Perfect Sound Forever


The Convulsive Beauty of ...explosante-fixé...
by Daniel Barbiero
(April 2023)

What better place to begin than by acknowledging the irony?: Surrealism, the movement that was generally hostile to music, helped inspire one of the twentieth century's major works of electroacoustic music. That work is Pierre Boulez's ...explosante-fixé..., titled with a fragment of a line from L'Amour fou by André Breton, Surrealism's chief theorist and notorious disparager of music. While Boulez's composition is not a Surrealist work per se, it nevertheless does capture the essence of Breton's phrase and translates the idea behind it into specifically musical terms.

The developmental history of ...explosante-fixé... was convoluted and took place over two decades. Boulez originally composed the work shortly after he succeeded Leonard Bernstein as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1971. The piece was one of only a few compositions he produced during the six years he held the position, the others being Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna for orchestra (1975) and Messagesquisse for solo cello and six cellos (1976). The occasion for its composition was the April, 1971 death of composer Igor Stravinsky, for whom it had been written as a tribute at the invitation of the UK music magazine Tempo. In its original iteration--the first of several--it was performed in June, 1972 by the London Sinfonietta with a trio of violin, clarinet, and trumpet. A more elaborate version for septet and electronics was given its first performance by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on 5 January 1973, which was followed by performances in Rome and London in May and August of 1973, respectively; a revised third version, for flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, harp, vibraphone, and electronics, with Boulez conducting, was premiered at Donaueschingen on 21 October 1973. Boulez continued to revise the piece for subsequent performances, and although he was to incorporate parts of it into Rituel and Mémoriale (1985), he largely put it aside until 1986, when a version for vibraphone and electronics was composed. The final version of the work was composed between 1991 and 1993 while Boulez was at IRCAM, the experimental music laboratory he founded in Paris in 1970. Having begun tentatively as a trio, the composition, now in its definitive form, had become a work for solo flutist, two accompanying flutes, chamber orchestra and MIDI.

The title Boulez chose for ...explosante-fixé... is a fragment of Breton's famous formula, set out in Mad Love, describing the makeup of "convulsive beauty"-- "the only beauty which should concern us": "La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixé, magique-circonstancielle, ou ne sera pas"("convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, explosive-fixed, magic-circumstantial, or it will not be"). What Breton meant by "explosante-fixé" was the paradoxical state of being, or of being perceived as being, both dynamic (explosante) and static (fixé) at the same time. How this seemingly contradictory, composite quality relates to Boulez's composition will be the focus of discussion later; for now, it's enough to note that according to Breton, it is one of the factors that goes into making a kind of beauty that provokes a revelatory shock by virtue of its paradoxical or unexpected appearance. Beauty, on this account, is convulsive to the extent that it opens up a view into the marvelous or uncanny, a view that provokes a state of near delirium in the one experiencing it: a state in which the ordinary logic of the everyday is suspended or overturned and one's world takes on profound, unexpected meaning. The paradoxical quality of a thing's apparently being simultaneously static and dynamic is unsettling in its defiance of the logical law of the excluded middle. The beauty to be found there, for Breton, is in the way that defiance of reason frees the imagination to posit a creatively upended world.

Interestingly, Boulez misremembered the fragment as having come from the last line of Breton's earlier work, Nadja. As he told biographer Joan Peyser, "The line...was la beauté will be explosante-fixé or it will not be." (Peyser, p. 238). In fact, the closing line of Nadja is "La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas" ("beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be"). Boulez nevertheless got the essence of Breton's formula right, even if he conflated two of its statements; as he told Peyser, the notion of an explosive-fixed object was "a beautiful poetic image that remained within me--independently floating" (Peyser, p. 238). It is hard not to notice that for Boulez what explosante-fixé floated independently of was Breton's more complex, and explicitly eroticized, notion of beauty. It would be tempting to see his remembering this single quality, while forgetting of the erotically charged others, as the product of some sort of repressive mechanism, since he was generally known to have had only one romantic involvement in his life, and during late adolescence at that. We can imagine Breton's amusement--or irritation--at Boulez's motivated forgetfulness, if in fact that's what it was. But Boulez's memory lapse may simply only have reflected his particular relationship to Breton's surrealism, which was as ambivalent as it was enduring. Although he disparaged Breton's work in letters he also cited the surrealist theorist's Second Manifesto in the lectures he delivered at Darmstadt in 1960, and as late as the 1977-1978 Collège de France lecture "Idea, Realization, Craft" he quoted Breton when describing the creative process as originating in a mysterious "uncrackable kernel of night" ("L'infraccasable noyau de nuit") within the artist. Although it's fair to say that overall Breton's surrealism had not been a major influence on Boulez's thinking, it did play a creatively suggestive role from time to time. Happily, the conception of ... explosante-fixé... was one of those times.

As for the piece itself, it is centered on the solo flute part, which acts as a sort of pivot (fixé ) around which the other parts move dynamically (explosante). In fact it is the flute's anchoring role that serves as the constant at the center of the composition's different configurations as Boulez rewrote and revised it intermittently over the course of two decades; solo flute was in fact its initial provocation. As he told Peyser, the idea of organizing the work around solo flute came to him in August 1971 when he was visiting a castle in Scotland. The son of the woman who invited him improvised on flute in the castle; the sound of the lone instrument in the empty building made a deep impression on him. The early, post-trio iterations of ...explosante-fixé... , beginning as they do with the flute playing a more or less extended, improvisatory solo, in a sense recreate those solo improvisations that Boulez heard in Scotland. In the later, IRCAM-developed versions of the piece it is the flute that sets out the line that the electronic component follows. Their differences aside, in both cases the flute is the fixed point of reference in relation to which the other elements provide a dynamic sonic environment.

In the post-preliminary versions of the work the flute provided the opening moves in a musical game of chance played in an open field. Parts of the composition were fixed, but the overall structure was not. The aleatory element entered into performances through choices Boulez left to the performers. The original score is fairly simple--it contains a single page of seven notated parts distributed in the shape of an octagon. The part at the center of the octagon, titled "Originel," is a single bar containing the seven-note row E♭, G, D, A♭, B♭, A, E; surrounding it are six parts, or "Transitoires" featuring permutations of the row which are numbered II-VII according to the number of staves contained. Lines with arrowheads at each end connect the individual parts together in a kind of web indicating possibilities for moving from one part to another. The notated page is in turn accompanied by several pages of performance instructions. This open structure inevitably led to a certain amount of unpredictability when the composition was realized. The January, 1973 premiere in New York, for example, was projected to run for approximately eighteen minutes, but as a surviving recording shows, it actually lasted for nearly half an hour. Like an improvisation, its duration could follow its own logic. And as documented on the New York recording, as well as on the recording made of the Donaueschingen performance, early realizations of the piece do give the impression of having largely been improvised. The opening flute solos have a free, spontaneous feel to them, while the staggered entrances and exits of the other instruments, in their diverse and ever-changing combinations, give the unfolding texture a variability of density and timbre that sounds very much as if it is the product of decisions made in the moment.

The later, IRCAM-facilitated ...explosante-fixé... of 1991-1993 has a markedly different, and much more scripted, sound. Boulez's revision entailed a significant amount of rewriting that culminated in a substantial expansion of the scored elements and a restructuring of the overall architecture. The resulting piece consisted of five parts: "Originel," "Transitoires" V and VII, and two "Interstitiel" passages for electronics. The "Originel" section, which in the original score consisted of a single bar of seven notes, now had been fleshed out to 117 bars. In addition, the ensemble had grown to twenty-two pieces plus solo MIDI flute and two "shadow" flutes. For this new version of the piece, Boulez retained an aleatory aspect, but rather than assigning it to the performers, he delegated it to the electronic component (perhaps for this reason the run time became much less variable and settled in at approximately 37 minutes). This latter component had also been expanded from what it had been for the earlier performances. Whereas the electronics used during the 1970s consisted of a relatively rudimentary--and apparently not entirely reliable or satisfactory--multi-speaker apparatus devised by inventor Hans-Peter Haller for projecting sound dynamically to different parts of the performance space, technological advances during the intervening two decades made available more sophisticated, computerized resources that Boulez accessed through IRCAM. As a result, the 1991-1993 ...explosante-fixé... featured a computerized electronic component that was configured to follow the score the soloist played and to intervene with sound modifications at points determined by the parallel score that had been programmed into it. With this new relationship between the live instrument and the programmed electronics, Boulez created a profound structural contrast between the scored (fixé) solo and the dynamic (explosante) aleatory interventions of the electronics. Beyond that, the flute's natural voice serves as a fixed quality carrying within it the potential for unpredictable and changing timbral developments as it interacts with the electronics--the explosante-fixé paradox conserved and transposed to the field of sound color.

The paradoxical, entangled binary relationship of dynamic and fixed qualities in the 1991-1993 ...explosante-fixé... reveals itself as well in the pitch relationships structuring the two "Transitoires" and the "Originel." The first of the two "Transitoire" sections to be played--the pieces's opening section--is "Transitoire VII." Here, the note A♭ serves as a kind of quasi-tonal center providing a focal point that dominates the pitch space of the section and gives it a center of gravity toward which other pitches are pulled. For "Transitoire V," which follows "Transitoire VII" after a brief, intervening "Interstitiel" for electronics alone, the focal pitch rises a half-step to A natural. In the "Originel" section, which concludes the piece following the second "Interstitiel," it is the note E♭ that serves as the fixed point of reference. As Campbell's analysis of "Originel" shows, Boulez emphasizes the pivotal role of the E♭ by placing the note at the end of a series of six cadences ranging in length from two to seven notes. The seventh cadence employs the seven-note row D, G, E, A♭, B♭, A natural, and E♭, which is the same row that appears in the earlier iteration of "Originel." This final section is notable for its transparency of line, which sets it against the denser and more frenetically orchestrated textural gestalts of the "Transitoire" sections that precede it. The flutes dominate this section, and it is here that the electronic modifications of timbre become most apparent. At its conclusion, the piece thins out to a lone E♭. In a sense the entire piece forms an elaborate textural cadence; as Thomas May described it for its West Coast premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1996, it represents a working backwards from its densest, most complex episodes to a simple denouement on E♭.

Where, then, is Breton's "convulsive beauty" in all of this? In the 1991-1993 versions, at least, it is practically everywhere. With this iteration of ...explosante-fixé... Boulez refined the ways in which an electronically augmented chamber ensemble can translate the paradoxical state of being simultaneously constant and changing into the concrete, musical terms of pitch relationships, timbral contrasts, and textural gestalts. If the sensation of convulsive beauty consists in the interruption of one's ordinary experience through the confrontation with something completely other--resulting in an overturning of the mundane expectations one originally carried into the experience and their replacement by the previously unimagined--then music that employs dramatically contrasting relationships of pitch and texture, and uses real-time electronic processing to transform and distort an acoustic instrument's native voice, is well-situated to provide the revelatory shock of the incongruous that makes convulsive beauty possible. Given Breton's unsympathetic attitude toward music it is the ultimate irony that a musical work can epitomize and realize one of his most provocative and creatively suggestive ideas.


Pierre Boulez, Pierre Boulez Music Lessons: The Collège de France Lectures, edited and translated by Jonathan Dunsby, Jonathan Goldman and Arnold Whittal (London: Faber & Faber, 2018)

André Breton, L'Amour fou (Paris: Gallimard, 1937). English translation by Mary Ann Caws as Mad Love (Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska Press, 1988).

André Breton, Nadja (Paris: Gallimard, 1928/1964). English translation by Richard Howard as Nadja (New York: Grove Press, 1960).

Edward Campbell, Boulez, Music and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2014)

Joan Peyser, Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma (New York: Schirmer, 1978)

Also see our earlier article on Pierre Boulez

And see Daniel Barbiero's Bandcamp page

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