The Inspirational Moment Behind Pierre Boulez: Organised Delirium 

Guest post written by Caroline Potter, author of the book Pierre Boulez: Organised Delirium.

The very first inkling that I might write a book on Pierre Boulez’s music is something that, unusually, I can trace back to a specific time and place: 6 October 2013, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. On that afternoon, Tamara Stefanovich gave a piano recital that included Boulez’s monumental Second Piano Sonata (1948). It was a stupendous performance; afterwards, Stefanovich was given a huge bouquet of white roses and plunged her head into it, a gesture that, for me, is now indelibly associated with the concert.  

But what struck me above all was the sheer, gut-wrenching emotional force of Boulez’s work and its overwhelming impact on me. Boulez’s music is often described as cerebral – well, if ‘cerebral’ could extend its meaning to also signify ‘like a kick to the head’, then yes, it was! I was already wondering why what I knew of the Boulez literature did not engage with this emotional reaction to his music. At that moment, I knew I had something to say about Boulez’s work and would one day write about it. 

Life being what it is, a few years passed before I actually started working on this new idea. In the interim, I finished and published a book on Erik Satie with Boydell Press (2016) – not at all, you might think, a composer who has much in common with Boulez, and yet my research on this book led directly to the new project. Boulez appeared in Erik Satie, a Parisian composer and his world once, as the author of ‘Chien flasque’ (Flabby Dog; 1952), an article that satirises Satie’s witty, telegraphic writing style in order to attack the composer as a musical incompetent. (Let’s be honest: Satie is funnier and Boulez is wrong.)  

Imagine a Venn diagram of Satie’s and Boulez’s literary and cultural interests: the central overlapping point of this diagram is surrealism. Satie was present at many of the riotous events that led to the birth of the movement in the early 1920s, and for Boulez, authors including Antonin Artaud, André Breton and René Char were vital to his early musical development. There is even a ‘missing link’ between Satie and Boulez in the shape of the Belgian composer André Souris (1899-1970), who was influenced by Satie’s musical aesthetic, a member of the Belgian surrealist circle and an important early champion of Boulez. The fascinating context of Boulez’s formative years is at the heart of my new book: we see that the visceral emotional force of his music grew out of a cultural environment where surrealism, ethnology and ethnomusicology all impacted on the contemporary musical world.   

In 1947, Boulez told Souris that his music was all about ‘violence, shock, life’ – qualities which, for him, were lacking in contemporary serial composers. How ironic is it that the popular view is that Boulez is a mathematical composer, uninterested in the expressive nature of music? It is this popular view that my book aims to disprove.

Listen to Caroline discuss her book with Tom Service on BBC Radio 3 Music Matters

CAROLINE POTTER is Visiting Reader in French Music at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. With Boydell she published Erik Satie: A Parisian Composer and his World (2016) which was named Sunday Times classical music book of the year.

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