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He is the last great exponent of European modernism from the generation that emerged after the war. Born in Montbrison, in the Loire, the charmed and charming son of a wealthy factory engineer, a mathematics student turned musician, he attended the Paris Conservatory, where Olivier Messiaen helped introduce him to serialism. An agent provocateur for serial music before graduating and a master of hardball polemics, he caused even anxious luminaries like the aging Stravinsky to feel the need to earn his approval.

“I like virtuosity, although not for the sake of virtuosity but because it’s dangerous,” was Mr. Boulez’s description of “Répons” when we sat down to talk for a few hours after the rehearsal. By danger he meant that music, to be worth anything — which is to say to be new — can’t stick to safe ground but must entail some risk and effort.

“If you want to have a more interesting life, you will make some effort,” is how he put it. “It’s about the organization of one’s life. I am still shocked that so many people are not more creative, by which I mean more demanding of themselves.

“The main question we need to ask ourselves is: Do I try to be necessary to the evolution of language? Do I try to be original? And being original means using the tools necessary to be original, not just having the desire to be original.”

He was thinking then of John Cage, with whom he had been friendly until they fell out, painfully for Cage. Mr. Boulez, having an entirely more rarefied (some might say angrier or more mandarin or richer or more academic) notion of avant-gardism, decided that the bohemian Cage didn’t have the necessary tools.

“Tools are important,” Mr. Boulez repeated. “Mallarmé chastised Degas for writing poems. He said, ‘You can’t just have an idea that you want to write poems. Poems are made out of words.’ ”

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