Upcycling - Boulez's 'Notation' and BBC Symphony Orchestra.

I was fortunate enough to attend last nights concert at the Barbican - the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing 'Notation' and 'Pli Selon Pli'.  Interestingly, both works are considerably old.  'Pi Selon Pli' was written at the end of the 1950s and 'Notation' was completed in piano form just at the end of the Second World War, pre Boulezian serialism.  Its present manifestation (for orchestra) begun in 1978 and was then reworked in 1984 and 1987.  "Pli Selon Pli" is over 50 years old.  In historical terms, it is halfway to being officially recognised as an antique.  "Notation" has been 'recycled'; it begun as a piano work and has been transformed into a modern orchestral work. In a modern terms, we would refer to this kind of recycling as something which has been "upcycled"; that's where recycled...

... old products are given more value, not less.
(- Reiner Pilz)





Imagine an item of furniture, at the end of the war, which has been loving restored; redecorated and totally invigorated with modern structural considerations .  This is the effect of Boulez's 'upcycling'.  There is, however, a downside to this idea.  The notion of 'upcycling' appears to be ultimately flawed:


Boulez is celebrating his ninetieth birthday.  At some point, it will not be possible to update this work.  As far as I know, Boulez has effectively stopped composing new music.  The desire to constantly modernise old compositions is doomed. When this happens, what will be the effect on the music? Will it sound dated; consigned to a moment in history, like the electronic sounds of Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge"? I don't think so. Varesse's "Hyperprism" is nearly a hundred years old and it still has a edge to it - not the same 'upcycled' vitality of Boulez's "Notation' but an edge nonetheless. In my opinion, I don't believe that there is any real need for "upcyclng" - not unless something completely new is revealed; like an unexplored meaning born of our age.  The real secret for creating musical freshness is ingrained in the performance. A new performance can reveal something really fascinating about our era (so long as it stays true to the principles inherent in the composition).  With orchestral music, having a conductor that is sensitive to the score and creative enough to lead players into a new perspective of the music is essential.  The BBC Symphony orchestra's performance would have been something that Boulez may have approved.  It was honest and precise. It allowed the music to entertain rather than impose an interpretation that would interfere with the communicative process. One of the most important aspects of Boulez's creative life is that he has been his musical restoration.  The pealing back of nineteenth century layers.   Removing the musical cliches that we have become accustom to.

I do realise there is an apparent contradiction. On one hand, Boulez wants to create a language which is completely new and on the other hand he wants to 'upcycle' old material. This whole notion needs further consideration...What if I 'upcycled' Brahms? Does that create a new piece of music full of inventiveness and vigor?  Isn't 'upcycling' a longing for the past which is one of the most significant elements of Romanticism - a concept that he has spent his life escaping from?

All these concerns are academic.  His popularity has risen which often comes with age.  Although there will always be people who doubt his judgement, longevity as a composer has boosted his support.  His concerts this year have been well attended.  It shows the rightful respect for a great composer.  But he should beware.  By his own words...

Revolutions are celebrated when they are no longer dangerous.

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