Cacophonix is dead

Enrique Sacau
viernes, 15 de enero de 2016
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In the aftermath of September 11 76-year-old composer and conductor Pierre Boulez was arrested at a Swiss hotel. The frantic search for anything that smelled of terrorism led the police everywhere to make some hasty decisions; a few decades earlier Boulez had declared that all opera houses ought to be blown up, so accusing him of terrorism made sense, somehow. Being arrested could not but please the old composer, whose public persona rested on the idea of being a musical revolutionary: he was, after all, one of the leaders of the European post-war avant-garde.

Boulez had indeed devoted most of his life to defending the idea of a new music for a new time. After the zero hour, with Europe destroyed by war and shocked by images of concentration camps and the devastation of Japan, the old cultural regime had to go whilst audiences had to be confronted and provoked. In their quest for new sounds, these young avant-garde priests alienated musicians, audiences and some critics alike with gusto. They soon managed to get the moral and intellectual upper hand, however, and could afford to sneer at their less experimental peers – Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich spring to mind.

That their music was very often favoured by the political and cultural establishment (including the CIA, which used it as part of their cultural propaganda efforts in Western Europe – the Swiss police missed this crucial point) and yet disliked by concert goers, was a contradiction made possible by the welfare state. Like Cacophonix the bard in the French comic Asterix, Boulez was a state-sponsored composer. Not many wanted to listen but he could go about his business without having to worry about selling his product in the open market. The brutes could eat wild boar and dance around the fire whilst Boulez was given the means to experiment and play.

His presence was sought after by avant-garde festivals and, as he climbed to the top, he counted on the generous sponsorship of the French state to establish and run his own “research” institute – Boulez’s own version of the bard’s tree, l’IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), was dreamed up by President Georges Pompidou and entrusted to him. Music was not primarily for the sensual enjoyment of the listeners but for the advancement of science and art and had a high moral purpose: research was a must, as was teaching and writing about music, which Boulez did most extensively in one of the temples of the avant-garde, the Darmstadt festival.

Pierre Boulez aliñando una ensalada en su casa de campo de Saint Michel l'Observatoire. Pierre Boulez tossing a salad at his country house in Saint Michel l'Observatoire. © Jack Garofalo

Technology, which ended the war in Japan, was a key tool in this project and music had to establish itself as an eminently intellectual form of high culture – opera houses, with their mink-clad audiences, had no room in this new world. Pieces were composed following mathematical principles and the notes of the series had to be used in a certain order; gadgets were devised to assess how progressive a work was. “Who cares if you listen?” was a line attributed (as it turns out, wrongly) to Milton Babbit, one of Boulez’s fellow travellers, but Boulez was the most famous of them all and the longest-living, as well as one of the most stylistically diverse. He tried integral serialism, electronic and aleatoric music and never left anyone indifferent.

The end of the Cold War dealt a blow to some of his ideas. Some questioned the avant-garde’s links to Western propaganda efforts; others called it elitist; postmodern ways of thinking about music advocated a return to the enjoyment of the public. Classical music was losing ground to the world of pop and Boulez wasn’t helping, said his critics. American feminist musicologist Susan McClary called the avant-garde chauvinistic and declared its “terminal prestige”; in the words of Berkeley scholar Richard Taruskin, the “disquieting questions” of the zero hour found, at the hands of the Boulezian avant-garde, no less “disquieting answers”.

 The early 1990s witnessed fierce battles between the orthodoxy of Boulez and the critics who questioned his grip on the French musical world – dictating style, doling out money and influencing decisions. The self-styled revolutionaries were accused of conservatism, newspapers took sides, complex issues discussed (anti-Semitism popped out a lot), court cases fought and even French moderate newspaper Le monde was sued at one point by the author of Requiem pour une avant-garde. The avant-garde had served the propaganda purposes of the democratic centre-left everywhere, of Francisco Franco’s technocratic governments in 1960s Spain and of the CIA, amongst others. Scrutiny and criticism were inevitable.

Yet Boulez transcended his own movement and his prestige has endured. He was too big a cultural figure. Some of his own pieces did seem to be at odds with his own agenda. What could the “gorgeous sounds” (in the late Charles Rosen’s words) of Pli selon pli and Répons have to do with a brainy, scientific approach to music composition? Weren’t his critics trying to dehumanise him?

Boulez was also a successful conductor – one mostly devoted to the music of composers who were traditionally considered to be progressive. His Bartok, Debussy, Mahler and Wagner recordings are testimonies of a style of conducting and show a hard-working musician with a clear idea of what he was looking to achieve. Conducting music that most considered more agreeable, he won the respect of the world’s best orchestras who invited him to conduct until the end. He also won 26 Grammy awards.

Elegantly donning his polo-neck jumpers, he was and looked like the consummate French Cold War intellectual. More than that, he defined the type. He worked hard, travelled tirelessly and shared his warm smile with many. Now he’s probably discussing what he sees as the crowd-pleasing mediocrity of 21st-century music with the choirs of heaven. He may be upsetting some angels but he will canvass the support he needs to kick a few tyres, renovate the repertoire and get the world of the dead to listen to his ideas, if maybe not to his music. Britten and Shostakovich who art in heaven, beware the competition. At 90 the last of a kind has left our cultural world.


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