The Two Bs (Boulez and Bowie)

Within the first two weeks of 2016 the world lost two very different musicians that each provoked a huge reaction in their own right. French composer, conductor and innovator, Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), and the English musician, actor and painter, David Bowie (1947-2016).

Boulez began his musical life experimenting with serialism and controlled chance (or chaos!) in pieces such as his first two Piano sonatas (1945-48) and his Notations for piano (1948) that he later developed for orchestra. Although he later to came to conduct and admire Schoenberg’s music, initially Boulez noted the limitations of Schoenberg’s 12 tone technique, openly criticising aspects of it in his 1951 essay and eulogy (of sorts), Schoenberg is Dead.

David Bowie was first inspired by rock’n’roller Little Richard with his cut-throat music and striking image. From early on Bowie explored musical theatre influences and even said that his dream was to write something for  the West End – something that he sadly won’t be here to see when his musical, Lazurus, comes to the West End this year.

Unlike Boulez, who kept as much distance as he could from fame, Bowie wanted everybody to know him yet still had his insecurities to defeat. He dealt with these with the invention of characters that spanned his career from Ziggy to Alladin Sane to the Thin White Duke to Pierrot right through to a seeming self-acceptance in his final period.

Boulez and Bowie lived in different musical and social spheres with completely unconnected ambitions, yet reading the wealth of tributes to both men over the last few weeks I have consistently noticed similarities between the two, both as people and as artists.

Both artists knew from an early age that the state of music needed to be pushed and developed. Both were extreme, with Boulez being described as a bully and Bowie pushing the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. Boulez and Bowie were both incredibly well-rounded individuals which provided them with the tools required to battle and respond to the inevitable opposition that comes with breaking from the norm.

In terms of similarities, firstly, Boulez and Bowie were keen readers of literature. Bowie drew on many authors including George Orwell (1984 – Diamond Dogs) and Bertolt Brecht (Baal); Boulez on Stéphane Mallarmé and James Joyce (Third Piano Sonata).

Secondly, both men were hugely influenced by theatre.

Theatre was an integral part of the Bowie live shows integrating plot, lighting, costume, mime, circus and character, most heavily influenced by his early work with Lindsay Kemp in the ’60s. Aside from music Bowie acted in many stage shows and films throughout his career including The Elephant Man and Brecht’s Baal.

Whilst Boulez was not an actor per se, his music and approach showed a theatricality beyond doubt. His chance pieces demonstrated a new approach and uniqueness present in each performance – almost a sense of musical theatre through not knowing where the journey would lead. Such can be heard in his Éclat-Multiples (1965-1970).

It is interesting to note that in his aleatoric compositions Boulez kept tight control over this chance in supplying a number of options that the performer could chose from, unlike John Cage’s much freer compositions of the time. This is particularly interesting in light of Boulez’s early criticisms of Schoenberg’s technique in which he felt that too much was controlled by archaic forms and that its main weakness was that is was actually only the order of the notes was being set free.

Thirdly, technology played a huge part in the lives of both David Bowie and Pierre Boulez.

Boulez worked with tape composition right from his early piece, Poésie pour pouvoir (1958) and throughout his career he developed this use of technology through to Répons (1985) for six soloists, chamber ensemble and electronics and Anthèmes II (1994) for solo violin and electronics. In 1970 Boulez was asked by Georges Pompidou, the French President, to set up a centre for musical research in Paris. This became IRCAM: the music section of the Georges Pompidou Centre much technology including FM synthesis and the development of what is now MAX/MSP both began here. Interestingly, in his twenties alongside maths tuition Boulez made his living as a performer of the of the Ondes Martenot at the Folies Bergère.

Bowie undoubtedly explored the use of music technology in his music and  spoke about the fun of making music through synthesisers having thrown away the manuals. What is now known as his Berlin Trilogy in the late ‘70s (Low, Heroes and Lodger) demonstrate this approach to synthesis. Both Low and Heroes were later used as the basis for two Philip Glass symphonies.

Other notable uses of technology in Bowie’s music include his 1995 album, Outside, in which he used a piece of software called the verbalizer to type in sounds and he combined their result to produce sounds and chaos that was previously unattainable.

Bowie’s prediction of the internet most not go un-noticed either. He released his own web server, BowieNet in 1998 and in a 1999 Newsnight interview he spoke of the potential and the accompanying dangers of the internet far ahead of their time. He addressed the relationship between the artist and the audience, particularly focusing on rave culture where the audience is as important as the DJ.

Although both composers worked in completely different fields, there is an undeniable similarity in what made them both innovative and forward thinking creatives. Whilst Boulez seems to be right in having once said that he would die without a biography (correct me if I am wrong) the body of work that he leaves behind of compositions and recordings is huge. Whilst he wasn’t a musician after hits it is amusing to hear that he perhaps inspired Paul Simon’s You can call me Al through having mistakenly shouted “Goodbye Al” to Paul Simon after having met briefly at a party. Nile Rogers comes across as one of the most interesting spokesmen on David Bowie: “David was very clear on what he wanted. He wanted to have a hit, but still be experimental: the Picasso of rock’n’roll”.

I can’t find any record of the two men ever having met, but given Boulez’s collaboration with Frank Zappa it would have been very interesting to hear what Boulez and Bowie would have created. It is inspiring to see how two forward looking and absolutely determined attitudes developed coincidentally in such different musical and artistic spheres.


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