January 2020 marks the fourth anniversary of the passing of two of the greatest musical figure of the late 20th century. Pierre Boulez (d. 5/1/2016) and David Bowie (d. 10/1/2016) died within days of each other.
I suspect you could make a case for either of them being the greatest musical figure of the late 20th century, and that will probably depend on your perspective and taste. Boulez, as well as being recognized as a great composer, led orchestras, founded institutions and wrote books, while Bowie sold 140 million records.
The fact that these two died within four days of each other almost forces you into making comparisons which you otherwise wouldn’t have made. Both were regarded as innovators, both experimented with electronic music, both were deliberately controversial. Boulez suggested burning down opera houses, Bowie explored gender fluidity, and constantly reinvented his music and his image. Even their words sound a little similar; Boulez said we should “Listen to our century” encouraging us not to get stuck in music from the past. Bowie in his song Changes, says “Turn and face the strange”.
Both were proponents of ‘new music’ and believed in taking risks. Music can be quite conservative and there is nothing wrong with exploring and refining forms that have been developed by others. And naturally, there is more repetition, plagiarism and borrowing than there is originality and genuine risk-taking. That’s why we should remember and celebrate the lives of Boulez and Bowie, because without taking some risk there can be no genuine progress.