Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Amidst the Notes: RIP Pierre Boulez & David Bowie

Pierre Boulez,
by Carlo Bavagnoli
I've been of two minds about the recent deaths of two leading figures in the world of music, Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), and David Bowie (1947-2016), mourning their deaths while also feeling the need to acknowledge key faults--which are not commensurate, let me be clear--that marked the characters of both. Both were musicians of original vision and talent, and born performers. Both left a deep mark not only in the musical cultures of their native countries but in the US and globally. Both wrote music that I turn and return to periodically, for differing but aesthetically and emotionally necessary reasons. So I feel sorrow and grief at their deaths, but at the same time, perhaps akin to the form of negative capability I maintain when reading certain writers like Wallace Stevens or T. S. Eliot, I keep in mind certain criticisms of them, even if the elation and admiration their music brings sometimes temporarily evacuates that criticism. (Keguro at "With(out) Predicates" offers one of his characteristically profound, moving and concise meditations on the necessary distinction between acknowledging the flaws of a deceased person and haranguing someone who is mourning that person as a way of forcing them to engage in such acknowledgement.)

Pierre Boulez was perhaps the towering figure in avant-garde Western classical music in the second half of the 20th century. He became one of the leading composers and judgmental exponents of new music, championing certain composers, especially those of his generation, as well as key figures in the French tradition, and the leader early 20th century modernists. He pursued a parallel career as a conductor, beginning in the 1950s, and perhaps most famously, led the New York Philharmonic from 1970-1975, a tenure that still provokes mixed reviews, though his focus on contemporary composers and the 20th century repertoire was undeniable, and remains unmatched by the Philharmonic even today, in 2016. His conducting style, without a baton and noted for its precision and clarity, brought the modernist composers Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Gustav Mahler, Bela Bartók, Maurice Ravel, and Edgard Varèse in particular to life. His own work showed their influences while moving in its own direction; just a few years ago I saw Messagésquisse performed at Columbia University, and it was more beautiful and stirring than any recording of it I'd ever listened to. Boulez, however, could be extremely harsh to the point of cruelty in his criticisms. He famously proclaimed Arnold Schoenberg "dead" at the end of an eponymous essay in which he trashed Schoenberg's failure to fully exploit the possibilities of the dodecaphonic system he had developed, and published the essay shortly after that pioneering composer died. Boulez cruelly described the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as "the third pressing...of Mahler," and cast Karl Amadeus Mozart off as "trite." His fallings out with fellow musicians, including his former teacher Leibowitz, and former experimental compatriots John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, are well recorded. He also apparently never publicly came out of the closet as a gay man, though some critics and many fellow musicians knew about his sexual orientation and relationships. I take all of this into account, but also point to his music itself, which at its best--and there are certainly high points--is the lasting testament of the man.

Pierre Boulez, Répons - Ensemble intercontemporain - Matthias Pintscher, conductor, 2015.

 Pierre Boulez, Messagesquisse - Eric-Maria Couturier - Ensemble intercontemporain, Matthias Pintscher, conductor, 2014.

David Bowie, 2016
David Bowie championed another kind of 20th century music, or several, rock & roll and soul-influenced pop. Born Robert Jones in Brixton, London, he initially launched his career in the late 1960s, and first made the charts with his song "Space Oddity," which introduced the figure Major Tom, whom Bowie would revisit later in his career. In the early 1970s, he created the queer, glam rock alter ego character Ziggy Stardust, the titular figure of his LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and transformed the public figure of the male rock icon through his overtly androgynous persona, which he concluded with Diamond Dogs. Throughout his career, Bowie remade himself, shifting into "plastic soul" in 1975, with the album Young Americans, which featured the overtly queer "John, I'm Only Dancing," one of my favorites, includes one of my favorite songs, and 1976's Station to Station, with the track "Golden Years," which he performed as one of the first white musicians on Soul Train. Subsequent shifts included the adoption of electronic elements and collaboration with Brian Eno, a stagy pop style with "Ashes to Ashes," and his biggest hit, which was one of the top tunes during my senior year of high school and freshman year in college, "Let's Dance." Bowie continued to record up through the final months before his death, issuing his final album, Blackstar, just days before he died. He acted in films, including the still striking and bizarre The Man Who Fell to Earth, an unforgettable vampire in The Hunger's sex trial, and an equally memorable Andy Warhol in the biopic Basquiat. David Bowie flirted with Nazism in his youth, adopting some of its trappings as a kind of fashion statement and aesthetic performance, and also had sex with an underage girl, the first of which I knew, the latter of which I didn't, and both disturb me tremendously. On the racist front, he did speak out more than once about the racism in the music industry, famously calling out MTV's overt discrimination while on air; as to whether the song China Girl is heard as something other than the Orientalism it ostensibly is a matter for others to uncover, and whether he ever atoned for what essentially involves the abuse of a teenager I cannot say. I can speak to the electric feeling I felt as an early adolescent watching him perform in a plastic suit, and later drag, with gender performers Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi, which I link to below.

David Bowie - Let's Dance, EMI Music.

David Bowie & Klaus Nomi - TVC15 & Boys Keep... by ZapMan69

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