Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/6/16: Boulez's Messagesquisse

It's just my luck that the week I decide to start writing about music regularly again is the week that Pierre Boulez dies. Whatever else Boulez was, he was one of my true betes noires. The more I've listened, the more I've read, the more I've become relatively experienced, the more I just don't like his music, or the man who wrote it.
It's fascinating that he followed Leonard Bernstein as director of the New York Philharmonic - both were visionaries of a type, but both had visions of music that are diametrically opposed. Lenny's was inclusive, all-embracing, connected to the world and determined to show the world why classical music matters. Boulez's was sterile, shut out from the world in a coterie of admirers who by and large believed that because the authority figure said it, it was true. He claimed he was the solution to classical music's moribund state, but in many ways, he defined its principle problem.
Part of my reason for detesting Boulez so much is that I'm an ex-convert, and nobody hates with equivalent passion of someone who used to love. I first seriously encountered Boulez around the age of sixteen. I purchased his book, Orientations, and it was a revelation. I was sick of being a classical geek whose music was condescended to by peers as something soft and conservative and unrebellious. Here was, finally, somebody who wouldn't take that shit. Everybody has their ways of rebellion, some are weirder than others, one of my ways of rebelling was to shelve my Tchaikovsky, my Sibelius, even my beloved Brahms and Dvorak, all because this was Boulez's prescription, and replacing it with Ligeti, Messiaen, Berio, and Boulez. Ligeti, Berio, and Messiaen all took...

Boulez talked of a musical revolution in which classical music is no longer a cultural backwater but a light unto art again, and he said, rightly, that we're a backwater because we never moved into the twentieth century. He's exactly right, the problem was, whose twentieth century? Boulez's? I'm not even sure Boulez's music is preferable to The Beatles.
Frankly, Boulez's music sounds like it was written by the Rand Corporation. In that sense, and many others, he was indistinguishable from many high atonal composers. There may be some expressive value in such composition, but I've tried very hard to see it, and I really don't. Many people say that the problem with music like Boulez's is that we simply don't understand and if we hear it more often we will - but that puts the burden of proof on the wrong side of the stage. Audiences always need to be challenged, they are not present, however, to take dictation.
There is no doubt that Boulez was as talented a musician as it gets; a truly gifted conductor - if sometimes unfeeling - and a truly wonderful programmer of concerts and festivals as well, provided that the music corresponded to his preciously narrow view of what music was supposed to do. As a composer he even had a good ear for tone color.
His genius, however, was in self-publicity and polemic, and for a half-century he managed to cow the entire music world in self-defeating fear as he claimed to show that all those who did not take to his twelve-tone system of composition were reactionaries. In Europe, where composers were picking up the pieces of a broken European tradition, this was a plausible, logical development - and among the European musical community, Boulez died an avuncular, almost beloved, figure. In America, which has little such tradition, it's nonsensical, and thousands of composition students were prevented from achieving their individual voice because they had to write music that corresponded to the European atonality in vogue here for so long which has so little to do with the American experience. He was such a persuasive advocate for narrow point of view that tens of thousands of musicians believed him. He was, in his way, a great thinker and theorist, that does not mean that his theories were correct, or that they did not do enormous damage.

Like all utopian promises, the avant-garde utopia Pierre Boulez promised has not come, nor will it ever. The reason Pierre Boulez was so valued was because the talent pool of Western classical music was so severely depleted - by war, by extermination, by popular culture - that we were desperate for any musician with vision, however destructive that vision may be.
He was, in a phrase, so much about classical music which I loathe. I'll end this by saying something Boulez would never have said about recently departed enemies: May he rest in peace, and may his memory be a blessing for the joy (if it was joy) that he brought others.
I'm linking to the one piece of his I still adore: Messagesquisse, a virtuoso thrill ride for seven cellos. When I was writing a still unfinished quartet for four cellos more than a year ago (only the first movement got performed), I was hearing this piece in the back of my head: along with Ives, Bartok, Bizet, Villa-Lobos, Shostakovich, Part, Golijov, and others too, most of whom Boulez would like to have banned from our ears.

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