The opening days of the 2016 New Year saw the passing of perhaps the greatest musical figure of the late twentieth century.
No, not David Bowie.
Or at least, not just David Bowie. That sentence could be written, with equal truth, of the French experimental composer Pierre Boulez, who died aged 90 on 6 January. Bowie’s death just four days later creates a weird and melancholy juxtaposition which would probably have brought an ironic smile to the lips of both artists. Is it just coincidence, an accident of historical timing? Or is there more in common between these two men, seemingly as different from each other as Ziggy Stardust from those around him?
Both Boulez and Bowie were musicians regarded by their peers as unique innovators, whom others could follow, but who followed nobody. In fact, their ideas did indeed have roots in the musical past, and indeed some of those roots were the same for both of them. Here are just two:
John Cage, the American composer most famous for a work which contains no prescribed sound at all, whose best-known book on music is called Silence. He was a close friend of Boulez in the 1950s; Bowie named Silence as one of his favourite books. Cage was convinced that the conventional, the ordinary, the expected, were all enemies of the truly musical. Boulez took from him a commitment to the utterly new; Bowie’s capacity never to follow an expected path stemmed from the same source.
Arnold Schoenberg, believed by many to be the starting-point of twentieth-century music. His Second String Quartet of 1908 adds a singer to the string players, singing the words “I feel the breeze from other planets” at the moment that the music takes leave from the harmony of the nineteenth century. Boulez, who appealed to his audience to “listen to your century”; Bowie, who told his to “turn and face the strange”; both wink at their Viennese forefather.
In the cold days of a bleak January, both Pierre Boulez and David Bowie are now silenced by their mortality. But both knew from Cage, and teach us as they learned from Schoenberg, that silence is only the space in which new and unknown music can be born. Fold on fold. Waiting in the sky.