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Pierre Boulez became familiar with the poems of Edward Estlin Cummings, the maverick of American literature, during his first visit to the United States in 1952, when he was immediately gripped by Cummings’ way of interleaving turmoil and structure.
Cummings numbers among those poets for whom the sense of language is not exhausted by being a vehicle of expression and communication. For him, language was also material to be tapped through analysis. Yet semantics and material character do not constitute two aspects of language which would combine to block any impartation; rather, Cummings’ work is so attractive precisely because its material analyses reveal surprising layers of meaning – and Boulez sought to capture that multidimensionality in music.
Thus, the antinomy of the semantic-material in Boulez’ musical structure versus e.g. voices – instruments, lines – individual notes, pitches – noise, heterophony – corresponds to organised harmoniousness inexactly – metrically or not, precisely or not. The fact that such impartation can extend to override opposites becomes clear when Boulez speaks of “orchestrating singing voices.”
Boulez did not restrict himself to one of Cummings’ poems; he chose four of them which are closely related in their semantics and material disposition.
© Willi Reich (from the programme booklet for the first performance)
Translated by Grant Chorley, 2013