Music of Today: Royal Festival Hall, London, 12th February 2004

It’s a remarkable bit of music history that tells how the dry composerly academicism of Boulez in the 1950s morphed into the perception-oriented exuberance of the spectral school in little more than two decades. This is part of the legacy of IRCAM. The precision and pseudo-scientism of integral serialism (pieces such as Boulez’s Structures for two pianos) contributed to the formation of IRCAM, which subsequently turned its compositional research towards the properties and modulation of sound itself. This is heavy theory, and important acoustical research is done at IRCAM, but when deployed by composers as a compositional resource, it became tremendously liberating. At least, that is certainly the effect of the music.

All three of the composers played this evening (Tristan Murail, Hugues Dufourt and Gérard Grisey) worked at IRCAM, but sought a way foward and out of the strictures of total serialist composition; the irony is that they found it through following a path opened up by Boulez himself.

Murail’s C’est un jardin secret … is a short piece for solo viola, written to celebrate the wedding of two of his friends. It’s a gorgeous little work. It begins from a near-silent breath of the bow brushing the strings. A lilting 1-2 rhythm is set up, and harmonics and other pitches are gradully added to the breath, until at one point there are three separate layers of sound from a single bow stroke. The centre of the piece is like a gently melodic cadenza, and then we return to the waltzing breaths, in, out. In, out.

Dufourt’s piece Hommage à Charles Nègre was second. Dufourt was present, and, with Julian Anderson, had given a short introduction to the concert. It was he who coined the term ‘Spectral Music’ in an article written back in 1979. Hommage is a later piece, written in 1986, the ‘mature’ period of spectral music. It was conceived as music for a film about the 19th-century photographer Charles Nègre, so it’s very restrained, and written to remain in the background, as Dufourt himself puts it. It is a nice enough sequence of sounds, played almost without rhythmic definition – there are no extended rhythmic patterns at all, really; just a sequence of slowly-paced sounds – so the entire life of the piece is within the shifting and evolving timbres. Think Selected Ambient Works vol.II and you’re sort of there. It really came into life, for me, in about the last third, when bassoon and E flat clarinet swapped their instruments for contrabassoon and contra bass clarinet respectively. Suddenly, the sound became much thicker and richer, and more interesting.

Grisey’s Talea was the real show-stopper. Also written in 1986, Grisey at this time was starting to address the question of movement (and rhythm in fact) in spectral composition. What makes spectral music so interesting is that for all the theorising that there may have been about sound, harmonic series, partials and so forth, relatively little time seems to have been spent theorising about form and structure, the traditional concerns of the composer, and the obsessions of the late modernist varieties. Grisey’s music is some of the most vital and invigorating composition I know, probably for this very reason. Just to take one small moment, the opening of Talea is breathtaking. The beginning of late-twentieth century works has become clichéd, but this … Fierce eddies of notes are shot through with almost-nothing. Just piano strings reverberating, the touch of bow against catgut. A sort of sudden tinnitus. It’s as unpredictable as it is effective, and the rest of the piece continues this high level of inventiveness. As if designed to reiterate a point I made yesterday, in Grisey’s music the shift of focus from the intellectualised concerns of form etc. to the perceptual, timbral concerns, the play of noise on the ears of the audience has liberated this music, given it life, just as I suggested was the case with pop. To think about your audience is not necessarily to enslave yourself: it can spark real creativity.

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