Pierre BoulezThis latest (Un)easy Listening post looks at Dérive 1 by Pierre Boulez, ahead of our performance at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 5 December. Philip Cashian, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, explains the “mini masterpiece of musical invention”.

Pierre Boulez Dérive 1
composed in 1984 l for flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello l duration c. 6 mins


Dérive 1 is a mini masterpiece of musical invention that in just under 6 minutes conjures up a tightly focused and fastidiously controlled musical world from one six note chord. This virtuosic display of technical mastery, and the instantly captivating wave of musical ideas Boulez presents, is enthralling from first note to last.

Boulez spells out the surname of Paul Sacher  in notes to make the opening piano chord (Eb, A, C, B, E, D) and then, through putting these pitches through a hall of mirrors by rotating the intervals around (like shuffling a pack of cards one step at a time), he creates five more chords which become the musical spine of the work.


I hear the piece falling into three clearly audible sections and here are some moments to listen out for along the way:

Section 1 (00:0002:39)

The music in the first half of Dérive 1 is full of pent up energy: constant bursts of rapid grace notes from different combinations of instruments, along with trills and tremolos, create a richly sustained, resonant and multi-coloured musical surface for the underlying harmony.

  • Opening 00:05 The Sacher chord in the piano part.
  • 00:3400:44 Short, gentle ticking chords in the piano punctuate flourishes of grace notes in the other instruments.
  • 00:4501:27 Frequent crescendos and diminuendos constantly draw the listener’s ear to different combinations of instruments, articulating and punctuating the flow of the music.
  • 02:1802:38  After a climactic moment Boulez settles on the same chord for 20 seconds.

Section 2 (02:3904:57)

In contrast to the first few minutes this section starts very quietly and slowly builds in dynamic and intensity over the next couple of minutes.

  • 02:39 The piano and pizzicato cello have a crotchet pulse (the piano briefly has the quality of a walking bass). This sense of pulse runs through the whole section in different ways.
  • 03:01 The clarinet emerges and (03:1903:53) has a duet with the piano.
  • 03:19 A moment of focus as clarinet, vibraphone, violin and cello all play Eb. The vibraphone trills between Eb and E and at 03:3003:36 crescendos into another moment of focus as the whole ensemble arrives on a unison D. Also listen out for imitation between the cello and vibraphone here.
  • 03:53 All instruments (except flute) arrive on a unison A. The vibraphone stays on this A until 04:10 when, in a very subtle change in the musical fabric, it plays fast, dry staccato notes.
  • 04:26 Flute takes on a solo role as the clarinet drops out.
  • 04:37 The music becomes extremely layered as each instrument is playing independently.

Section 3 (04:57end)

Flute, clarinet, violin, cello and vibraphone hold the notes of the Sacher chord. The piano is in the foreground with ringing sustained notes and short bursts of dry, brittle grace notes above.

The final gesture (05:43) that closes the piece is, for me, the perfect ending.


Pierre Boulez Sur Incise
Luciano Berio O King
Tristan Murail Feuilles à travers les cloches
George Benjamin Three Inventions
Kaija Saariaho Solar

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