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Music review: Gérard Grisey’s spacetime epic receives its U.S. premiere at REDCAT

May 2, 2010 |  4:00 pm
Grisey
Friday night, REDCAT was packed. A red-blooded audience filled every seat. Red-blooded musicians occupied every inch of the black-box stage. There was excitement in the air. Many concert presenters would consider a mainly young audience giving eager and undivided attention to a three-hour concert of complex modern music a happy fiction.

The crowd was real, but it was also spectral. Everyone had gathered for the U.S. premiere of Gérard Grisey’s complete, epic “Les Espaces Acoustiques,” the magnum opus of “spectral music.”

Now I’m stuck, needing to summarize Spectralism. It came out of IRCAM, the computer-crowded musical laboratory in Paris that Pierre Boulez established at the Centre Pompidou in the 1970s. Sound, for the young composers like Grisey who were there at the time, was a living, breathing thing in and of itself. Machines and mathematical analyses based on an algorithm known as the fast Fourier transform were tasked to serve the sonic organism.

But technology often has a mind of its own, so don’t discount the Frankenstein factor. “Les Espaces Acoustiques” is actually the invention of a weird and yet, I think, profoundly touching sonic organism that has sidestepped musical evolution. Grisey invented sounds never before captured by combinations of acoustical instruments, magnificently physical sounds that stir the body. That they also curiously stimulate the emotions may be related to the source of these visceral sounds being the overtone scale, which contains pitches not accessible to the human ear.

The full work is a series of six linked movements, the first five of which can serve as independent pieces. The Prologue, for solo viola, begins by obsessing over a handful of pitches. Each movement adds more musicians. The Epilogue is for full orchestra and four solo horns. The cycle, written between 1975 and 1985, lasts close to two hours and has had only a handful of compete performances, although there are two recordings.

CalArts was responsible for the U.S. premiere. The orchestra consisted of students, faculty and alumni. The performance, expertly conducted by Mark Menzies, was enrapturing. Andrew McIntosh played the important viola solos with commanding beauty.

The rare outing for “Les Espaces Acoustiques” invites a consideration of Grisey’s influence on modern music. And Saturday night, CalArts presented a marathon concert that continued on into Sunday morning titled “New Music After Grisey.” Grisey died at 52 in 1998, and the concert was really an evening of strange sounds that preceded him, coexisted with him and have continued in his wake.

For a long time, Spectralism pitted Europeans against Americans.  Our Minimalists charged ahead with a horizontal approach to music based on rhythm and repetition. The French Spectralists – who influenced such Finnish composers as Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg as well as a number of German, Austrian and British composers -- were builders of harmony and sonority who thought vertically.

Saturday’s concert presented a more complex picture. If we accept Grisey’s speculation that sound is a living organism, then Spectralism is virus that infected composers’ thinking about sound in any number of individual ways. None of the 10 works Saturday resembled any other. The earliest score, by the late American experimental composer James Tenney, “Clang,” is from 1972 and pre-dated any work in French sound labs but was the most magnificently “spectral” of all.

 “Clang,” 15 minutes of glorious ground-shaking and ground-swelling overtone, was played at the midnight hour by the CalArts Orchestra to conclude the concert. Performances of the brilliant score are as rare and special as those of Grisey’s much larger project.

At the other end of history came the world premiere of Rozalie Hirs’ engrossing string quartet, “Zenit,” played by the superb new L.A.-based Formalist Quartet. Everything I might say about Hirs' unsettled music I could also say the opposite. It is also quite settled. It forges ahead with tentative sounds and silences. It stops and starts yet flows. It has a hint of hard-hitting Dutch Minimalism, yet it offers a feast of radiant string harmonics, pulsating outside of rhythm.

Rand Steiger’s luminous wall of sound was for piano and electronics. A true “spectralist,” Gérard Pesson erased a Brahms ballad in a chamber piece leaving only ghostly traces of the original. Wolfgang von Schweinitz injected early music with microtones in a 35-minute brass trio. For these and other works, some performances were outstanding, some were not.

I have resisted describing the actual sound and shape of “Les Espaces Acoustiques” and have now conveniently run out of space. Grisey’s guttural seismic rumblings are felt in the feet, his dance of high frequencies is someplace outside of spacetime as we normally experience it. I trust the English language. But it wasn’t invented to serve this extraordinary French composer.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Mark Menzies conducts the CalArts Orchestra at REDCAT on Friday. Credit: Bret Hartman / Los Angeles Times.

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