Thought Trafficking

June 5, 2009, 6:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

In order to obtain the promised funding for my recent trip to NYC, I needed to justify my gallivanting about to the Department of Graduate Studies with cold, hard evidence in the form of boarding passes, an expense report and a written report about the value of this adventure to my research. Today, they accepted my evidence and I received the full amount of the grant. To celebrate, I am posting here the account of my trip to New York City that I submitted. Do excuse abruptness where you can; I tried to keep it under a thousand words. Other things to watch out for are abuse of commas, needless repetition and being hoity-toity. Also keep in mind that the best parts are, unfortunately, not included in this summary (hint: some rather salty jokes). Pertinent links can be found at the bottom.

This is a terrible picture of the side of Carnegie hall and the giant tower that rests atop it.

This is a terrible picture of the side of Carnegie hall and the giant tower that rests atop it.

Research Summary: New York City and Pierre Boulez

My recent experience in New York City proved to be invaluable to my current research. Thanks to the $300.00 grant allotted me by the Department of Graduate Studies, I was able to travel to the east coast of the United States and partake in three separate events, all of which I will use in my current graduate project or in my graduate research in the very near future.

The primary reason for my visit was a series of concerts taking place at Carnegie hall, performed by the Straatskapelle Berlin and conducted alternately by Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim. The stuff of these concerts was Gustav Mahler’s entire symphonic oeuvre, and the program each night was fleshed out by various shorter pieces, also composed by Mahler – his lieder, for instance. As my research deals directly with Pierre Boulez both as a composer and a conductor or interpreter of music I chose to attend at a time when my Boulez would be captaining the orchestra. I had originally planned to see the concert on the 8th of May, but these tickets were sold out by the time I received confirmation of the grant, which is why originally submitted dates of May 7-10 were changed to May 8-11.

The whole experience of the concert was extremely rich and informative: the pre-concert talk dealt with Mahler as a conductor, as he had at one time before his death lived in New York City and conducted various orchestras, and also Boulez and Barenboim in their interpretations. In addition, Carnegie Hall’s programs included a wealth of reading material, most helpfully full essays by Boulez, Barenboim, and various critics. Boulez’s essay in particular is of great interest to me. In his typically pugilistic prose, he takes on critics who accuse Mahler of nostalgia, sentimentalism, and privileging form over content. Boulez examines Mahler from his own modernist stance, not to absolve him but instead to provoke a more nuanced listening. The resonances in that essay, entitled “Mahler Today” and another essay that is currently pivotal to my project, entitled “’Unbounded Visions’: Boulez, Mallarmé and Modern Classicism,” by Arnold Whitall, are striking and have provided me with helpful examples and new directions in my research.

Of course, the final piece of this puzzle is the experience of seeing Boulez himself conduct an orchestra; a man who composed “open” works which left many interpretative decisions up to the discretion of the conductor. His interpretations were praised as “masterly, turning that huge and unwieldy first movement into a model of symphonic logic” by reviewer James Oestreich. He continued, “The climaxes seemed all the more powerful for being meticulously prepared as part of a measured whole.”[1] The economy of Boulez’s gestures in directing such an expansive composition recalls his direction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in which, apart from a number of unconventional gestures, his movements were spare and without drama. Boulez’s control is exercised through precise planning and clearly made choices, and this is as evident when he is conducting another composer’s works as it is when he presents his own more open compositions. The performance of the Fourth Symphony under his baton was hailed by the reviewer as the best yet of that particular series of concerts, and the entire experience proved to be very pertinent to the research that I am conducting.

I could stop there, as this experience alone was well worth the trip, but I feel that it is incumbent on me to account for the remainder of the trip – my second day in the city – as it was equally as rewarding as the experience of seeing Pierre Boulez conduct Mahler. The first was a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA, where I had the opportunity to see works by the artist Öyvind Fahlström, a Swedist artist directly influenced by Mallarmé (the author who constitutes the other important aspect of my Master’s project) and an entire exhibit by the South American artists Léon Ferrari and Mira Schendel[2]. Both of these artists create words as images, exploring words and their (col)location and (dis)position on the page and what effect that has on meaning and on the observer. Because I am not a visual artist or an art historian, I don’t feel that I can properly analyse the works that I saw, but only wish to note that they enriched my perspective on the kinds of poetry that Mallarmé was creating: beyond calligrammes, words for him represented independent objects that demanded their own space in which to resonate a significance. This is echoed both directly and indirectly in later 20th century visual artists. While my work deals with Mallarmé’s influence on musicians and in the field of music, I would be remiss if I excluded perspectives on further visual or literary influences.

Finally, on Sunday evening, I was also fortunate enough to be able to attend the east coast premiere of Arvo Pärt’s new Symphony, his fourth, subtitled ‘Los Angeles’ and dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Pärt’s music and the musical genre of Holy Minimalism more generally has been an academic side project of mine for about a year now, and shortly before going to New York, I was able to travel to Lethbridge, Alberta, to present a paper on one of Pärt’s best-known pieces of music, ‘Fratres.’ While Pärt and his music are not obviously linked to my work in the French department, my MA research combines questions of musical meaning and literary significance. The ideas of symbolism, modernism, minimalism and postmodernism, explored in Mallarmé, Boulez and Pärt in a myriad of ways, are not separate questions; they all influence aspects of my research. These domains are linked and are thus relevant to the subject. I should also mention that I am not claiming the visit to MoMA or the Pärt concert in my expense report.

As I have nearly reached a thousand words, I won’t continue but to say that this trip was informative, stimulating, and very helpful to my current project, and I am grateful to the Department of Graduate Studies for helping me to finance this opportunity.

[1] James Oestreich, “The Demands of Mahler’s Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies,” New York Times 10 May 2009 <> 11 May 2009.

[2] Please see:



1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

I was wondering how you were going to write this up. Nicely done.

Comment by Jon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: