Pierre Boulez, An Appreciation: Music and Revolution

Sometimes revolutions can be thought of as incremental, harbingers of change down the road, as well as, ordinarily, cataclysmic, resulting in the fundamental alteration of the social order. In this case, Boulez is not Marx, Lenin, or Rosa Luxemburg; he deals instead with nonlethal, barely discriminable attacks on the existing order. Yet for me that is enough because I cherish protean and seminal expression as introducing new sonorities to humankind, capable perhaps of assault on existing patterns of thought, then leading to undermining the social structure itself, based as it is on monolithic, rigid acceptances of order, power, and wealth. I say “perhaps,” because it appears hopeless that aesthetics can be a transformative force doing battle with ruling groups themselves backed by the majesty and armed might of the State in defense of the status quo. So you might think me somewhat deranged when I say that whatever throws a wrench into the tightly-woven mode of consciousness should be honored and encouraged for loosening bonds of passivity and servility, even though not directly culminating in action, but I am buoyed by the hope that aesthetics, for a start, will merge with radical practice in exposing the iron cage in which capitalism has consigned us as the condition of its stability and security.

Boulez does that. He may be indifferent to ideology, but his musical compositions strive for the utmost clarity, a blinding absolutism of honesty, the very consciousness which is SUBVERSIVE to every form of deception and accommodation to reality. A new language, as in his masterwork, Pli Selon Pli, negates accepted/conventional meanings, now precision coupled, however, with a nonassimilable mysticism using as his text the poetry of Stephan Mallarme: mind-blowing to all who care to listen, and to take away, as I did on first hearing, rebellious feelings of courage to penetrate beneath the surface of accepted truths, stepping back on one foot, viewing society from a different angle. (Of course I was already a radical, but this was like opening a new door, the world of self-examination and, I hope, selfless creation: creativity as thumbing one’s nose at capitalism and its goal of creating mental paralysis among its subjects.) Thought is subversive, clarity is subversive, searching for epistemological freedom is especially subversive, denying in all cases consumerism, invidious human distinctions (usually over class, property, and wealth), and the morality of war.

Boulez died on January 5, and NYT and the Guardian had informed obituaries the next day, but largely neglected Pli Selon Pli and thus failed to probe the underlying power of his work (though doing justice to his career as a conductor, itself beckoning new horizons). Still, what does all of this have to do with radicalism, much less revolution? Any shattering of mental imprisonment in established forms is worth considering. (The deaths of Paul Bley and Elizabeth Swados also were announced the same day, both of whom contributed to the same discombobulation of the reigning consciousness from their own respective art forms—a testimony to the ferment still operating in society.) The historical trick is to recognize, cultivate, and strengthen what is believed deviant; no, if the idea of an avant-garde at the barricades seems foolish, particularly from the vantage point of the unemployed and wider underclass in America and elsewhere, I take this as evidence of society’s hell-bent determination to suffocate all dissent, any grasp of alternative systems, the eradication of implosive poetry, as with Mallarme, evidences direct or indirect of independence, standing tall, affirming the right to achieve full human potentiality.

Here poetry matches poetry. (Boulez employs sporadic interventions of the text but presents its musical equivalent, an extraordinary challenge which suggests to me the liberation of the human mind.) Pli Selon Pli, or “fold according to fold,” describes Bruges, in the words of The Gramophone, as “emerging from dissolving mists,” the result a mind-stretching kaleidoscope of elements, that combination of being precise yet mystical, what I sense to be breathtakingly metaphysical and transcendent driving forward—something not easily contained by the captive mind of the status quo. Again The Gramophone: “Its constant shifting on several levels simultaneously is suggestive of a labyrinth wherein colours, motions, shapes are endlessly transformed.” Boulez himself refers to matching music and text: “They [musical quotations] are not literal, but abstracted from their context, displaced; they are like glimpses into the future. The enunciation of the initial poem is, on the contrary, extremely simple, clear, direct and syllabic.” This is not John Reed glimpsing the future, and declaring it is ours, but the future is nevertheless implicit in form, text, and structure—what in my cherished dream would be the anticipation of things to come, world democratization.

Like the composer, the poet from which he draws inspiration, the orchestra (I was privileged to hear it performed in London by the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra, Boulez conducting), and for our purposes the listener, one feels the intensity of the whole, as if were it only possible that music could be harnessed to explosive forces of change societal transformation would be close by, in reach. Pierre, R.I.P. It is unfair to burden you with our problems, militarism dwarfing creativity, capitalism distorting human personality, a culture of bread and circuses pulverizing subtleties of thought and observation. You kept the faith, preserving a white-hot intelligence in the face of every effort, as a product of advanced capitalism, to keep our collective heads above water and not be reduced to authoritarian submission.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.