Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Le maître sans cheveux

A recent post featured the vivid vestments of Pierre Boulez in 1971. Looking like the hybrid of a gay pimp, a British prog-rock keyboardist and a dreamsicle, Boulez was then ushering in a new era for the New York Philharmonic: the era of playing some new music and 12 or 13 other works by some early 20th century composers over and over again.
Truth be told, he's a great conductor and composer. But let's be honest. As Troy points out in the comments of that post, the poor man's hair has always given him a little trouble.

Boulez , according to all known biographies, did not have a childhood. Not in the Michael Jackson sense of "He never got a chance to play with little boys because he was recording 'Ben'", but quite literally: Boulez actually materialized one day in Messiaen's class at the Paris Conservatoire. Some say that he walked out of a forest in the Rhone one day wearing white dress shirt and black tie. (I believe Peyser's book adds that he was trailed by a pack of wolves over whom he had a sort of psychic power.)
Either way, wherever the place of his miraculous appearance on the music scene, he already was brash, intelligent, strangely charming, and sort of a dick.

Needless to say, he was already balding. Here we see his cut from the late 50s and early 60s. Most of the top is gone, but the follicles are vibrant and spiky, perhaps emanating some of his substantial brain-power. Here you see him doing one of two things:
1) (For those who have seen him rehearse an orchestra), he spends a lot of time concentrating on balancing the instruments, their tone and timbre. Perhaps here he is testing the E-flat of a muted trumpet (Boulez has perfect pitch).
2) He is holding a single hair that has fallen out during rehearsal. In complete heartbreak and disbelief, stares and curses at the heavens with impotent rage for their cruel ways.

The strain of constant conducting and too-little time for composing eventually had to make its mark, and we follow where it lead with trepidation:

Here we enter the darkest period of Boulez' life (at least in regard to his hair), an epoch that has yet to truly end. This is the age of the comb-over. Boulez is undoubtedly a genius musician and a great conductor. But how human the comb-over makes him! To compensate for the balding, he has simply taken hair from the right side of his head and combed it over! It's almost too simple for the man, and really a bit suspicious. Can the advocate of complexity, the composer of Structures really think this is an acceptably complex and intelligent reaction to male-pattern baldness?
Perhaps its his long-lost appropriation of minimalism. It is often thought that Boulez hates minimalism because of the aesthetic itself. Not true. He has a grudge against it because in 1985 Steve Reich and Phillip Glass chipped in to buy him this hat for his birthday:

Glass and Reich exemplify American musical iconoclasm, and, alas, unfortunately for Boulez, American humor. He did not find it funny and vowed never to conduct Gnarly Buttons. (John Adams reportedly protested: "Hey! What the fuck did I do? I had nothing to do with that goddamn hat!")

Now in his 80s, Boulez is still rocking the comb over. Luckily for him and admirers such as myself, he doesn't look like too much like a menacing Albanian loner anymore. In fact, for all his youthful ferocity, he's become quite a cute little old man. I'm sure he still doesn't suffer fools like me* gladly. But he's now mellowed out and conducting hyper-romantics Mahler and Bruckner (in his own icy, cerebral way) and still working on endlessly rewriting his old pieces. He's usually quite a sweet and funny guy to most accounts. He will reportedly be coming to my school for a week (as Elliott Carter did for a festival of his works two years ago) soon. There will be concerts and talks and seminars. I will probably get to be close-up to the man and talk with him a little bit. I will report on what he's like. Alas, I will kiss his ass and not make fun of his hair because I'm a wuss and I love Pli Selon Pli.

*I am 50% Irish, 20% Swedish, 20% Polish and 10% Foolish. Though the Polish makes that a full 30% LOL!!!!!! $&#$&#&$#& (Polacks are dumb).


Blogger elsleezo said...

Awesome. I want a whole book by you of composers' oevre as defined by their changing hairstyles/lines.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Henry Holland said...

^^^ I'd buy that book. Imagine the chapters on Berlioz and Scriabin

10:01 AM  
Blogger ß&dragon said...

Composers hair book, excellent idea.

Is that a real John Adams quote? Cite your sources!

11:55 AM  
Blogger Anthony Cornicello said...


I laughed out LOUD at the Adams line.

But have you seen Varese's hair? And the eyebrows? I think you're on to something....

8:14 PM  
Blogger sfmike said...

The Polish may be stereotypically dumb, but in my experience they are also insanely sexy. Boulez, and the combover, NON!

10:46 PM  
Blogger Henry Holland said...

The Polish may be stereotypically dumb, but in my experience they are also insanely sexy

I have a friend who's a big Polskiophile, so much so that he speaks the language fluently and taught English in Posnan for a few years.

He occasionally has former students stay in his spare room while traveling in America and one of the guys, Pershemik (sp?), is one of the most beautiful men I've ever met. I stammered like a besotted 12-year old the few times I met him.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Ben.H said...

I have memorised your Boulez Origin Myth and will soon be quoting it to friends as though I thought it up myself.

8:48 AM  
Blogger glob said...

Is it just me or does he look like that Haley Joel Osment kid in that last photo?

2:27 PM  
Blogger RobertW said...

The 'something smells around here' expression on his face does not add to his charm. Makes you wonder what Christine Schäfer ever saw in him.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

this has to be the best post i've read in quite a while


(now, back to the study of structures I)

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Blogger Carmina said...

I have heard Pierre Boulez, or I mean some of his songs and he is a great conductor and composer indeed and about his hair, well maybe it is like that because he takes Sildenafil Citrate and his hair goes crazy!

6:10 AM  
Blogger amy said...

u mention albanians one more time here, u'll see!

9:08 PM  
Blogger amy said...

u mention albanians anymore, u'll see how the loner is

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