Boulez, Looking Back, Looking Forward

I woke up yesterday morning to early posts of Pierre Boulez obituaries. He was nearly 91, a venerable master of his craft and a giant of 20th-century music. Boulez was brilliant—I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. Still, I’ve never cared much for his music. For a time, pieces like Le marteau sans maître represented everything I disliked about being a graduate student in composition. (I appreciate the music better these days, but it’s not something I go out of my way to hear.) I dismissed Boulez as a polemicist, both in the music he wrote and what he wrote about music (in part because as a composition student you don’t hear much about it beyond the infamous “Schoenberg is dead”).

That began to change when it became clear Boulez’s work as music director of the New York Philharmonic would need to feature prominently in my dissertation. He was the counterbalance to “Downtown” composers going “Uptown”—his Prospective Encounters series did something of the opposite. The geographical and musical tension—and the power dynamics that lay beneath it—were the foundation for my research. Without Boulez, my dissertation might have been just another ramble through the youth of minimalism.

It’s been odd to read and hear Boulez stories in the last few days. He eventually made peace with parts of the establishment that he had spent his youth railing against. Especially as a conductor, his reputation blossomed after 1977, the year he left New York (and my dissertation). The remembrances I’ve seen today are colored by his years at IRCAM and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Journalists and friends alike have written about his warmth, his humor, his willingness to take time to talk about his craft.

That’s a mighty contrast to the image of Boulez painted on his arrival in New York. Then, he was the chilly demagogue arriving suddenly from France (only months after saying he would not take the New York Philharmonic job if it was offered), a man who inspired angry letters to the Times, some of them from American composers he’d directly or indirectly insulted. The New York Times published a long piece in 1973 titled “The Iceberg Conducteth.” Philharmonic players spoke anonymously to reporters about how Boulez couldn’t “perform.” (He had the misfortune to succeed the often lax, grandiose Leonard Bernstein at the Phil.) When he departed for IRCAM in 1977, critics tended to damn with faint praise, with Harold Schonberg’s complaint typical: “Going to his concerts was like taking a pill. It was good for you, but not an event you looked forward to with great anticipation.”

On the same occasion, the Village Voice’s Leighton Kerner wrote: “They blew it. The New York Philharmonic blew it. The audiences blew it. The critics blew it. The musicians’ union blew it. And Pierre Boulez blew it.” The title of that piece, though, was “Boulez, the Philharmonic, and What Might Have Been.” Kerner recognized what I eventually came to understand over the course of my research: that Boulez had tried to make a real change in what the Philharmonic meant, what new music meant to New York audiences (and American audiences more generally). I remember being shocked, a year or so into the project, finding myself defending Boulez (whose music I’ve never liked) over Bernstein (who wrote some of my favorite works) in casual conversation. I was defending him not in terms of composition or conducting, but in terms of what he had done to make new music matter to people. Bernstein’s goals always seemed more general to me, more content to leverage existing institutions and practices in the same way that systems had always been worked.

Pierre Boulez tried to change that…and did. The programming changes he made in New York didn’t really survive his departure, but that doesn’t make them meaningless. (It also says nothing about his subsequent work at IRCAM and elsewhere.) I can’t agree with all of his ideas about music, but I admire the conviction with which he pursued putting them into practice.

This all happened the week I bring in the hard copy of my dissertation to wave at my English IV classes. We’re doing research projects and some of my seniors are freaking out because five to eight pages is the most they’ve ever been asked to write. When I show them 392 pages of body text, a nine-page bibliography, and another 20-ish pages of appendices and front material, they look at me like I’m showing them a picture of myself on the moon or riding a narwhal or BASE-jumping off an erupting volcano. It just doesn’t compute. (Incidentally, they did not have nearly the same freak out about my NaNo victory.) With the dissertation at my desk, I was able to reread work that seems surprisingly distant just three years after I finished it.

Skimming through it and reading what I had written about Boulez, I realized something: I want students to share the experience I had with him. It’s not that I want them to go look at 40-year-old newspaper articles or read obituaries about a Frenchman whose music they’re unlikely ever to hear. I want them to have that experience of learning something that changes their thinking. Those old newspapers and concert programs and interviews changed the way I thought about Boulez. Writing a dissertation changed the way I thought about a lot of things. Research matters.

That, I think, is an opinion I can happily share with the late maestro.

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