Pierre Boulez (26 March 1925 – 5 January 2016)

French composer, conductor, pianist and music theorist Pierre Boulez has died. He had been in poor health for the past couple of years.

Boulez was the last giant of the rebellious, über-abstract serialist movement. A controversial figure, he was one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century but also one of the most dogmatic, prone to blunt but consistent statements. He could be savagely critical of the composers he disagreed with (Dutilleux, Jolivet) but also very nurturing for those he liked, including many young ones (Manoury, Dalbavie).

As for his music, I think it’ll remain forever a niche in the repertoire. He probably liked it that way or at least accepted it. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll happily do without his harcore serialist stuff from the 40s and 50s (the flute sonatina, Le Marteau sans Maître, the piano sonatas) but his later works are more appealing and less disjointed - though by no means easy listening (Messagesquisse, Dialogue de l’Ombre Double, Sur Incises). He’s never going to be my favourite composer, even among the late 20th century ones (mine would be Ligeti, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski and Jolivet) but I admit that he was an amazing master of orchestral colour. Actually, in the complete absence of melody and regular beats, the gorgeous sounds that he was able to draw from the orchestra is what I focus on to get some enjoyment from his works.

In the words of conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen:

“ Young people are attracted to black-and-white statements. At least I was. And Boulez was like a black-and-white statement machine. He said, “This is wrong, and this is right.” The statements Boulez made were kind of refreshingly categorical. Like the famous one from the ’50s: “If a composer has not experienced the necessity of dodecaphonic technique, he is useless.” That’s a good sentence because it tells you what is what. It takes the guessing out of the equation.”

A more in-depth look at his long career:

Wow, thanks. I recall hearing Dialogue de l’Ombre Double 25 years ago performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra clarinetist Jan Bruce Yeh and some dude tapping away on a Macintosh computer to control the speakers placed along the walls of the auditorium. The swirling effect of the “melody” plus the aural movement (plus, ahem, self-medication by myself and my companions) was phenomenal.

Anyway, he’ll be remembered by a reasonably large public as representing some facets of a serious avant-grade composing realm, along with a few others like Varese, Glass, Adams, Cage, Xenakis, and Ligeti (all quite different from each other, of course). Interesting that the famous ones are all men, though I’d be happy to be corrected on that.

A great loss. I spent much of 2015 listening to Boulez, working my way through the huge Complete Columbia Album Collection box set.

Pierre Boulez is one of my heroes.

He was a tremendous conductor, and a genius composer. His Notations I-IV for orchestra changed music for me forever; still some of my favorite music of all time.

I deeply regret that I never saw him conduct a concert live. It’s almost embarrassing to have to say that, but I cherish the numerous recordings of his I have purchased over the years, especially of Mahler, Ravel, and Debussy, as well as music from the “Second Viennese School”: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern.

NY Times Obituary. There are tributes all over the Internet, but that is an especially good one.

I am also fond of Boulez’s Bruckner, although sadly there’s not a lot of that out in the world.

Nonetheless, here’s a Bruckner 9, with the LA Phil.

I’ve been a fan of his music ever since I heard a recording of his Pli Selon Pli, way back when I was in high school.

It was something utterly new to me. I listened to it over and over, trying to understand what he was doing. Eventually, I think I got it, despite my complete lack of theoretical musical knowledge, and went on to listen to more of his music.

Cool! I love Pli selon pli. Such a gorgeous, seethingly complex sound world!

Merging threads.

I’ve been a fan for a while. I became a fan by way of Frank Zappa. Any time I saw a recording conducted by him, I always chose that one.

I wouldn’t necessarily always pick one of his recordings first for any given repertoire, fan though I am, but enough of them are top choice that you won’t go far wrong doing that.

ETA: From The Guardian: “10 key works.”

Among those recordings in that link of other composers’ music, I especially love the performance of Debussy’s Jeux.

I have his recording with the Chicago Symphony of Mahler Symphony No. 9. I’ve been meaning to explore the rest of his Mahler cycle.

I’ve listened to very little of his compositions as they are far outside my comfort zone. I’ll search around on the streaming services over the next few days to give them a second chance.

I’m more a fan of his conducting than his composer but there’s no denying Boulez’s impact on 20th century classical music.

The chorus I sing with did an extended tour with him just before I joined and they’ve been telling all sorts of stories. I’m somewhat fascinated and horrified by the one about how they’d been taking bets on which day he was going to change his clothes and he never did at any point in the week-long tour (concert dress excepted, of course).

His Mahler 3 is my favorite in that cycle, following closely by No. 6 and No. 2.

Some recommendations for places to start include the aforementioned Notations I-IV (and VII) for orchestra, linked above. Also I dearly love his Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna, which is just gorgeous and mesmerizing, and Pli selon pli, which is gorgeous as well as fascinatingly complex.