Christopher Mulrooney

Boulez Meets Gehry

The artists are introduced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Executive Director. Walt Disney Concert Hall is the outcome, she says, of “a 16-year quest.” She speaks of an “intersection between two iconic figures,” of rendezvous in a “darkened space,” a midnight party with champagne and whatnot. Gehry’s Hall is, in reality, “a metaphor of transformation.” There’s more: “the curves and surprises of this building invite us,” invite us, reader, “to think thoughts we’ve never thunk before.” She didn’t really say thunk, I thunk it up and wrote it for her.

The Ex.D. is evidently a seminarian. F.O.G.’s plan was to build “a living room for the city.” It will open with “a community concert” for “young people.” This is all the expression of “such a magnificent statement.”

We are waiting, but she isn’t finished with her magnificent statements. Passing on to the other featured guest speaker, she quotes Goethe as saying “architecture is frozen music.” F.O.G.’s idea was to have a sonic progression from one note to whatever. F.O.G. “didn’t like the Haydn symphony we chose, but that’s Frank.”

“He will influence the way we listen to music in Los Angeles,” and the nation will follow. With this, she subsides.

The self-described “instigator” of “rigorous and playful debates” is the Director of the Institute for Art and Cultures, Paul Holdengräber. He speaks of joyously anticipating Disney Hall and the glorious opening season, in those words. He thanks all those who made all this possible at such great length it sounds like Oscar night. “And now,” thirty minutes into the program, “I think it’s time to begin this event.”

Holdengräber rather resembles Tim Curry with a Germanic accent. F.O.G. looks like Steven Spielberg’s father, and Boulez is looking Belmondoish.

F.O.G.: Where’s Ernest?

This is Ernest Fleischmann, the former Executive Director who first brought F.O.G. in to put balls on the Hollywood Bowl shell, ostensibly to improve the acoustics, thirty years before.

FLEISCHMANN: (In the audience.) Where I belong.

Holdengräber puts it to F.O.G.: why music? F.O.G. has just gotten off a plane from Zurich, so he’s a little dazed (Boulez has been conducting the Philharmonic downtown, and preparing for the Ojai Festival).

Why music? Why has F.O.G. taken up the concert hall, at all, at all?

F.O.G.: Walter Mitty... remember Danny Kaye... thinking he was... something?
HOLDENGRÄBER: I don’t remember.
F.O.G.: At Notre-Dame I heard Gregorian chants... those sounds defined the building for me forever.

His mother took him to concerts. Sir Ernest MacMillan was the conductor. Does Boulez remember him? “No.” (Laughter in audience.) A student of the violin was F.O.G.’s mum.

Why, Holdengräber persists, build for music?

F.O.G.: I’ve been hanging around with Ernest Fleischmann and the Philharmonic for ages, and I’ve sort of related to that.

He first heard Boulez conduct at one of the New York Philharmonic Rug Concerts. I see that someone two rows ahead has dozed off under his chair. No, it’s a jacket. Holdengräber is saying, “the precision and the passion.”

F.O.G.: My idea was to make architecture not imposing and overpowering. There should be a casual character to it, which requires an enormous amount of careful planning and precision.

He discovered that “a conductor doesn’t just wave his hands.” He once dreamed that Ernest called him up to conduct. He awoke in a cold sweat.

HOLDENGRÄBER: Do you ever have such dreams about architecture, Pierre?
BOULEZ: In my worst nightmares I was not dreaming I became an architect.

Boulez talks about the Rug Concerts, preparing the floor, putting out cushions (“we were worried a little bit there might be cushion fights, but everyone behaved very well”), etc. He describes the Proms at Albert Hall (“That’s a very big hall.”), and the Arena emptied of its seats, with people just standing there for the whole concert. Bad acoustics, he says, mean no contact. The solution is to move the orchestra in front of the stage, have the audience on the stage, and thus “the orchestra is taken within the hall.” It sounds like Répons.

F.O.G.: Disney Hall is a fixed hall. Have we created an anachronism?

Meaning its interior structure is determined and cannot be varied. Boulez answers with a discussion of the spatial apparatus in Berlioz’s Requiem, you want “something more interactive.” He speaks of “a moment of music coming from a moment of architecture.” He describes conditions at La Cité de la Musique, and briefly discusses two architects he’s had dealings with, the builders of IRCAM and La Cité, respectively.

F.O.G. mentions a problem Boulez has with his pieces, they always must be overtures or first after the intermission, because of all the percussion instruments that must be moved onto the stage. He hopes his solution, which apparently involves raising the back wall when needed, will be found helpful.

BOULEZ: You did it here! Beautiful!

Holdengräber persists with his idea (introducing Boulez, he said he considered it a coup to have found a photograph of Boulez smiling for the program, but that he felt disappointed not to have one of Boulez in a convertible), which is that if Boulez had a nightmare in which he was somehow an architect, what sort of concert hall would he build?

BOULEZ: Well, it is possible to have not nightmares, but dreams.

He then presents himself as a sort of Goldilocks (without saying so), with a Big Hall like at La Cité capable of different configurations, a Medium Hall of 1000-1200 seats, and a Small Hall of 500-600. He goes on at some length with his description, until Holdengräber temerariously interrupts him.

HOLDENGRÄBER: I was talking about acoustics.

Without missing a beat, Boulez continues. “Well, therefore...” Holdengräber interrupts him again to say that he once spoke to a régisseur at La Cité who told him that everything is important for the sound, even what people are wearing.

BOULEZ: That’s a little bit overdone.

Some say the sound at La Cité is too dry, but... They have mobile elements to alter the sound. Amplified music (jazz or pop) requires absorbing material. La Cité began five years ago.

BOULEZ: Do we do only quote unquote classical music? No.

Four general types of music are performed at La Cité de la Musique:

Classical—“baroque to extremely contemporary”
Ethnic—“from the corners of the world”
Jazz, and
Pop—“if it’s very elaborate, not only commercial”

“The mobility of the hall helps.” Gagaku is not treated like classical music.

Holdengräber asks F.O.G. about his “living room for the city.”

F.O.G.: I was misquoted, actually.

Holdengräber then quotes Hockney rather extensively on private vs. public life in Los Angeles.

In answer, F.O.G. describes going to Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall. “Ernest and the Philharmonic set that as a model.” It “stimulates interaction of people both in the foyer and hall.” Not, he says, like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He uses the term “Modernist” to describe Berlin’s hall. He ponders the goal: if you can engage people to listen... Is it a voyeuristic thing, to watch people listening? (perhaps he’s thinking of Bergman’s The Magic Flute). “Anybody do that?”, he asks the audience. There is a murmur between assent and laughter.

F.O.G. went to a museum once and saw four Breughels. He pronounces them “extraordinary.” Later, he went back and the museum was remodeling, so the Breughels were in a small room and “didn’t look the same,” so that it took twenty minutes “to get into it.”

Boulez says that at La Cité, a large hall is not so large, and a small one is not so small.

Holdengräber and F.O.G. discuss Boston’s Symphony Hall, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented to F.O.G. as ideal, acoustically. “Copy it,” they said. That was a great hall because great musicians had played there.

BOULEZ: You mean they are missed!

In the course of a colloquy with Holdengräber, Boulez concedes “a bad hall does not help, certainly.” He adds, “you are dependent on these kinds of stupid impressions.” At the Musikverein, the finale of Mahler’s Sixth has a certain sound. The size of the hall is a factor. One built in the nineteenth century will have 1700-1900 seats. “After 2000 seats, problems are happening, because of the space.” At Philharmonic Hall in New York, “which is one-and-a-half times the size of the Musikverein, the sound does not carry to the end,” i.e., the back of the hall. The problem is “psychological,” there is “no contact with the musicians.” Problems increase as musicians cannot hear themselves or each other properly.

F.O.G.: Maybe that’s why acousticians are so conservative. They’re scared.

He introduces Dr. Toyota, Walt Disney Concert Hall’s acoustician, who is seated in the audience. There is a question of guest conductors having different requirements, of stagehands configuring the stage for Mozart “or whatever.”

BOULEZ: You cannot please everybody.

A dry sound, Boulez says, is OK for Haydn, but for Bruckner it’s terrible. A bad hall makes musicians force their playing, whereas a good hall is like...

HOLDENGRÄBER: A good interlocutor.

BOULEZ: Too flattering a hall is also extremely dangerous.

F.O.G.: That guy, Ernest, he was my guide.
FLEISCHMANN: (In audience.) Blame me.

Ernest took F.O.G. to concerts, showed him backstage, the apparatus behind the scenes, what goes on, stagehands, etc. F.O.G. saw Esa-Pekka (Salonen) rearrange the orchestra on risers to reduce its sloppiness. There had been “a gradual denigration of the organization of the orchestra till someone says ‘what a mess!’” What was the reason? “Musicians,” says F.O.G., “are rugged individualists.”

F.O.G. is apparently describing a tendency I have only observed in amateur orchestras, and rarely, where the players load the stage with personal articles. This, he justly observes, is reflected in their playing.

But lest his remark be misconstrued, I would point out how odd it is to sometimes see players in a classical orchestra looking like lackeys, or in a romantic one like employees. Only when Boulez came to Los Angeles to conduct Pli Selon Pli with its vast apparatus did Los Angeles see its Philharmonic as the versatile professionals they are, with all their “gear and tackle and trim.”

F.O.G. wonders how two-hundred-year-old paintings still look fresh. He “relies on natural light” to “caress” his works, it’s “romantic.”

BOULEZ: You are always puzzled, really, by a masterpiece. It seems obvious, but you don’t understand how it came to be so.

He tells a story of Diderot in the dark before a new masterpiece, then seeing the light, and then in darkness again. In response to F.O.G. he says “there are problems I don’t want to be explained.” (Audience laughter.)

Holdengräber brings up computers.

F.O.G.: Inevitably we become obsolete, and there’s a lot of stuff you’re not going to be able to do. The younger generation free-associate and use the technology instinctively, though they haven’t built much.

From idea to construction, F.O.G. explains, “several thousand hands” are involved in his projects. There is a bureaucracy of construction, so the problem is to bring “the whole thing to the end with this immediacy... with feeling.”

BOULEZ: I have no trouble with computers. The computer helps you find material, that’s all. It doesn’t invent thoughts.

He is “interested in the process” but “independent” of it, because he can “create music without it.” But the technology is there, “why not use it?” He speaks of being practically forced to invent “something different. Not a Greek temple, which doesn’t have curves, certainly.”

F.O.G. says Pheidias “thought of curves, movement of sculpture,” etc.

Boulez “visited” F.O.G.’s “Cleveland building.” He was interested that they no longer measure the ground but from other buildings. F.O.G. explains the use of laser pointers for this.

F.O.G.: (To Boulez.) When you compose, how do you think about space?

He’s thinking of Pli Selon Pli, he says, which is “very spatial.”

HOLDENGRÄBER: That’s a good question. (Laughter in audience.)

Perhaps F.O.G. is thinking about the disposition of notes in a good performance, which seem to occupy their own space, filling the hall.

Boulez discusses the distribution of the ensemble in Répons, where the players are surrounded by the audience, who are ringed by computer loudspeakers. F.O.G. brings up Berlioz, who was (according to Boulez) “disappointed” by the large orchestra he tried, as it “could only do slow movements, because of the mass of musicians.” In the open air, cohesion was impossible, etc.

Holdengräber is now ready to spring. In view of Boulez’s requirements for a hall in Paris, “F.O.G. is here.”

F.O.G.: I’ve volunteered for it.
BOULEZ: Who have you volunteered to pay for it?

This hall “is like the monster of Loch Ness, you speak about it always, but...”

“Brahms did this before that, it’s boring to be told that all the time, by a learning process...” It’s important to have “tapes available of new music,” which often suffers from infrequent performance. This should be part of the concertgoing experience. He imagines proceeding “from one hall to another in a promenade, with all this documentation.”

HOLDENGRÄBER: (To F.O.G.) What are your hopes for Walt Disney Concert Hall?

F.O.G. responds by pointing out Dr. Toyota again. “I call him every day and ask him if he’s feeling good.”

“If it makes the musical experience better, great.”

“If the hall is wonderful, then hopefully the response will be wonderful.” (Applause.)

The public is invited to ask questions. What kind of music does F.O.G listen to? He likes things “all over the place.”

F.O.G.: I sometimes listen to Pierre.

Why has he given up the “cheapskate” architecture he used to champion? He hasn’t. The Bilbao Guggenheim only cost “$300/sq. ft.”

La Scala has great acoustics, even in the last row, how come? Boulez explains the hall’s “not long but high, so you don’t lose the energy of the sound.”

This discussion of acoustics finally begun ends there. F.O.G. “can’t announce Disney Hall’s cost publicly yet, you’ll eventually hear it, they packed a lot of stuff into it.”

“Form follows function, I don’t think that’s very important. I don’t... I don’t know... I think... you have to see it for yourself... figure it out.”

The following questions were not asked:

“F.O.G., you once said ‘Every architect who’s any good, no matter what they say, is trying to make some kind of personal mud pie.’ Would you care to dilate on that?”

“M. Boulez, did Xenakis really say you represented ‘something not far from absolute evil’?”

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