Boulez and the new, getting old (Or ‘Boulez is not dead, yet’).

For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking recently about, in need of ‘clever-er’ words, “newness” and “oldness”. Last night I travelled to London to hear two of the concerts in the latest series of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s inspired and inspiring Total Immersion days. It was in celebration of the former enfant terrible of classical music, Pierre Boulez, and his 90th Birthday.

Boulez is a figure rich in paradox, caught in the inevitable tension between newness and oldness. The concerts seemed a conscious celebration of this. Of course it is easy to point out – and many do – that for a man who once famously said the solution to the problem of opera was to blow up the opera houses, he’s ended up conducting an awful lot of opera, in those very opera houses. While his youthful inaction on this point proved prudent, I wonder – in these fearful times – if security is still nervous when he takes to the podium.

Additionally, for someone whose famous public statements are so unequivocal (see ‘Schoenberg is dead’), if self-contradictory, and dedicated to the idea of moving forward – the modernist imperative – his compositional output is not only defined by equivocation and revision, but is largely created by this very process.

The concerts, however, highlight something more interesting for me about the impossibility of newness and oldness, and the uncomfortableness of being strung up between them.

The afternoon concert I attended was at LSO St. Luke’s, and it’s worth meditating for a moment on that space itself.  As a home for complex and elegant music, old and new, you couldn’t conjure a better venue. At one time an abandoned, roofless church re-claimed by nature and balanced on structurally dubious ground, St. Luke’s was adopted and renovated by the LSO as a hub for its education and community work. So the space is as ideologically appealing as it is architecturally. Its history is a palpable feature of the current design. Original details from the church, encased in glass, gild the main performance space, and you would be excused for thinking, from the outside, that the worshippers hurriedly making their way inside were preparing for the weekly service. I won’t further incite you with a ‘concert hall as temple’ allusion. Promise. This was also the first time I had been conscious of the numerous (sound-proof) windows which can extend the space into the surrounding churchyard, and the strange and beautiful motion of mute passers-by, visible through these windows during performance.

For a music which was forged in and once sold itself on the idea of interiority, It was a welcome relief to have light streaming in from the outside – a break from the usual London Grey – and moving reminders of the world literally, so metaphorically, outside the concert hall. It begged the question, what does this old ‘new music’ sound like in the light of day? The program notes for the day made clear that the caricature of musical modernism with its philosophical interiority has been both earnestly espoused and pointedly eschewed by Boulez during his life. While he experimented with integral serialism, intellectually and musically,  as a young man, there is also a playful ambivalence to musical stricture which occupies much more of his output.

Boulez’s 12 Notations (1945) for solo piano, which closed the concert at St.Luke’s gently mocks one aspect of modernist dogma. Written out of frustration with lessons in serialism from Leibowitz they belligerently cling to dodecophonic orthodoxy (12 pieces, each 12 bars long), but also do much more, demonstrating the inherent flexibility of this approach and its potential expressivity. The young Boulez’s crucial insight was that this is Method, not Aesthetic, ultimately banal unless also approached with musical insight, which is exactly what the pieces have. The performance was given, from memory, with the delicate precision of a clockmaker and the wit of a cabaret singer by Alexander Soares. They are pieces made or broken by their delivery. Boulez is not, always, taking this seriously, even if the youtube comments seem to have missed this point. For many, Boulez could be the archetypical king of the modernist ivory tower. Schoenberg is dead, long live Schoenberg. But the diversity of colour, tone and expression across the concerts shows how 1-dimensional this portrait is. The problem is that this portrait is, to a certain degree, a self-portrait and so sometimes difficult to overcome.

The fear of the Idea of Scary Modern Music is perhaps the most challenging aspect which faces new classical music.  In 2013 the BBC ran a fascinating series on classical music in the 20th Century, the frustrating part of which was that it was called The Sound and the Fury and seemed intent on starting from the point of view that this music was ‘challenging’ that it needed taming, and we needed to tolerate it, or perhaps better, erase much of it. The result of this approach? I’ve never been less convinced of the premiss of the initial truism. The musical discourse in the series has never sounded more melodic, more consonant, more ‘accessible’. I will refrain from passing more comment on the intellectual discourse beyond saying why ANYONE would ask Eric Whitacre’s perspective on Schoenberg is completely beyond me, though I certainly know why no one would care about it. (After all, who cares if you listen, right?) This music is not new anymore, it’s not terrifying, nor need the new be terrifying. It can be refreshing, uplifting which is how it was to hear Boulez’s old music anew.

For me the highlight of the two concerts came in the form of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted with characteristic precision and conviction by Thierry Fischer, with Boulez’s Notations for orchestra. These movements, written in 1978, though characteristically ‘revised’ in 1997, began life in the 12 Notations heard earlier in the afternoon (leading to the seemingly irrational double numbering of the movements), though are a completely different experience. It’s too easy to speculate that the pleasing triviality of youth has been replaced by the sophisticated solemnity of maturity, but in context it’s difficult to reconcile the qualitative difference between these namesake pieces if not by their comparative ‘oldness’ and ‘newness’.

As a sidebar to oldness and newness, hearing Notations II (fifth in the sequence) live was an absolute revelation. Of course it’s a remarkable piece in recording, but there is something acutely different about hearing live orchestral music to hearing it recorded. It is the difference between climbing the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and viewing a great Ansel Adams picture. It also strikes me that this is music which, to my ears, resists spotify. Thinking about the future, I wonder what the cost of this resistance is? Is it obscurity? Of course only time will tell, but I have to be optimistic, and while ever people want to experience live music, it seems to me that intricate and thrilling music which might not translate to a ‘playlist’ mindset (earset?) will be of interest to lots, and revered by many.

As a birthday present , the day was a wonderful offering, and yet, by Boulez’s own logic, this Total Immersion day should be an attack on everything he holds dear. The imperative to move forward is explicitly linked, in his rhetoric, to a destruction of what has been, however, a music which defines itself by the new, consigns itself to the old. It is a philosophical, and moral position for Boulez to reject old music, so why dwell in what has been? Perhaps his constant revising is not, as would seem intuitive, a process of ‘going back’, but instead a personal process of destroying what has been. If The Author is truly dead maybe we can ignore some of Boulez’s rhetoric, even when he’s very much alive, and salvage what we want from the wreckage of works. There’s plenty worth salvaging, both old and new. So I’m left asking is the lesson don’t live long enough for your rhetoric to be become historical context or don’t say outrageous things? At the very least if you’re in charge of painting your own portrait, don’t paint yourself into an unhelpful corner with it. Kyle Gann recently described the much revered piece of Boulez ‘Le marteau sans maître’ as a “lackluster youthful indiscretion”.  Is Boulez’s rhetoric of ‘old and new’ just lacklustre youthful indiscretion too? If so, it doesn’t seem to have beautifully matured in the way the music has.

Perhaps it’s just a ‘frustrating-delightful’, irresolvable thing, where we are perpetually left hanging between oldness and newness, until the question itself becomes so boring that we can just listen to the pieces and be discerning about the ones we like. Is it a boring question, yet?

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Boulez and the new, getting old (Or ‘Boulez is not dead, yet’).

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