Boulez in the Philharmonic

a blurry cellphone picture of the berlin philharmonic

The weekend before last I visited Berlin, mainly to see Pierre Boulez lead the Berlin Philharmonic and the Ensemble Intercontemporain in concert. Boulez is 85 years old, and, to put it bluntly, I wanted to see him live before it was too late.

First on the program was …explosante-fixe…, a composition Boulez initially sketched in the 1970s as part of a memorial for Igor Stravinsky. As is his wont, Boulez returned to the score again and again in the coming decades, making it less improvised and upgrading the electronic processing as technology improved. Essentially, it's a concerto for three flutes and a chamber orchestra. The work now lasts about 35 minutes, with three played sections interspersed with electronic interludes.

…explosante-fixe… isn't one of my favorite Boulez pieces. To me, Boulez is the inheritor of the French tradition of masterful orchestration and shimmering soundscapes, married to a rigorously modernist compositional approach. When these two seemingly disparate strands unite, as in pieces like Notations for Orchestra or Messagesquisses, the result is a undulating ribbon of eerily lovely sounds which develop with an intuitive 'inevitability' that is very difficult to create in atonal music. …explosante-fixe…, on the other hand, never shows the kind of  structural transparency that can keep the attention transfixed for over thirty minutes. The musical figures, generally short staccato bursts of notes from the principal flutist (Emmanuel Pahud), are taken up by the other two flutes and the orchestra, volleyed back and forth, refracted and fragmented, and incorporated into longer figures. However, it all takes places so quickly that it's impossible to discern the compositional processes at work.

The electronic interludes were a highlight. Twice, the stage lights went down and the players stopped. From speakers located throughout the concert hall, an electronically-processed 'variation' on what had just been played echoed through the hall. Individual instruments would be filtered out, processed through various filters, sliced into miniscule sections, or electronically transfigured into ghostly chanting or a sound like the soughing of wind in pine trees. These electronic recombinations and re-imaginations of  the performed score were quiet and contemplative, functioning almost as "slow movements", and  were staggeringly beautiful.

Boulez then led the entire Philharmonic in a concertante performance of Stravinsky's early opera The Nightingale. Boulez has a special fondness for this odd work, and his commitment showed. Barbara Hannigan, as the Nightingale, was phenomenal. Most of the Nightingale's arias begin and end with long sections of intricate vocalise. Hannigan (who sang barefoot!) balanced the clarity of articulation demanded by Boulez with enormous charm, and won an ovation from the audience, which was otherwise slightly nonplussed by the warhorse-free program.

I'll post a few more pictures and tales from Berlin as time permits during this week…

The Ruxton Maggots and Tennessee Cadavers

A fascinating BBC report on the forensic use of insect larvae, which were first used in a court case in the UK in 1935 (the Ruxton Maggots). Another fascinating fact: Tennessee is the only place in the world in which scientists are allowed to study insect growth on rotting human cadavers.

Saarbruecken is for Drunken Punks

One of GJ's roving correspondents writes from Saarbrücken:

Just back from a few days
in Saarbrücken, which is a very strange mix of very posh and very run-down. Saw
a shop with a handbag on sale for €1,000 near the main square…which was full
of beggars (and, yes, sturdy beggars, as they used to be known in England…,
though rather few of them in those days had orange hair). The Innenstadt is the
sort of place where you're very likely to encounter any number of people
wandering around drunk at 9:30am.

It's at moments like that
that my inner CSU voter begins to stir.

Fortunately, after elevating its stiffly-coiffed blond head and muttering some indecipherable phrases about Armenhäuser, it then sinks back into the giant Maßkrug where it lives.

Kroko, The Crocodile With Gestaltzerfall

Time reports on a new line of Paraplüsch toys from Germany representing animals with severe mental illnesses.

For your gift giving consideration: Dub the severely depressed turtle? German
toymaker Paraplush has designed a controversial new line of toys with
an assortment of psychiatric disorders. The company advertises stuffed
animals who suffer from a range of mental illnesses (bipolar disorder,
depression, multiple personality disorder) and even come packaged with a
personalized medical history and treatment plan.

Ifelicious introduces us to the krazy kewt kritters:

Meet the gang!

(all descriptions below were taken from the Paraplüsch website.)


The patient’s hypersensitive hallucinatory perception is a symptom
of a paranoid psychosis. The signs are a mental block and a
Gestaltzerfall (disintegration of structure) of the habitual field of
experience. The consequence is a compensational reactivation of
archaic reaction patterns.

The patient seems to temporarily suffer from the delusion that she
is a wolf despite the fact that she is without a doubt a sheep. The
unexpectedly strong exhibition of the repressed identity completely
overstrains her. Hysterical, psychotic defence reactions underline the
fundamental threat which points at negative experiences and resulting
fragmentation processes. In this state, the patient is unable to accept
herself as a plush animal.

The patient has been trying to solve a wooden jigsaw puzzle for the
past few months without success. He is so absorbed in this repetitive
activity that he is unaware of his surroundings most of the time. Ever
since his disorder has begun, the patient hasn’t talked to anyone. A
connection between the inability to speak and the compulsive urge to
solve jigsaw puzzles seems likely.

The patient’s inner conflict must be interpreted as a sign of an
ambivalent relationships towards its own body. Combined with the
fascination of an apparently much more potent-seeming substitute rattle,
we suspect the manifestation of a deeply rooted rattle complex. Of
course, the enclosed substitute rattle should not be in use on a
permanent basis and should only serve as a transitional object.

Being an animal more accustomed to a relaxed pace, life in the fast
lane has caught up with our patient, sending him into a deep
depression. Can you help him to come out of his shell once more and
enjoy life on the outside? Help Dub to rediscover life – slowly this

The Wild Bull


From the Soundhead blog, which has posted Morton Subotnick's intriguing 1968 electronica album The Wild Bull, here is the ancient Sumerian poem on which the composition is based:


The wild bull, who has lain down, lives no more
the wild bull, who has lain down, lives no more,
Dumuzi, the wild bull, who has lain down, lives no more,
the wild bull, who has lain down, lives no more.

O you wild bull, how fast you sleep!
How fast sleep ewe and lamb!
O you wild bull, how fast you sleep!
How fast sleep goat and kid!

I will ask the hills and the valleys,
I will ask the hills of the Bison:
"Where is the young man, my husband?"
I will say,
"He whom I no longer serve food"
I will say,
"He whom I no longer give to drink"
I will say,
"And my lovely maids"
I will say,
"And my lovely young men?"

"The Bison has taken thy husband away,
up into the mountains!"

"The Bison has taken thy young man away,
up into the mountains!"

"Bison of the mountains, with the mottled eyes!
Bison of the mountains, with the crushing teeth!
Bison!-He sleeps sweetly, he sleeps sweetly,
He whom I no longer serve sleeps sweetly,
He whom I no longer give to drink sleeps sweetly,
My lovely maids sleep sweetly,
My lovely young men sleep sweetly!"

"My young man who perished from me
(at the hands of) your men,
My young Ababa who perished from me
(at the hands of) your men,
Will never more calm me (with) his loving glance
Will never more unfasten his lovely bright clasp
(at night)
On his couch you made the jackals lie down,
In my husband's fold you made the raven dwell,
His reed pipe-the wind plays it,
My husband's songs-the north wind sings them."

Sumerian, c. 1700 BC, translated by Thorkild Jacobsen.

German Rule of the Week: Federal Garden Plot Law

tiny houses for people with tiny lives!

A new series in which we celebrate Ordnung.

What better place to begin than the Bundeskleingartengesetz, the Federal Garden Plot Law. From Section 3:

(1) A garden plot should not be larger than 400 square meters. During use and cultivation of the garden plot, all requirements relating to protection of the environment, the local habitat, and the landscape shall be taken into account.

(2) In the garden plot, it is permitted to construct a simply-furnished small house with a maximum of 24 square meters of floor space, including any covered outdoor seating area. Sections 29 to 36 of the Building Code apply accordingly. The house's overall design, and especially its furnishings and equipment, may not be suited to long-term residence.