“David Bowie Is” and Pierre Boulez retrospective, Philharmonie de Paris.
David Bowie Is closes May 31, then moves to Melbourne followed by Amsterdam.
Pierre Boulez 90th birthday exhibition continues to June 28.

One of Britain’s biggest pop icons and one of France’s intellectual giants have more in common than you might think.

The point is underlined by the Philharmonie de Paris’ decision to invite the thousands who flock to its hosting of the David Bowie exhibition first held at London’s V&A to visit a Pierre Boulez retrospective in the building next door at the Parc de la Villette complex, north-eastern Paris.

For the few who take up the offer to also explore Boulez, who celebrated his 90th-birthday in March, the similarities with Bowie are striking and the differences illuminating.

Of course, Boulez is a conservatoire-trained intellectual, while Bowie left school at 16, a contrast illustrated by their manuscripts: Boulez’s dense, meticulous scores make Bowie’s musical notation look primitive.

For all that, Bowie thrives on the comparison.  We find ourselves asking whether Boulez is the greater genius – or not? – given Bowie’s ability to inspire across the social spectrum.

Both are composers and theorists.  Both are in control of their methods.  They surround themselves with the talents they need and explore unconventional artistic techniques – cut-up in the case of Bowie and atonality in that of Boulez.  Both immerse themselves in painting and literature as well as music and have a brilliant, creative confidence in challenging the status quo, although Bowie manages to make the avant-garde mainstream.

The exhibitions relay their artistic trajectories, sustained over decades, through a mixture of artefacts and recorded performances.

Black and white war-time photographs remind us Boulez was 20 in 1945, when Bowie was only about to be born (in 1947) and was an adolescent in the swinging ‘60s.

For Bowie fans, there is opportunity for a close inspection of his outlandish wardrobe, ranging from Space Oddity gear to Aladdin Sane platform boots to his Pierrot outfit for Ashes to Ashes. We’re even given his measurements.

Boulez’s more patrician tale is told through letters and diary entries showing his links with a dazzling array of fellow artists.

A couple of decades before Bowie was jamming with John Lennon and sort of getting along with Andy Warhol, Boulez was lunching with Edgard Varese, according to a 1952 diary entry, and corresponding with John Cage on headed notepaper from Claridges, Buenos Aires, in July 54.

Bowie’s electrifying stage presence is represented in footage of his appearances on Top of the Pops, as well as his lesser known acting roles and finally, a bitter-sweet concert performance of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.

His power to shock is not so different from the outrage Stravinsky caused when the Rite of Spring was first performed at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris in 1913.  Boulez conducting a performance to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the première is part of his retrospective exhibition.  A close-up of Boulez’s superbly rhythmic hands, conducting away, is a rarefied, mesmerising equivalent of the fascination of Bowie’s stage presence.

Boulez’s own works – his Second Sonata and Le Marteau sans Maitre (the Hammer without a Master) – are played in rooms lit by appropriately acid colours that manage to be restful.  The very complexity and un-memorableness of the music is soothing and absorbing after the catchiness of Bowie and the claustrophobia of the feverish crowds he generates even now.

Barbara Lewis © 2015.