Les espaces acoustiques, Gérard Grisey

by tacet

Gérard Grisey’s manifesto as a composer was as unassuming as it was transformative: “music is made with sounds, not with notes.” Whilst this simple statement may initially appear somewhat aphoristic, Grisey’s observation represents a subtle, yet pertinent, repositioning of compositional approach. It was from this starting point that the French composer began to mine the depths of texture and harmony contained within individual sounds. In developing what is now termed “spectral music”, Grisey created an innovative, yet strikingly lucid and accessible, compositional style, simultaneously eschewing the occasionally esoteric tendencies of the European avant-garde as well as minimalism’s increasingly post-modern nature.

Grisey’s largest ever undertaking, Les espaces acoustiques was composed sporadically in the period from 1974 to 1985 and remains perhaps the fullest realisation of his musical vision. In composing the piece Grisey undertook detailed analyses of sound spectra. These are the unique combinations of frequencies that manifest themselves as timbre, accounting for the distinction between, for example, a middle-C played on a piano and the same note played on a violin. Following this process of analysis, Grisey was able to mimic closely various sounds using groups of instruments, a technique that he called “instrumental synthesis”. A prominent example of the technique occurs at the opening of Les espaces acoustiques’s third movement ‘Partiels’; a low E on the trombone is followed by a collection of woodwinds and strings playing the frequencies from the sound’s spectrum, imitating the colour and timbre of the brass instrument in a shivering halo of sound.

During this passage, Grisey prises apart the components of the initial sound, reconstructing the trombone’s timbre in front of our ears in a stunning aural illusion, forming a furtive echo at once both bleached and iridescent. Whilst seemingly little more than a conjuring trick, this passage serves to reveal the wealth of subtle nuance hidden within a single sound. In this sense, Les espaces acoustiques reaches far beyond the superficialities of its compositional ingenuity: this piece opens up new modes of aural perception, exposing the beautiful multidimensionality constituting even the most mundane of sonic events.

Les espaces acoustiques hovers uneasily between the consonant and the dissonant, the placid and the volatile. Through his spectral analyses, Grisey uncovered the dramatic tensions at the centre of apparently stable sounds, drawing out the natural dissonances that lie buried within. As such, this music is at once sensuous and uncertain; the static mass of luminous colours and textures is undercut by a constant threat of rupture as Grisey proceeds to tear apart the very fabric of the soundscape. Part scientific analysis, part mystical exploration of aural sensuality, Les espaces acoustiques simultaneously deconstructs conceptions of the nature of music whilst remaining firmly rooted in the physical, vibrational qualities of sound itself.

Below is a recording of Les espaces acoustiques accompanied by a brief listening guide.

[UPDATE 05/01/2013: The recording below has been removed from YouTube. Another recording can be found here via Spotify. Please note that this is a different recording so the timings below will no longer correspond exactly with the performance.]

Les espaces acoustiques proceeds in six movements with the ensemble increasing in size as the piece progresses.

‘Prologue’ opens the piece in a rather austere manner. A sparse solo for viola, this movement hints at the timbral richness of the remainder of the piece as the instrument traverses a variety of sonorities.

‘Periodes’ is scored for seven instruments: flute, clarinet, trombone, violin, viola, cello and double bass. In the opening passage, the static, pulsating mass of sound occasionally threatens to erupt as the rasping trombone cuts through the soundscape. Listen out for the lilting series of arpeggios beginning at 3:16 and the intense succession of chords from 7:03-8:45.

‘Partiels’ opens with the piece’s most prominent use of instrumental synthesis (0:00-3:40): the timbre of the low brass is imitated by various groups of instruments. Scored for 18 instruments, this movement explores a wide variety of textures; particularly striking is the throbbing cloud of sound at 12:28-15:03, gradually changing in colouration and intensity as different instruments enter and leave.

‘Modulations’ is scored for an orchestra. From 8:10 to 11:05, high strings and pitched percussion cloak the music in a shimmering metallic gauze.

The size of the orchestra increases for ‘Transitoires’. The penultimate movement acts as the culmination of the piece, traversing a kaleidoscopic array of luminous textures. The central section from 4:41 to 9:44 recalls the music from the opening of ‘Partiels’. In a magical passage, the delicate, fragmentary strings which emerge from the gloom at 11:00 are joined by distant muted brass at 12:02.

‘Epilogue’ opens with a solo viola alluding to the ‘Prologue’ before ushering in the full orchestra, this time augmented by four solo horns. The movement forms an enigmatic conclusion to Les espaces acoustiques, the bleached colours of the orchestra punctuated by the jarring sonorities of the horns.

The fine performance above is conducted by Pierre-Andre Valade and available on the Accord record label.

Grisey’s final completed work, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (1998), is considered by some to be his crowning achievement and would make for a good entry point for further exploration of his music. Fellow French composer Tristan Murail is another significant proponent of spectral music; his pieces Gondwana (1980) and Désintégrations (1982) both come highly recommended.

Artwork: Cage 1, Gerhard Richter

by Thomas May