Pierre Boulez, iconoclastic composer, conductor, writer and pianist, died last week after a long illness at the age of 90. Michael Chanan pays tribute.
It was the mid-1960s, I was in my late teens, I was already becoming familiar with post-war avant-garde music, yet the first time I heard Pli selon Pli by Pierre Boulez, who has died at the age of 90, I couldn't make head or tail of it. Something in the back of my head, however, insisted that the problem was mine, not the music's, driving me back to hear it a second time when he conducted it in London again a few months later. This time I was rewarded by a musical experience as scintillating, diaphanous and transcendent as I've ever had. When I talked to him about his music a year or two later, I immediately connected the experience with his description of music as 'controlled hysteria', an effect which is highly calculated but produces in the listener a peculiar kind of euphoria, a free-floating intensity that can also be found in certain old time composers like Perotin or Tallis, even Beethoven, at least in the readings of certain symphonies by certain conductors–try listening to Boulez's recording of Beethoven’s Fifth.
Is it selfish to want to be happy? On the contrary, thinks Alain Badiou: happiness is fundamentally egalitarian and to demand it, against its apparent impossibility, is a militant act. The interview below was translated by David Broder; see the original French text here.
(Photo: Badiou at Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Rapids, 2014)
What encounters proved most decisive in giving your life its direction?
Alain Badiou: Before theatre and philosophy, it was something that my father said. Indeed, during the Second World War I had this screen memory take form, which was of decisive importance for my subsequent existence. I was six years old at the time. My father, who was in the Resistance – for which reason he was appointed Mayor of Toulouse upon Liberation – put up a big map of the military operations, in particular covering the developments on the Russian front. The frontline was marked out by a thin piece of string, pinned to the wall with tacks. I saw that the string and the tacks kept moving, though I did not ask too many questions; as a man operating in clandestinity, in front of the children my father was evasive about anything regarding the political situation and the war. This was spring 1944. One day, at the moment of the Soviet offensive in Crimea, I saw my father moving the string further left, clearly showing that the Germans were retreating toward the West. Not only had their conquering advance been held back, but now it was they who were losing vast swathes of territory. With a flash of understanding I said to him, ‘But then, maybe we’ll win the war?’ and for once he gave a very clear answer: ‘But of course, Alain! We just need to want it’.
What is the meaning of death today? For Alain Badiou, it is a reminder that we are defined by finitude: 'we are only mortals' is the order of the day, underlying both capitalist and religious nihilisms. In a seminar given on 18 May 2015, Badiou offered a new conception of death as radical exteriority. 'Death is something that happens to you; it is not the immanent unfolding of some linear programme.' Translated by David Broder.