(via Pierre Boulez – “Le Marteau Sans Maître”)

Year: 1955

I always think of the ’50s as an innocent and square time (think Happy Days). But classical music in the ’50s challenged the restraints of its romantic past to confront a less romantic modern world. The US was fighting Russia in a Cold War, a conflict that was affecting most other countries still coming to terms with the devastation caused by two back-to-back World Wars. Surely the world was going to end in fire or nuclear radiation. This reactionary movement among artists was happening even before Schoenberg and the atonality movement, but several new composers throughout the world came into their own in the ’50s to challenge the notion of classical music’s place in modern culture.

One such artist was Pierre Boulez, who passed away earlier this year at 90. For his famous piece “Le Marteau Sans Maître,” the French composer took the surrealist poetry of René Char and used its words as the focal point for a chamber ensemble to create an unsettling, random sounding composition. Except everything was in order. The piece took two years to write and incorporated flutes, xylorimbas, and a contralto, a classical female singer with the lowest possible vocal range who provides the only sense of human life. Everything else sounds cold and calculated. It’s long, but random hits of the bongo and crashes of instruments keep you engaged. It’s a piece I’ve come to enjoy in a certain mood (if you encounter me in such a mood, run away from me).

As with any classical music I write about, I encourage you to read the master Alex Ross for more details into the life of Boulez.


I don’t enjoy observing people as much as I used to. Everyone acts like they’re on stage. People used to come to The Village sheepishly. Nobody was sure if they belonged. We didn’t know if we were artists. These days everyone walks around like they’re contributing something. There’s no angst anymore. There’s too much certainty. And that’s a shame. Because all the best art comes from people who feel like they don’t belong. Art is a way of proving your existence. When I was a young man, a person that I respected told me that I was an artist. It was one of the worst things that could have happened to me. I stopped walking into museums or galleries with a sense of awe. I walked in feeling like an ‘artist.’ My arms would be crossed. If I liked a piece, it was ‘good.’ If I didn’t like a piece, it was ‘bad.’ I didn’t feel vulnerable anymore. I lost my humility. And that’s when growth stops.

You Don’t Need To Understand Art

You Don’t Need To Understand Art

james_2249735bPhoto: ALAMY

Back in September I was in Boston for a weekend visiting a good friend of mine who goes to Harvard. While she was in class, I killed time in the best way that I knew how – by exploring all of Harvard’s bookstores. This campus, according to several proud locals, has the most books stores per capita in America. I didn’t try and validate this, but Harvard seems like a reasonable place…

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