The Law of Ruins in Music

Conversations with Pierre Boulez about Heiner Müller's drafts

23 Jun 1997
Ten to Eleven
Heiner Müller
Müller's circle: Pierre Boulez


In this interview, Alexander Kluge speaks with French composer, conductor and musicologist Pierre Boulez about his work and relationship with Heiner Müller, the existence and persistence of music, the remake of the Atridae myth, temporality in music, as well as material and form in works of art.

The "Reichsruinengesetz," which Hitler passed in 1943, demanded that public buildings had to be built only from the best materials, in order to last, "so that they would still look impressive after 6000 years" (Kluge). Kluge and Boulez agree that a similar law exists in music – "a really good composition is indestructible" (Kluge).

As example for the power and persistence of music, they refer to the performance of Twilight of the Gods in Vienna, at the command of Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach, during the siege by Soviet raiding patrols and US bomb squadrons in March 1945. After the opera house had been destroyed in the bombings, the different orchestra groups moved to bomb shelters to practice, connected by cable reel phones and infantrymen serving as messengers.

According to Boulez, Wagner's orchestration is excellent. Even though each orchestra group is part of a bigger ensemble, they also make sense on their own. Boulez himself has experienced this as a spectator in the orchestra pit in Bayreuth when Karl Böhm served as conductor. He did not experience the music as "mush" (Kluge), but the music gained a new and special appeal - "an orchestra is a reconstructed ruin" (Boulez).

In the following part, Kluge and Boulez talk about Müller's unfinished libretto for an opera of Boulez.

They met in Salzburg when Müller was working on the production of "Tristan" in Bayreuth. This was the beginning of an active exchange about forms of artistic expression. One idea in particular kept coming up: Just like in previous discussions with his friend Jean Genet, Boulez had been thinking about an opera or an artwork "of the future." He was interested in the relationship between straight theater and music and the manifestation of this relationship. He was equally fascinated by considerations about potential media, like puppets, masks or electronic music, and general thoughts about temporality on stage. These were some of the questions Müller and Boulez touched in their frequent correspondences in the following years, mostly in letters, as personal meetings only happened occasionally. 

During their last meeting, Müller told Boulez about his plans for a dramatic remake of the Atridae myth, inspired by Japanese bunraku theater with puppets and soffits from which the puppeteers would direct the puppets and sing at the same time. The finished work was supposed to be "a tragedy in fast forward" – "1000 years of myth in 10 minutes" (Kluge).

Kluge and Boulez move on to talk about questions of artistic expression, and discuss temporality and concepts of time in music and on stage, as well as the relationship between material and form in works of art.

Finally, Kluge asks about the likelihood of composing the "Fall of Troy" from Ovid's "Metamorphoses." Right before his death, Müller had bought a British edition of this mythological work in hexameters for $500, which he was very excited about, and became fascinated with the idea to put the material on stage. Boulez suggests that the question cannot be answered in such a short time, because the work is so dense and full of connotations. An adaptation of the entire material would seem impossible, but it appears in the realm of possibility to connect three moments and put them on stage in an adaptation that would pose similar questions, but disconnect the scenarios and narrative interrelations.