Pierre Boulez, composer and conductor, insurgent and praetor, the refiner’s fire, died yesterday at the age of 90.

He smashed icons, only to later hold their shards up to the light and reveal how their truest, most elemental natures had been taken for granted. He often and often rudely disdained convention; but convention is, often, rude. In Boulez’s music, and music-making, the conventional was steamrolled, superseded by the more advanced metaphysics of music itself.

Clarity is sensual; the recondite is direct and plain; the most intricate technicalities are the most expressive, and vice versa. In an oblique way, it echoed that old Romantic transcendence, transformed into something more extreme (the twentieth century’s cataclysms had, after all, left far more to transcend). But, unlike the Romantics, for Boulez, music wasn’t a gateway or a symbol or a stand-in for some higher unity, be it philosophical, political, or spiritual; it was the unity, the realm where contradictions were pulverized, burned away, leaving only its own fierce, reproachful beauty.

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