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Granum Sinapis; Umbrae Mortis; Dona eis Choeur de Chambre Accentus/Ars
Nova/Laurence Equilbey
Auvidis/Naïve MO 782116 [47 min] (PGW)

Pascal Dusapin (b. 1955) is undoubtedly a significant contemporary composer of the middle generation, but one whom I have found problematic. His opera Romeo & Juliette was featured at Huddersfield, but left me cold and bemused, as did the CD, which I passed on to a grateful fan of the composer! I had reservations about his new piano Études played (twice over) last month at Musica 2000 in Strasbourg, where he is composer in residence. I am therefore grateful to pianist Ian Pace, who played two of them there, for permission to reprint excerpts from his most recent writing about Dusapin from the Strasbourg programme book.

This new CD of his three works for mixed choir (the first two a cappella, the third with seven wind instruments) may be a way in, and is beginning to work its spell. The music is mainly slow but tonally seductive. Granum Sinapis (1992-97) sets a text by 'Maitre Eckhart', a 14th C. speculative mystic. The headings are given in French & English and it took me some time to realise that it was being sung in Flemish! Overall moods seem more important to Dusapin than specific word setting. It is described in the liner notes (in miniscule print, not very black on off-white paper) as a 'spirtual, meditative' work, which brings it into a realm which is popular in UK, notably with the run-away success of John Tavener. But I find this more subtle and it works its way by stealth, making you listen again and again to try to capture it. The tempi are slow, dynamics mainly quiet, and harmony is all important.

The brief Umbrae Mortis introduces whispering and quarter-note dissonances. Dona eis mixes French and Latin and uses the instruments of Varese's Octendre, without bass. The part-writing is more complex and broken up, with a variety of tempo that distinguishes it from the other works here.

It is difficult music to perform and to digest as a listener and I readily accept the assurance given to us that these musicians have achieved their task with precision and sensitivity. The recording sounds fine. The photo of Dusapin is shadowy and blurred, and the text may require a magnifying glass. It would be presumptuous for me to award a single star score, but this is a CD for the curious to explore.
Peter Grahame Woolf

Extracts from an essay by Ian Pace (pianist) about Pascal Dusapin - his recital including Dusapin Études was reviewed by S&H at Strasbourg Musica2000) :

In any country or musical culture, the most interesting composers are often those whose work stands apart from prevalent or mainstream trends. Pascal Dusapin, the most important French composer of the generations younger than Boulez or Barraqué, undoubtedly belongs to this category. His music has a penetrating, searing individuality that is utterly unassimilable within stylistic categories.

Since his earliest acknowledged compositions, Dusapin¹s work has continued to transform itself frequently, yet certain recurrent preoccupations can be discerned. An interest in the visceral excitement that can be generated by instrumental virtuosity is often present, as is the influence of jazz. Though himself once a jazz pianist, Dusapin steadfastly refused to write for the piano until 1997, when he composed an important piano trio, and the important recent set of piano études, which take their place alongside the études of Debussy, Bartók and Ligeti as amongst the most significant works within the genre. - -

- - Dusapin is also concerned with the score as visual, graphic entity beyond pure instructiveness, so that a cursory glance at a page can reveal something quite immediate about how a piece sounds. But more important is his interest in searching for new types of structural approach; his structures might better be called narratives, for even in the non-operatic or programmatic works, one can sometimes sense some underlying pyschological trajectory or ideological conception.

If one might speak of Dusapin's 'style', it is hardly something that is self-consciously cultivated. He is a pragmatic composer who composes works in response to particular circumstances and players. - - - His vocal idioms demonstrate a real concern for the particular modes of inflection of the different languages he uses, which include French, German, English, Japanese, and the provincial language of Occitan. - - -

- - - While there are many composers whose in whose music one can clearly discern the influence of Iannis Xenakis (such as Ivo Malec, Julio Estrada, Francisco Guerrero, James Dillon and Richard Barrett), Dusapin is the only composer who Xenakis acknowledges as his student. From Xenakis, Dusapin derived an understanding of the architecture of sound-masses and an interest in mythological subjects.

In Dusapin¹s recent works involving piano, he has found ways of recreating in purely instrumental terms the levels of intensity found in his operas. - -

- - As many composers have discovered, the piano as a medium comes with much historical baggage and received notions of musicality that pianists apply regardless of the particularities of the music in question. The fixed temperament and sheer range of overtones present even when only a few notes are struck forces a more acute attention to harmony and tonal implications than if writing for other instruments. The Études surmount these problems with immense skill; whilst utterly idiomatic in their use of harmony, sonority and articulation, the use of extremes of tempi and density of articulative detail (taken almost to the point of obsessiveness) preclude any easy assimilability into existing models. Again the 'endgame' element is present, though here presented in rather more wistful and gaming ways; the first piece, 'origami' continues to weave wondrous musical patterns out of what has preceded, while the third, tangram, like the puzzle of the same name, seeks to form its musical materials into a coherent whole.

Dusapin's musical aesthetic stands apart from the negations of Helmut Lachenmann, Aldo Clementi, Sciarrino and others, or from the fragmented post-romanticism of Wolfgang Rihm, but that is in no sense to imply that the result is any less 'critical'. It's immediacy and pertinence to the world of today or any time is unquestionable, and the provisional nature of any work only reinforces this factor.

© Ian Pace 2000

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