in: Reviews

March 28, 2011

Spectralism’s Evolution, Traced

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Art, no less than nature, abhors a vacuum. Even in a city as rich in art-music performing ensembles as Boston is, it seems that there are always some lacunae and tastes unfilled. With that in mind, we hasten to welcome a new entrant with just such a gap in its sights: Sound Icon, a “sinfonietta”-sized ensemble whose first concert took place at BU’s School of Fine Arts Concert Hall on March 26. What had been missing, according to the manifesto published both in the program and on the group’s website, was an ensemble comparable to Paris’s Ensemble Intercontemporain, whose repertory would focus on the European and European-inspired idioms of the latter twentieth and current centuries. In citing this gap, conductor Jeffrey Means and Executive Director Victoria Cheah have a valid point; the musical cultures of the US and Europe, especially France, Germany and Italy, have diverged considerably since the 1970s, when minimalism and post-minimalism became popular here and spectralism attracted most of the attention there. True to its mission, Sound Icon’s inaugural program presented one work by an “old master” of spectralism, Gérard Grisey, and two works that arguably represent its evolution. We should, in passing, acknowledge the good offices of Boston University, which has afforded Sound Icon an unofficial resident status and a venue for the time being.

Since the music in which Sound Icon seeks to specialize is not something with which local concertgoers are likely to be familiar, an ignorance which we ruefully for the most part share, a couple of words of explanation may be in order — words that the group itself chose not to impart, perhaps assuming that their audiences already knew this stuff. In its classic formulation, which like everything else French generates heated denials, accusations, and verbal fisticuffs, spectral music emphasizes the physicality of sound as its subject and the physical impact of its manipulation as its object. In practice this results in emphasizing timbre and waveform analysis methodologies, and — it perhaps goes without saying — eschews conventionally repetitive forms in favor of a continuous morphological process. You can immerse yourself in the literature using this Wikipedia entry as your springboard, and you can take a look at BMInt’s recent reports of some programs that have featured works along these lines (preview here, review here).

The Sound Icon program itself worked its way backwards through compositional generations. It opened with Fata Morgana by the Italian-born Davide Ianni, who is now a doctoral student at BU under Joshua Fineberg, about whom more later. Ianni’s work, hot off the press as it were, won Sound Icon’s composition competition to secure its place on the program. The title refers to the form of the sometimes fatally alluring mirage that hovers a bit above a maritime horizon, colorfully named for King Arthur’s treacherous sorceress half-sister Morgana le Fay. Ianni’s goal was to create a blur between physically sounded music and versions of it that mimic electronic distortions (as far as we could tell; there were no actual electronics employed in this brief fourteen-instrument work). The actual content of the piece juxtaposes smoothly intoned piccolo (later flute) motifs based on rising and descending seconds, with gruff irruptions from the rest of the ensemble. Things ramify and get borrowed by the different forces, settling at one point into an almost tonal calm (an interesting sort of reverse climax) before flittering off. It was pleasant enough at a purely visceral level, though the reality-illusion dichotomy did not immediately grab our notice. Special kudos to flutists Jessi Rosinski and Ashley Addington; conductor Means kept a steady hand and a tight ensemble.

One compositional generation back from Ianni is his teacher Joshua Fineberg (though at forty-one, only nine years older), who spent some years in Paris working directly with another of the formative spectralists, Tristan Murail. Fineberg is now faculty at BU and was represented on the program by his 1998 Recueil de pierre et de sable (Stone and Sand Collection). He has expressed himself at length in print, and on these e-pages in two interviews (here and here), on the esthetics of spectral music and how his own work develops and departs from the models of Murail and Grisey.

Recueil is scored for two harps, elegantly played by Franziska Huhn and Tomina Parvanova, tuned a quarter-tone apart — the effect makes for haunting sonorities — and a sextet of string trio, two flutes and clarinet. The general plan of the piece is that the harps inject musical ideas into a matrix represented by the ensemble, and each idea causes a rearrangement or perturbation of the matrix. As concepts go, this is not a bad one: Ives worked it brilliantly, for entirely different purposes, in The Unanswered Question. The matrix begins as a series of sustained tones that initially eddy about the  ever-broadening gestures of the harps. Things become more interactive, with rippling passages to cello accompaniment. One gets a sense of repeated and developed ideas within the basic pattern of active harps and the more passive and reactive sextet, with an abrupt climax at a seven-months-pregnant pause. There appeared to be distinct sections to the music that Fineberg did not describe as such, though the essential musical materials were consistent throughout. There is something like a recapitulation towards the end, followed by a brief coda. We note the use of microtonal coloration and inflections in all the ensemble instruments. Our impression, for what it’s worth, is that while Fineberg’s motivic materials and his manipulations of them were all perfectly intelligible, the changes he wrought through his spun-out developmental processes lacked organic, dramatic, narrative or illustrative power. It may just be that, as Mark Twain said of Wagner, this music is better than it sounds. We were quite pleased with the performances, not only by the harpists but by violinist Gabriela Diaz, violist Ethan Wood, cellist Javier Caballero, Mesd. Rosinski and Addington, and clarinetist Alexis Lanz, and the understated control of Means. We only wish that this piece, with its many quiet and subtle passages, could have been heard without the distraction of the Brahms Double Concerto being rehearsed in a studio next door to the concert hall. We would encourage BU, which has more money than Croesus, albeit less than Harvard, to upgrade its music facilities’ sonic isolation.

Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques gave its title to the entire concert. Grisey, who died of an aneurysm in 1998 at age fifty-two, composed six pieces for this cycle over a twelve-year period, of which the three performed on Saturday, “Prologue,” “Périodes,” and “Partiels,” were the first three, composed between 1974 and 1976. (Of the three, the prologue was written last, as every good overture should be). As one might well expect in this type of music, the three pieces, which were played without pause, derive from the same musical ideas, represent a constant state of flux, and feature imaginative timbral transformations. “Prologue” was a particularly inspired piece of work, for unaccompanied viola (Mark Berger in a bravura performance) in which two very simple ideas — an arpeggiated figure and a sort of “uh-huh” response on open C string — are spun into a complex web of notes and sonorities. Grisey provided a rich panoply of extended techniques for the performer, with de-tunings, scrapings and the like, while denying him any use of vibrato.

We don’t know whether to credit Grisey or Means for the coups de théâtre at various points in the performance, but a plummy one was Berger’s physical move while playing (working the tuning nuts while bowing), from his standing solo position to his seat in the ensemble for the second piece. This opens with the utmost delicacy and transforms to a slidey-glissey environment of scalar passages, heavily repeated notes in the brass (horns and trombone), and some ethereal contrabass harmonics, before bits of the arpeggio motif reappear and settle, perhaps incongruously but perfectly rightly, into triadic harmony offset by piercing dissonances in piccolos and clarinets. The final segment, “Partiels” (at least that’s where we think we were) had reminiscences of Stockhausen (with whom Grisey studied) in the luxuriant low trombone tones. Sonorities conjuring the harmonium (there is an electric organ in this movement, but the effect is achieved more with woodwinds) sidle up to the brass and bass, leading to a big smudged major triad climax. Needless to say, a modern European composer would be summarily excommunicated for ending with that, so Grisey winds down from there, building more modest climaxes and interweaving Messiaenic bird-calls, and then a long pause. The ending might have been a bit jokey, or not, but it summoned the players to shuffle about, whisper, and riffle their music sheets to create an airy atmosphere; it ends — theatrical touch again — with the antithesis of a cymbal crash, the percussionist (who had walked downstage) slowly and silently opening the gap between the plates. Means and his crew of mostly young and all very talented performers gave what seemed to us to be an impeccable account of what also seemed a formidably difficult score, a viewpoint noisily shared by the appreciative audience.

We’ve given you a more detailed description of what transpired than we might normally do, both for its inherent interest and to illustrate some of what classic spectralism might be about. We were impressed, having not heard much of this previously, with how well composed these pieces are, and how genuinely engaging an artistic personality Grisey was. It just proves the ancient point: a gifted composer will be persuasive in any idiom, and no amount of technique will rescue a bad one. We look forward to more from this new ensemble.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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