Pierre Boulez’s path to total purity

Ivan Hewett in Prospect:

The death in January of Pierre Boulez at the age of 90 robbed the musical world of a great conductor, a brilliant polemicist and an agitator for musical modernism. He was also a charismatic and intransigent human being—charming and generous to those who shared his vision, but prepared to thwart those who did not.

That much is certain about Boulez. But there is also his other role, the one he would surely like to be remembered by: as a composer. Here the situation is less certain. His music was a part of his grand project to yoke all of contemporary music to the modernist ethos. He would lead the way, through his activities as conductor of major orchestras, head of a research institute and as a composer—and he fully expected the other Young Turks of post-war modernism like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio to march in step with him. Certainty had dissolved, the old hierarchies had crumbled and everyone had to work out their own salvation. According to Boulez, to adopt the musical grammar and manners of the past was reprehensible escapism.

If Boulez was right, then reprehensible escapism is now the condition of both classical and pop music. The past has never been more in vogue. “Will pop eat itself?” is a question often asked, as old pop albums haunt the charts and younger bands echo their elders. The outpouring of grief over David Bowie’s death is surely bound up with this sense that pop’s great days are behind it. The question could be asked about film music too, where the gestures of the genre’s golden age come round again and again. And it could be asked about classical music, where to be obsessed with the past, and to weave references to it into one’s own music, is almost de rigueur.

Some of this could justly be described as escapism. But not every reference to the past is reprehensible. On the contrary, it could be said that without some coherent connection to the past, artistic expression becomes impossible. The great exemplars of modernism, from TS Eliot to James Joyce to Arnold Schoenberg, were in love with the traditions they rebelled against. They proved time and again that a work of art can only join the tradition by reworking it from within. Simply mimicking the surface gestures of a great work leads to stale pastiche.

This would seem to make Boulez’s stance a simple misunderstanding.

More here.