Here’s what others have been saying about it.
Each section bled into the next, taking us into an ever-surprising wonderland. Fierce industrial blasts from the brass. A chorus of woodwind sea birds. Coarse stabbing notes from the double-bass. Fuzzy clusters drifting across space, like electronic music rescored for instruments. The rustle of pages and instruments being packed up (delicious music theatre, that). A seismic, thrilling, slow-paced crescendo. And the biggest thrill of the cycle? Everything fused and hung together; nothing seemed thrust in for effect, except perhaps for the four chugging horns brought in at the end to disrupt, then curtail, Grisey’s endlessly imaginative cosmic dance.
A full house; ecstatic applause; a major milestone in music triumphantly unveiled. I can’t imagine a more spectacular concert for the London Sinfonietta’s 40th birthday year.
Ideas recur and transform themselves, while the whole harmonic space of the music gradually expands too, as quarter-tone inflected chords build and fall away, fracture into trills or generate climaxes of Wagnerian grandeur.
There are moments of pure theatre, too, when the players self-consciously retune an instrument or flamboyantly throw their music on the floor. It is as if Grisey wanted to ground his theorising in the real world, though the force of his extraordinary musical processes is real enough anyway.
The music systematically mines the expressive possibilities of overtones, frequently cleaving to a single pitch for long stretches, yet, in the later parts, building huge, complex, incandescent climaxes. This British premiere of the complete cycle became ever more enthralling.
This concert was a brilliant one and all involved deserve congratulation for carrying it off so well. The person I attended it with remarked that he would have sat immediately through a repeat performance and it was hard to disagree with that verdict; one was definitely left wanting more. Hopefully the concert’s outstanding success will encourage more performances of Grisey’s striking work here.
In America, composers as diverse as La Monte Young and James Tenney had spent the 1960s exploring tonality, the harmonic spectrum, new sounds, forms and structures. Europeans largely thought of them as amateurs, pranksters. Grisey, on the other hand, was the professional: he knew that a composer needed a computer laboratory, a symphony orchestra, and a tendency to disrupt his new sound world with conventional dramatic gestures to be taken seriously.
Gérard Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques is a ground-breaking work which defies all assumptions about what music “ought” to be. Not for nothing did the composer describe it as “a great laboratory”, exploring the way we listen. Written from 1974 to 1985, it’s actually six pieces which can be enjoyed separately. This was the first UK performance of the whole cycle.
It starts with a single violist, expanding to ensembles for 7, 18, 33 and 84 musicians. Grisey uses chords that endlessly morph and oscillate, displaying the full spectrum of sound. Hence the term “spectralism” which Grisey later abandoned. This is very organic music, in harmony with the biorhythms of the human body, like breathing, steadily exhaling and inhaling.
This isn’t music to “audit” passively as it’s complex, but it’s also strangely therapeutic. Afterwards, you feel refreshed, as if you’ve had a workout. If you’ve been listening well, you probably have, since the more you put into this, the more you get back.