Related Murail Links:
Many years ago a friend
of mine working as a copyist for Universal
Edition was involved in the publication
of some of Murail's chamber music. She
said that in her estimation Murail was
a composer of real significance. However
it has proved quite difficult to hear
much of his music either on the BBC
or on CD. To make some amends we now
have the complete piano music dating
from between 1967 when the composer
was still a student through to 2003.
This covers a period of thirty-six very
significant years. Across that period
we see charted the composer's progress
and development in one very telling
and disciplined medium: the piano. So
what can you expect to hear?
Murail was a pupil
of Messiaen and won the Prix de Rome
in 1971. The early Comme un oeil
suspendu et poli par le songe
("Like an eye hung and polished by the
dream" - my translation) is described
in the press notices as 'newly discovered'.
It is not much more than a clone of
his teacher in its harmonic progressions
and rhythms. However there is also a
feeling of something beyond Messiaen
which climaxes twenty-five years later
in the beautiful brief Cloches d'adieu,
et un sourire ("Farewell bells and
a smile"). This is a wistful and thankful
farewell to his teacher which, although
showing his influence, has most certainly
moved on significantly and become a
more personal statement. What had happened
One important development
was Murail's work in the electronic
music field. In the eighties he started
using computer technology to further
his research into acoustic phenomena.
From 1991 to 1997 he worked at IRCAM
and helped to develop the 'patchwork'
composition programme. This influence
has fed into creating a style now known
as 'spectral music'. The meaning is
difficult to pin down but the best description
I can give is: a recorded pure sound
is transformed in a way which makes
it entirely different from its starting
point. The full range of acoustic sounds
is used from the highest to the lowest.
The way this can be transposed to the
piano can be heard in the textures of
the forty minute span of Les Travaux
et les Jours (Works and Days). This
divides into nine manageable sections
which are inter-related but which each
display a different sound-world. Number
six reminded me of Ligeti with its falling
cascades of scales tumbling at slightly
different speeds - all quite beautiful.
The third movement also intrigued me,
consisting at first, of a repetition
of long-held Messiaen-like chords (quite
a finger-print this throughout the disc)
with gentle splinters above. This then
evolves into a shower of notes which,
bird-like, flutter overhead and then
combine with the original chords. The
composer's own programme notes which
accompany this double CD comment that
there are "nine independent pieces,
but minutely intertwined. The music
revolves around a B-C tremolando and
is supported by a low F which is only
fully unveiled at the end of the cycle".
One is, as it were, left in suspended
animation. I found it quite gripping.
More so in fact than the thirty minute
Territoires de l'Oubli (Lands
of Oblivion). The younger composer here
does not quite bring off his scheme
where he is trying out new 'acoustical
phenomena’. He uses gentle repetition
of a low D sharp over a major 7th with
harmonies clarifying and then vanishing
into the sustaining pedal. The composer
talks of acoustic interference which
"modifies and enriches the colour".
But with its opening tremolando crescendo
the piece demonstrates that peculiar
French sensibility to sound for the
sake of sheer pleasure - total sensuousness.
The sounds create the form if there
is one at all; a state which Debussy
(and for that matter Dutilleux) might
have ideally wanted in his piano music.
I have to say that this piece takes
too long in creating its final culminatory
into two movements. The first, Près
des rives (By the riverside) is
the shorter one and demonstrates another
aspect of Murail's colour scheme. This
one is darker, sterner and even, more
violent. Its successor, Au mélange
des eaux (On the blending of the
waters) is left to brood on its consequences.
Neither piece outstays its welcome and
as a whole the work makes a strong impression.
Finally La Mandragore
('The Mandrake' - a magic, wild plant)
inhabits a similar sinister sound-world
to Près des rives. It
is remarkable in its use of bass sonorities
and in the repetition of one particular
chord. At nine minutes or so it just
reaches its right length before vanishing.
I have lived with this
music, all new to me, for a month, and
I am sure that my time has not been
wasted. While listening I am constantly
possessed by an impression of something
beyond the world, not conventionally
religious, but spiritual. This is music
to which I shall be happy to return.
I have reviewed several
Métier discs over the last few
years and find that the recordings are
often not of the best quality. However
on this occasion there is nothing between
the music and the listener; that can
only be considered an accolade.
As for the performances
you can rest assured that in Marilyn
Nonken we are hearing a musician of
outstanding qualities. It is evident
that she knows, strongly characterises
and loves this music. She has performed
it and many other 'difficult' contemporary
works all over the world and is a pianist
in whom we can trust. Her mastery of
Murail's sonorities and her virtuosity
are truly remarkable and demand attention.