Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, April 20, 2004


On March 27 I knocked Pierre Boulez's dominating influence in the transnational university composition school. I've never heard Boulez's music.

This deficiency bothered me. How could I knock someone whose stuff I've never heard? So I did some web searching, trying to determine whether it might be worth my while to track down some of his music. I found a web site devoted to knocking Pierre Boulez by the doing him the justice of taking him seriously. You see (and a dim recollection of this was in the back of my mind when I knocked his influence), Boulez is one of these people who proclaimed that all the art of the past must be destroyed. And so The Pierre Boulez Project is soliciting recordings of Boulez's music for the purpose of destroying them. After all, his recordings are now the art of the past.

Boulez was pronounciating against the past in the '40s and '50s and maybe as late as the '70s. His dogmatic insistence that his own compositional method is the only one worthwhile is part of the peculiar 20th century tradition of Manifestoism. Manifestoist artists have polemicized that their way is the only way. There had been pugnacious artistic "isms" before Manifestoism, but the dogmatism got stricter, and the polemics became more central, in the 20th century.

F. T. Marinetti was the founder of Manifestoism. His Ism was Futurism. And he was right. The dogmatism he espoused proved as influential as his ego knew it would.

Marinetti was an interesting guy. A genuine Fascist in the literal Italian political sense; a friend of Mussolini's; and unlike his less talented successor in poetry, manifestoes, and Fascism, Ezra Pound, he was an accomplished soldier who fought in genuine, literal wars.

Rule 10 of his "Manifesto of Futurism" states: "We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice." And later, in the same piece, "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism" (of which the "Manifesto" with its enumerated rules is but a part), he states, "So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are! . . . Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums! . . . Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discolored and shredded! . . . Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers, and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!" (Ellipses in the original, as translated by R. W. Flint.)

Marinetti was writing in 1909, 35 to 50 years before Boulez stole his ideas and blanded them out, taking out all the color and vivacity. "Destroy the past," said Boulez, shamelessly stealing from it and bowdlerizing it.

When I went to college in the early '80s, I knew a couple music composition majors. 12-tone atonal serialism was the ideology their professors forced them to deal with. I was fairly incredulous. My view was -- Cage has happened! Ornette Coleman has happened! Gertrude Stein has happened! All the conventions have been up-ended, and the schools are teaching these arcane rules?!?

In a post-Cage, post-Coleman, post-Stein world -- where any sound is admitted into music (Cage); any pitch can be in tune (Coleman); and language can flow without conventional syntax or signification (Stein) -- Manifestoism is clearly out-of-date. We're on our own, my friends. Anything goes, so it's up to each of us to make what makes sense to us.

I've characterized this rule-less approach differently over time. When I read Barthes, I couch the quest in terms of "desire"; when I read Pater, the rhetoric is about "intensities." "Passion" became a touchstone word; I don't remember the source. (Not Mel Gibson!) More recently in my reading, the art critic Dave Hickey has persuaded me of the centrality of "beauty"; and just a few months ago the "New Yorker" art critic Peter Schjeldahl convinced me of the importance of "conviction." In my way of thinking about the post-manifesto-ist art-music-literary world, these words can easily sub for each other. Desire, intensity, passion, beauty, conviction. If a work of art can convey these qualities, bravo.

("But what about sincerity?" asked the Method Actor of the Old Ham. "Ah, that's the secret," came the reply. "If you can fake sincerity, you've got it.")

As a good anti-manifestoist, I happily acknowledge that manifestoists have produced beautiful, passionate, intense works of art. And you may even be right that your way is the ONLY way. For you.

jesus christ, are you serious
I like the bit about Boulez. I think Musashi nailed the whole thing about there only being one way to do each thing and each of us having to find our own path to mastery awfully well, but I'm damned if I can paraphrase Five Rings in a comment box, and I've lost my good translation years ago. Enjoying your writing...funny how much talent and effort can go into a thing, without it ever being more than a thing.

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