several that he experimented with early in his career. According to “Who’s Who in France,” he was born Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer in Tulle, a city in southwestern France, on March 21, 1920; other sources give his birth name as Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer and place his origins in the northeastern city of Nancy.

After publishing the novel “Elisabeth” under the name Gilbert Cordier, he moved to Paris in 1950, where he began frequenting the ciné-clubs of the Latin Quarter, making the acquaintance of four other young cinephiles with whom his career would remain intertwined: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette. With Mr. Rivette, he founded a short-lived film magazine, La Revue du Cinéma, but when that initiative collapsed after five issues, he joined the reviewing staff of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, a publication that acquired a fashionable notoriety for the violently iconoclastic reviews of the young Truffaut.

In 1952, Mr. Rohmer made his first attempt to direct a feature film, to be titled “Les Petites Filles Modèles,” but the project was abandoned when its producer declared bankruptcy. No footage is known to exist. Not until his Cahiers colleagues began to enjoy a measure of success as filmmakers — the term La Nouvelle Vague (The New Wave) was coined by a journalist for L’Express in 1957 — was Mr. Rohmer able to mount another long form production. But “Le Signe du Lion” (1959), a moody tale of an American expatriate who finds himself down and out in Paris, did not capture the public imagination the way Truffaut’s “400 Blows” and Godard’s “Breathless” did, and Mr. Rohmer returned to editing Les Cahiers, a job he held until 1963.

Mr. Rohmer’s real breakthrough came in 1962 with the 26-minute short “La Boulangère de Monceau” (“The Bakery Girl of Monceau”). Filmed in 16-millimeter black and white, it was the first of the “Six Moral Tales,” based on fictional sketches he had written, he later said, long before he dreamed of becoming a filmmaker.

After a second short film, “La Carrière de Suzanne” (1963), Mr. Rohmer returned to the feature length format with “La Collectionneuse” (1967), the fourth episode of the series but the third to be filmed. The story of a young woman (Haydée Politoff) who systematically collects lovers, the film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and restored Mr. Rohmer’s place in the front rank of the New Wave. The series continued with three more features: “My Night at Maud’s,” “Claire’s Knee” (1970) and “Love in the Afternoon” (1972).

After experimenting with two stylized period films, “The Marquise of O ...” (1976) and “Percival le Gallois” (1978), Mr. Rohmer initiated a new series, “Comedies and Proverbs,” with the 1981 “La Femme de l’aviateur.” The six films in this group were illustrated traditional sayings or quotes from celebrated authors (from La Fontaine to Rimbaud), and were largely built around the flirtations and fickle emotions of young people, and incorporated, notably in “Le Rayon Vert” (1986), a new element of improvisation.

Mr. Rohmer undertook a final series, “Tales of the Four Seasons,” with “Conte de Printemps” in 1990, this time providing a philosophical love story for each season of the year. The series ended with the exquisite “Conte d’Automne” in 1998, in which Mr. Rohmer moved beyond his focus on youth to tell a movingly autumnal story of a widow (Béatrice Romand) with a teenage son who finds love in an unexpected place.

Mr. Rohmer’s late career found him moving happily among small projects for television (including “L’Arbre, le Maire et la Médiathèque,” 1993), an early experiment with digital technology (“The Lady and the Duke,” 2001), and a true-life spy story (“Triple Agent,” 2004). His final theatrical film was the 2007 “Astrée and Céladon,” a retelling of a 17th-century love story with magical overtones, filmed in a self-consciously academic style that suggested the paintings of Poussin and Fragonard.

He is survived by a younger brother, the philosopher René Schérer, and by a son, the journalist René Monzat.

In opposition both to the intensely personal, confessional tone of much of the work of Truffaut and the politically provocative films of Godard, Mr. Rohmer remained true to a restrained, rationalist aesthetic, close to the principles of the 18th-century thinkers whose words he frequently cited in his movies. And yet Mr. Rohmer’s work was warmed by an undercurrent of romanticism and erotic yearning, made perhaps all the more affecting for never quite breaking through the surface of his elegant, orderly films.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Boulez’s Gentler Roar

IN a maroon turtleneck and loose-fitting gray suit, eyes on his score, Pierre Boulez took turns one late August morning here rehearsing the soloists for “Répons.” Written in 1981 for six soloists, chamber orchestra and live electronics, it is the first major work he wrote using the electronic-music institute in Paris, Ircam. But it has rarely been performed, just a few dozen times.

Now Mr. Boulez had young musicians from the Lucerne Festival Academy on hand. Intimations of jazz, Balinese gamelan, African drumming and Japanese music floated from welters of rapid passagework. “You are freer there, so to speak,” he reminded the harpist where the score mandated improvisation.

“No, no, no, no,” he gently chided one of the pianists, adding, consolingly, “It’s difficult also for the conductor, believe me.”

It sounded nearly impossible, not least when the six soloists finally played together before the rehearsal broke. Intense complexity created waves of impenetrable sound.

And yet.

It was still somehow clear that what sounded impenetrable would gradually yield up its shape, order and sense. There was a metaphor in this for the whole of Mr. Boulez’s career-long embrace of new music.

On Saturday evening he conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in works by Schoenberg, Webern and Mahler at Carnegie Hall. Daniel Barenboim, who will conduct two other concerts with the orchestra (including music by Mr. Boulez on Sunday), is Mr. Boulez’s soloist for Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Boulez, who as Leonard Bernstein’s unlikely successor, directed the New York Philharmonic. He has been proving to New Yorkers ever since what they gave up.

He is the last great exponent of European modernism from the generation that emerged after the war. Born in Montbrison, in the Loire, the charmed and charming son of a wealthy factory engineer, a mathematics student turned musician, he attended the Paris Conservatory, where Olivier Messiaen helped introduce him to serialism. An agent provocateur for serial music before graduating and a master of hardball polemics, he caused even anxious luminaries like the aging Stravinsky to feel the need to earn his approval.

“I like virtuosity, although not for the sake of virtuosity but because it’s dangerous,” was Mr. Boulez’s description of “Répons” when we sat down to talk for a few hours after the rehearsal. By danger he meant that music, to be worth anything — which is to say to be new — can’t stick to safe ground but must entail some risk and effort.

“If you want to have a more interesting life, you will make some effort,” is how he put it. “It’s about the organization of one’s life. I am still shocked that so many people are not more creative, by which I mean more demanding of themselves.

“The main question we need to ask ourselves is: Do I try to be necessary to the evolution of language? Do I try to be original? And being original means using the tools necessary to be original, not just having the desire to be original.”

He was thinking then of John Cage, with whom he had been friendly until they fell out, painfully for Cage. Mr. Boulez, having an entirely more rarefied (some might say angrier or more mandarin or richer or more academic) notion of avant-gardism, decided that the bohemian Cage didn’t have the necessary tools.

“Tools are important,” Mr. Boulez repeated. “Mallarmé chastised Degas for writing poems. He said, ‘You can’t just have an idea that you want to write poems. Poems are made out of words.’ ”

New Yorkers of a certain vintage will recall how, back in the 1970s, Mr. Boulez exasperated some Philharmonic subscribers, old-line critics and not a few of the orchestra players content with the standard fare, by stressing new music, making clear that he wanted to shake up the whole symphony orchestra routine and, in many ways, simply by not being Bernstein. He staged new-music performances in various corners of the city to take music to young people where they lived (“guerrilla actions,” he now calls them). He also organized “rug concerts,” for which seats were removed from what was then called Philharmonic Hall and players shared the floor with the audience, lounging on cushions.

In retrospect these were breakthrough events, but Mr. Boulez was fighting an uphill struggle. He arrived already burdened (or burnished, depending on one’s perspective) by a reputation as a fierce champion of the most complex postwar scores, which to him clearly held no challenge. His candor and openness disarmed skeptics.

Even so, predisposed against his agenda, detractors insisted on finding him cold and effete, notwithstanding his endless efforts to talk about and make more accessible the music he was advocating, and even though, whether performing Mahler, Messiaen or Mozart, he could conduct with sumptuousness and brilliance and an elegant, almost moral clarity.

More than 30 years later the American symphony orchestra subscription system is still pretty much ossified, if not dying. In retrospect, hiring him was a major gamble by the Philharmonic. His leaving was a historic opportunity squandered.

But that was then. He is 84 now, an elder statesman and globe-trotting maestro of the world’s leading ensembles who, despite a tireless energy, says he plans to cut back on conducting soon to spend more time in Paris and at his house in Baden-Baden, Germany, composing. “An affable, even mellow presence,” is how Alex Ross described Mr. Boulez in The New Yorker when he came to town for some performances a decade ago, although by affable and mellow Mr. Ross meant “like Brando’s Don Corleone.”

This was funny, except not quite fair. These days Mr. Boulez is reserved but approachable, forthcoming, reflective and, to a remarkable degree, without vanity. For him it’s about the music, only the music. The rest is noise.

“I don’t apologize for being on the barricades,” he said, recollecting his early days during the late 1940s and early ’50s, when he wrote a notoriously pitiless obituary of Schoenberg, conspicuously booed Stravinsky’s music in Paris in 1945 and declared that any musician who had not experienced, as he infamously put it, “the necessity of dodecaphonic music” was “useless” because he is “irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.”

“Like a lion that had been flayed alive,” was Messiaen’s description of the young Mr. Boulez.

“You never get results if you aren’t fighting,” Mr. Boulez now says. “I understand better other points of view, although I still may fight against them.”

Mr. Barenboim phrased it another way when we talked one recent afternoon: “What makes Pierre a towering modernistic figure is that he has managed in his life to move between revolutionary moments and evolutionary moments. When revolution was necessary, he was there, courageously, to lead it.

“But he is a great strategist. And he doesn’t overestimate himself. He is too intelligent to stick to beliefs or opinions when they are no longer necessary. I remember him coming to my concert in Paris once and being very disparaging about Bruckner. But then, 15 years later, there he was conducting Bruckner himself, not out of weakness but because his thinking evolved.”

Mr. Barenboim recalled observing Mr. Boulez lead Schoenberg’s “Pelleas und Melisande” with the BBC Symphony in the early 1960s.

“I sat with the score during the rehearsal,” he said. “At the beginning there is quite a lot of chromaticism, and at a certain point there was a chord out of tune and Pierre said, ‘No, no, this is sharp, this is flat.’ I was amazed.

“As a pianist I had no idea how he heard all that. I mean, when I thought my piano was out of tune, I just called the tuner. So I asked Pierre how he did it. I was starting to conduct, and I wanted to know if this was something I could learn.

“Pierre said: ‘You have to have the courage to say what you hear and think when you conduct. Either the player will correct you and say it’s not me out of tune, it’s the second oboe, or you will be right. But in any case you will learn. Don’t put your ego above the music. Do what you have to do for the sake of the music, and only in that way will you make progress.’ ”

“It was the remark of a man without ego,” Mr. Barenboim added. “And a great lesson for me on musical terms and human terms.”

One evening Katharina Rengger, project director of the Lucerne Festival Academy, made a similar point. Mr. Boulez was about to conduct Janacek, the sort of composer he disdained years ago. Ms. Rengger talked about his open mind, how the young musicians at the academy loved working with him, how he was planning a kind of 24-hour center, where anybody could come to hear music, hang out, make music, an alternative to the formal confines of the usual concert hall.

“Maybe part of the revolution for Pierre has been to find his own way,” she said. “For him making music is a process that never stops. It’s always focusing on the future.”

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Boulez was a key figure at the summer school at Darmstadt, Germany, where young modern composers, stifled during the war, pressed for a new international style. Nationalism and populism rankled after the Nazi regime. Serialism’s obdurate, abstract, quasi-mathematics implied a semblance of cultural rationalism, unattached to nationalist ideas, a fresh start, musically speaking. But it soon came to represent the new orthodoxy. And Mr. Boulez was among its principal ideologues.

That said, no single serial technique emerged from Darmstadt. Mr. Boulez’s own music moved from serial rhythms, durations, attacks and dynamics to improvisation, chance, electronics, world music.

“Serialism is long dead,” he said. “It was killed by the same people who wrote it.”

All of which is true. That said, the composer Hans Werner Henze remembered in his memoirs that the Darmstadt School saw music as “a glass-bead game, a fossil of life,” and “any encounter with the listeners that was not catastrophic and scandalous would defile the artist.”

But Mr. Boulez prefers now to stress how Darmstadt, and by extension the whole postwar European milieu with which it was connected, “was about young people who wanted to meet one another from France, England, Poland, Germany,” he said. “Everything seemed more urgent after the war. People who had lived discreetly under Hitler, sustaining new music behind closed doors, finally had a chance to make music, so there was also a new freedom. Discussions were almost frantic. There were many different opinions.”

“We were accused of being dictators because we performed what we liked,” he continued, “but in those days in Paris, I remember putting on maybe four concerts a year. Now, with so many new music concerts everywhere, the situation is lighter. But there is also less at stake with each event. The danger is, to the contrary, that there is not enough urgency.”

About how times have changed, Mr. Barenboim said:

“Pierre doesn’t need to be an ideologue anymore. Once something is achieved, there is no need to insist on it. He said opera houses should be burned, but basically he was trying to turn the musical world into something more progressive than what it was. It was the same as Debussy writing on his visiting card, ‘French Musician.’ Debussy was looking for an alternative to Central European music. So he had to be radical at a certain moment.”

Not that the flayed lion is now a lamb.

“Performers aren’t audacious enough today,” Mr. Boulez also told me. “They think audiences won’t respond to what’s unfamiliar. But to provoke — in the good sense — is the performer’s role. It’s not just to give one more concert.”

“That’s not culture,” he said. “That’s marketing.”


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Small Museum Captures a Rare Chagall

The London Jewish Museum of Art is a scrappy young institution, created in 2001 and camped in rented space in St. John’s Wood, off the beaten track of London’s art world.

But over the last nine years the museum has been diligently trying to forge a reputation for itself, adding more than 100 works to an already substantial collection that grew out of that of the Ben Uri Gallery, a Jewish artists’ society founded in London in 1915.

So when David Glasser, one of the museum’s chairmen, was perusing a Paris auction catalog a few months ago, he found it hard to believe what he saw: a previously unknown 1945 gouache by Marc Chagall. It was one of a small group of images Chagall made in direct response to the Holocaust, after he and his wife had fled France in 1941, after the German occupation and after he had begun to learn the details of the Nazi atrocities.

The gouache on heavy paper, which Chagall signed and titled himself lightly with a pencil in Russian — “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio” — employs one of his familiar motifs, an image of a crucified Jesus, which he used as a metaphor for persecuted Jewry. But this crucifixion, painted in New York, where Chagall settled for several years, is one of the most brutal and disturbing ever created by an artist primarily known for his brightly colored folkloric visions.

“Apocalypse” shows a naked Christ screaming at a Nazi storm trooper below the cross, who has a backwards swastika on his arm, a Hitler-like mustache and a serpentine tail. Another small figure can be seen crucified and a second being hanged, and a man appears to be poised to stab a child. A damaged, upside-down clock falls from the sky. The darkness and directness of the work may have been a response not only to the war but also to the death of Chagall’s wife, Bella, a year earlier from a viral infection that might have been treated if not for wartime medicine shortages.

Chagall, who lived to be 97, always kept the work for himself, and two years after he died, in 1985, his son, David McNeil, sold it to a private collector in the South of France, near where Chagall died. There it remained, out of circulation and missing from the vast literature that grew up around Chagall’s long career.

Mr. Glasser, a retired executive and art collector, decided that the London Jewish Museum of Art, which had recently acquired significant works by painters including Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, needed to do everything in its power to buy the painting, whose estimate was modest, 25,000 to 35,000 euros (about $36,000 to $50,000), in part, he thought, because the work was selling in Paris and not in London or New York, but primarily because it was so obscure and so ominous.

“Who’d want to have this on the wall in their house?” Mr. Glasser said recently. “But as a piece of history, it is hugely important. And for us, we considered it a magnificent opportunity.”

Within hours he wrote an application to the Art Fund, the 106-year-old philanthropy that helps British institutions acquire works and that had provided assistance in the purchase of several of the museum’s recent additions to its collection. The museum — whose advisers include the sculptor Anthony Caro, the architect Daniel Libeskind, the Paris dealer Lionel Pissarro (a great-grandson of the painter) and Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate — had privately estimated that the work could sell for as much as 300,000 euros (about $430,000).

The fund received the request on a Monday, and by Thursday had dispatched one of its trustees, Wendy Baron, an informal adviser to the London Jewish Museum of Art, to Paris to see the gouache in the showroom at the Tajan auction house.

“It was very powerful, a knockout,” Ms. Baron, an expert on modern British art, said on Thursday in a telephone interview. “In fact, I was very worried in the sale room to see other people looking closely at it.”

The fund agreed to provide up to 100,000 euros (about $143,000) to help the museum win the work if competition materialized. But in the end, at a poorly attended sale in late October, Mr. Glasser was able to buy it for 30,000 euros (about $43,000) with money provided by one of the museum’s benefactors. After remaining silent about it for several weeks amid worries that France might decide to use its pre-emption laws to void the sale and keep the work for a French institution, the painting, 20 by 14 inches, was shipped to London.

And beginning on Thursday, it will go on public display for the first time, at the Osborne Samuel gallery in Mayfair, before moving into the museum’s permanent collection at the end of the month. In going on view, it will become another of the notable publicly exhibited examples of Chagall’s wartime imagery, like the “Yellow Crucifixion” from 1943, at the Georges Pompidou Center, and the “White Crucifixion” from 1938 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Although in many of his works Chagall had reacted to events in Germany, he usually did not depict them but used symbols — such as the crucifixion, a Jew holding a Torah, a mother protecting her child or a falling angel — to suggest what was happening there,” writes Ziva Amishai-Maisels, a Chagall scholar and professor emeritus at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in a catalog to accompany the exhibition of the painting. “Although he still used some of these symbols in ‘Apocalypse,’ he combined them with the reality of the Holocaust in a manner that was very rare in his work. This and the way he depicted the conflict between the Nazi and the naked Christ make this a unique work.”

Ms. Baron, of the Art Fund, agreed. “I think it is really a tremendous coup,” she said, “to get it for this collection and for the country.”