Don’t Be Boulez

When the French high modernist Pierre Boulez was studying with René Leibowitz, the older composer dared to suggest several places in which his student’s first piano sonata could stand some improvement. Hugely affronted, Boulez — who had been planning to dedicate the sonata to Leibowitz — screamed “Vous êtes merde!” (“You are shit!”) and stormed from the room. Later, when preparing the sonata for publication, he saw the dedication on the title page and viciously scratched it out with a letter opener.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most graceful way to handle criticism. And yet, I’ve definitely been there. Composing is intense, intimate stuff, and even mild criticism, gently couched, can feel like an attack on you as a person and everything you hold dear. When it’s not couched gently, when it digs below surface slip-ups to target the fundamental structure of a work, it can cut like the most vicious of knives. 

And yet, criticism is an integral part of creative life. You don’t get better without people pointing out where you’ve gone astray, often repeatedly and at length. How do you handle someone tearing into something you wrote without comparing them to excrement and symbolically stabbing them in the face?

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