In the Labyrinth of Répons

  • Article

An interview with Andrew Gerzso

Répons, Pierre Boulez's major work from the 1980s, marks a defining act for musical creation, for electronics, and for IRCAM. The exceptional scope of its genesis leaves nothing to chance or ambiguity. A look back at a wide-ranging project, to which Andrew Gerzso contributed, working alongside the composer in the studios and concert halls.

Did Pierre Boulez have the experience of Poésie pour pouvoir in mind when you began the work on Répons

We did actually look at this early work, which had been created more than twenty years earlier. Pierre had always remained very critical, very dissatisfied and distant from this type of electronics with layers surrounding the voice of the narrator on the tape. Very quickly, he felt that our own voice synthesis tests in the IRCAM studios resulted in a "science fiction" effect, and made the material very awkward. In general, the voice was complicated, because our ear can immediately pick up artifacts. His ultimate desire would have been vocal synthesis in keeping with the refinement of the musical writing, far more articulated and segmented than the standard electroacoustic structures. This was something that could have been accomplished much later, in the 2010s with the mastery of concatenative synthesis for example, but not at the time of the development of Répons. Pierre then completely abandoned the idea of revisiting Poésie pour pouvoir, the voice disappeared from his focus and he concentrated on everything else.

What remains of the Poésie experience in Répons is the invention of an unusual arrangement in the concert hall. The whole idea is based on this: the relationship of the individual to the collective, of the soloist to the "choir", in this case the instrumental ensemble that performs in the center of the room. It is an alternating dialogue like those found in the grand responsorial forms of the Renaissance. This "polychoral" style is also reflected in some famous architecture - for example the cori spezzatti (separate choirs) in the Byzantine layout of San Marco in Venice.

Répons, Avignon in 1988 © Dominique Darr

But there is another context that contributed significantly to the whole idea of Répons: the experience of Bayreuth, where Pierre Boulez conducted the Ring from 1976 on. From this came the ambition of the great form and the harmonic ambition. All the pre-compositional work can be found there, what he selected is circled in yellow. Before Répons, Boulez was criticized for writing only short works. After Répons, which continued to grow, this criticism has disappeared. In addition to the great Wagnerian form, Bayreuth also represents the experience of an exceptional acoustic effect. The pit is covered, there are no direct sounds. This feeling certainly played a role in the options and choices made for Répons. The best way to perform the work is to play it with a large distance between the ensemble in the center and the audience, and between the audience and the soloists around the outside of the room.

You mentioned Boulez's particular requirements for the electronics. Were there any expectations, any concrete challenges along the way? How would you characterize Boulez’ electronics in hindsight?

There were serious problems to overcome! For example, inventing a vocabulary of transformations on the 4X workstation was a very long process. The composer’s obsession was not necessarily technological, but rather with "real time" so that the electronic world could meet the gesture of the instrumentalist. Boulez's main and constant criticism of the electronics at the time was the lack of discernment, the famous sound layers, and the lack of flexibility in its development because of the mechanical time of the magnetic tape. He didn't like frames or continuum, because he had a preference for the note. This "discrete" approach brought out the timbres and halos as results, not as a starting point. His approach was always instrumental, and the electronics remained so as well. He never wanted to adopt sound synthesis, remaining faithful to this instrumental approach.

In the first work hypothesis, we opted for percussive sounds for the precision of the electronic processing. There was the piano and all the percussions. What remained was a "percussive" universe that evokes, for example, the rhythmic cycles of the gongs in Balinese music (Kebyar). This gave rise to a distinctive passage in Répons that was derived from Messagesquisse for 7 cellos, written just before.

Pierre Boulez © Jean Radel

In other passages, we perceive what Pierre called the "wallpaper", in this case the electronics projected by six speakers. The wallpaper is not intended to be looked at directly, but it is nevertheless present. When one of the soloists plays, we hear the sound of a drone in perfect proportion to the instrumentalist's playing. It is his or her electronic shadow. There is also a striking passage with a curious "flashing light" effect. Instead of the sound being captured, transformed, and the result spatialized (which happens most of the time), the machine will "listen" to the soloists in turn (harp, vibraphone, cymbalum, etc.), to transform them successively.  At other times, the machine may produce 2, 3, or 4 delays, depending on the choice of the algorithm. This type of choice by the machine, "open", remains however very limited.

The multiple strokes and frequently blurred lines in Répons are evocative of Paul Klee’s style. His pictorial works and his courses at the Bauhaus always fascinated and inspired Boulez.  There are no simple right angles, no simplified figures, everything is suggested by a multitude of small elements. "Klee and his dog" was the image that signified this blurring of lines in electronics: imagine a walker with his dog on a leash who follows the general trajectory more or less. We don't have an immediately identifiable geometric line, but a figure that will emerge from these multiple lines. Boulez wanted the listener to be convinced that there was a rule at work, but did not want to reveal the key to this rule too quickly.

It is important to avoid confusion among this profusion of details; the issue is always the articulation and balance of the different musical components. Interpretation is therefore essential: the criteria for success is the search for balance including in the electronics! It took us years to be able to work quickly in rehearsals and to develop a calibration methodology, with specific and solid reference points, in very different acoustics. We gained in predictability despite the fragility and uncertainty of real time technology. When playing with electronics, it is vital to be able to "ride the wave" and adapt to what is happening in the reality of the concert.

Répons could be seen as both the mosaics in the cathedral and the cathedral itself, which we will never be able to see, nor grasp every detail of, in an instant.  So much will depend on our position in the room, on our memory and expectations, on the interpretation and the acoustics.  How did this form and this image, often invoked by Boulez, of the "spiral" come about? Having played it and traversed it so frequently, how do you hear it now?

The method used to work on this large form was based on successive additions. At the beginning, Répons stopped after the end of the "Balinese" part with the "electronic gongs". The coda at the very end mirrors the first entry of the soloists with electronics, using the same writing technique. In the second section of Répons, the delays were presented in a more restricted manner. First mirror effect. The beginning and the end indicate the arch, without exact symmetry. The form was not completely premeditated. It is also important to understand that the work was always an open work in progress. As the work was performed and listened to, new variations, new transformations were born. This is also the spiral form: the time of the genesis, the time of the execution, the time of the successive listenings, and the possible modifications.

 So, from a rather basic spatialization, we gradually reached a real refinement of the space. The first section was revisited at least three times. In a way, the process consisted of moving away from unnecessary complexity towards a form of obviousness or simplicity. Each time it was played, the work revealed a new facet, even to the composer and conductor. Among the moments that I remain most attached to, there is always the memorable entry of the soloists and the electronics with the writing based on delays. These are arpeggios of arpeggios of arpeggios, or the delays are themselves "arpeggios". An infinite unfolding.

Répons concert in New York, 2017 © Luc Hossepied

I also like this part where the conductor instructs the music by his signs, the result of which will depend on each room - it is a kind of nod to Éclats. And then naturally, I think of the very end of the work. In Pierre's mind, Répons, which today lasts 45 to 50 minutes, could have been doubled in length and made into an entire evening. He imagined three or four additional sections that would have preceded this coda. We were talking about this until 2011. And there were all the possibilities offered by spectral synthesis we were working on: going into the interior of the sound, acting like a microscope. In the end, this production will not exist. The end of Répons, like that of Anthèmes II for violin and electronics, is not at all a conclusion, an end, but rather an open and temporary state.

Everything is definitely temporary.

By Frank Madlener

Excerpts from Pierre Boulez's works

  1. Répons by Pierre Boulez, 1982 (recorded at IRCAM, 2016)
  2. Anthèmes II, by Pierre Boulez, 1997

We use cookie technology to measure our online audience and to allow you to share content on social networks via link buttons. Further information.