In the span of just one week at the start of this new year, we lost two musical heroes (whose names, coincidentally, both begin with “B”). Pierre Boulez and David Bowie may seem worlds apart musically and stylistically, but they both had strong influences on where my own music and performance has gone especially in the last few years.I am most familiar with Boulez not as a composer but as the founding director and god father of IRCAM in Paris; and as a renowned conductor. One fun memory of the latter involves one of his recordings conducting Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. It was a favorite of mine, and when I got the chance to present it to Berio for an autograph, he declared his dislike of the recording, but signed my CD atop Boulez’ face. As a figure who loomed large in the world of avant-garde music, and then electronic music, he certainly evoked strong opinions from others. There is no doubting the influence of his leadership at IRCAM in both my electronic-music composition and research, even as I disagree with aspects of the institution’s culture, such as strict control and division of music and technology research. But it’s worth stepping back and looking at Boulez as a composer. His masterpiece Répons combines electronics with an acoustic chamber ensemble in ways that make the electronics disappear at times. It also has a very visual quality to it, evoking a complex film scene or theatre piece. The theatrical is one of many ways David Bowie’s influence comes into the picture, along with the use of gender experimentation and constant stylistic reinvention. His gender-fluid and sometimes overtly feminine presentations on stage were “transgressive” for the time, but have certainly impacted many of us and made space for our own expression in music and in person. It set an example for me to be able to first come out on stage and then eventually in person. In addition to gender, Bowie’s onstage persona gave freedom to be decadent and glamorous, something which many styles of music seem to lack. Now when I perform Boulez-influenced music, it is definitely with Bowie-influenced staging and theatrics. And of course the costuming.
But David Bowie was himself a talented musician and writer. In the same ferment of the 1970s in which he developed his personae, he also pushed the use of synthesizers and electronics in music that was still referred to as “Rock”. His song Subterraneans is a prime example of both technology (ARP synthesizers, backwards bass guitar) and theatrics in his music, as illustrated in this tribute video.
The album that includes this song, Low, was preceded by Station to Station, one of my favorites for its funk influence, including the song Stay. The funk and soul sound of this album, along with his more unambiguously masculine persona in the album art (at least to my sensibilities), exemplify his ability to change and reinvent quickly from one project to the next. It’s the album I have returned to primarily after the announcement of his death on Sunday night. But I do want to close with one if his most hauntingly beautiful songs: Drowned Girl is one again something different altogether.