Boulez and IRCAM

Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-GardeRationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde by Georgina Born
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The previous and highly bizarre review of this book gives a highly inaccurate impression of what it’s like to read. It’s not a biography of IRCAM and is not meant to be one. It’s an ethnographic analysis of how the place works and how its public statements and actual practice do not harmonise with each other. The previous reviewer says that Born seems to think that Boulez is a ‘tyrant’, which is not a word she ever uses, and ignores the fact that the book provides plenty of documentation for the ways in which Boulez has tended to centralise all authority in IRCAM to himself, while publicly and disingenuously proclaiming (in Barthesian fashion) that he has no authority at all. Born’s ‘bias against great music’ exists in the reviewer’s imagination; plenty of trained classical musicians stop playing classical music and turn to something else, but it doesn’t mean that they hate great music. (Born herself abandoned classical music to be a significant player in the 70s art-rock scene, first with Henry Cow and later with Art Bears and other important, politically-charged bands – she is one of the few important academics to have played a killer bass line, on the Art BearsIn Two Minds.

Nowhere in this does Born suggest that Boulez is not a great composer, but that’s because book is working on a higher level than, say, Dominique Jameux’s informative but uncritical authorised biography of Boulez. The overwhelming majority of commentary on Boulez – such as the Symposium edited by Glock, or the Jameux book, tends to be in lavish praise of his genius, and this review is no exception. I love and admire Boulez’s music, but I deplore much of his practice as an administrator, as an impresario and as a commentator, and Born’s book is a refreshing counterbalance to the generally hagiographical tone of most Boulez commentary in that it assesses the actual cost of his activities and – given the obvious and massive slackening-off of his compositional output since the 60s – questions the extent to which the expressed motives for much of his activity harmonise with the actual results that he’s achieved.

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Update 25/06/2013:

I’m still reading this book but in the meantime, I’ve read a paper about it by Ben Watson, author of brilliant-partly-because-they’re-so-profoundly-flawed books about Frank Zappa and Derek Bailey. Nobody writing about contemporary music can or should ignore Watson — hell, ignore him at your peril, when he published the paperback edition of his Zappa book he added a postscript in which he attempted to tear strips off everyone who’d given him a bad review, but he is also a brilliant thinker about the political context of certain kinds of musical activity (even if he’s musically illiterate, something which he has tried to claim isn’t a problem) and one of the most entertaining writers around. Nevertheless, Watson’s paper on Born’s book gave me pause, as they say, because he turns the full force of his Trotskyite anger on her more-in-sorrow-than attitude, castigating her for being a pathetic anthropologist instead of something else, and generally criticising her for not being nearly enough in tune with the revolutionary programme. Seeing as Georgina Born has more than paid her middle-class-English-revolutionary dues by being a member of Henry Cow, which entailed playing concerts of dissonant Marxist prog-rock to audiences of not-very-interested working-class Italian people, whereas all Ben Watson has done is write stuff which was liable to read by people who agree with him anyway, I will not be reviewing Ben Watson’s Adorno for Revolutionaries, where this paper appears. Also, Georgina Born played bass on In Two Minds whereas Ben Watson’s contribution to music is, as far as I know, a bit of shouting on a couple of Zappa bootlegs. So credit where credit is due.

Boulez and IRCAM