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Angular Banjos

Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître and Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat

In 1955 a piece of music premiered that briefly reconciled the warring factions of the European avant-garde. With its striking timbral alloy of flute, marimba, soprano, and guitar, Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître (a setting of René Char’s poem which translates roughly as The Hammer Without a Master ) caught on well beyond the confines of the serialist cult that had congregated around Arnold Schoenberg’s second string quartet; Even Stravinsky dug it. His authoritative blurb—“The only truly significant work of this new age”—adorns Deutsche Grammophon’s beautifully packaged, paper-sleeved reissue marking the fifty-year anniversary of its first performance. Stravinsky’s full conversion to serialism shortly after hearing Le Marteau seemed to confirm Boulez’s pronouncement, that “anyone who has not felt the necessity [of composing in] the dodecaphonic [twelve-tone] language is useless.”

To somebody born in the mid-1970s, Boulez’s claim sounds a little over the top. It’s difficult to imagine a world without the emphatically non-serial music of the Kinks, Wayne Shorter during his Blue Note years, the first few Velvet Underground records, Dylan circa Blonde on Blonde, Nino Rota’s backdrops to Fellini’s films, Anthony Braxton’s marching band experiments, Joni, the Ramones, Patti, Prince, or the Pixies. The one non-serial cat Boulez did give the time of day to was (for some odd reason) Frank Zappa whose The Perfect Stranger was performed by the Boulez-led Ensemble InterContemporain and later released on Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin label. Still, Zappa’s most engaging pieces are his gorgeously contorted electric guitar solos, putting him genealogically closer to Hendrix (or maybe Coltrane) than to Webern.

There are of course other auteurships in non-“serious” music besides the eccentric rockist able to pull off passable impressions of serialism. When the Dionysian fêtes of the 1960s ossified into the business of filling three-minute windows on the FM dial, an idiosyncratic NYC duo calling themselves Steely Dan (name lifted from Bill Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) managed to spike the punch of Eagles–Ronstadt–Doobies with their arresting combination of beat-aesthete attitude, prolix harmony, and studio perfectionism. They also managed to have roughly ten massive radio hits from 1975 to 1980. What really set the Dan apart though, was a mastery of song structure and arrangement that made them one of the very few groups from this time whose work could be considered in the same breath as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. (An obvious alternate choice would be Van Dyke Parks, but he never had anything resembling a “hit.”)

If Boulez follows out the modernist axioms to the bitter end—from Mallarmé to Schoenberg to René Char as it were—then the Dan bring to weird fruition what might be called an avant-pop genealogy. Such a series might begin with Poe’s literary special effects, arc through Gershwin’s (and Nancarrow’s) player-piano rolls, cycle through Art Tatum’s tornado treatments of Tin Pan Alley, add the slapback reverbs of early Memphis rock ’n’ roll, and fine-tune in post-production at a multitrack console tricked out with ProTools—and the Dan were nothing if not high priests of the mixing desk. Boulez, too, was a hysterical sound geek and wanted his acrid, pointillistic conceptions—Le Marteau sounds like two platinum nightingales twittering inside a glass box slowly filling up with pink smoke—to move from score to tape as seamlessly as possible. Accordingly, he began working in collaboration with computer scientists and sound engineers in the 1980s at IRCAM, the research lab built beneath the Centre Pompidou where Boulez served as director from 1970 to 1992. The result of this collaboration between musicians, computer scientists, and acousticians was a top-secret synthesizer called the 4X, which was designed to do additive synthesis, subtractive synthesis by numerical filtering, FM synthesis, synthesis by sampling of acoustic sounds, ring modulation, frequency spectral analysis, and other wicked stuff.

At about exactly the same time Boulez was birthing the 4X, Donald Fagen became the first musician in the world to make an entire record on a digital tape deck: the 3M DDS multitrack recorder. The payoff from the small fortune spent on this device was his 1982 masterpiece The Nightfly. Fagen’s engineer, Roger Nichols, was so thrilled with the machine that he began taking advanced courses at the 3M headquarters in Minneapolis so that he might learn to align the playback heads without the help of a hired technician. While Boulez’s 4X could digitally model (and thus wildly alter) the harmonic identities of trumpets and clarinets, the 3M allowed you to make tracks entirely from digital signals and edit without having to shred tape with a razor blade.

As if to encode the shared gadget-fetishism between high serialism and pop hitmaking during the early 1980s, The Nightfly chronicles Fagen’s nostalgia for that same mid-1950s postwar moment that saw the arrival of the transistor radio, fallout shelters, and the electric guitar (not to mention the world premiere of Le Marteau sans Maître). After telling us, in the single “I.G.Y.,” about a streamlined future in which everybody will wear spandex jackets and zoom around on graphite trains under the Atlantic ocean, Fagen croons, “We’ll be eternally free and eternally young…ooooo,” sounding like he’s just found the elixir for eternal life in an icy drum program. That “ooooo” is Zappa-like in its simultaneous affection for, and sneering disdain toward, the quintessential 1950s bubble-gum music, doo-wop, but also toward the deluded sci-fi optimism of an anaesthetized American suburbia.

Fagen’s latest, Morph the Cat, glitters along the lines of the Dan’s more recent “comeback” projects - Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go—i.e., it is sickly well-produced. Shimmering with micro-intervalled vocal arrangements (H-Gang), snare drums tuned so high they sound like “tings” rather than “thwaks” (The Night Belongs to Mona), and carefully enveloped guitar solos expertly played on vintage Fender Stratocasters by a battery of be-chopped session-bots from both coasts (every track), Morph sounds like…well, um, Steely Dan. Accordingly, there is also some autopilot and at times Fagen sounds like he’s phoned in the vocal from an Aspen chairlift. Still, Morph glides effortlessly through glaciers of production and charms often enough to make it all worth it. And far from sounding like the cordon sanitaire around a serialism immunized against the culture industry, the new recording of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître seems rather uncannily to prefigure Donald Fagen’s nebbishy sci-fi nostalgia in the futuristic sheen of its flute, soprano, marimba, and guitar.


Paul Grimstad

Paul Grimstad's songs and original scores are featured most recently in the films, Happy Christmas (2014), The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and Stinking Heaven


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2006

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