As I said in my last post, Pierre Boulez is a poster child for a problem classical music has — some of its most respected living composers don’t have much connection to the culture of our time.
Here’s what I mean. The mainstream classical world — while not programming Boulez’s music very much — still treats him as if his music is greatly important. I remember talking to a faculty member at major state university music school, who eagerly wanted to meet me because he likes my ideas. He didn’t think Boulez took, in his composing, any musical steps that current composers should take. But still, when he taught music history, he gave great attention to Boulez as a great, path-breaking radical.
Which, in purely musical terms, he was. I myself own a score of Le marteau sans maître (a key Boulez piece from the 1950s), and also one of the first Improvisation sur Mallarmé, another key piece. I’ve listened a lot to both works, studied how they’re written, and even put part of Le marteau into my notation software, so I could get close to every detail of it, both the notes and their sound.
But outside classical music? Did Boulez — when he was making musical waves in the ’50s and ’60s — have any reach into French culture outside his little niche?
Not at all. Philip Glass was in Paris during the early ’60s, and says in his autobiography that he didn’t listen to Boulez at all, but instead went to films by Truffaut and Godard. He also said — in an interview I remember reading, but now can’t find — that he was hardly alone in this, that artistic younger people in Paris were all going to those “new wave” films (to use the term of the time), and not listening to Boulez.
Likewise me. I was in college. Even in high school, late in the ’50s, I was going to art films, though I loved Antonioni (still one of my keystone artists) more than the French directors. But in college I went to the Brattle Theater in Cambridge (I was at Harvard), and watched Truffaut and Godard. These films helped shape me. Antonioni struck me deep in my heart. Boulez? I had no idea who he was. Likewise Carter, Babbitt, even Cage. Though I was deeply into classical music — I was a singer, and gave recitals and sang opera roles (Guglielmo in Così was my first) — contemporary classical works meant nothing to me. My living art was film.
Nor was I alone in the US. In a previous post, I listed Mark Harris’s book Pictures at a Revolution as something to read, if you want a picture of the great cultural changes that hit in the ’60s. As Harris shows, people like me — but with professional interest in movies — also saw these European art films, and then went to Hollywood and started a revolution so powerful that it created a new kind of film for a new generation. And left the old guard reeling. (The New York Times fired its film critic. And Time magazine prominently retracted a bad review of Bonnie and Clyde – one of the first American new wave films — and substituted a long, ecstatic one.)
So OK — Godard had far more cultural reach than Boulez ever had. But it’s important to see why. Boulez sees (or at least saw) himself as at least to some degree the apostle of a new culture. You can see this in something he often said about why tonal music was obsolete. He said it to me, when I interviewed him, when I was a critic: Tonal music is obsolete, because we need a new musical language to express the new emotions of the present day.
I wish I’d asked him what those new emotions were. Because if you look at his work, you can’t tell. Both the pieces I named earlier are vocal works. They have texts. The Impovisation has a text by Mallarmé, a poet famous for never directly naming an object:
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujoud’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!
The virgin, vivid and beautiful today
Will it tear for us with a blow of its drunken wing
This hard, forgotten lake that, beneath the frost, haunts
The transparent glacier of flights that have not fled!
Very beautiful, and of course also difficult. With deep meaning for some people, certainly Boulez, but also clearly not poetry that speaks — at least not directly — to what was exploding even early in the ’60s.
Or Le marteau (the poem is by René Char):
La roulotte rouge au bord du clou
Et cadavre dans le panier
Et chevaux de labours dans le fer à cheval
Je rêve la tête sur la pointe de mon couteau le Pérou.
The red caravan on the edge of the nail
And corpse in the basket
And plowhorses in the horseshoe
I dream the head on the point of my knife Peru.
(You’ll understand that I’m not against poetry like this, or composers who set it to music. I’m a great fan of difficult art, and if Mallarmé — to quote again a very rough comment on his writing — never names an object, many people would say that Antonioni, one of my artistic gods, made films with no plot, no events.)
So now Godard. His films were radical in their time, and can still seem so today. Characters (in Masculin, Féminin) turn to the camera, and are interviewed about themselves. In one famous sequence from Bande a part, the main characters decide not to speak for a minute, and the entire soundtrack goes silent. (Though only for 36 seconds.) In another famous moment, three people start dancing to a tune on a café jukebox. Godard’s voice appears on the soundtrack, decreeing a parenthesis. (A concept Boulez would like, you might think, because he talked about musical passages that might function like parentheses.) While Godard speaks, the music goes silent, but the characters still dance.
(When I rewatched the film a couple of years ago, that speared me to the screen, as if someone had run clear off a cliff, and then — unlike cartoon characters, who run on for a moment, then look down and fall — just kept on running. Though when I found this moment online just now, it seemed less arresting. Maybe it needs the full momentum of the film.)
- In Contempt, a moment in a shaky affair, with the characters filmed from rooms next to the rooms they’re in, the angles of doorways putting their troubles inside a detached but not unsympathetic frame.
- In Two or Three Things I Know About Her, a moment in a conversation deepened by a closeup of a cup of coffee, just stirred, with the spiral of foam in the middle of the cup slowly turning.
- In La Chinoise, a conversation on a train, with the voices heard, but the film looking out the window of the train, so you feel the rhythm of the train stopping at stations, and starting again.
So yes, Godard was radical. (And Masculin Féminin, Bande a Part, and Contempt are some of his easier films.)
But here’s what’s most important. What does Godard show in these movies? The new emotions of his — and Boulez’s time — and the new thoughts that went with them. All in the process of formation, the process of being understood (or misunderstood). New ideas about love, about work, about morals, about law and crime, about politics. That’s what the characters in Masculin Féminin are interviewed about, that’s what the characters in all the other films are living. And talking about. And trying to figure out.
Which is why Godard was so powerful. He did exactly what Boulez said one should do — invent a new language (in this case a new film language) for new emotions.
(Antonioni, parenthetically, won a special award at Cannes in 1960 precisely for his new film language, in which constant fluid movements of his camera catch changes in the emotional air, even more subtly than Debussy’s music does in Pelléas.)
Which is why Godard spoke for his time and Boulez didn’t. Boulez may have felt the new emotions of his time (remember the poem Schoenberg set in his second string quartet: “I feel the air from other planets”), but he embodied them in works whose meaning is sealed off from everyday life.
While Godard found new ways to ask onscreen the same questions young people of his time were asking, and to give them resonance completely lost when I state some of them directly: what role should sex play in their lives, what happened to marriage, was normal morality so finished that crime was an option, would the working class overthrow capitalism? (That last is of course not a question we might relate to right ow in the US, but in 1960 France, with its strong Communist party and long history of Maxist politics, it was something young people did ask, and then answered in their own new way with the student rebellion of 1968. An event whose reasons were so embedded in Godard’s films that he could have invented it.)