The death of Pierre Boulez on January 5 was quickly overshadowed by the death of David Bowie a few days later. Bowie was the talk of my newsroom for an afternoon, and of course, none of my co-workers had ever heard of Boulez. Even many of my classically trained Facebook friends had more to say and more posts to make about the flamboyantly pansexual rock star than the quietly asexual composer and conductor.
Though I never actively followed Bowie’s career, I always felt his presence: He seem to lurk in the background of my life, on the jukebox in my high school cafeteria, on the car radio, or on the television. Taking inventory after he died, however, I realized the only Bowie song I have in my entire music collection is a cover ― Rickie Lee Jones’ version of “Rebel, Rebel” on the album Stuart’s Coat. It’s my favorite Bowie song, and guitar riff has been stuck in my mind for days. Yet I’m certain than when it finally leaves me alone, my strongest memory of Bowie will remain his unexpected, and hilarious, appearance on the Looney Tunes 50th anniversary special:
Boulez, on the other hand, became a central figure in my musical life early on, first as a conductor, and only later as a composer. His name appears throughout my record and CD collections as the leader of treasured performances of Berg, Carter, Debussy, Mahler, Ravel, Schoenberg , Webern and Zappa. I first saw him conduct in New York City in 1974, when directed the New York Philharmonic in Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. (The Ives centenary was celebrated that year.) Three years later, I attended the premiere of Carter’s wonderful Symphony of Three Orchestras, also with Boulez and the Philharmonic, and in 1986, I saw him lead the Ensemble InterContemporain in the US premiere of Carter’s Penthode at Avery Fisher Hall. (His recording, released in 1990, unfortunately does not capture the charm of the live performance.)
As regards his compositions, it seems I have been on the verge of truly appreciating them for years. Every so often, I’ll listen to some of them, like what I hear, and then go on about my business. Certainly, he was precocious, influential, and most important, good. Already in the 1950s, with Le Marteau sans Maitre, he had mastered an idiom that Elliott Carter would turn to his own purposes only years later. Robert Craft's recording of the piece, on Columbia, was epoch-making, to be sure, but Boulez' own, made half a century later for DGG, is gorgeous. I will, in the coming days, continue to explore the discography, and, I hope to come away with a deeper understanding of a composer who lived long but departed too soon.