I received the sad news of Boulez’s passing on Wednesday, and in a momentary time warp, it seemed as if things had returned to the early 1970s, when I first met Pierre Boulez after a concert at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
It was the Quebec conductor Françoys Bernier who had introduced me to Boulez. I was working on my doctoral dissertation about his third sonata and had a created a lot of drawings based on his serial rows and concepts for the work. I needed his permission to use my art in conjunction with his scores. Several years earlier, I had written him a letter called “Musical Chairs and the New Revolution,” in which I argued with some of his writings. In it, I had included a program of a recital I had performed in Paris, with the program stapled front side down: it had my photo, and I didn’t want Boulez to think I was a child. Bernier had assured me he probably didn’t receive the letter and certainly wouldn’t remember it. Not only did Boulez remember the letter but he also recalled my name. When I walked over to him in Ottawa, he immediately remarked: “So you are the girl who wrote me that letter.” I was floored. He was extremely kind to me. I was a young student at the time and both very much in awe and nervous in his presence.
We met again in Cleveland when he was the guest conductor of the orchestra, and in California, where he also conducted. He seemed very taken with my art and work and encouraged me to go to Vienna to meet the boss of Universal Editions. He had given them his approval in writing to use his scores for my work. He had also invited me to Bayreuth to see him conduct Parsifal. I was studying in Darmstadt at the time and commuting to Paris. What a surprise! After the opera as I was walking down the street, a Mercedes convertible stopped for me. It was Boulez, offering me a ride to where I was staying. I told him how much I loved his conducting of the opera and at his invitation, came a second time, but was accorded a special seat – in the orchestra pit. What a thrill it was to sit on a cushion at the foot of the conductor’s podium for Parsifal. It is one of my most treasured moments.
Pierre Boulez also wrote a letter to the CBC, giving me carte blanche to use his scores in my art for an exhibit during a performance I did of his third piano sonata.
During his time in New York, critics accused him of being too metronomic. So I sent him a drawing I made with metronomes, one of which said, “Boulez is not one of us.”
The last time I saw him was at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio when he received the Glenn Gould Prize in 2002. I was playing his first piano sonata. He coached me at eight that morning. I had worked so hard to perfect every detail, only to have him change many of his original markings in the score. That is certainly a composer’s right. It shows the organic flow of the music. It made things challenging, but after the performance, Boulez clasped both my hands in his and said, “Bravo!” I was so moved!
MORE THAN A MUSICAL INSPIRATION:
Boulez’s writings on his music intrigued me as much as his compositions. He liked the same poets, authors, and artists as I – Mallarmé, e.e. Cummings, Rimbaud, Kafka, Joyce, Klee and many others. His musical structure in his scores made me question and analyze everything from new perspectives. I now began to look at form, structure, shapes, variations and their creation and destruction. His concept of the performer/interpreter as a traveler who uses the score as a map, guided by chance and intuition as much as any preconceived plan, influenced me immeasurably. I began to think of drawing variations of buildings – inner views of rooms and their structures; buildings of scaffolding only, their changing shapes eventually emerging as abstractions made of dots and lines – from ghostly apparitions to full detail, gradually forming themselves into cities. Boulez gave me a new insight into structure and the technique to adapt and change by way of different perspectives. His use of serialism taught me discipline and control. Without Boulez, my drawings would never have developed.
Boulez was a great inspiration in my life. His early writings awoke the rebel in me. His complex scores made me work hard both intellectually and physically. His literary, poetic and artistic ideas influenced me musically and in my art. There is a lot more to this story, and I will cherish my memories of this great composer/conductor.
Boulez’s comment on the visual art that Christina Petrowska Quilico created to Boulez’s printed score for his third piano sonata:
« J’ai vu les poèmes-graphiques de Christina Petrowska qui s’est inspirée de ma partition (3e sonate), et je suis d’accord pour qu’elle l’utilise chaque fois qu’elle voudra montrer ces graphiques très ingénieux. »
(English translation) “I have seen the graphics of Christina Petrowska-Brégent* using very ingeniously my printed score and I agree definitely that she can use my score for showing these graphics, very inventive as they are, for any visual purpose.”