For those who think with some justification that progress is a narrative subterfuge designed to induce enthusiasm as it drags us from alpha to omega, our culture offers sufficient examples of decay. Nobody sings like Gardel anymore, good movies are dead, pop is junk, no writers remain, kings look like football players and football players think they’re kings. But there is nothing quite like the impoverishment generated throughout 20th-century music by the invasion of pseudo-scientific discourse in academic arts.
Forced to sell their services in an era dominated by scientists, postwar composers were obliged to rejuvenate their discourse and blend in with the avant-garde by constructing algebraic gibberish. The venture consisted of a fusillade of every subjective parameter – taste, poetic expression, aesthetics, the whole realm of meaning and ambiguity – pretending that composition is an exact science, a sum of techniques governed by mathematical principles, driven by specialists aligned on the axis of historical progress. In certain centralized European countries, the creative community faced harsh administrators who were allergic to the proverbial imprecision of musicians. Given the blatant deterioration of their cultural criteria, powerful technocrats invoked the “objectivity” of a supposed art science run by the curators and critics who allocated funds.
Consequently, and by selection, an official arts discourse was installed and adjusted to fit these scientific parameters. The driest and shrewdest proposals triumphed and genuine talent was marginalized. Cultural Meccas (centers of faith more than centers of knowledge) imposed their dogma on the entire world, replacing expressive needs with the imperative of supposed progress in one sole direction, absurd and hermetic. By 1970, most composers were bowing five times a day in the direction of Paris, and even today the embers endure in academic departments where sorcerers and apprentices of pentagrammed graphomania explain their untouchable masquerading-as-science speculations in hackneyed phrases of useless rhetoric.
It is forbidden to say that the music of Pierre Boulez is the most horrendous of all time. Anathema. His Book for Strings is one of the bleakest aesthetic experiences in musical history, and his affinity with Blaise Pascal, enemy of pleasure and praise, places him alongside his own work in a drawer of purgatives. “Old Boulez is calmer these days,” my friend Joel Sachs tells me. A professor at The Juilliard School in New York, Joel knows as much about contemporary music as anyone in the world today. But you should see what Boulez wrote against the musical old guard in the 1950s, trampling on greats such as Poulenc, spewing expletives. He makes Bin Laden look like Bambi. Now it’s our turn to reject – this time, the sterile yoke of scientism. We must be similarly cruel and unjust, erasing Boulez’s debasement of musical poeticism. Perhaps the music of Frank Zappa, which Boulez discovered before Zappa died, has loosened his coccyx. What will he discover next – Celia Cruz?
* “¡Azuuuucarrr!” – meaning “Sugarrr!” – was the trademark on-stage holler of legendary Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland