It’s Boulez vs Bowie at the Paris Philharmonie

It’s Boulez vs Bowie at the Paris Philharmonie


norman lebrecht

April 14, 2015

There are two parallel exhibitions, one for the French power-player who caused the new hall to be built, the other for a mass-culture British hero.

The local musos are not happy. Read why.

davidbowie2 vs boulez


  • Mark Stratford says:

    Poor old Boulez must be very ill if he can’t go to see the exhibition or the new hall which he lobbied for so vigorously.

    Does anybody know anything of him – is he in his Baden Baden estate, or maybe hospital ?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Both ‘composers’ share their position of being outside classical music as a genre, so from that point of view there is no difference between them. Both are equally non-musical in an artistic sense.

    • David says:

      I would disagree. Some of Bowie’s albums, especially the trilogy Heroes, Low and Lodger are masterpieces (especially the first two, which are decades ahead of their time and incredibly bold). I’d also include Scary Monsters as a great album. Classical music it is not, but that does not in the least diminish its artistic value, as Bowie’s music remains so much more enjoyable than most of the contemporary music written in the past 40 years — most of which will be eventually relegated to a mere historical or academic curiosity mostly driven by trends and orthodoxies which very few had the courage to question. I would think a piece such as Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, though, will definitely survive, as it remains music that speaks to us.

      • John Borstlap says:

        “……. as Bowie’s music remains so much more enjoyable than most of the contemporary music written in the past 40 years — most of which will be eventually relegated to a mere historical or academic curiosity mostly driven by trends and orthodoxies which very few had the courage to question.”

        Fully agree. And people who did have that courage, were simply labelled ‘conservative’ as to not have to deal with the arguments.

        “… I would think a piece such as Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, though, will definitely survive, as it remains music that speaks to us.”

        In Sinfonia, Berio uses bits of music, that’s why it is – at places – expressive. The famous ‘collage-movement’ though, seems to be rather a brilliant but meaningless trick.

    • jaypee says:

      Ignorance and snobism are the two worst ennemies of music.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I fully agree, in the sense of:

        “Ignorance”: as about fundamental distinctions in the field of culture

        “Snobbism”: as attempts to see culture with egalitarian glasses

        Both impediments betray the wish to enthrone bad taste on the place, initially reserved for real achievement.

        • jaypee says:

          “Both impediments betray the wish to enthrone bad taste on the place, initially reserved for real achievement.”

          Who named you the judge of what bad taste vs. good taste is? And who are you to decide that Boulez and Bowie are ‘bad’? I find Puccini and Tchaikovsky excruciatingly vulgar and I rather have a root canal without anesthesia than sit through La Bohème or Madama Butterfly. But that’s a personal opinion. I don’t make ex cathedra proclamations about Italian or Russian composers.

          ““Snobbism”: as attempts to see culture with egalitarian glasses”

          Nope. It’s the “overbearing pride evidenced by a superior manner toward inferiors”. In this case, one could say that it’s the conviction that one’s opinion is the only valid one.

          • John Borstlap says:

            ….Please..calm down…. don’t worry….. I merely made some observations. Subjective observations, which, for some people who recognize the experience, may confirm their own, and which may lead to the insight that there is objectivity in them. Yes, Puccini is often vulgar, but he is also a great musical talent that is lightyears ahead of the Boulezbian variety. I don’t like Puccini either, but I respect it, because he obviously was an important composer (most of Tosca is simply great music and NOT vulgar). The same with Tchaikovski, whom I also don’t like, but at least it is real music, what you can’t say of Boulez. Taste is something different from artistic value. (By the way, even Stravinsky respected Puccini…! As did Debussy, both composers with impeccable taste.)

            If you prefer a root canal treatment, I would recommend Pli selon Pli as the most effective anaesthetic.

  • Catriona says:

    It seems that it is you, John Borstlap, who is ‘non-musical’ in ‘an artistic sense”, whatever that means. I suppose being non-articulate is a symptom of being non-musical. Boulez is one of the giants of 20th century music.

    • Mikey says:

      Well, since you’ve now confirmed it as an absolute truth, then it must be so… yes?

      I’m sorry, but I cannot abide the “music” of Boulez. It is – to both my ear and to my mind – as unmusical as it gets. And no, I’m not a vulgar populist. I’m a composer with a graduate degree in composition being played regularly by various ensembles. However, I’ve chosen to write music that does not deny the very simple fact that music is meant to be heard, not analyzed.

      Unlike Boulez, instead of struggling to write something “new” for the sheer sake of writing something”new”, I’ve spent my entire life finding what is unique in MY way of saying what I’m saying. No pastiche for me.

      • David says:

        I agree with Mikey. Boulez’s music, for the most part, leaves me rather indifferent — I would be curious as to whether some of his staunch supporters would actually be of the same opinion if subjected to a blind test — i.e., listening to different excerpts of contemporary classical music without knowing who the composer actually is. I think we’d have quite a laugh! I often think that a single aria from a Handel opera just puts many of those contemporary composers simply to shame. There are actually contemporary composers who have something to say — I enjoy Kagel very much, and was very impressed by a cd of works by Jarrell which I recently heard. But I believe there are many reasons — and good ones at that — why people are drawn to the music of someone like Arvo Part, Philip Glass, or Valentin Silverstrov: it originates in a musical intention, not in a purely cerebral exercise taking place within the strictures of a self-imposed and fashionable orthodoxy.

      • jaypee says:

        “music is meant to be heard, not analyzed.”

        I don’t see why Boulez’ music doesn’t apply to your “rule”. Besides, what does that mean? Bach can be analyzed and heard… Mozart too and even Respighi… What’s wrong with analysis?
        I personally find Répons, Sur Incises, Anthèmes and Le marteau sans maître very beautiful. And I also like Rameau, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Ravel and Messiaen… As well as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Nick Cave.

        “struggling to write something “new” for the sheer sake of writing something”new”

        That was never Boulez’ intention. But why repeat what has been done -and well-done- before? Boulez composed a music tha reflects his time… just lilke Bach or Brahms.

        “I’ve spent my entire life finding what is unique in MY way of saying what I’m saying.”

        Good for you. What makes you think that Boulez hasn’t?

    • John Borstlap says:

      To ANY person with a residu of cultural awareness and ditto sensitivity, it is clear that Boulez is not a composer but a sound artist. Which is OK, but the claims about his products, as about so much of what has followed in his wake, invite for the strongest critique. B represents an extremely narrow-minded, biassed, and – yes – unmusical way of ‘composing’, which was perfectly suited to people without the talent for musical creation but filled to the brim with ambition. Read his ‘Orientations’ (Harvard University Press 1986) a colleciton of B’s writings, and all will be clear.

      If there would remain any doubts left, it is wholeheartedly recommended to listen carefully to what comes out of IRCAM (Institute for the Retrograde Conservation of Abominable Musicians):

  • Ellingtonia says:

    I do get the impression from Mr Bortslaps pronouncements that he has no knowledge of music outside of the rarified atmosphere of that he classifies as “high art”.
    I dare say he has never come across the work of Duke Ellington, Jo Zawinul, Billy Strayhorn or even the relatively modern Ornette Coleman or Stan Tracy (try Under Milk Wood as a starter).
    And god forbid that he should step further afield and embrace such artists as David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, as they cannot of course be considered to be high art. Well can I suggest Joan Baez duetting with Mercedes Sosa on “Gracias a la vida” and then tell me that this is not high art and packs an emotional punch equal to any operatic aria.
    Or then again try Derek Trucks playing “Sahib terry bandi” for music of incredible virtuosity and creativity (and melody).
    So can we drop this snotty nosed approach to what is considered non classical music, open our ears and recognise that listening to Led Zeppelin letting rip with Kashmir is equally valid as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, Death and Transfiguration or the monumental 8th symphony of Mahler (all of which are favourites in my CD collection).
    Equal, but different.
    As far as Boulez is concerned, I find his music emotionally empty and would not cross the road to hear a concert of it, but hey, if some people get turned on by it, so be it. And I would pay good money not to hear him conduct after watching dreadful concerts of him conducting the music of Mahler and Janacek, god knows how he did it but he managed to make Janacek sound dull.
    What he could have learned from McKerras………………

    • David says:

      Agree. I would list here also Miles Davis (The Man with the Horn), Sun Ra, Pat Metheny, Carla Bley — a stunning artist. Such artists simply testify to the absolute failure of serialism, and have shown that great tonal music — or, shall we say, music which still has what one might call “tonal centers” — can still be written and very much enjoyed. I regard most of Pink Floyd as art of the highest caliber. On a more classical bent, I think that what Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata are doing is absolutely fantastic (albums Mediterraneo, Music for a while) and shows how much heart there is in what is sometimes disparagingly called “traditional music” and how the boundaries between allegedly disparate genres can be crossed.

    • John Borstlap says:

      We expect something different from different genres…. If this were not so, there were no genres. ‘Unmusical’ may have been too strong an expression, but the best musical result from a popular genre cannot match the best musical result of – yes, indeed – high art music. Nothing wrong with it, but let’s not confuse simple distinctions. I love jazz, and don’t like the avergage pop music, but that does not mean deaf to very, very basic distinctions. There is a time for simple pleasures and a time of highbrow engagement, such is life, and understanding what we do greatly contributes to the way we engane with these things. It’s not snobbery but common sense.

      • David says:

        I understand the distinction, but personally I would include some jazz in the category of “high art.” I’m not convinced the distinctions are so clear cut; jazz can be just as profound as many works in classical music. Just because it doesn’t belong to the classical genre does not mean it has a lower artistic value — it can indeed have as high a value, while using a completely different kind of discourse. Much jazz is actually quite intellectual, and the prowess of some jazz artists at improvisation has absolutely nothing to envy even to the most accomplished of classical musicians. The very same could be said for what in French we call “chanson française” — people such as Léo Ferré or Barbara — which takes immense talent to write. I would also include in the same vein some of the songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, which in my opinion take pure genius to come up with. They may be popular, yet they remain incredibly profound.

        • Patrick says:

          The lack of improvisational skill in contemporary Classical musicians makes me think of them sometimes as ‘trained parrots’. The heritage (of Classical) valued this form of expression for most of its history, and I think the genre loses something vital by eschewing it.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I never heard anything in jazz matching a structural narrative on many levels as a classical symphony: the brilliance of jazz lies in improvisation and its expression, but it remains restricted in building-up larger forms which produce an expression of their own. That is, I think, not a defect of its musicians but simply the natural restriction of the genre. Where jazzy things do indeed create or contribute to larger narratives, it is no longer jazz (Ravel piano concertos, Gershwin piano concerto, MIlhaud Creation du Monde). Jazz trumpetist Russell Gunn (find him out, he is outstanding) occasionally writes ‘classical’ music and then, it’s no longer jazz. You cannot play your cake and eat it.

          • Mathieu says:

            John, it’s funny, because in equating jazz with mere entertainment, you are in full agreement with… Boulez (who, when asked about jazz, once replied : “you don’t listen to Parsifal while brushing your teeth”). So you do agree with your arch-enemy on something at last !

            As a matter of fact, I disagree with both of you re jazz, and with you re Boulez. But that is a tired and tiresome debate that I do not want to rehash here (nor anywhere, for that matter).

          • David says:

            That’s an interesting idea, I’ll have to think of it a little more. Thanks for the suggestion though.

          • Patrick says:

            So, if time travel were possible, you would decline attendance at a performance of Beethoven, Bach or Chopin at which they improvised. Presumably bc there would not be large-scale structural narrative? Contemporaries report that Chopin’s written music was/is but a pale version of his improvisations.
            And what of non-Western music, in which improvisation is central, e.g. Indian Classical? Also of lessor quality due to same defect?

  • Patrick says:

    The thing to keep in mind here is that judgements about musical quality are COMPLETELY subjective. One person’s opinion, or one group’s aggregate opinion have as much validity and weight as any other, simply because of this.
    The best one can do is to not shut doors and keep an open mind to new and different experiences. And respect other’s right to their opinion.
    If John Cage walks over to window, opens it, and declares to be music the sounds of the city thereby coming into the room, he has every right to that opinion. Perhaps that was one of the points of his 4’33”.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A very common misunderstanding…. If one keeps one’s ears and mind WIDE open, and after that, still FURTHER open, one discovers to one’s perplexity that subjective experience CAN lead to objective reality. Upon that experience, the entire repertoire of Western music is based, in spite of fluctuations and changes of fashion.

      The meaning, the artistic achievement, and the cultural symbolism of a corpus of music like J.S. Bach’s, to name an example, is not merely the accumulation of many subjective and therefore entirely random personal opinions. The subjective experiences of this music has led to an objective understanding. Who does not share that understanding, finds him/herself outside of Western culture.

      If one stretches, with some effort, both ears and mind still further open, one finds-out that if everything can be music, nothing is. Cage’s joke 4’33” is the result of 20C clichées about music and about the so-called ‘tradition’ which had to be ‘overcome’ to arrive at the summit of modernity: the void of Cage’s joke.

      • David says:

        Agreed. If anything can be music, and anyone can be composer, the very meaning of music — and of art — is severely compromised. Yes, there is a subjective element in music, but there are also certain boundaries as to what constitutes music and what does not — the same also goes for the quality of a musical work. It is not “completely subjective,” even if it can never be “completely objective.” However, most people would agree that a Mozart or a Bruckner symphony has more artistic merit than a piece where literally nothing is written except the word “tacet.” Music cannot be reduced to the sounds an audience happens to be making for the duration of 4 minutes and a half. Call me conservative, but a musical work, just as any artistic work, at the very least demands a certain level of craft to qualify as such. Otherwise, a painting by Miró has no more artistic work than a scribble, and I doubt most people would actually agree with such an idea. No one would read a book where letters were printed at random, thus having no meaning whatsoever.

        • John Borstlap says:

          All very true. But the problem with 20C minds was, and often still is, that art – any art – was evaluated according to an imagined time line on which the works that seemed to be progressive, marked-out the direction, and got judged according to their position on the time line. But the reality is much mroe comlex – for instance, what is progressive? Were the Renaissance attempts to recreate old-Greek theatre progressive? It was pure nostalgia, but it resulted in opera. Bach is often described as ‘conservative’ but in reality, his rhythmic and harmonic language, and the complexities, were far ahead of his time, but so what? Progressiveness is mostly measured according to the musical material, but that does not signify any artistic merit. In terms of structure and material, Liszt was more ‘progressive’ than Wagner who always kept a strong residu of classical means, but who is the greater talent? As with originality, progressiveness is not an artistic category, however we may enjoy and admire it, in for instance Le Sacre. Progressive and conservative are, it seems to me, quite meaningless in art… and no work of art supersedes its forerunners, because they are not on ‘time line’. It is an ideology stemming from Hegel… and the revolutionary drives of the 19th century, in the wake of the French revolution.

          Roger Scruton’s ‘Modern Culture’ is very enlightening on these points.

      • Patrick says:

        By ‘objective’ I mean the type of verifiability that science attempts. Quantitative analysis is undertaken (involving metrics), hypotheses are tested. It would be absurd to apply a method of this type to a, for example, a Classical symphony. So, again, it is one person’s, or one group’s opinions that we are discussing.
        It seems that part of the snobbery that Classical enthusiasts indulge in is the idea that the genre is superior to other Western styles or to non-Western musics. By some objective standard.
        Until you can come up with a scientific type test, to which a Classical piece could be subjected (no pun intended) and proven to be superior, I will respectfully disagree with you.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Is ‘objective’ the same as ‘scientific’? Do only those things exist which have been proven scientifically? Here we seem to enter the territory of the philosophy of science… Notions like ‘justice’ or ‘love’ have never been proven scientifically but I bet they exist. Science has not been able to even describe human consciousness but I bet it exists. Etc. etc. , and the same goes for ‘truth’. So, it seems more prudent to trust one’s subjective experience of objective reality in the cultural field and to conclude that Mahler’s ‘Song of the Earth’ is superior to Congo drumming, lest one confuses the two.

  • Patrick says:

    I meant proven to be of superior quality via scientific methods. And if a judgement cannot be based on that, then it is subjective. This pertains to the examples you mention, justice, love. And I daresay that someone else’s subjective experience may lead him to feel Congo drumming superior to the Mahler. BTW, the aroma of racism I detect in your comments is unfortunate.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Anyone who ‘smells’ racism in that comment, is projecting something of subjective (!) bias over a theme that did not invite it. Due to the long and deplorable history of Western imperialism in the 3rd world, we – i.e. we, white descendents of racist bastards – exaggerate into the other direction, cultivating pc obsessions, so that we forbid ourselves to think that Congo drumming might be artistically inferior to Western classical music. So, let’s denounce Mahler, and love Congo drumming BECAUSE it’s produced by black Africans. Obviously, it is an inverted racism: a drumming African would feel subtly discriminated against if he would be treated as imune to any critique because of his ‘race’, it is confirming his ethnic background instead of treating him seriously as a human being. And human beings should be able to deal with critique.

      Couldn’t someone genuinely prefer Mahler to Congo drumming without being racist? It seems, not. So, Congo drumming is always OK, however primitive it may be. It would be great if Western classical music would get such treatment: no criticism, everything perfect, etc. etc.

      It is this obsession with politically-correctness which feeds the general crumbling of classical music in the West we see all around us…. it is undermining the special place classical music had in the past, so that funding becomes increasingly difficult. Because, why subsidize classical music, and giving it a special place in society, if deplorable aural menure like pop music is as good as any Bach, Mozart, Debussy etc. etc.?

      • George says:

        “Anyone who ‘smells’ racism in that comment, is projecting something of subjective (!) bias over a theme that did not invite it.”

        But it was you yourself that juxtaposed Mahler with Congo drumming. It was you yourself that invited the comparison.