Gérard Grisey: Vortex Temporum

performed by the Ensemble Risognanze under Tito Ceccherini, or as below, with the Ensemble Recherche under Kwam Ryan

We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture.

Gerard Grisey

(cover image by Danny Howe)

Gérard Grisey was born on June 17, 1946 in Belfort, in northeastern France. He studied in Germany from 1963 to 1965, then at the Paris Conservatoire with Messiaen, later working with Henri Dutilleux. He studied electroacoustics with Jean-Étienne Marie (himself a former student of Messiaen and Milhaud), composition with Xenakis and Ligeti at Darmstadt, as well as with Stockhausen, serving for a time as “trainee” at IRCAM.

Grisey himself later taught at U.C. Berkeley and the Paris Conservatoire. Throughout his career, his students included Magnus Lindberg, Fausto Romitelli, and other names I don’t recognize. He died in 1998 at the age of 52 after an aneurysm.

If any of those names mean anything to you, you may already be bracing for what you should rightly expect to be quite modern music, what many would consider extremely… challenging, to put it nicely. Grisey, along with Tristan Murail, is closely associated with Spectralism, something WordPress tells me is spelled incorrectly.

Wikipedia tells us that:

Defined in technical language, spectral music is an acoustic musical practice where compositional decisions are often informed by sonographic representations and mathematical analysis of sound spectra, or by mathematically generated spectra.

If that piques your interest, you can go read the rest of the article. Otherwise, let’s move on to discussing the music as optimistically as I can.

Abolir le matériau au profit de la durée pure est un rêve que je poursuis depuis de nombreuses années. Vortex Temporum n’est peut-être que l’histoire d’un arpège dans l’espace et dans le temps, en-deçà et au-delà de notre fenêtre auditive et que ma mémoire a laissé tourbillonner au gré des mois dévolus à l’écriture de cette pièce.

In the above quote, Grisey says that he has desired for many years to abolish the material in favor of ‘pure duration’ and that this piece is perhaps ‘a story of an arpeggio in space and time.’ It is in three movements, with a duration of about 40 minutes.

So there’s talk of a sine wave, a square wave and a tooth wave in the first movement. We begin with the flute (solo?) theme from Ravel’s Daphne et Chloé, but you’d be excused for not recognizing it. What it does sound far more like, as one online commenter suggested, is the opening to Ravel’s piano concerto in G. We explore this musical material, apparently, through microtonality and the different… spectra (?) of the sound, and while that idea appeals to me, I would tire of it far less if this entire piece were, say, 15 minutes tops, rather than 40.

Regardless, that first moment of the piece splashes onto our minds, and/or the canvas of empty space and time, the musical material we’re dealing with, and is explored in one way or another throughout the first movement. If you have decent French comprehension (since their English site apparently refuses to load), you can get a lot more information about the piece at IRCAM’s website, whence comes the above quote in French. The first movement is dedicated to one Gérard Zinsstag.

The second movement, dedicated to Salvatore Sciarrino, is marked by stillness, like freezing an image, preserving it in aspic or formaldehyde or something, and examining it ‘in dilated time.’ I will say the textures and colors and all the rest of it are interesting, but it doesn’t lead me on any specific journey of any kind.

The finale reintroduces the opening ‘sine wave’ or something; without getting into any technical jargon I’ll probably use incorrectly, we hear the same stuff again! Has it changed? I don’t know. Grisey himself, in IRCAM’s program notes, says:

Les spectres à l’origine du discours harmonique et déjà développés dans le second mouvement s’étalent ici afin de permettre à l’auditeur d’en percevoir la texture et de pénétrer dans une autre dimension temporelle. Le temps contracté fait aussi son apparition sous la forme de saturations fulgurantes et permet de réentendre à une autre échelle les séquences du troisième mouvement.

And that’s good enough for me.

While I applaud the idea (I’ve actually heard the Ensemble Intercontemporain play this piece here in Taipei), I wonder if this piece (or much of the ideas behind spectral music) don’t suffer from (or shouldn’t receive) the same criticism that many level against Serialism, mainly that the mechanisms that develop the music, how it’s treated, are not readily apparent to the listener. I’d argue (mostly) against that in the case of serialism, of course depending on the circumstance, but can we hear the details that Grisey is exploring? Simply the fact that we’re using computer analysis to inform the treatment of sound, or the qualities that it has, suggests to me that it’s not readily apparent to the average listener, perfect pitch or not.

The experience itself is obviously and always will be subjective. As we discussed with, say, Stockhausen almost two years ago now, even in these complex, mathematical pieces, we can still ask ourselves basic, fundamental questions about the music, the way any third-grader might: what is the same? what’s different? when is it loud/soft, fast/slow, etc.?

You may well have discovered by now that this music does not really excite me, but again, I find the idea interesting. You may remember one of the last pieces in the Finnish series last year, Saariaho’s Nymphéa, in which she does stuff with computers and electronic sounds. It’s interesting, but that does not necessarily mean that I find it terribly compelling. I fully acknowledge that maybe I’m not listening ‘properly’ or just haven’t uncovered the work’s gems, but… I have a general idea, and for now, that’s enough.

We’ve got one more little article (a review, not a piece of music) to close out our French series that went on for six-ish weeks, so do stay tuned for that before we move on to a new series, and thanks so much for reading.



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