Boulez and Bowie: Legacies in Contrary Motion
Boulez and Bowie could make a claim to have altered the idea of what modern music was.
I was literally jotting down a few thoughts about Pierre Boulez – the modernist French composer/conductor/musical tastemaker, who died last week at 90 – when the news arrived about David Bowie.
I’m sure that if the two men had not died within days of each other, I would never have thought to reflect on them together. But they did, and so I do.
Both were musicians. Both could make a claim to have altered the idea of what modern music was, and for that matter, the idea of what modern and music, separately, were.
Beyond that, I think of one of them as a figure of dated and diminishing significance; the other, the opposite.
It’s interesting the way status is granted (or withheld) in the “serious” arts. In the various obits and online appreciations, Boulez was referred to as a “giant,” a “titan,” and in one piece, “the most significant musical force of the post-war era.”
Really? A more significant force than, say, Bernstein, or Sondheim, or the Beatles?
Pierre Boulez was a partly self-manufactured phenomenon. I don’t mean that he was a fraud, but he was, let’s be honest, a kind of intellectual hustler.
What I mean is that Boulez would have been a much less visible personality if he had not figured out, early in his career, that he could call attention to himself by saying outrageous, quotable things.
One of the more notorious of these things (it exists in many variations, probably because he found that, whatever the precise wording, it reliably got a reaction) was that the art of the past should not only be disregarded, but destroyed. He said the Mona Lisa should be defaced. More famously, he declared that the world’s opera houses should be burned to the ground.
Now, we understand that Boulez was talking metaphorically, and that he did not literally incite people to sledgehammer great pieces of art. It’s depressingly necessary to clarify that point today, because we now have “political” and/or “religious” groups who are not only calling for such destruction, but are actually doing it.
Boulez also said that composers who failed to employ the dodecaphonic (or 12-tone) method of writing music were “useless” and “irrelevant.”
There was more than a whiff of intellectual bullying here. And it worked, at least in some circles, and for a limited time. The tough talk seemed courageous and hip at the time. Today it seems, to use a word that he would have howled at, provincial.
I remember the first time I heard a recording Boulez’s piece "Le marteau sans maître" (the hammer without a master), a work scored for voice and six instrumentalists.
I was in college, a music student eager to hear as much contemporary music as I could absorb. The more out there the music was, the better.
Yet the Boulez piece, even to my endearingly open 18-year-old ears, sounded phony and pretentious.
I have listened to this piece -- frequently cited as Boulez's masterpiece -- periodically ever since, just to check my response, to see if I’ve developed a better capacity to receive it, much less understand or like it. In fact, the other day, when the news of Boulez's death came over the air, I listened to it again.
I have to report that, for me, it still is – what’s the word I want? – a drag.
Can I admire its organizational rigor, its mathematically informed logic and complexity? I guess so, although it’s hard to know exactly what it is that I’m admiring, since the music itself feels soulless and arid.
And it needs to be added here that the one thing Boulez assured us – that conventional tonal music could no longer be meaningful or intellectually forward-looking -- has been shown by many a younger composer to be a lie.
If all of this sounds insulting to the great man, it’s not intended to be. It’s just that, with each passing year it seems clearer that the stylized, highly formalistic aesthetic that Boulez (and his many acolytes) espoused is basically a cul de sac, a lonely turn-off from the meandering, still-surprising road of contemporary music. An honorable cul de sac, if you like, and a breathtakingly complex one. But a dead-end nonetheless. In the words of one of his fellow musical titans, I think he just kinda wasted our precious time.
In almost complete contrast, Bowie was interesting from the start.
Only a couple of measures into “Space Oddity,” his first loud knock on the door, he splits his voice and sings the plaintive tune with himself, in octaves. I’m not sure that even now, half a century later, I can think of an example of somebody doing that in exactly that way.
In truth, Bowie wasn’t really a musical boundary pusher in the way that, say, Yes or Zappa were, but he was certainly one of those blessed people who could work within the framework of a pop song – rarely ever more than a three or four or five minute statement – and convince us that it deserved to be discussed and thought about as art, and certainly that it did the one thing that art does, which is to take us somewhere we hadn’t been before. (Or to invoke Yo-Yo Ma’s variation on this idea, simply take us "outside ourselves.")
Even the albums with Brian Eno – the so-called Berlin Trilogy of Low, Heroes, and Lodger -- though they were enlivened with experimental soundscapes and avant garde aspirations, felt recognizably honest and direct and, as somebody said the other day, non-bullshitty.
I guess I’m simply saying that, as the page turns and the dust settles (stardust, I guess I should say), it feels likely that Ziggy and the thin white duke will continue to animate and challenge the coming waves of young composers and musicians and listeners, while the giant, the titan, is coming to be seen, not disrespectfully, as a man whose time has already come and gone.
Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.