Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me
Astute readers will know that this is a work that completely blew me away when I first heard it in
January February 1999. I was reading some Music and Letters reviews from the early 1970s on Monday, and one critic – from memory it may have been Henry Raynor – suggested that most of us, if we’re lucky, see about a dozen concerts that stay with us through our lives. The first performance of Quatre chants, alongside the latest incarnation of Boulez’s Sur incises and a Wolfgang Rihm work I no longer remember the name of, was one of my dozen, no question. Since then, I’ve attempted sporadically to find a recording to little success (although I’ve not tried recently, so one may be out there now – I’m in Paris next month, so I’ll have a nose round the Pompidou music shop. Update: Charlie Quidnunc points out that a recording is available at that obscure emporium, Amazon. Thanks!). The work crystallised for me a number of ideas about music that are important in how I see and hear things 6 years later. One of the most memorable elements of that performance was the great rack of gongs stretched across the back of the stage – a 15-note gong ‘keyboard’ in fact. Most of the piece is extremely quiet, and at several points the percussionist in charge of this giant metallophone has to play rapid, pianissimo, arpeggios across the full range of the gongs spread in front of him. The precise gymnastics of this, to create an effect that was barely audible, was hugely impressive, and from that point I was convinced of the importance of the visual and the physical aspects to so much successful music.
For the re-presenting of the work, with the original forces of London Sinfonietta, George Benjamin and Valadine Anderson singing the soprano part, at Monday’s concert, the linear gong arrangement that I remembered had been reconsidered as a three-sided cage for the player. Actually, I thought this worked just as well – you just had to spin, rather than leap, to hit all the notes. As for everything else, it stood up well against the enhancing effects of memory, and just confirmed for me that this really is one of the most important concert works of the last decade. It’s certainly the most shattering I know of – I wasn’t the only member of the audience left absolutely shell-shocked by the end, and Benjamin, great musician that he is, gave us a full 15 seconds of silence before anyone even dared applaud.
The four sections of the work (its title roughly translates as ‘four songs for the crossing of the threshold’) deal with the deaths of the angel, civilisation, the voice and humanity respectively, and set texts from Guez-Ricord, The Hours of Night, fragments from an archaeological catalogue of the Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire, two lines by the 6th-century Greek poetess Erinna, and an extract from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s a great set of texts – the second movement is just a litany of entries in the archaeological catalogue “811 and 812: (almost entirely disappeared) / 814: ‘Now that you rest for eternity … ‘ / 809: (destroyed) / 868 and 869: (almost entirely destroyed) …” Find me a more unintentionally moving text than that. These are set to an almost post-minimal series of three-note patterns – very slow – played with microtonal colourings throughout the ensemble. For Grisey, whose works to this point were generally glittering, intricate collisions of timbre and rhythm, it is, as Benjamin said on the night, a very courageous work. This movement comprises almost nothing, yet it is one of the most immediate emotional cores of the work.
The first song, The Death of the Angel, is hardly less extraordinary. The four songs are separated by interludes, the hiss of a bass drum skin being brushed in large circles, a noise that grows from the ambient sounds of auditorium air conditioning and audience breathing. This is how the work opens too, and the sound becomes the slow whoosh of unpitched air through wind and brass. From this impulse Grisey constructs an intricate web of note patterns, eternally descending. Aside from the singer, the noise level never rises above the barely audible. Adding an additional layer of effect, every player seems to have multiple instruments, mutes and other paraphernalia to deal with. These have to be changed on an almost constant basis. The stage never stops fidgeting (part of me thinks that all this written-in tinkering must be a wind player’s dream). With the sound level so low, and each performer in the small ensemble very exposed, the tension of changing, from say, one sax to the next to the next every few bars is palpable. The visual and aural effect is as delicate and intricate as unpicking a spider’s web.
The tension is maintained at this borderline-unbearable pitch – it’s like working with your fingers at something very small and very precise: after a certain time you have to make a large movement just to clear your head. The beginning of the fourth song sounds as though it might be this large movement: the bass drum interlude that has punctuated the spaces between each song so far returns for a last time, and grows into a fast percussive tattoo of repeated notes, shared between the three percussionists. But what looks like the release of tension that has been expected for the last half an hour never fully materialises; the drum sounds remain so neutral, so flatly percussive and regular, that instead of being released, our tensions are just sent on a different trajectory. What we really want, after all these hints at sound, is a rich noise, something to ease our hyper-sensitised ears into – the chorale from Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Winds, or Messiaen’s L’Ascension; even a nice chord on the vibraphone would do. But dry drum patterns – word-painting the lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh “For six days and seven nights / Squalls, Pelting rains / Hurricanes and Flood / Continued to ravage the earth” – aren’t making anyone feel comfortable. Finally, “When the seventh day arrived”, the sea is calmed “into stillness”.
I looked about:
All mankind had been
Returned to clay;
And the flat liquid
Resembled a terrace.
Some relief is offered – again it feels like true relief at first – by a chiming two-part line in microtonal (just intonation?) violin and cello accompanying these words. They are the first real pitches in several minutes, and they resemble a shaft of light, even if the way out remains obscured. Only at the very last does the music finally allow the scent of fresh air “I opened a window / And daylight fell on my cheek … ” Grisey described this final lullaby as “Music for the dawn of a humanity finally disencumbered of the nightmare,” although he himself cautiously added “I dare hope that this lullaby will not be among those we shall sing tomorrow to the first human clones as we perforce reveal to them the indefensible genetic and psychological violence committed against them by a humanity desperately seeking new taboos upon which to ground itself.” A mighty work both of, and for our times, then.