Length: c. 8 minutes
Orchestration: 2 horns, 3 violins, 2 violas, cello, and solo flute
First LA Phil performance: July 4, 1989 (Ojai Festival), Pierre Boulez conducting
Tracing the lineage of Pierre Boulez’ body of work can be like sleuthing through the tangled limbs of a person’s ancestry. Many works have evolved and mutated into various forms, and sometimes pollinated new works with new names. Mémoriale was seeded by the piece ...explosante-fixe..., which Boulez composed in 1971 as a tribute to Igor Stravinsky (who had died in April). It was a simple text the composer submitted to the English music journal Tempo, which he included with instructions. “As is often the way, I was asked to prepare a realization myself,” he later said, “and when I tried simply to use my text and the formulae I had given I found myself compelled to enrich it, so that my version is infinitely more complex than the text which I sent to the journal. This is quite normal where the process of evolution is at work.”
He wanted the piece to move away from the “tiny society” created by the usual spatial proximity of chamber musicians. “The material is derived from a series of cells that are constantly permutated,” he explained, “with variations appropriate to each instrument. Each part is related to the others, but not directly through immediate coordination, rather by an oblique sort of coordination. The elements are the same, but they are broken up and elaborated in different ways.”
Explosante “permutated” from Boulez’s initial piece for clarinet, flute, and trumpet into a version for octet and electronics. There would be two more iterations for two different ensembles, but in 1985 a germ from Explosante took root in a new work entirely. During the early ’80s Boulez had enjoyed working with a young Canadian named Lawrence Beauregard, the principal flutist (“who was very eager to experiment”) for Ensemble InterContemporain, the contemporary chamber group founded by Boulez. Beauregard died in 1985 (at only 28), and Boulez took what began its life as a tribute to Stravinsky and reconceived it as a memorial for the flutist that would be a dynamic showcase for flute and octet, which premiered at a concert in Beauregard’s memory.
Yet it’s hardly a dirge. Boulez paid tribute to the young experimenter by creating a workout for the lungs and entire mouth, making frequent use of flutter tongue, tremolo, and other special effects. The flute – here exotic, sparse, alien – is given center stage, with its string and horn compatriots restrained by practice mutes and soft dynamics. The ragtag chamber ensemble flits, pecks, and scratches around the wandering, shivering, sputtering flute line. The piece takes a “puzzle” or “kaleidoscopic form” – terms Boulez gave to a kind of structure “in which the alternation of cumulative thematic developments creates the form,” he explained, “while constructing components of the global form on characteristics of tempo, density, and timbre.” Strained harmonies close in on warm tonality and then pull out again into a harsher climate. “It revolves around this E-flat and you don’t know if it’s a tonality or a gravity center,” notes French composer Marc-André Dalbavie (a student of Boulez). “It was a sort of post-atonal moment.”
— Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.