Boulez: Éclat

performed by the Ensemble InterContemporain, or below by members of the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, from The Proms 2016

Boulez completed his Éclat for 15 instruments in 1965. Properly (I think?) called Éclat-Multiples, it is (or was to be) a series of works/movements of increasing size. The first, which we are discussing here, is Éclat, for fifteen instruments. Multiples, which Universal Edition remarks “may not be performed separately” is incomplete (as noted in the fantastic box set of Boulez’s [more or less] complete works), and is scored for 25 instruments. Was there to be more after that? Maybe.

Éclat, as it exists, this single movement of about ten minutes, is an odd thing. You’d be excused for thinking, at first listen, that the work sounds like the relocation of a wind chime store’s inventory being loaded/unloaded by very clumsy movers. It’s clinky and splashy, stop-and-start, with things seeming to happen in chunks the way they might if you every so often dropped xylophone parts down a set of stairs.

And actually, a look at the score gives us quite a bit of insight into this episodic nature. I won’t share it here; you’ll have to buy it or find it at a library or online, but it’s one of the most interesting scores I’ve seen, with the staves beginning and ending in different places, numbers everywhere, phrases or whole sections of the work blocked off into their own little squares, so that the happenings for this piece do tend to be episodic, with bursts of shimmery, breathtaking sound and then longer passages of stillness, chattery clicks and hums.

But what’s really going on here?

Well, I’ve read nothing of Boulez’s serialist procedures here, but that’s not really the point. Obviously this isn’t a piano concerto, but maybe as close to one as Boulez’s output gets.

Somewhere in this fantastic (somewhat lengthy) lecture about Chopin,  Garrick Ohlsson says, in so many words, that one of the things Chopin had to struggle with in his music was the greatest fault of the piano: its lack of sustain. A human voice can produce sound as long as it has air, which for some performers is a very long time. With the right bowing technique, a string player can make one continuous, unbroken sound until their arm tires. A piano, however, strikes a string and the sound instantly begins to die, to fade away. Ohlsson speaks about how Chopin got around this, made the piano sing despite this inherent nature of the instrument to fade away.

Well, Boulez is working on a similar idea here, except in this ensemble of instruments, the piano essentially has the longest sustain. The others, like celesta, guitar, mandolin, harp, vibraphone, and glockenspiel all have much shorter ‘singing’ times than the piano. So let’s have a look at the video above, a really excellent one, with Rattle conducting.

First, you’ll notice his cuing, telling certain performers, in a certain order, when to start their sound, but also when to stop, as he cuts them of one by one. The conductor has an especially important role here in interpreting the music, and as a result, the sounds here are like gestures, single ingredients in a recipe being built. Boulez is concocting timbres and harmonies.

Thomas May, in his program notes for the piece at the L.A. Philharmonic website, speaks of the result:

The listener can hear the fading of a chord, as one tone after another fades. Structurally these resonances are comprised of a harmonic framework…

He describes that framework as sort of implied harmony, with depressed keys and pedals on the piano, “the chord is heard when you play one of the sounds of which it is composed; to its immediate “revival” when the staccato passage here reverberates the chord tones.”

The harmony is therefore never revealed directly, but results from complex interactions, by means of which it is revealed only subliminally.

Well, okay, that’s cool and all, but some of us don’t do very well identifying harmonies and chords even in the simplest, most traditional of music, so what about this?

Well, I’ve included this piece in our little series of piano works this month because the piano is kind of the leader of this ensemble, the biggest-voiced member of the ensemble, but also because I think it’s really quite beautiful. There’s no melodyper se, no rhythm you could tap your foot to, or so it may seem (there’s a very rhythmic, crunchy part at the end, where the wind instruments, who’ve been sitting patiently the entire piece, finally come to life to bring the work to an end), so what is there to enjoy?

Well, let’s look at what this word éclat means? Merriam-Webster gives the definition as “dazzling effect” or alternatively “ostentatious display.” But this is a French word, non? Oui, indeed it is. They offer a bit of etymology, saying:

The word derives from French, where it can mean “splinter” (the French idiom voler en éclats means “to fly into pieces”) as well as “burst” (un éclat de rire means “a burst of laughter”), among other things.

So our shimmery, glistening splinters of sounds, fragments or slices of our chords, beginning on the piano and rippling out through the small ensemble only to dissipate and start again… is that not a wonderful word for this piece?

I understand that many people may be uninterested in, even annoyed by, the avant-garde-ness of this work, perhaps even unwilling to call it music, but whether you call it music or noise, it is at least sound, and if that sound is exploring timbre and harmonies with the inherent qualities of each instrument, then that’s damn well music, in my book. Sure it takes a little bit of warming up to, but each of those bursts of sound, layer upon layer of timbre and texture, intricate plucks and strikes, is a breathtaking little glimmer into a very interesting property of music beyond just a pretty tune.

I also think it’s wonderful that a piece like this got played at The Proms, which is basically the Woodstock of classical music (Bayreuth, I think, may be the Mecca). If you have a premium account at Medici, you can view this documentary, the trailer of which shows the composer himself page-turning for the pianist. I’m sure it’s interesting.

That’s really about all I have to say about this work. In some cases there’s not a whole lot to dissect or unravel. Get yourself a basic understanding of what and why, and then just go try to enjoy it. Perhaps this is only a piece to marvel at, but it’s a beautiful little morsel of unique, even delicate, sensitive sound that may be more satisfying than you at first think.

We’re almost finished with this string of piano works, after which we begin the month of July, which has become a month of special activity, a theme of some kind taking place on the blog. Last year, it was Darmstadt, and this year it’s something equally intimidating, yet in a very different way, but we’re not quite there yet. Thank you so much for reading, and stay tuned for more.

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