Tag Archives: Gérard Grisey

BIFEM: soundinitiative, Made in France

soundinitiative perform Faction by Raphaël Cendo. Photo by Marty Williams.
soundinitiative perform Faction by Raphaël Cendo. Photo by Marty Williams.

Review by Angus McPherson

The lurid orange hoses worn around the necks of soundinitiative’s performers in D’Après flamboyantly illustrate Clara Iannotta’s dictum that ‘music should be seen as well as heard.’ The opening is atmospheric, players running their fingers around the lips of wine glasses, the percussionist gripping a bow between his teeth. Pitches warp and contort and sudden flourishes create spikes in the smooth soundscape. The orange pipes produce whistling harmonics and the music evolves, refulgent shimmers giving way to dryer sounds: tapping and short articulate wind entries, and finally, the sounds become gongs and bell-like attacks from the winds. The Italian Iannotta is the only composer on the program who isn’t French, but D’Après was composed in Paris, in keeping with the theme Made in France.

Christophe Bertrand’s Aus sees small cells of music undergo gradual metamorphoses. A heartbeat from the piano builds and mutates, new notes emerging like growths. On first impression the music seems to have echoes of Minimalism, but it is soon clear that the figures never repeat exactly, they roil and spread, shifting like sand. The rolling figures become pointilistic: staccato in the winds and pizzicato in the strings, culminating in a vigorous crescendo of scrubbing harmonics from Julia Robert’s viola.

‘Berceuse’ from Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold) is tranquil and introspective, the instrumentalists providing a lush, undulating accompaniment to Fabienne Séveillac’s flexible mezzo-soprano. In Grisey’s Quatre chants…, this lullaby is the reflective finale following apocalyptic scenes with text taken from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. The composer said of ‘Berceuse’, ‘it is not intended to lull one to sleep; instead it is meant to awaken one to the dying of humanity, finally liberated from its nightmare’. Heard here in isolation, ‘Berceuse’ gives us a sense of peace, but not the catharsis that would have followed the first three of Grisey’s songs.

Grisey died of an aneurysm at 52; Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold was the last piece he completed. Phillipe Leroux’s homage to Grisey Un lieu verdoyant, for mezzo-soprano and soprano saxophone, was written the year after his death. Séveillac and Joshua Hyde shine in this heartfelt performance, their delicate timbres almost indistinguishable as their voices come together and move apart. The balance between singer and saxophone is exquisite, the sighing glissandos and shaking tremolos evoking the grief of the text, which is based on the Book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Scriptures. Hyde turns his back to the audience as Un lieu verdoyant descends into Séveillac’s whispering, ‘mémoire pour Gérard’.

Séveillac is centre-stage again for Gérard Pesson’s setting of poetry by Marie Redonnet Cinq chansons, scored for voice and a quintet of viola, cello, flute, clarinet and piano. Séveillac’s voice entreats over the ambiguous, unstable moods of the accompaniment in ‘La chanteuse des rues’ (The street singer). ‘La stripteaseuse du Mac Doc’ (The stripteaser of Mac Doc) combined upbeat striking of the wood of cello and piano with humorous slides and twists from the winds. The lyrics translate as ‘without a hat/without a coat/without panties’ and so on. ‘La merchande de sable’ (The sand merchant) is a dark miniature, the soft jagged music reflecting the madness of a woman collecting sand and rocks, mistaking them for gold.

Soundinitiative’s finale for Made in France is Raphaël Cendo’s Faction, a wildly joyful piece in the composer’s self-described style of ‘Saturationism’, opening with loud, energetic ‘shredding’ on all three instruments. Faction requires electric guitar, prepared piano, prepared vibraphone (and hopefully prepared vibraphonist, quips Hyde, entertaining the audience during the stage change). Soistier’s preparations seem to involve several kinds of tape stuck to various parts of the instrument. Kobe van Cauwenberghe’s guitar dominates, but vibraphone and Gwenaëlle Rouger’s piano emerge and recede from the almost constant wall of sound.

Cendo’s music is incredibly physical and Soistier embraces this, throwing his body around the percussion section, leaping from the vibraphone to bow a cymbal, and diving over the open piano. He scrapes the piano strings with what appears to be a pink ruler, metallic sweeps mingling with the distortion of the electric guitar.

Consisting entirely of Australian premieres, soundinitiative’s Made in France provided a fascinating taste of contemporary French music by an ensemble thriving on a wide array of sonic worlds and musical styles.

Made in France
soundinitiative
Saturday 5 September
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
Angus McPherson

Speak Percussion, The Black of the Star

Speak Percussion, photo by Jeff Busby
Speak Percussion, photo by Jeff Busby

Speak Percussion
The Black of the Star
Deakin Edge
Melbourne Festival
16 October, 2013

More than any other twentieth-century work inspired by our scientific understanding of the natural world, Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’étoile [The Black of the Star] continues to capture our imaginations. Perhaps this is because Grisey made sure to embed the mythology of the work’s scientific conceit in the piece itself. Once captivated, the audience are auditory pioneers at the unstable intersection of technology and science.

Le Noir de l’étoile begins with a ponderous voice reciting the words of Jean-Pierre Luminet, an astrophysicist and poet. The voice describes the remarkable discovery of pulsars, the “fantastic compact residue created by the supernova explosions that long ago disintegrated the massive stars.” Who could not wonder at these super-dense masses of neutrons only thirty kilometres in diameter but with the mass of the sun? As the voice explains with fairy-tale cadence, “A thimble of the material from one of these stars would weigh one hundred billion tonnes on Earth.” Unlike their larger cousins the black holes, pulsars are brought down—and perhaps this is their appeal—to human dimensions by the fact that they revolve with the relatively musical frequency of between hundreds of times a second and once every ten seconds. Emitting two beams of light they are, as Luminet puts it, “Like great lighthouses in the heavens, … cosmic clocks marking out their seconds.”

Spaced around the steel and glass mezzanine of Deakin Edge, Speak Percussion were suspended in front of the night sky behind six gleaming percussion batteries. After Luminet’s introduction lulls the audience into expectant wonder, Ughetti begins a gentle pulse on a floor tom. This pulse is eventually taken up at different tempi in other batteries, creating a captivating constellation of musical pulsars. An interjection on wood-blocks also echoes around the room like the light and radio waves that take thousands of years to traverse the galaxy. At other times a roaring snare roll passes between the percussionists and a loud, lone tom strike gives momentary focus to the bewildering sound-scape. The introduction helps give rise to these astronomical metaphors, even though, as Speak Percussion’s Artistic Director Eugene Ughetti explains, the first half was originally composed as Tempus ex machina, a work concerned not with pulsars but with time and space more generally.

The second half of the performance features two pulsar signals, one of which has an Australian provenance. The first is from the Vela pulsar, discovered by scientists at the University of Sydney in 1968, which spins at a rate of 11 times per second. This pulsar is only observable in the Southern Hemisphere and for Speak Percussion’s performance the CSIRO provided a new recording of the pulsar by George Hobbs. Ughetti claims (and I could only get away with this in a journalistic context) that the original recording used by Grisey was made by pulsar expert Dick Manchester, who worked at the Parkes observatory in the late 1960s. The signal sounds like a repeated, clipping sample of static, not unlike something one would hear in a Drum and Bass track.

The second pulsar provides a low, “whumping” sound at a rate of 1.4 rotations per second. For the work’s première in 1991, the signal from this pulsar was broadcast live into the auditorium from the Nançay radio astronomy station in Sologne. Unfortunately, a live broadcast of the Vela pulsar was unavailable for the Deakin Edge performance as the pulsar is not visible at this time of year. At Deakin Edge both signals were diffused by the team of Lawrence Harvey from RMIT’s SIAL Sound Studio.

When the initial metrical spatialisation gives way to the recordings of pulsars, the players are given more elaborate rhythmic phrases. It is as though, after imitating the pulsars (and theatrically conjuring them into the room), the ensemble begins to play along with them. The individuality of the performers comes out, with Ughetti’s dynamic sensitivity and Schack-Arnott’s improvisatory fluidity. But the point of these two sections may not be so much a contrast between machinic imitation and human inventiveness as a contrast between technology and science. While the technology of radio telescopes enabled us to hear the pulsars, scientific conjecture allowed us to interpret and understand them. As Luminet writes in the introduction:

In the electromagnetic tornado given out by a pulsar, the radio waves emitted represent only a whisper, and it is this that is picked up by the instruments. For an astronomer, it is like trying to understand the way a large machine in a factory works by listening merely to the few muffled noises that escape from it. The energy collected is infinitesimal… In 50 years of observations, all the energy gathered by all the radio telescopes in the world is less than that you need to turn a single page of your programme.

In a world where government-funded university science departments pursue narrow techno-industrial aims and objective research centers of global relevance have to be crowd-funded, Le Noir de l’étoile reminds us of the importance of big science—internationally-coordinated, large-scale investigation into the very large, the very small and the very distant—to our cultural and spiritual identity. By 2019 Western Australia and eight countries in southern Africa will be home to the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope (actually an array of thousands of radio receptors spaced over thousands of kilometres). The SKA will be fifty times more sensitive and will be able to produce surveys of regions of the sky 10,000 times faster than any other existing instrument. We can barely predict what data we will gather, but when we do I hope our scientific and creative imaginations will up to the task of interpreting and understanding it.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.