During a 2010 radio interview Jonathan Harvey discussed Pierre Boulez with me. Now that both those towering giants of contemporary music are no longer with us*, Jonathan's thumbnail sketch bears repeating:
...Boulez is sometimes called god in Paris, but anyway, he gave this thing to the world, because of his powerful personality, his absolute determination to come back to Paris from Germany, where he had decided to live until that point, and if he came back to Paris, President Pompidou would give him a large budget for creating a new institute. So it was a sort of gift to composers. I thought it was a gift from God because my first essays in electronic music were so difficult – I started in Princeton with [Milton] Babbitt, and I won’t go into all the complications but in short one would compute on a huge tape for about eight hours overnight and end up with one pathetic simple minute of sound, which probably was completely wrong and one would have to start all over again. One went from that to the IRCAM of the eighties, and there one was given a tutor. That was very important. Someone who knew all the ins and outs of what was available, the software and the hardware, and was designated to help you. That tutor, or assistant as it’s now called, was crucial, of [sic] Boulez. So composers were invited, and they got stuck into new thinking, with the help of their tutor, and began to create much much more easily, with much greater pleasure and delight, than they would in this incredibly bloody hard work they had to do before.Photo is of me with Jonathan Harvey at the time of the radio interview in 2010; he is showing me the work in progress for his last large scale composition Weltethos, which was premiered in 2011 by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. Photo and text (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Also on Facebook and Twitter.
Well, as you say a very strong creative personality, and a strong personality, and that’s what that postwar movement needed, strong personalities, people who would really change the world, they were all strong personalities. Luigi Nono, too, and Luciano Berio. Boulez particularly, perhaps the most of all – he was able to change the politics of the musical Europe I would say, singlehandedly. And he did this of course against enormous opposition, and nasty things written about him everywhere. But he was too strong for them, you know, they didn’t affect him, they all rolled off his back, and he gave as good as he got. So I think everybody knows what he has done, he created the IRCAM, he created the Ensemble Intercontemporain, he’s created new standards in conducting the 20th century classics and later up to the present day, and of course last and not least at all, he created some of the finest compositions of the time. But if we’re talking about strength of personality, one has to admire him really, that he was so determined, and so – it’s so impossible for him to accept ‘no’ from politicians. I mean he just rubbished them, the feeble-minded ministers of culture and so on in Paris. So – would that we had someone like that!