Music to Painting: My Encounters with Pierre Boulez

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Click images above to view full size; listen to Le Marteau sans Maître on Spotify below

Los Angeles-based artist and psychoanalyst Desy Safán-Gerard met Pierre Boulez when young, and continued to cross his path as her career developed. She created a series of paintings of his work “Le Marteau sans Maître”. She was kind enough to write us a piece documenting her history with Boulez and the development of the paintings (shown above).

I was only 19 years old when I first met Pierre Boulez. I was singing in the choir of the University of Chile, the country where I was born. He was a fledgling conductor who was the music director in the famous theatrical company of Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud (the same Barrault of fame who, several years earlier, had played the role of the mime in the French classic film Les enfants du Paradis).

During his visit to Chile, Pierre Boulez needed a choir for the music in a play being performed by Barrault and Renaud, Cristobal Colon, written by Paul Claudel with music composed by Darius Milhaud. I was lucky to be selected as one of the sixteen musicians from our choir to perform during the play, under the baton of Pierre Boulez.

We were singing in the pit of the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, and it was a revealing experience for a young girl like me. I was impressed by Boulez directing us and recognized instantly his immense talent and creative streak.

I had the good fortune to meet him many years later, after I had moved and settled in Los Angeles. I told him I had sung for him in Chile, to which he replied that the time he had spent there had been the happiest in his life. I added that it was also one of the happiest times in my own life, particularly when at night, after the rehearsals, a large group of actors, musicians and choristers would go to get coffee together. I would return home very late, finding my parents upset at my bohemian life style.

Sometime in 1984, Boulez was in Los Angeles and I attended a lecture on creativity that he gave. I asked him permission to “paint” his nine movements of Le marteau sans maître. With his French logic, he responded that, since René Char had given him permission to write music to his poem and to even use the poem title for his composition, he was now delighted to give me a similar permission to translate his music into my paintings.

My attempt to do a visual translation of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître had to do with my wish to really comprehend this piece of music. I was fascinated with the complexity and beauty of the movements. In order to do paintings based on Le marteau, I would have to listen to them many times and get to understand each movement from the inside out. It was as if I wanted to get into Boulez’s mind and relive his creative process along with him. This particular intimacy called for small format work, so I used watercolor, micropens, and pencils on paper measuring eighteen by fourteen inches. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, these paintings represented my wish to forget my own subjective moods to pursue an objective depiction of Boulez’s sounds.

I began by taking walks in the Palisades Park in Santa Monica while listening to the nine movements, spending a lot of time with each one. I would then go back to my studio and listen to them again, taking notes with colored pencils. The overall colors of these paintings were the result of my subjective experience of each movement. For example, in three of the paintings I used a golden yellow for the background, in four I used a soft green for the background and in the last two I used a soft magenta. In all of them, the color was uneven, leaving enough visual elements to encourage me to play and invent new shapes. These areas without color or small areas of different and subtle pastel colors were meant to represent the irregularities of the sound events and help in the overall design of the movement. In all nine I painted a one-inch border using the same color in a deeper shade in order to create a subtle inside frame. The reason for this is that I already knew I wanted to portray the freedom of Boulez’s music by having the events within the frame extending outward and going over that inside frame. This was to be the most important feature of each painting.

As far as what went into the framed areas, I tried to find the visual equivalent of each sound. It was clear to me that the flute would be represented by a thin silver line moving irregularly up and down on the paper (following the music). A bassoon was represented by a thick line with a burgundy color that moved rather slowly. A thicker gold line represented the movements of the viola and cello. In paintings eight and nine, a thicker burgundy line represented the female alto voice featured in those movements.

Boulez tends to use many percussion instruments and Le marteau is no exception. I attempted to represent the reverberation of the percussion instruments with concentric circles drawn with pencil from a point in the center of the sound. The complexity of sounds was represented by having different lines crossing and coming together in various areas of the paper. The accidental happenings on the paper helped guide the intersecting lines. In spite of my desire to be loyal to Boulez, I felt tremendous freedom to invent the visual elements as needed.

Several years later, Pierre Boulez (by then a well-known conductor and composer) was in Los Angeles conducting Bruckner’s ninth. I visited him during rehearsal, hoping he could come to my studio to see the finished paintings. He could not find the time for it, but requested that I bring them to him after one of his rehearsals. I did, lugging two large suitcases. I lined up the nine paintings against the wall and to my surprise and delight, he pointed to one of them saying, “That’s my number four”, and to another, “That’s my number six” and so on until he identified each of my paintings with the exact movement of the music I had reproduced. I was blown over that he could respond so accurately to the structure of my paintings. All my efforts to translate his music had been worth it because Boulez had accepted and validated my work!

I treasure these paintings so much that I have been reluctant to sell any of the series. They are a memento of one of my most precious musical and visual experiences, and I would only let them go if Pierre Boulez would want them for IRCAM (L’Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique), which he founded.

I have continued to be inspired by Boulez’s music. In 2012, I did a performance at the Galerie Dufay/Bonnet in Paris where I painted with both hands while a nude model moved to Boulez’s Notations. I was sad that he could not come to this performance because he was in Chicago having eye surgery.

Desy Safán-Gerard
April 2015
Venice, California

Read “A Letter to Pierre Boulez” from Desy’s forthcoming book on creativity, Psychoanalytic Visions: From Chaos to Control to the Unfolding of a Creative Mind >>

Learn more on Desy’s website >>

9 Comments on “Music to Painting: My Encounters with Pierre Boulez”

  1. Dear Desy,
    Your energy and inspiration always delight and astound me. Your letter detailing your encounters with Pierre Boulez–whom I consider one of my two “Musical Godfathers” along with Bernstein–is magical. I enjoyed reading it and visualizing you backstage with Boulez identifying each of his nine Marteau movements in your paintings.
    Congratulations, and see you in Ojai,

  2. Dear Desy
    What a moving essay about your own journey and its intersection with Pierre Boulez. How thrilling that he recognized his movements through your deep inner understanding of each one through the visual representation you were so intuned to in his music.
    I hang the print of your painting (it is laminated!) you sent me years ago every year in my sukkah and think of you. I would love to be at the Ojai Music Festival but I am not sure how kind they are to handicap situations – – I should call, as Herb needs a wheelchair these days for such functions.

    • Dear Judith,

      I so enjoyed your response to my Boulez story and Le Marteau paintings. I hope you manage the situation with the wheelchair for Herb so you can make it to the festival.

      With much love to you both,

  3. Fascinantes tus pinturas, como todas. Para apreciarlas en la forma que se merecen, tendré que escuchar mucho más a Boulez. Me pondré en campaña! Besos

  4. Dearest Desy,

    Thank you for the paintings and your notes on Boulez. These works are wonderful.

    My love,


    • Dear Richard,

      I thought of you when I discovered pianist Yuja Wang playing the Prokofiev Concertos. I had not heard her before. Then also, when I heard the Ravel Left Hand Concerto with Jean-Yves Thibaudet last Saturday.
      Hope to see you in Ojai.


  5. Dear Desy,

    If Maestro Boulez is well enough to read this, he will be profoundly moved, as I was. May he and you be well.