Pierre Boulez, a maverick composer and conductor who once worked on one of Frank Zappa’s classical albums, died at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany on Tuesday. He was 90.
The Philharmonie de Paris confirmed his death, according to The New York Times. “Audacity, innovation, creativity – that is what Pierre Boulez was for French music, which he helped shine everywhere in the world,” the country’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, wrote on Twitter.
As a composer, Boulez challenged himself to work with new, modern sounds. He took Arnold Schoenberg’s concept of a 12-tone row – in which a composer sequences all of the 12 notes recognized in western music in a random order – to what he felt would be its natural conclusion. His work Le Marteau Sans Maître, a musical interpretation of poetry by René Char, used this technique to the acclaim of one of Boulez’s heroes, Igor Stravinsky, who attended the North American debut of the work.
In the early Seventies, Boulez served as director of Ircam – the Institute for the Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music – in association with then-French President Georges Pompidou. The Institute, which had its own 31-piece orchestra, the Ensemble InterContemporain, explored acoustics, instrumental design and notions of composition, according to The Guardian. His work there also dovetailed into his interest in electronic music, an area of composition he felt had been ignored in the development of contemporary music since 1945, according to the Times. It was during that time that he worked on Répons, a 45-minute work that found him digitally refiguring percussionist soloists’ works into different configurations. It premiered in October 1981.
“Music cannot move forward without science,” Boulez told a class at the Stanford Center of his interest in electronic music in 1976, Rolling Stone reported that year. “It is like learning to play a new instrument, or learning to speak a new language, such as Japanese. It would not be easy, but one could do it, no?”
As a conductor, Boulez led some of the finest orchestras in the world, including a controversial six-year stint at the New York Philharmonic given his interest in contemporary music. He also worked with London’s BBC Symphony Orchestra, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, preferring to conduct with his hands rather than with a baton. The Times cites his core repertoire as consisting of works by Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Anton Webern, Béla Bartók and Olivier Messiaen, the latter of whom taught Boulez composition. Messiaen at one point claimed Boulez “totally transformed the sonority of the piano,” according to the Guardian.
In 1984, he conducted Ircam’s Ensemble InterContemporain on three of Frank Zappa’s avant-garde orchestral works for an LP dubbed Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger. He had commissioned Zappa to write the title track. The album reached Number Seven on the classical chart.
Boulez was born on March 26th, 1925 in Montbrison, Paris to the son of a technical director at a steel works and his wife. He defied his father, who wanted him to study engineering, by enrolling in a music conservatory in Paris in 1942, having begun composing in his teens. He kept his personal life private, though it’s known he was close to his older sister Jeanne. The Guardian reports that Boulez’s health deteriorated around 2010 and 2011 and that he had begun to lose his eyesight around 2012. His cause of death was not reported.
“Pierre Boulez made French music shine throughout the world,” the country’s president, Francois Hollande, said in a statement via AP. “As a composer and conductor, he always wanted to reflect on the ages.”