Monday, January 11, 2016

a few thoughts on the passing of David Bowie and Pierre Boulez--how pop music heroes became chameleons while academic music heroes doubled down on principles

There was a time when I imagined that Michael Jackson would outlive Stevie Wonder.  That certainly turned out to be wrong.  There was a point at which I imagined David Bowie would outlive Keith Richards.  That, too, has turned out to be wrong.

The passing of Bowie is not a heavy personal burden for me, though I know people who adore his music.  I like at least some of it, even if I have more Pinkfloyd and Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder albums, by far.

But Bowie's passing has given journalists and musicians an opportunity to highlight Bowies versatility and the way he reinvented himself as a public persona, taking up one persona and then another.

David Bowie's shifts in persona might be likened to Igor Stravinsky's shifts in style.  Both were able to shrewdly adapt to their respective times. Both had a chameleon like aspect to them. 

Long ago in Music, the Arts and Ideas Leonard B. Meyer proposed that the new era we saw before us was one in which "the Renaissance is over". There was no more avant garde and could not be an avant garde because having abandoned a teleological conception of history that would be inherent in Christian thought (or Marxist thought, for that matter) the ever present would be a dynamic steady state of all musical styles and artistic and literary genres co-existing in a stasis.  There might be traditionalists and there might be transcendental quests for the ever-new but Meyer proposed that this new era belonged to the formalists, those artists, writers and musicians who could and would shift from one style to another and display clever ways of crossing styles less out of some obligation to say the Big Things as to demonstrate mastery of technique and to play with what it even meant to be in one style or another.

And if that doesn't sound like David Bowie I don't know what does. 

Of course Meyer was certainly not writing with David Bowie specifically in mind in 1967.  David Bowie was just showing up at that point and Meyer was writing more about Babbitt and Stockhausen.  But for those familiar with Meyer's description of formalism as a tendency in the arts and the formalist as the artist or musician adept at shifting styles and combining them, David Bowie is the latest of a litany of musicians we have lost in the last twenty-five years who was able to leap from style to style. 

Whether we're talking about Roy Orbison or the Beatles or Bob Dylan (that switch from "folk" to "rock") or Frank Zappa or Johnny Cash or Ray Charles or David Bowie something that some musical heroes of the last half century have displayed is an ability to work within a category but to shift into another style.  In classical music terms this has been called "cross over" and it has not gone over well for many a critic and many a listener.  But crossover isn't a bad thing if the shift has been made in the context of a life in which the styles are shared.  Bowie could go from cabaret to glam rock and it made sense.  Dylan switching from folk to rock made sense.  McCartney or Joel trying out classical music after decades of pop didn't make sense.  A lot of us could not believe that these guys had spent their lives steeped within those traditions as performers.  Is that unfair?  Yeah, maybe, but the success of a David Bowie in shifting sounds may testify to a collective desire that even if we all get that persona is a put-on the finesse and technique and craft have to be legit.

Some of us admire the musical chameleons because they make music in a way that illustrates through their lives that the conceptual boundaries between styles of music are permeable.  Theodore Gracyk coined a term years ago for modes of grasping music, ontologically thick and ontologically thin.  The former is appreciating music, for want of a finer way to put it, through recordings.  An ontologically thick mode of experiencing music is thorugh listening to recordings or live performance and it would tend to involve replicating that particular sound you hear on a recording, that specific Marshall amp and that particular Gibson or Fender.  The sounds as sounds have to be disovered and replicated.  Ontologically thin music is closer to notes on the page.  Substitutions can be made for a flute or an oboe, there's a sense in ontologically thin music (Bach, for instance) that the music doesn't depend so much on THIS sound being played iN THIS way on THAT instrument by THOSE people.

So Bowie appreciation could be either of these.  Rather, what I'm suggesting is that for a  musician like Bowie part of the fun is that his work shows an appreciation of an ontologically thick finished product but a songwriting approach that could be potentially described as aware of ontological thinness in the Gracyk variety. 

It's easier to shift from style to style when you don't let yourself get hung up on the exactitude of timbre.  The timbres can be wonderfully when you select them but a whole lot of what passes for "ontologically thick" understandings of music is fixating on timbre.  Sometimes you can focus on the concrete sound at the expense of realizing that across a blues son; a country song; a hip-hop song; a string quartet the same set of chords and hooks may be able to appear. 

If in the first half of the 20th century musical styles and conceptions began to fragment and academics began to burrow into their schools of thought, something Leo Brouwer has said academics have failed to catch up with is the second half of the 20th century--this was an era, as Brouwer saw it, in which pop music began to have a lot of people exploring fusion.  While academic musicology had its Babbitts and while Boulez had intoned that Schoenberg was dead and that those who had not felt the necessity for the 12-tone system were, not quite useful ... in pop music, whether we're talking Bowie or Miles Davis in jazz, experiments toward fusion and in style change were already under way. 

When Meyer was writing about formalists it's not clear he would have had anyone like Bowie in mind, but we can propose that Bowie was one of the great formalists of pop music in the West in the last sixty years. 

Some may say Pierre Boulez, who died about a week ago, will be best remembered for his music compositions ... that remains to be seen.  I remember him for his fantastic conducting of works by Stravinsky and Berg and Bartok, personally, and never got much into his music.  If it were a choice between only being able to listen to the musical works of Boulez or Bowie for the rest of my life then Bowie takes this in a landslide.

I'm not sure how many people know who Boulez is compared to those who know who Bowie is.  Sure, both may have had stars on the wane but both were brilliant and capable musicians in their different ways.  It's just that it hardly seems in doubt that Bowie is the better-known name even if Boulez fans might wish that Boulez was the more household name. 

There's a passage blogged by composer and teacher Kyle Gann from last week that comes to mind.


 In grad school I analyzed every note of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata, which I had never heard – and I knew it so well that when I finally listened to the recording, I cried. Today I wouldn’t recognize the piece in a blindfold test. I was astonished when Alex Ross reported that, late in life, Boulez admitted in an interview that, back in the serialist years, “We didn’t pay enough attention to how people listen.” It reminded me of a Morton Feldman quote, which I will paraphrase from memory: “Only in Europe do you have these revolutionaries who guillotine anyone and everyone who disagrees with them, and then change their minds.” All the same, I will listen to Pli selon pli this afternoon, and tonight I will drink to all of the great European masters of my youth, and to having outlived them.


Not everyone digs the music of either Boulez or Bowie ... but it seems David Jones did pay attention to how people listen.

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