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Gérard Grisey Les espaces acoustiques (ukp)

Spectralism today

London Sinfonietta; Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble

George Benjamin – Conductor; Paul Silverthorne - Viola


Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14th October 2008

Is spectralism, as one newspaper asked recently, "the future of classical music" ? Hardly.

It's three decades since Hugues Dufourt coined the term and many of the composers associated with it have moved on (or, more sadly, passed away). The 1970s are only 'the future' to a world in which early Stockhausen remains exotic enough to sound like the bleeding edge avant garde. That it is possible to make such a claim with a straight face says much about the sorry place new composition holds in our culture.

The strategy for catching up, in London's major venues at least, is to increasingly depend upon major anniversaries as the justification for the bulk of their programming decisions. No doubt it helps structure a season's music, but it also helps the marketing department and simplifies funding applications:

            Messiaen was an important composer; his centenary this year makes him even more important.
We propose a year's worth of concerts celebrating this important composer.
Added bonus: he had lots of hip students whose music we can throw into the mix. Don't miss this!

Hence, in 2008, the much, much belated UK première of Gérard Grisey's Les espaces acoustiques, a cycle of six pieces composed between 1974 and 1985. It is, of course, a cause for celebration to hear this piece in London at last, and my sincere thanks go to all involved for making it happen. But I worry about the way that this piece was presented, and others this year, as the latest addition to an instant canon of contemporary music. This is problematic because it encourages a theme park-like picture of recent music history in which each new attraction is identified by factors such as scale, or a sense of prestige bestowed upon them by their creators (single composer festivals are a handy way of establishing such prestige). The music becomes an event, booked and anticipated months in advance. Rather like a political conference it brings people of like minds together with the promise of something life-changing, and then massages their expectations precisely, changing very little indeed.

This performance of Les espaces had real problems - not least in the hammy execution of several theatrical directions in the score - but was mostly carried off with the sheen and polish for which the London Sinfonietta is famous. That made for some beautiful moments, but it did also tend to flatten the experience of the work as a whole into a modernist Rheingold. Scores like this once used to seriously challenge performers, and hence audiences. There was real risk, not the sanitized, keep your legs and arms inside the car at all times impression of danger that comes from performance expertise. Tuesday's performance did exactly what we all thought it would, and we all left relieved to have ticked this attraction off the list, but not sure of what we really made of it.

Les espaces isn't a flawless masterwork. The 11 years that separate its beginning and its completion really show. The individual pieces are of uneven quality: Prologue is too long, Epilogue too rushed. On the other hand, these flaws also distinguish the experience of the work, which is essentially a story of origins and evolution. The long-windedness of the solo viola Prologue and the tentative explorations of a new technique in Périodes act as the perfect anticapation of the arrival at spectral composition proper in Partiels, in which great harmonic and timbral complexes bloom from a fierce low E on bass and trombone. This is probably the most successful individual movement and provides a fitting climax to and vindication of the cycle's first half: Grisey's technique of composition with sound spectra in its purest form.

The second half goes on to explore the evolution, dissolution and eventual obsolescence of the techniques of Partiels. The fifth part, Transitoires, is the dark heart of Les éspaces. Where the cycle has so far derived life from the seemingly perpetual exploding and reconstitution of material, in this piece the music's greatest spectral richness coincides with utter immobility in massive static chords for 84-piece orchestra. The process churns again, leaving us with only a bass drone and those grunting low Es once more. Here the Sinfonietta's rich, lush performance had its best justification. The remainder of the movement is some of the most affecting of the whole cycle as the orchestra, en masse, struggles to find a new articulation after this obliteration. It's Beckettian stammering on a Straussian scale. In Epilogue we finally do have nowhere to go as extracts from Prologue are rescored for four solo horns who brashly pebbledash the orchestral underpinning: the beginning collapses onto the end, the polish and fluidity is blasted away and the cycle ends with a series of dull, empty percussion thwacks. We're a long way from where we began.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson
Blog: http://johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com

See also Evis Sammoutis on Grisey's Le Temps et l' Écume and Les Chants de l'Amour