Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Category: Spectral

Tranquil Abiding, Jonathan Harvey

Xu Bing - Tianshu [cropped]

An obsession with the human voice was a central project in the music of British composer Jonathan Harvey, who sadly passed away this week. It was a preoccupation present right from his first explorations of acoustic and electronic borders at the Paris music research institute IRCAM – the brainchild of Pierre Boulez. Harvey’s 1980 tape piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (I lament the dead, I call the living) delved into the particular sonorities of Winchester Cathedral’s Great Bell and his chorister son’s voice – a soundworld where spiritual boundaries met submerged acoustics via groundbreaking digital synthesis. Nearly two decades later, emerging from a period of intense research at Stanford University’s Centre for Composition Research into Music and Acoustics, Harvey’s ecstatic approach to aural shape-shifting elevated the voice to orchestral grandeur.

The voluminous power of sound crosses from instrumental expression towards the voice at its most primal in Harvey’s pulsating 1998 essay, Tranquil Abiding, written for chamber orchestra and extended percussion. Organic symbolism is given physical life as a backdrop of oscillating chordal movement – inhalation and exhalation blown up to universal proportions – while timbral life flickers across the surface. Fractured melody is streaked through this perpetual breath, before drifting into cathartic resonance. The title, described by Harvey as “a state of single-pointed concentration”, is typical of how eastern philosophy infuses his music.

The seminal influences of Stockhausen’s musical mysticism and the electronic soundscapes that Harvey encountered while at Princeton during the 1970s, combined with a personal and intensified spiritual shift to the East, pushed his music out of the confines of the British canon towards a state of “Gregorian Paradise” – a strange meeting of plainchant and Tibetan ritual. Within Harvey’s interest in rendering emotional issues strange by digital technology was a great paradox. Here the electronic world had become a way of discarding the obsession with suffering inherent to 19th century music, reaching for a pure land beyond.

And yet despite its evocation of transcendent realms, the articulation of chant and intense radiance, Harvey’s music has always been a far cry from New Age escapism or the minimalist oases of Arvo Pärt’s “new simplicity”. Writing tonal music “fills me with dread”, the composer once said. Tranquil Abiding’s elongation of soundscapes and unravelling of facades inhabits a complex environment. Buddhist conceptions make a perfect fit for Harvey’s spectralism, where sound is exposed in all its minutiae: “the materiality of the sound itself…the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of sound”.

Below is a recording of Tranquil Abiding accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Over the course of its 15 minutes, Tranquil Abiding sustains a continuous inhale/exhale structure of held crescendos and lowered decrescendos. The cavernous string motif emerges (0:00), around which the texture increasingly fills (0:46). The breathing grows in climactic force as the orchestra literally works in organic unison. Across this, independent woodwind (1:20) orbit, come loose and expand into rhythmic flourishes (2:50). Fragmentation over textural passivity builds into sharp frenzied song (3:08). By 4:20, the extended percussion of Harvey’s orchestration, complete with oriental bells and gongs, breaks through. This language of symbolic oscillation and sharp expression is stretched out, in a masterclass of orchestral colour, peaking at 11:55 and closing in radiant catharsis at 13:30 with the sound of plucked strings and rustling bamboo.

The above recording for the NMC label comes from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov, on a Buddhist ritual-infused set that also features the song cycle White as Jasmine and Body Mandala’s exploration of the sound of Tibetan low horns.

Harvey’s opera, Wagner Dream, premiered in 2007, is a work of totemic significance. Its dual inspirations – Wagner and Buddhist philosophy – blur the boundaries of geography and thought, in a spectral drama filled with Harvey’s most oppositional music.

Artwork: Tianshu, Xu Bing

by En Liang Khong

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Lichtbogen, Kaija Saariaho

Lichtbogen opens with the smallest of musical gestures; the flow of air moving across a mouthpiece, a tentative exhalation of breath producing the faintest hint of a tone. From this trembling nucleus of sound, the flute note steadily gains in weight and force, establishing itself within the aural space as its articulation becomes ever more assured. Yet, as soon as the tone appears to have settled into equilibrium it is transformed; its pastel colouration is imbued with a metallic shimmer as bowed strings furtively rise from the periphery, fusing to the flute’s timbre whilst simultaneously altering it. Next, a stuttering piano enters and what was once a pure, unified sound is gradually frayed as the string bowing becomes increasingly erratic, punctuated by the shiver of pitched percussion. Beginning with the intimate, barely audible sound of a breath, this elegant morphing of musical textures serves as a microcosm for the intoxicating soundscapes of the piece to come.

Composed in 1986, Lichtbogen is one of Kaija Saariaho’s earliest successes, scored for a small chamber orchestra including live electronics. Although she would later explore even more mysterious sound-worlds in her larger scale orchestral works, Lichtbogen conjures a stunning array of iridescent, tactile textures with a relatively limited sound palette. The seductive mystique common to all of Saariaho’s music is ever-present throughout Lichtbogen: this music is dream-like and ephemeral, a spectral web of sound that is as evocative as it is elusive. The piece hovers in an elegant stasis, hanging motionless in time and space even as its surface is texturally animated and vibrantly coloured; as such, Lichtbogen is at once welcoming yet subtly nuanced, revealing its vast multidimensionality under increased scrutiny.

As opposed to the pungent, occasionally claustrophobic, atmospheres of some of Saariaho’s orchestral music, Lichtbogen’s modest means affords generous space to the soundscape: this music is transparent and airy without ever becoming anaemic or insubstantial. As in the striking opening of the piece, Saariaho’s orchestration, as well as her subtle use of live electronics, perpetually blurs the lines between the individual instruments of the ensemble until they appear to melt into a single entity; independent voices are subsumed into the unified musical texture, coalescing into a sparkling cloud of sound. Lichtbogen’s abstract nature is balanced by its graceful luminosity: this piece is neither reticent nor austere, only reserved and refined, indulging in the sensuality of musical sound whilst simultaneously retaining a delicate poise.

Below is a recording of Lichtbogen accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Lichtbogen does not demand attentive listening, although it does greatly reward it; its subtlety is belied by its façade of simplicity. Following the majestic opening section described above, a gently lilting texture enters at 1:35 as arpeggios on piano and percussion rustle beneath an amorphous fog of strings and flute. This passage gradually disintegrates and at 4:09 a graceful flute melody rises above the mist. A particularly striking passage begins at around 7:10 as fragments of falling melodies are traced atop a contorting mass of strings, steadily becoming more insistent and culminating at 7:28 when a melody is passed between strings, piano and flute. Having passed through a variety of musical textures, Lichtbogen culminates in a stunning closing section (beginning at around 14:13) as a low throb of sound enters the soundscape. The live electronics are particularly prominent in this section, blurring aural perspectives as exasperated gestures on the flute are cloaked in a shimmer of pitched percussion and electronically manipulated sound.

The above recording is played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; it is available on the Ondine label, as part of a comprehensive set of Saariaho’s orchestral works.

To delve further into Saariaho’s orchestral sound-world both Graal Théâtre (1997) and D’Om Le Vrai Sens (2010), a violin concerto and a clarinet concerto respectively, are highly recommended. Saariaho’s works for solo cello, in particular Sept Papillons (2000), maintain the same mystique even with a vastly diminished sound palette. Saariaho’s works are occasionally reminiscent of György Ligeti‘s orchestral pieces of the 60s and 70s, in particular the luminous Lontano (1967) and Clocks and Clouds (1972).

Artwork: Hero and Leandro, Cy Twombly

by Thomas May

Les espaces acoustiques, Gérard Grisey

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