Assembling an anthem, with assistance from Whitman
July 3, 2017
"An Die Musik" premiered in Fredonia
December 4, 2017
Le silence déjà funèbre - Pierre Boulez (1925 - 2016)
January 6, 2016
(above: Boulez: "Improvisation III sur Mallarmé" (original unpublished version, 1959) - opening. Courtesy Phyllis Bryn-Julson Collection, Peabody Archives)
I awoke this morning and, as always, reached for my phone to read news headlines and check emails. Among both were transmissions of sad but not altogether unexpected news. Having been quite ill and out of the public eye for some time, Pierre Boulez passed away in Germany today. He was 90.
“Boulez is dead”.
No doubt these three words will pop up all throughout musical communities in the coming days; perhaps more so in the new-music scene where some, with one eye winking, will put forth these three words in a gesture that moves beyond homage, mourning, or respect and instead borders on celebration. Not celebrating the death of a man - but certainly to herald the excitement of peering into an open grave and seeing, committed to eternal rest on the bare earth, another chapter of the dreaded “a-word” - you know, the word that starts with “a” and rhymes with “tonal”?
The winking is to remind us that, over a half-century ago, Boulez issued a declamatio controversia in the guise of “Schoenberg est Mort”. Now, with 2016 inscribed against the close-parenthesis of Pierre’s vital statistics, “Boulez is Dead” will blanket social media as a reminder that, at least for Boulez the polemicist, his “uppence has come”. What better way to do so than to namedrop a piece of music history trivia that has Final-Jeopardy-type recognition amongst anybody who has taken (or, as I’ve heard it described more often than not - “suffered through”) a Survey of 20th-C. Music course. Fine, clever - whatever.
Does it seem brash, severe, uncouth for me to go there?
Years ago, I recall Christopher Hitchens appearing on Bill Maher’s talk show, where he said (I’m summarizing here) that to crack wit about George W. Bush’s intelligence is (or was at the time) the joke that stupid people tended to make. I winced at first - having not only made such wisecracks myself, but knowing all sorts of folks whose humor went the same way. I wouldn’t have called any of them stupid - but it did occur to me that much of the ribaldry probably did spring from a point of shallowness with specific regard to an understanding of Bush’s policies, intentions, actions, and the ramifications of all of the above. In other words, we weren’t stupid people, merely uninformed of the depth of our humor’s source material. Hitchens himself routinely called attention to the troubling IQ of our 43rd president - but no doubt he could have then proceed for hours, in detail, as to how, and why, AND why it was of particular interest, comic or otherwise, to him.
Whither Boulez in this? Speaking from my experiences - as a student and teacher of composition, as a performer of music, as a lover of all sorts of new music practices ranging from traditional to avant-garde, I say without hesitation:
Boulez, in my perception, has become a metonym for music that is endlessly dismissed while rarely, if ever listened to.
Full disclosure: I greatly enjoy the music of Pierre Boulez - enjoyment not merely borne out of “studying” it, or “knowing” about it - I enjoy “listening” to it - and there are a few works that I’d go so far as to say that I love. I can’t say how many times admitting this among the company of card-carrying new-music types has been met with outright bemusement - often accompanied by not-so-gentle reminders that “well, nobody can really hear that stuff” - or “yeah, but *they’ve* had their turn, and now it’s *our* turn”. You might think I’m quoting from young, green, impressionable-but-meagerly-informed students. Nope -in many cases, they were teachers. I’m not making this up.
When it comes to to the intersection of students and the music of Boulez, a recent, significant memory for me comes from the composition seminar I taught my last semester at Fredonia (Spring ‘15) - a course dedicated to looking at, and subsequently composing, works for Pierrot ensemble. After we made our way through Pierrot Lunaire, bar-by-bar, and a few of the greatest hits for the ensemble, we turned our attention to Boulez's Derive 1 (1984). In the span of an hour and twenty minutes, the cohort of undergraduate composers had not only unlocked the strict procedures of the work, but proceeded to observe ways in which the music was expressive, dynamic and aurally compelling, despite the tight controls of the underlying harmonic/rhythmic/timbral organization. Fast-forward to the end of the semester, where they were tasked with writing a short Pierrot ensemble work of their own, with an accompany paper signifying their compositional approach and how it related, or drew upon, the various works we considered in class. More than half the class mentioned the Boulez work and spoke of its influence on their composition- positively. The student works were focused and imaginative, and none of them sounded like Boulez, imitated, borrowed, or stolen.
What is it that they were hearing?
I’m not advocating for everybody to take a mindless jump on the Boulez bandwagon. Indeed, if you hate the music of Boulez, or by extension any or all of the music of similar aesthetic, and this hatred springs from many frustrated listening encounters with that repertoire, then such judgements are to be respected. But it seems to me, more so lately, that this repertoire is given little chance for recall or consideration; it is dismissed frankly and summarily. As Boulez joins Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Nono, Maderna, Babbitt, Henze, Carter (and the list goes on) across the threshold, it saddens me to think that what lies ahead for his legacy is nothing more than obscurity via the incurious minds and ears of those who seem to require constant apology for the musical pursuits of mid-20th-Century modernism.
“Nobody can really hear that stuff…”
“They’ve had their turn, it’s our turn now”.
Dying used to be jokingly referred to as the “best career move” for a composer, but in the case of Pierre Boulez, it remains to be seen from hereafter. Given what I’ve described, you can understand my worry. And, as Boulez warns us in ‘Schoenberg is Dead’ not to “consider Schoenberg as a sort of Moses who died in view of the Promised Land”, so we should be hesitant to take Boulez as a musical Lucifer based on dismissive secondhand assessments of his musical achievements. Listen to the works, read his writings. They are heavy lifting, and you may have to listen more than once. Judge for yourself, and always be wary of (in the words of Mallarmé):
“du souriant fracas originel haï” -
....smiling hatred from the ‘original’ crowd.
(below: Boulez: "Improvisation III sur Mallarmé", [1983 revision], title page. with Boulez's handwritten correction: "definitive"... Courtesy Phyllis Bryn-Julson Collection, Peabody Archives)