We love and listen to Messiaen and the Second Viennese School like Berg, Schoenberg, Webern — even before my daughter was born! Daughter's studying music at university. To guard privacy, I don't want to write more details on her or our family.

But starting 2019, she's been practicing many pieces composed by Pierre Boulez — and this Ultraserialism is maddening my husband and me! It sounds like random notes and/or noise to us! We haven't confronted her, because she knows more about music, and we know Boulez is a world famous composer and conductor. Boulez conducted "Classical" and Romantic tonal music like Beethoven, Berlioz, Haydn, Mahler — so Boulez doesn't look like a sham or phony, and we're taking Boulez's music in good faith.

But how can we learn Ultraserialism? Since 2019, we've watched Boulez's music on YouTube and listened to recordings. But like many others, we still can't GET Ultraserialism. When asked in 1999, why so few major pieces of the 1950s and 1960s had become repertory, Boulez replied

"Well, perhaps we did not take sufficiently into account the way music is perceived by the listener" (as cited in Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, 2007, p. 571).

Boulez rebuffs his own Ultra Serialism at theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Pierre Boulez.

Would you rather not have this piece [Referring to Boulez's Piano Sonata no. 2] played any more.

I am not terribly eager to listen to it. But for me it was an experience that was absolutely necessary.

We always listen to, and have no issue with, Messiaen's TONAL Orchestral PiecesTurangalîla-Symphonie, Oiseaux exotiques, Des Canyons aux étoiles, Éclairs sur l'au-delà — and chamber music — Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Husband and I were flabbergasted by New Contributor's advice that "the missing link" is Messiaen's SERIALIST pieces!


It sounds like you're trying to listen "analytically", and focusing a lot on Boulez's method (integral serialism). But this may not be the best approach, since these highly formal techniques are hard to "hear" directly in the music. Anyway, in my view if your music only works when you analyse it out and see how clever it is, it's already failed. In any case, only some of Boulez's music uses integral serialism; most composers who experimented with it discovered it was a bit of a cul-de-sac pretty quickly. (Incidentally, Messiaen's music is neither serial not tonal apart from a few curiosities).

I'll offer two alternative approaches. These may or may not work for you. You can try one, or both together.

The first is to listen closely and try to catch glimpses of the musical motifs. Yes, they're there, even in Sonata No 2, and they're not so different from what you might hear in Schoenberg. By "motif" I mean a musical idea that's a bit too short and simple to count as a "melody", but has its own definite identity.

Boulez likes to repeat a few motifs many times but usually in radically transformed ways, which creates a kind of tapestry of interweaving musical material. It can be very absorbing to get lost in as you try to follow his thoughts from moment to moment, often calling back to something you heard previously in a different form. The rhythm and melodic contour might be what you'll recognize first, rather than specific pitches.

Another approach is just to listen to the music purely sensually. Boulez's music is usually glittering and highly dynamic, like fireworks going off. Often it's positively luxurious. The piano sonatas are maybe not the ideal place to start with this, since their dynamic contrasts are very "in your face" -- try a piece like "Sur Incises" or "Le Soleil des Eaux". Just let it wash over you and enjoy the images and moods it conjures up for you.

In my view there's nothing wrong with this "naive" approach. In fact, if a piece of music doesn't pass a test like this, I don't really care how it's put together.

One more thing: don't be put off by the way Boulez talked about music. He loved stirring up controversy and being outrageous. His remarks can be very thought-provoking but I suggest taking them with a hefty pinch of salt.

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