Monday, June 13, 2011

Hasn't he run out of his "Get Out Of Jail Free Cards" already?

Here's another interview with Pierre Boulez including his inevitable sign-off line:

That is why, if I am healthy enough, I will now devote my time to compose (sic).

I'm sorry, but he's now publicly made this promise to retire from the podium and spend his full-time composing for just about the n-thousandth time in the past 40 years, and boys crying wolf do not get more believable with repetition. Leonard Bernstein was also famous making the same un-kept plan (and more recently Lorin Maazel has made similar announcements of intentions to abandon conducting for composing which he has similarly not kept, instead just moving on to the next music directorship.) Let's face it, the primary gig for these gents is conducting. They get paid very well for it, people like to see them on the stage, orchestras like working with them, and they actually appear to enjoy making music with high quality bands all around the world. Agonizing alone in a garret over a score is a different experience altogether. With Boulez, as with Bernstein, composing is a sideline, and there's nothing wrong with that. Blaming a successful conducting career for any faults in ones composing — whether of quality or of quantity — just doesn't wash.

So when Boulez compains about the work of colleagues like this:

But it represents creative exhaustion. If you spend a whole piece repeating just one chord [as Glass tends to do] it's like being in a red room, and staying in it for your whole life.

It is entirely keeping with the same spirit of criticism to ask if a career spent working with a handful of techniques developed in the 1950s — and saturated with those 0 1 6 chords — is also a lot like being stuck in a (insert your color here) room for a goddamn long time. While Boulez's music has certainly gained some polish over the years — and his practical experience with orchestras was certainly responsible for much of this polish — it is a perfectly legitimate question to wonder about the lack of development on a deeper musical and intellectual level in Boulez's music. And no, the interference of a conducting career is not an excuse. That stack of Get Out Of Jail Free cards ran out a long time ago.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think it’s ridiculous to see a clueless French bureaucrat make pronouncements about the state of contemporary music.

True, he had studied music, had written something along the way, and is a slightly-above-average, second rate, conductor (certainly not the level of Bernstein or even Roger Norrington). He probably has enough influence to get a young composer performed once or twice, help out with a grant. That’s about it.

Does this background entitle one to criticize Philip Glass, who is making tons of money from royalties? That’s not the point.

This remotely resembles Russian prime-minister Vladimir Putin’s opening word to the participants of the Tchaikovsky competition, pronounced yesterday, meaningless and generic.

Certainly, the point of the organizers, first and foremost Valeri Gergiev, a very intense and convincing conductor, was to use Putin to try to restore the profile of the once influential competition, to draw additional attention.

From a commercial standpoint, it’s a valid and reasonable transaction: Putin gets additional spin (so needed because of approaching elections, and the rapid decline of the popularity of his party “Edinaya Rossiya”, dubbed by critics “The Party of crooks and thieves”), Gergiev reaches a broader and higher-level audience, arguably raises the profile of the competition.

Yet, returning from my dacha this morning and listening to one of the competitors play Beethoven’s Appassionata, I kept thinking to myself: “Ok, this is good for promoting classical music, but how does it feel to play this piece, knowing we have recordings by masters like Emil Gilels”?

Sounds like an unanswered question to me, although I am in favor of educational potential of the competition.

These days, politics are much more important in Russia than art. Yet, I think music is about order. Order which defeats chaos, the chaos of post-Soviet life.

Ultimately, I think Putin, who tried to capitalize on the order-generating and chaos-extinguishing capacity of music, and of art in general, will lose his monopoly on power.

"Edinaya Rossiya" is losing its ability to orchestrate the political process in Rusisa.

Repetition may be a valid technique in music - up to a certain point, which the artist determines for herself based on her taste, intuition, and skill.

But repetition of the political cycle in Russia is starting to resemble what Bill Murray felt in "Groundhog Day".

It may be fun to watch from the outside, but it's certainly not fun to experience.