|Art work by Dean Lewis|
Fifty years ago, following the death of Edgar Varèse, Pierre Boulez wrote in tribute to the great man:
‘You have the deliberate wildness of the animal that does not go with the herd, the rarity of the diamond in a unique mount … Your legend is deeply rooted in our era; we can scrub the chalk (and water) circle of those magic or ambiguous words “experimental”, “precursor”, “pioneer”…’
These words might equally apply to Boulez himself and, especially, to David Bowie; both are recently deceased titans of contemporary culture about whom I’m currently finding it hard to think without turning my mind to the other – however unlikely that may sound, given their differences. Boulez’ death (5 January) had already prompted reflection on my own musical life, since my first amazement at the sensuous, distilled beauty of Le marteau sans maître as a teenaged guitarist-composer. In those days I was blithely unaware of any musical ‘rules’, and didn’t understand that high modernism and other kinds of high fuck-off-ism represented by, say, punk rock, were not supposed to mix. So I’ve felt a contradictory sadness, too, at both the fact and passing of Boulez’ controversial era: that angry, damaged but brilliant generation of postwar avant-garde composers, who so exquisitely yet tyrannically held ‘new music’ hostage, and of whom Boulez was just about the last representative (happily, Betsy Jolas, for one, is still with us).
But, at age 90, and with his ill-health well known if unpublicised, Boulez’ death was hardly a shock. How different was Bowie’s, coming completely out of the blue, and just two days after the release of Blackstar on January 8, his 69th birthday. The album and accompanying videos seemed to me a return to superbly enigmatic, melancholy form. Boulez may have been a thrilling discovery as a young musician, but I grew up with Bowie. Until the Berlin years, and especially “Heroes” – I was twelve when it came out in ’77 – it wasn’t so much his music that grabbed me as his sheer, unapologetic otherness. Bowie’s eyes reminded me of my mother’s following surgery for a detached retina. Except that his felt curiously less alien than hers, regardless of his sci-fi personas, and seemed to suggest infinitely greater understanding of my own burgeoning, ambivalent sexuality.
Listening to ‘Lazarus’ on Blackstar, I’m reminded of the ironic spirit of “Heroes” – and especially the fractured soundscapes of that album’s non-vocal trilogy: ‘Sense of Doubt’, ‘Moss Garden’ and ‘Neuköln’. These were imbued with what I imagined to be the defiant but flat-feeling decadence of West Berlin during the Cold War – and they seemed to articulate a kind of hollow yearning within my psyche, just as Boulez would later, for a while, offer a jewelled respite from anguish.
Bowie showed us that identity can be what you make it. That the binary opposites we fall into so unthinkingly – of high-low, popular-serious (culture), male-female (gender), left-right (politics), young-old (age) – are really only products of existential terror denied. As Boulez pushed uncompromising extremes of the senses and synapses, Bowie danced through them as shape-shifter extraordinaire; always and never at home in his unique, ‘unbearable lightness of being’. That he could share that with so many so profoundly – through music, art, theatre, film, fashion, and now his own death – makes him a phenomenon I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of again.