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Pierre Boulez: sur Incises

  • for 3 pianos, 3 harps and 3 percussionists
  • Duration: 40’
  • Instrumentation details:
    1st piano
    2nd piano
    3rd piano
    1st harp
    2nd harp
    3rd harp
    1st percussion (vibraphone, steel drums, crotales)
    2nd percussion (vibraphone, glockenspiel, timbales)
    3rd percussion (marimba, tubular bells, crotales)
  • Composer: Pierre Boulez
  • Table of contents:
    sur Incises
  • Dedication: Für Paul Sacher zum 90. Geburtstag
  • Remarks: Work in progress.

Work introduction

Excerpt from a conversation between Wolfgang Fink and Pierre Boulez *

I understand from what you are saying that you have also dealt intensively with the piano over the past few years. Indeed the piano plays an important role in Répons. However, it seems that the composer Pierre Boulez has not devoted much of his attention to the piano since publishing his Third sonata for piano and the second book of Structures in 1961. At least Incises, the first piece for piano alone, is rather short, extremely brilliant and with a sense of perpetual motion. Now sur Incises originates from this piece and goes beyond the scope of pure piano sound.

Boulez: Yes, it is an ensemble for three pianos which in a way represent the main instruments, three harps and three percussions of certain pitch, also timpani, steel drums, glockenspiel etc. I composed the piano piece Incises for the Umberto Micheli Piano Competition which is greatly supported by Maurizio Pollini. First I had in mind to transform this piece into a longer one for Pollini and a group of instrumentalists, a kind of piano concerto although without reference to the traditional form. The literature in concerto form does not appeal to me any more. Therefore I produced a piece for three pianos assuming that there already exists enough interesting literature for two pianos and ensembles, especially in the modern age - take for example Bartok's "Sonata for two pianos and percussion". (In my opinion, everybody would have been reminded of this world if I had also written a piece for two pianos.) I have also considered the possibility of four pianos as this constellation is very attractive and provides a good balance. But here Stravinsky serves as model and I did not want to recite him through this very characteristic instrumentation. This is the reason why I ended up with three pianos - incidentally three pianists are part of our ensemble. I then thought about adding brass players but there already exists a piece for brass instruments, harp and piano by Hindemith so I rejected this idea. Another reason is that I did not want to compose a piece for all families of instruments like in Eclat. So I decided in favour of three percussion particularly as we have three percussionists in our ensemble. Only then the idea of adding three harps occurred to me. Later it came into my mind that this constellation could have been invented by Elliott Carter providing the following theoretical order: three percussionists, three harps, three pianos or piano I, harp I, percussion I and any other conceivable correspondences. But as I have already mentioned I realised this Carteresque dimension only afterwards.

Consequently my starting point was three pianos, three harps, three percussionists; also three times three which is nine. And I composed this piece for the 90th birthday of Paul Sacher although this, you have to believe me (he laughs) is pure coincidence. I did not choose nine instruments on purpose.

My original intention was to write the main part for the first piano. Having started the composition I realised that this disposition does not make any sense in a piece for three pianos because, wanting to be consistent, I would have had to create a part for first harp and first percussion which was not feasible. For this reason the three piano parts elaborate to an extent on the same level. Unexpectedly, this has led to a very long piece.

Incises however is very short and by dint of this shortness, this very concise form, it takes the listener by complete surprise. In what respect do sur Incises and Incises differ since their congruence is so obvious?

Boulez: You will remember that Incises begins with this very free and flexible introduction followed by this very, very quick part (which is at times abruptly interrupted). But the character of this terrific movement is kept throughout. In sur Incises I have expanded, stretched this introduction a lot in terms of its duration. And I have added various forms of multiplication to this very brilliant cadence, from simple to sixfold and multiple reflections resulting in a cadence which is no longer wild as in Incises, but calm and breathing regularly, due to these diverse figures appearing in simple to complex modifications. So I have composed a cadenza for everybody, which is to be played without interruption at a very rapid speed and which is very difficult to perform. And then there is another part with a transition. In this part the principles of the cadence are mixed with the introduction, this very free introduction actually in a rather complete way so that it is very difficult to judge which elements are taken from which area. This situation changes with a recollection of the initial cadenza focusing on the three pianos in order to demonstrate on which kind of periodicity the complete action is based.

The pianos therefore obviously represent the principal instruments. But are there also transitions to be found or, let's put it differently, do the harps or percussionists at times take the role of the pianos or of one piano?

Boulez: The percussions and also the harps are at times completely integrated and sometimes only play a minor role, it depends. There is one section where the pianos play an elaborate ostinato passage, thus a very strict compositional structural form while the percussionists play very free figures at the same time. But you find also moments when this role play is divided up, such as that one piano and one percussionist play the free structures whereas the other pianos and percussionists have to follow the strict ostinato movement etc. Another attractive aspect is that at times you encounter very quick changes followed by sections of constant continuous instrumental combinations. As to the harp, I have gained plenty of experience with this instrument in Répons and have put this knowledge into sur Incises. You can play the harp very fast if you do not use the pedals or only very little. So the harps' entries depend a lot on the different kinds of speed at which this instrument can be handled. I was very surprised by the powerful sound three harps can produce. By the way, I have emphasised the different sound character of the instruments by positioning them in a characteristic way. Thus, you can see what you hear. I am really very happy with the sound combinations in this piece and also with the way the rather exotic instruments are integrated. I don't use steeldrums for the sake of their exotic and folkloric colour but because of the fact that they exceed the usual bounds of the individual families of instruments. The question is what does that mean? Because this sound belongs to all families and to none at the same time.

Baden-Baden, 18 September 1998 (Translation: Dorit Luezak)

(*) "Hommage à Pierre Boulez", programme of Alte Oper Frankfurt, compiled by Wolfgang Fink and Josef Hausier


The complete perusal score (PDF-preview)

World première

Basel (CH)
Ensemble Intercontemporain
Pierre Boulez

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