Ziggy bites the stardust and the End of the planet of Boulez.*
Sometimes the death of two famous people forms a chance junction of intertextuality that one would not normally ponder. At least not if your sane.
We could probably not imagine two more different musical personalities than Pierre Boulez and David Bowie. The former firmly rooted in academic contemporary music and musical politics, the latter an extroverted glam-rocker who succesfully and ingeniously transcended the barren limits of commercial music. The former a member of the three composer club that is most often associated with „New Music“, together with Stockhausen and Nono, the latter a member of a three singer club of independent recording artists that expanded the Pop Music universe with aspirations of art, together with Frank Zappa and Peter Gabriel (who is still alive and singing).
Zappa and Boulez collaborated of course, but it is probable that it was Zappa who selected Boulez instead of the other way round. I actually nearly wrote an article „Did Boulez actually like Frank Zappa?“, but speculating on such things seems morbid now. It is clear that Zappa admired Boulez, though, and that Boulez‘ analytical approach to music fascinated him as a composer who also couldn’t be called particularly „emotional“, whatever that means. Zappa, like Boulez, was outspoken and ascerbic in his interviews and lectures. One can see where the attraction came from.
Perhaps it is not surprising that there was relatively little emotion visible in the obituaries for Boulez. A lot of respect and admiration, of course, but surprisingly little talk about Boulez as a human being, as a friend. In fact only Jörg Widmann dared to call him „a close friend“, but left it at that without saying anything about it, and that’s interesting because the public probably knows as little about the private life of Widmann as it knows about Boulez. By all accounts (and also in my impression when I met him once) Boulez was extremely detached and in control in public appearances, but you could not really read him. What and whom did he love, what were his secret passions? We will never know, and we also don’t have to know, because it’s not our business.
The most common descriptions of his music always use the words „cristalline“ or even „cold“ when describing the layers of complexity that he was interested in. Of the aforementioned „triad“ of composers he was probably the least passionate and the most analytical, with Nono being more interested in theatricality and staging in contrast, and Stockhausen being interested in only his own world.
Who will prove to be the most influential of the three for future generations? I might wager it will be the invisible fourth member, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, but that is another story.
Why does the death of David Bowie touch me so much more personally? I’m not even the biggest Bowie fan – there were always songs that I liked but I think a lot of his work just passed me by. This is due to a personal ignorance that I adapted in the late 70’s and early 80’s (which were doubtlessly Bowie most scintillating musical period), because I was discovering the world of contemporary music instead. Now I feel sorry, and am quite a latecomer to discovering the great musical importance of an album like „Low“ for example. But better late than never.
The New Music snobs usually make light of pop music in general, but what they don’t understand is that David Bowie is intellectually on the same level with Boulez. In contrast to Boulez who got a bit lost in politics and conducting as a creative artist later in his career (limiting his output to a relatively small oeuvre that he constantly revised and revised again), Bowie was – at least until the late 90’s – a powerhouse of creativity throughout his career.
What I really like about Bowie’s work is the ability to constantly adapt and re-invent, to constantly seek new collaborations that brought new challenges to him as a musician, to constantly be at the vanguard of stylistic developments. His self-irony and ability to mock himself sometimes make him vanish behind his works – on one hand he was the glamorous and androgynous extroverted performer (and also very good actor, when he had time for it), on the other hand people usually underestimated the hard work and sweat that came with it, and that he was actually a multi-instrumentalist and fine singer with amazing technique.
Most importantly though he showed that it is not necessary to sell out in Pop Music, that – if you have the will and the spirit and the talent for it – you can actually do what you want and wherever your imagination takes you. You don’t have to write 3-minute songs with easy refrains, you don’t have to suck up to the suits, you don’t have to sell yourself under value to succeed. Musically there are many differences between Zappa, Gabriel and Bowie, but they all are the eponymous „independent“ pop artists, with both number one hits and success without the hype of any major label. In that respect Bowie was actually much more independent in the truest sense of the word than Boulez, and this is why there is not only admiration but genuine love for him by his fans.
The last two decades it was a kind of joke among my friends if the new Bowie album was „good again“ or not. If one said it was good the other said it was bad and vice versa. But with his last two albums he kind of came to his own again. Many people will listen to „Blackstar“ now, exactly as everybody listened to John Lennon’s last album when he died, and I am doing it as well, but even from a critical high-brow contemporary music viewpoint this is definitely interesting, unusual and challenging music. Never mind the pop critics who call it „post-prog-rock“ (I think pop music critics call everything „prog“ that has more than three chords these days, such is the state of pop criticism), it is Bowie’s own and better for that. I urge you to listen to it.
(a track that starts out with one of the weirdest drum accompaniments ever recorded)
I also wish one could make fun of Boulez like of David Bowie in this wonderful „Flight of the Chonchords“ – video (which Bowie surely has secretly enjoyed, being the cool guy he was):
There is little humorous about Boulez. Will there ever be a valid Boulez parody? Are there Boulez anecdotes?
I think what makes Bowie so much more accessible is his ability to fail, probably best proven by his infamous song „The little gnome“
…which he made fun of himself here:
Could Boulez have done that, admit something embarassing and stand by it? Can you imagine Boulez in glam-rock outfit, streaking across the stage of Bayreuth and telling the Wagner-Nazis to f*** off? (now there’s a thought). Can you imagine Pierre Boulez dancing with puppets and an incredible crotch-bulge in a film like „Labyrinth“?
(this is one of the most bizarre music videos ever made! Embarassing and fascinating in equal measures)
Bowie has done all this, and still was one of the coolest and most beautiful persons on the planet (so cool that he actually refused to be knighted – „Sir Bowie“ would have been too uncool).
But on the other hand the analytical mind of Boulez could have saved Bowie from some dark distractions and detours, from drugs and incredibly stupid statements like „the need for a new right“ and a new „Adolf Hitler“, which Bowie later said was simply inane drugged babble during a confused period. Boulez might have said things that got wrongly remembered and misinterpreted (bombing opera houses anyone?) but he was always on top of his game when verbally delivering something.
But whatever we might wish for, that magic album in the sky called „Bowie and Boulez“ has never been produced, has never been played and never been sold. It belongs to another, perhaps better parallel universe.
It might be possible to visit it if we remember the one most important thing: that art can be free. If it wants to be.
You will be remembered.
* Pierre Boulez was often mispronounced in a way that made it sound like Pierre Boulle, the author of „Planet of the Apes“.