A few months ago, when
reviewing a recording of Grisey’s last completed work (Quatre
chants pour franchir le seuil [1997/8]), I mentioned his big
cycle Les Espaces Acoustiques composed between 1974 and
1985 of which I found this recording while browsing through the shelves
of a record shop in Brussels.
Les Espaces Acoustiques was not originally
planned as a cycle. In fact, Grisey composed Périodes
for seven players (1974) as the result of a commission from the Ensemble
L’Itinéraire which gave the first performance in Rome in 1974.
The piece, scored for flute, clarinet, trombone and string quartet (no
cello, but a double bass), is a suite of clearly characterised episodes
in the last of which Grisey experimented with a technique he later developed
more fully and which is generally known now as "spectral music".
In 1975 he completed Partiels for 18 instruments, a commission
from the Ministère des Affaires Culturelles, that was again first
performed by L’Itinéraire conducted by Boris de Vinogradov. Only
then did he began to think about a large-scale cycle for instrumental
forces of increasingly larger number. He thus decided that the first
piece of the cycle should be for a solo instrument; and, since the viola
plays a prominent part in Périodes, he chose to
compose the Prologue for solo viola (1976). The other
pieces were written when commissions came the composer’s way, though
always keeping in mind that they were to be part of the cycle, and should
thus maintain some structural logic with any of the other components
of Les Espaces Acoustiques. Thus Modulations
for 33 players (1976/7), commissioned by the Ensemble InterContemporain
and dedicated to Messiaen on his 70th birthday, was first
performed in 1978 conducted by Michel Tabachnik. Transitoires
for orchestra, commissioned by the Symphony Orchestra of Sicily, followed
in 1980/1 and was first performed in Venice in 1981. Finally, Epilogue
for four horns and orchestra completed the cycle in 1985. Its first
performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Eötvös
took place in Venice again in 1985.
All pieces from the cycle, save Epilogue,
may be performed separately. Transitoires and Epilogue,
however, must be played together (in that order, of course!). Nevertheless,
the whole cycle may be (and is better) performed complete and has already
been played as such on several occasions, as it was during the Ars
Musica festival in Brussels in 1993. It goes without saying that
a complete performance of Les Espaces Acoustiques exerts
a more telling impact since the several pieces are connected in one
way or another, the more so after the completion of Prologue
that acts as a red thread all through the later stages of the cycle.
A complete performance, however, poses certain problems of organisation
which are mostly solved by the interval during the third and fourth
So, the Prologue opens unobtrusively,
one single note being slowly explored. Intervals then progressively
widen whereas the harmonic spectra enrich the instrument’s palette.
This free, somewhat improvisatory music merges almost unnoticed into
Périodes in which strings are clearly prominent.
Similarly, the final section of Périodes is, as
it were, engulfed and amplified by the richer textures of Partiels.
This piece, however, ends rather dreamily, in the bass register and
at a low, almost inaudible dynamic level. Thus, considering the virtual
impossibility of achieving complete silence in concert halls, the very
end of Partiels is "accompanied" by various
noises produced by the players, not the instruments, who drop their
scores on the floor, shuffle their feet, cough and the like. Though
this is generally discreetly done (especially in this recording), I
find this "gimmick" completely irrelevant and a slight miscalculation
(and the only one in the whole cycle) on the composer’s part for the
tension accumulated in the course of the first three pieces and its
quiet resolution at the end is gripping enough to keep the audience
silent for a few seconds.
The second "panel" (Modulations, Transitoires
and Epilogue) is scored for larger forces although
Modulations is for medium-size orchestra. Modulations
is mainly a study in orchestral textures that ends with a long crescendo
leading into the richer sound palette of Transitoires.
The latter is almost some sort of tone poem evoking in turn mighty natural
phenomena (for the present writer, at least), craggy landscapes and
wide rarefied spaces. Some of the more heavily scored sections call
forth images of big lava waves drifting down the volcano’s slopes, stopped
or slowed-down by protruding rocks and drifting along with lessened
intensity whereas the nocturnal final section has the viola musing over
some material from Prologue, supported by a delicately
scored bell-like accompaniment. It slowly merges into the Epilogue
first accompanied and later engulfed by woodwind rippling figures. That
is where the four horns take over, first echoing, then extending the
viola’s material. The final horn flourishes are punctuated by isolated
bass drum strokes.
Les Espaces Acoustiques is a major achievement
of late 20th Century music; and, no doubt, Grisey’s most
powerful statement. It also illustrates Grisey’s progress and increasing
mastery of his technique over these years while demonstrating the composer’s
unfailing aural imagination and ability to structure his works on a
long term basis. In Les Espaces, Grisey uses a wide-ranging
array of techniques, discarding neither consonance nor harmonically
enlarged "spectral" fields; but he always sees that the works
of the cycle have a firm, coherent basis often achieved through the
recurring use of long-held pedal notes or rhythmic ostinati.
His strictly intellectual conception never excludes some vivid aural
imagination, which is one of his most endearing qualities; and, no matter
how technically complex it may be, Grisey’s best music strongly communicates
by its sheer physical, almost elemental strength. This is the sort of
music that Varèse would have written, had he lived in the 1980s.
The performances are superb: carefully prepared, polished
and committed, bringing out the remarkable expressive power of this
major cycle by one of the finest composers of his generation whose untimely
death was – and will remain – a great loss.