French composer Gérard Grisey studied with Olivier Messiaen and others, and his association with the European contemporary music scene including time spent in Darmstadt and studies with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Italy after winning the Prix de Rome, work at IRCAM in Paris and the founding of the Spectral Music genre along with Tristan Murail.
Les espace acoustiques is a series of six works that develop in size from a single player to large orchestra, of which “the unity of the whole is based on the formal similarity of the pieces and on the two acoustic points of reference: the overtone spectrum and periodicity.” Grisey’s own notes on each work are at the same time informative and esoteric, pointing towards concept and technique but perhaps not so useful as a listening guide for new listeners – reading the text of one piece you might initially believe it might apply as equally and convincingly to another, even with a fairly educated ear. Distinctive in terms of its instrumentation is the opening Prologue, played with consummate skill by Garth Knox, his solo viola building a strong and substantial musical arc in which material continually returns and regenerates “in a type of spiral… This is my attempt to express what for me is the essence of music: the dialectics between noise and form.”
Périodes revolves around the significant but ‘delicate’ role of a string quartet, the music building at times around a sustained pedal tone, later diving in dramatic glissandi, fragmenting into transparent textures and darkening into low tones. Grisey refers to certain moments of ‘inhalation’ as transitions between structures, the last of which develops through restless sequences of tremulandi and taking us into the world of Partiels, these low tones becoming the foundation for an exploration of upper partials. The overtone spectrum is generated and released by 18 musicians in “a dynamic that corresponds rather closely to the cyclical form of human respiration… tension/collapse – relaxation – collection of energy.” This unconventional use of instruments leads us into associations connected with electronic effects or even nature documentaries as much as an ensemble of breathing musicians, but in a good way – the slow evolution of all of these pieces giving the ear time to absorb and digest sounds and, for all their strangeness, their expressive potential.
CD 2 at once brings us into more symphonic realms, with Modulations written for 33 players. “The form of this piece is the story of the very tones of which it consists…”, the musical material or “sound parameters” moving through modulation processes “based on the discoveries of acoustics: overtone spectra, partial tone spectra, formants, passing notes, differential tones” and more. Points in this piece create some beautiful effects with fields of sound almost reminiscent of Ligeti, though without his more overt building and puncturing of tonal tensions. Even with its slow movement this remains a world of restless change and often dark, elemental moods helped along by portentous percussion and intense wind and brass clusters or chords that become blended and alternated with alien effects both from orchestral instruments and subtly used synthesized sounds.
The point of transition between Modulations and Transitoires could almost have come from something by Olivier Messiaen, but Transitoires opens with those distinctive upper harmonic sounds over a sotto voce pedal tone to create an atmosphere of mystery and expectation from a different galaxy to the older master. Grisey’s words are useful here: “With their broad acoustic space, Transitoires, and later Epilogue achieve what was already latent in the other pieces of the cycle. The filter is removed, time is drawn apart, the spectra explode into 55 overtones, and true spectral polyphony runs the gamut of the tonal space.” Explosive is a good word for the initial climax, hard-won with a slow build-up, and sending us into another world of dark and troubling strangeness built up from another pedal tone into which the double bass digs its low tones, and another structure is slowly erected in those sequences of inhalation. The faster moving contrasts of the second half of Transitoires and a return to a solo viola section sets us up for Epilogue, the only piece of the cycle not playable separately as it acts as a conclusion to Transitoires. “Is it an end? I doubt it. I arbitrarily had to interrupt an ‘entropic process’ which was gradually attacking the open system of Espaces Acoustiques. The solo viola has us cast our minds back to the Prologue, its ruminations interrupted by the orchestra and commented on by four French horns that seem to jeer at its gestures. This relatively brief final movement is a summation and destruction of what has gone before, the beauty of the upper harmonic resonances becoming subsumed in a kind of rampant iconoclasm of trampling rhetorical horns, sliding strings and pedal tones that shift and descend with irresponsible abandon.
Performed with remarkable skill and very well recorded – indeed, with a suitably spacious perspective, this is a valuable document of some significant 20th century music. Espace Acoustiques both inhabits and eschews the avant-garde of its period, still sounding fresh and relevant from its origins in the 1970s. If you are medically allergic to the last century’s forays into worlds beyond conventional Western form and tonality then this is unlikely to change your mind, but if your imagination seeks rich pickings and want to dip your toe into this big resonant lake of sound then you might find the waters are not as chilly as you expected.