New York Review of Books: On Pierre Boulez

Music Lessons, the translation of the lectures [Boulez] gave at the Collège de France between 1976 and 1995, provides English-language readers with the fullest document yet of the mature Boulez’s musical thought: his approach to composition, his analysis of his predecessors’ work, and his attitudes toward many sectors of twentieth-century musical activity. It is an important publication, especially because I believe it casts doubt on the notion that Boulez grew wiser or more generous with age. This book embodies his every paradox: he is both discerning and myopic, clever and needlessly cruel, capable of moments of thrilling clarity as well as long stretches full of bland, arid tautologies. His contradictions are the contradictions of the late-twentieth-century European avant-garde; his narrowness became the narrowness of a generation. As his era recedes, it feels newly possible to take stock of both his strengths and his limitations.”

Full article in the New York Review of Books.

New York Review of Books: “Opera at the Edge”

“The chaos of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the following essay, written before it began, feel suddenly like an artifact from a distant time. This crisis will wreak havoc in all sectors; for the world of the arts, it is already a devastation…

Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.”

Full article available at the New York Review of Books.


New York Review of Books: “Making Shakespeare Sing”

“The process of adapting a play into an opera is a little like forcing the original text to drink a concoction out of Alice in Wonderland: some aspects of it will shrink or evaporate, others are magnified to unrecognizable dimensions, and the whole thing falls through music’s rabbit hole into a parallel world where very different laws apply. This fraught alchemy has bewildered many a composer. Sources that seem unimpeachably strong (classic plays, beloved movies, Great American Novels) can wilt or fail to catch fire when set to music, while material that might seem slight, simplistic, or impractical can, in the hands of an inventive composer, reveal unsuspected power and hidden depths. Sometimes, if seldom, one has the sense that a play, a novel, or even a real-life incident came into being mainly so that it could be reincarnated as an opera.”

Full article available at the New York Review of Books.

New York Review of Books: “Music Without a Destination”

“It is hard to imagine a better guide than Walsh to the delights of Debussy’s sound world. Clearly he loves it, yet he’s refreshingly unsentimental about it. Many of Walsh’s main ideas have been expressed before, but rarely with such clarity: the harmony of Debussy’s early music ‘feels as if filtered through parts of Tristan und Isolde, absorbing its colours but not its processes’; one of the risqué, indulgent Trois Chansons de Bilitis has ‘a quiet intensity that verges on the private’; another has ‘the curious mixture of intensity and inconsequentiality we associate with dreams.'”

On “Soft Power”

When Mark Steinberg, the Brentano Quartet’s first violinist, approached me about composing a piece for his quartet, I felt both enthusiastic and wary: there are few musical mediums more challenging, more revealing (or, in the end, more rewarding) than the string quartet. I hadn’t written anything for string quartet since high school, and I definitely didn’t want those pieces to see the light of day. So I suggested splitting our project in two: a small-scale piece of five or six minutes, followed by a full-length quartet the following year.