deconstructing conducting – Boulez and Harnoncourt

Within a few weeks, Pierre Boulez and Nikolaus Harnoncourt have died. They were two of the most influential conductors of recent times and huge influences.


As a young conductor I was looking for something more significant, something more meaningful than memorising a ton of “repertoire” and swinging your arms nicely. Boulez and Harnoncourt were different. They both refused to treat music in a unreflected way, building their interpretations on solid intellectual foundations. They both started in the fifties, in a climate of structuralism in the humanities. But when I was a student in the eighties  their interpretations still sounded very fresh in many ways.

In the case of Harnoncourt it was the fearless look and the risks he took with his interpretations of the classics. In fact, risk was the very essence of his music making. Nothing for him was routine. And he hated the word “repertoire”:
“Repertoire ist für mich geradezu ein Horror. Ich meine, dass man durch das Immer-wieder-Spielen derselben Werke diese vollkommen degradiert.” (Repertoire is a horror for me. I think that these works are being completely degraded by playing them over and over again.).

The Essentials

Boulez, with his self-designed  conducting technique based on Hermann Scherchen, was a big influence when I learned to move my hands. I remember seeing a documentary about Giacometti and his ultra-thin sculptures and how he made them: He started with a much bigger amount of material, stripping away layer and layer until he got to what he thought was the pure essence of a person. That’s what I wanted to do. Getting straight to center of what I had to convey about a piece – no decoration,  no movement for movements sake.

Both Harnoncourt and Boulez were conductors who steered the attention away from themselves directly to the work and the performing musicians. Not having been conductors at the beginning of their careers maybe helped them to take a personal look on what it means to conduct. Some of their their interpretations were radical – Harnoncourt opened the ears of musicians and public to sounds that were outside the acceptable classical performance tastes. He made the sound of an orchestra more democratic: thin, harsh or  distorted sounds found the way back into orchestral performance, always in search of the meaning and the true spirit of a work. Boulez brought the orchestral repertoire back to where it once was: Performing mostly recent works. He treated his rehearsals as “sonic analysis“, deeply suspicious of the emotional manipulation of the performance tradition based on Richard Wagner.

A fresh look

They both documented their work in a countless  books, articles and interviews. They stubbornly insisted on casting a fresh look on music and letting their head, not their hands, do the interpretation. But apart from everything else, they also typified an artist as the the anti-bourgeois bourgeois. They were no radicals – but their ideas were.

I am sitting here in Oslo, ready for my next performance, tonight. Next to me is a big pile of scores and of pieces which are coming up over the next weeks. Not repertoire. Music. Tchaikovsky, Zimmermann, Sibelius, Takemitsu etc.. They all deserve thorough analysis,  empathy and good performances that do them justice. And then I think of Boulez and Harnoncourt, their convictions, their fearlessness and their originality. Better go and do some studying.

La Vendedora de Fósforos 2014 - Ensayos (Máximo) 094 (2)

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