Pierre Boulez died last week. I wrote this.
Last Tuesday, the French composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez, passed away at the age of 90. In the days since, I have been struggling to figure out what to say about the man — what could I possibly contribute to the conversation among the outpouring of emotion and collective grief expressed by the musical community? What could I, a young and inexperienced composer, have to say about one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century? Over the past few days obituaries have been printed in most major news outlets across the globe, YouTube comment sections have been filled with sympathetic R.I.P.s and the world’s leading orchestras have resolved to dedicate concerts to Boulez’s memory. Compared to what has already been said by those who knew and loved him, I fear that whatever I can contribute about Boulez will be inadequate — and yet I also feel that I must do my best to express what Boulez meant for me and my respect for the memory of such a legendary figure.
I did not grow up listening to Boulez — not even close — but I distinctly recall the first I heard of him. It was during the summer of 2013, and I was reading a book called “The Rest is Noise” (a title delightfully derived from Prince Hamlet’s dying words) by Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic. The book was recommended to me by my first composition teacher, and I devoured it with an eager enthusiasm that continued to grow the further I read. Ross’s book was a history of 20th century classical music which was both entertaining and filled with well constructed prose — and about three fifths of the way through, in a chapter aptly entitled “Brave New World,” a young and dashing Boulez burst onto the scene.
I can’t say that my first impression of Boulez was altogether favorable. I found the take-no-prisoners attitude of the young radical who showed up at Olivier Messiaen’s door in 1944 to be somewhat disconcerting, his extreme aesthetic pronouncements and condemnations of all music he deemed regressive to be off-putting. Given infamous statements such as “[A]ny musician who has not experienced — I do not say understood, but truly experienced — the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS,” I came to consider Boulez to be a bully (a view aided by the misconception that his name was properly pronounced “Bou-lay”), and his sonic creations seemed to me to be abrasive and cacophonous. And yet, I could not help but admire his passion, his single-mindedness of purpose and the purity of his artistic motives. Boulez was an extremely purposeful person, rushing forward into the no-man’s-land of unexplored sonic possibilities and daring others to follow him. And they did — Boulez soon became the leader of the avant-garde, his confidence in the veracity of his aesthetic ideas a comforting beacon of light in the post-war age of anxiety that was born in the looming shadow of the atomic bomb.
Boulez’s complex compositions and pointed polemics served him well in his youth, but as he grew as a musician, the tone of his philippics began to soften, and he began to contribute in different ways to the musical discourse. Gradually he began to conduct, becoming known as a director of great skill, notable for his eschewing the use of a baton. Before too long he was in demand as a conductor on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually equally as famous for his conducting as for his compositions. In the 70s he served as music director of the New York Philharmonic, an appointment which musical progressives hoped might drag the conservative orchestra into 20th century repertoire. Furthermore, Boulez founded numerous institutions of musical education and research, the most famous of which was the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, founded to study the science of music and sound, as well as to facilitate the composition of electroacoustic music.
In the intervening time between my reading of “The Rest is Noise” and now, my view of Boulez has gradually become far less harsh. While I still feel that many of his criticisms of other composers and particular aesthetics were unnecessarily scathing, I have come to value his unique contribution to the great debate of ideas in a way that I did not in the past. And while I am still not as well acquainted with his music as I think I should be, I have begun to listen to it much more — what I once found strident and strange I now hear as beautiful, nuanced and interesting (a shift in aesthetic preference which is mirrored by a gradual modernist encroachment into my own music).
Part of the reason that my view of Boulez has shifted so much is because I have observed his fingerprints everywhere. I recently became interested in the composer Kaija Saariaho; as a young woman she studied at IRCAM. Two months ago, for this publication, I interviewed the composer Tod Machover about his “Symphony in D”; Machover served as the first director of musical research at IRCAM, and thus worked intimately with Boulez. The two were close enough that Machover published an obituary for Boulez in The Washington Post. I have heard from some of my instrumentalist friends that on Tuesday Kenneth Kiesler, the conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra, briefly stopped rehearsal, saying “I’m sorry, today has been a hard day for me — my teacher died.”
This past summer, I studied composition at the Tanglewood Institute in Massachusetts. Three of my fellow student composers there idolized Boulez with a reverence that stopped just short of constructing an altar, a fact which was easily recognizable in their music. All of us hoped that we might one day have the opportunity to meet the master. But we realized this would have to happen quickly, telling each other — only half in jest — that “he is likely to die any day now.”
This expectation didn’t do much to stifle the surprise, however, when the prophecy was fulfilled. It was an odd feeling to know that a figure like Boulez was a part of the same world which I inhabit — however distant from me that he was — and that then he wasn’t. A few weeks ago I was reading about Boulez in “A Concise History of Modern Music” by Paul Griffiths — and then a few mornings past I was reading Paul Griffiths’s Boulez obituary in The New York Times. Scrolling through the list of other articles of his — which bear titles like “Karlheinz Stockhausen, Influential Composer, Dies at 79” and “Gyorgy Ligeti, Central-European Composer of Bleakness and Humor, Dies at 83” — I think I have discovered what is most affecting about Boulez’s death for me.
Boulez was a remnant of an age of stunning musical innovation, a member of a rapidly diminishing group of 20th century greats who still walk the Earth. To Griffiths’s list of deceased composers I could add Gunther Schuller, Robert Ward, Elliott Carter, Lukas Foss, Luciano Berio, Lou Harrison and William Albright — all of whom died within my lifetime — and such giants as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Olivier Messiaen and John Cage just a few years before I was born. I have no doubt that this age too will produce its share of greats, but my reverence for the accomplishments of past is such that I feel melancholy when the living links to them begin to wear away.
When figures from the past begin their eternal residency in the past, succumbing to the inexorable march of time and age, I can’t help but reflect upon the transitory nature of all that we are and do, that our acts that will live on only in the memories of others — and so with reverence we consign Boulez, like so many others, to memory and to the all encompassing arms of history.