(Repost) MP3 Blog #6: Gérard Grisey

(Since my blog has recently moved from blogger to wordpress many of the extant links direct one to a non-active blog.  To try and rectify this, as well as bring back some worthwhile material, I’m going to periodically repost some of my personal favorite blog posts…)

Gérard Grisey:
”Partiels” 1975
For 18 musicians
Performers unknown

Another performance by Ensemble Court-Circuit and the Frankfurter Museumorchestra is available on this c.d. recording of Grisey’s “Les Espace Acoustiques”

Also a performance by the ASKO Ensemble and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln is available on this c.d. recording of Grisey’s “Les Espace Acoustiques”

”Le Noir de l’Étoile;” III. 1989-1990
For six percussionists placed around the audience, tape, and live transmission of astronomical signals
Performed by Les Percussion de Strasbourg

Available on “Le Noir de l’Étoile” SACD from amazon.fr

Recent online discussions and the unfortunate passing of one of my favorite composers, György Ligeti, have compelled me to post two works from one of my other favorite composers who has passed on – Gérard Grisey. Rather than write an entry entirely filled with my own thoughts and reflections, I’m going progressively let Grisey’s translated works speak for himself and save my own writing to few situating remarks and personal reflections. If you don’t know any music by Grisey, or any spectral music for that matter, I highly recommend you buy one of the two newly available recordings of Grisey’s monumental 90 minute cycle “Les Espaces Acoustiques”.

The first work I chose, “Partiels”, holds a special place in my heart. I first heard this scratchy recording on the listening list for my college introductory composition course. I was immediately struck by the clearly perceptible visceral thrust and sumptuous yet otherworldly timbres. Although I had no idea of the exact techniques being used, I soon became obsessed with understanding sound. As I later found out, this demonstrative work is one of the two central works (“Modulation” is the other) from Grisey’s six-part spectral ‘treatise’ “Les Espace Acoustiques.”

Today, “Les Espace Acoustiques” seem to me like a great laboratory in which the spectral techniques are applied to various situations (from solo to full orchestra). Certain pieces even have a demonstrative, almost didactic, aspect as if, in the euphoria of discovery, I had taken pains to make the characteristics of the language that I was gradually inventing be grasped as fully as possible.

-Gérard Grisey (from an interview with Guy Lelong trans. John Tyler Tuttle)

The spectral technique most often cited for pedagogical purposes is “instrumental additive synthesis.” This technique is inspired by the principal of additive synthesis – that any sound can broken down into a collection of sinusoidal waves which can then be combined to recreate the original sound. The beginning of “Partiels” directly transfers this concept to instruments. The work starts with a low trombone E followed the rest of the ensemble recreating the trombone’s timbre as sinusoidal waves would in additive synthesis.

It is debatable if this technique is effective in recreating the trombone’s timbre in “Partiels”; however, in his program notes to the work, Grisey makes it clear that a simple timbral reproduction is not his intent:

Numerous sequences of “Partiels” announce a new technique, that of instrumental synthesis. Analogous to the auditory synthesis used in the programmes of digital electronic music, this writing style uses the instruments (micro-synthesis) to express different elements of the sound and elaborate an overall sound form (macro-synthesis). The result of this treatment is that our perception, the different instrumental sources disappear to the advantage of a completely invented synthetic timbre. These different mergings allow for articulating and organizing a whole range of timbres going from the spectrum of harmonics to white noise, by the way of the different spectra of inharmonic partials.

-Gérard Grisey (trans. John Tyler Tuttle)

Another interesting feature of “Partiels,” which does not come across in the recording, are the visual theatrics at the work’s end.

The end of “Partiels” progressively moves towards silence, but perfect silence does not exist – there is always a spectator who coughs, musicians who drop their mutes or begin to put their things away! Therefore, I staged this impossibility of silence; in fact, two procedures alternate: the first goes from sound towards silence, and the second from silence towards a group of noises taken from the daily life of the instrumentalists (turning pages, horn players who drain the water from their instrument, string players putting away their bows…); but at the end, it is truly silence, for even the public is held breathless: the percussion who slowly separates his cymbals, while the other musicians quote a fragment of “Partiels.”

-Gérard Grisey (from an interview with Guy Lelong, trans. John Tyler Tuttle)

After completing “Les Espace Acoustiques” in 1985, beginning with the composition “Talea,” Grisey became less focused on constructing a new language. The compositional focus shifted more clearly towards the interaction between musical objects (or sound) and perceptible time or ‘musical time.’

By including not only the sound but, moreover, the differences perceived between sounds, the real material of the composer becomes the degree of predictability, or better, the degree of ‘preaudibility.’ So, to influence the degree of preaudibility we come back to composing musical time directly – that is to say perceptible time, as opposed to chronometric time [time determined by a clock or other conventional measurements].

…I believe that the compose who wants to give time a musical value must focus on this point. It is no longer the single sound whose density will embody time, but rather the difference or lack of difference between one sound and its neighbor; in other words, the transition from the know to the unknown and the amount of information that each sound event introduces.

…This brings us back to ‘composing around space,’ rather like sculptors (cf. Henry Moore) whose hollows are not holes bored into the material, but forms in negative around which the volumes are articulated.

-Gérard Grisey (“Tempus ex machina A composer’s reflections on musical time,” Contemporary Music Review 2 (1987) 242-3, trans. by S. Welbourn)

It is in this more phenemological context that “Le noir de L’Étoile” was composed.

When I met the astronomer and cosmologist Joe Silk at Berkeley in 1985, he introduced me to the sounds of pulsars. I was seduced by those of the Vela Pulsar and immediately wondered, like Picasso picking up an old bicycle saddle, ‘What in world could I do with this?’

…When music succeeds in conjuring up time, it finds itself vested with a veritable shamanic power, that of connecting us to the forces that surround us.

…Of course, we know – or think we know – that with or without us, 0359-54 and the Vela Pulsar will continue their
interminable rounds and sweep the intersidereal spaces indifferently with their beams of electromagnetic waves. But is it not by trapping them in a radio telescope, then integrating them into a sophisticated cultural event – the concert – that they will then send back to us more than their songs?

Indeed, the moment of a pulsar’s passage in the sky limits us to a precise date, and by pinning the concert on this faraway clock, it becomes an event in situ or, more exactly, in tempore, thereby linked to cosmic rhythms. Thus, the pulsars will determine not only the different tempi or beats of “Le Noir de L’Étoile,” but also the date and precise time of its performance.

Music with pulsar obbligato!

However, it should not be deduced that I am a follower of the Music of the Spheres! There is no Music of the Spheres other than Inner Music.

That alone beats even more violently than our pulsars and, from time to time, obliges a composer to remain listening.

-Gérard Grisey (program notes to “Le Noir de L’Étoile” trans. John Tyler Tuttle)

* * *

Digression: The art of music is a violent art par excellence. It gives us to be perceived what Proust called ‘a little time in pure state,’ this time which supposes both the existence and annihilation of all forms of life

Music, impregnated by time, is invested with this violence of the sacred which G. Bataille (1986) speaks; a violence silent and without language, that only sound and its becoming can possibly, and only for an instant, evoke and exorcise.

…’The last work,’ Varèse said, ‘is imagination!’

To this I would add emotion which, ultimately, creates musical form as it is perceived

‘Music is number and drama,’ said Pythagoras.

Real musical time is only a place of exchange and coincidence between and infinite number of times.

-Gérard Grisey (“Tempus ex machina A composer’s reflections on musical time,” Contemporary Music Review 2 (1987) 242-3, trans. by S. Welbourn)

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