The Talea Ensemble, a New York-based group of twelve, with James Baker, conductor, gave a French program last night in the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at the Institute for Contemporary Art. This handsome 300-seat rectangular possess a deep stage that could hold a 50-piece orchestra without difficulty, and is partly surrounded by glass with a lovely evening view of Boston Harbor (a three-masted tall ship — visiting from Norway, someone said — was moored at the long pier 100 yards behind). A ceiling grid held an impressive assembly of lighting, and acoustically the hall was entirely convincing, though with the often strident electronic sound dominating much of the time, one could not be sure how well the hall might fare with more conventional musical appearances.
Talea by Gérard Grisey (1946-1998), composed 1986, was the most classical-sounding of three severely IRCAM works. A quintet for flutes (four kinds), clarinets (three sizes), violin, cello and piano, it opening fff gesture, a tremolo snarl for the strings on middle D, was diagnostic. Over the next 14 minutes, furious filigrees of notes in ecstatic atonal bursts interspersed by discreet silences followed, with occasional contrasts: strategic sustained notes for alto or bass flute with bent pitches and weird multiphonics; some entirely triadic (C major, I think) arpeggios up and down the piano while everyone else whirled chaotically around it; repeated banging on the lowest notes of the piano were almost comical. Then came something I had never before seen: a lengthened mouthpiece that enabled quick switching from the soprano B-flat clarinet to the smaller E-flat clarinet, which usually requires a smaller reed. Eventually it all stopped. The composer provided a half-page of esoteric remarks that began: “Talea, in Latin, means cutting. In medieval music this designates a reiterated rhythmic pattern to which a configuration of pitches called color, likewise reiterated and coinciding or not with the first, is grafted.” This is an apt definition of the talea in the 14th-century isorhythmic motet, but the connection with Grisey’s massively complex texture seems obscure.
L’abîme (abyss), new 15-minute piece by our own Joshua Fineberg, who teaches at Boston University, was), commissioned by the Talea Ensemble, is billed “for three soloists, six players on stage, and three off-stage instruments.” The composer’s notes say that “the noise-based techniques in the soloists [bass clarinet, bassoon, and cello] are the source of almost everything one hears, but those sounds are projected, distorted, diffused and replicated in the mostly pitch-based ensemble parts — like images reflected again and again in a hall of mirrors.” The on-stage players were alto flute, violin, oboe, piano, percussion, and an electronic operator; the three soloists were bass clarinet (miked), bassoon (with six-inch extension to the bell joint), and cello (miked). Off stage, in the rear of the theater, were a horn, a viola, and a double bass, but all I could hear were Bartók snaps of the double bass, sounding roughly like flams on a snare drum. The “noise” materials of the soloists were long sustained tones — registral extremes in the bass clarinet, multiphonics on the bassoon, and growls from the cello bowed behind the bridge. All of these, manipulated or filtered or generally amplified through the overhead speakers, made for a relatively slow-moving piece, with some occasional gestures of specific interest and good effect: amplified piano in delicate treble sprinkles, some prominent notes on the alto flute, and various percussion gestures: soft tremoli on thunder sheet and tamtam, and bowed notes, almost pure sine tones, on vibraphone and crotales (I had never heard of bowed notes on the xylophone before, but I saw it happen). Near the end the bassoon, cello, and piano hovered around C, which gave the sound a peculiarly penetrating flavor.
After the intermission came, Liber Fulguralis by Tristan Murail (born 1947; he was Joshua Fineberg’s teacher), a collaborative work with Hervé Bailly-Basin, who provided a charming video accompaniment. A fulgurite is a jagged tube of partially fused glass, formed when a 40,000-degree bolt of lightning strikes a sand dune or beach, and I remember that there was a big orchestral piece composed in 1969 by Serge Nigg, 1924-2008, a slightly older French contemporary, called Fulgur. From the program notes: “Inspired by the ancient oracle’s art of interpreting lightning, this nearly half-hour work elaborates on the ramifications of a single strike of lighting [sic].” The full Talea Ensemble took part in this performance, fighting the electronic track at every turn, and often winning when the instruments were amplified (the top-register piccolo was an assault on the eardrums, but exciting nevertheless — remember the shriek for three piccolos in Schoenberg’s Golden Calf orgy?). There were some distinctly identifiable sections, coordinated with the different scenic glimpses and textures of the visual complement. I recognized some well-paced clusters in the Messiaen polychordal manner; and some dialogues between violin-cello on the one hand and upper woodwinds on the other, paced by lightning flashes. Long sostenuto notes, trills, bass playing on the bridge, frantic bursts of upper-register complexity at top volume — these were the order of the day in the ensemble, and they roughly corresponded on screen to the different types of visually attractive figures resembling streams of erupting lava, replicating cells under a microscope, bundles of firing retinal neurons, or carefully-ordered columns of Chinese ideograms or Egyptian hieroglyphics broken into fragments.
All of this music had its special interest; yet all of it was an uncomfortable reminder to me of how far behind the times I am in appreciating the world’s newest earnest music. Time and again I sought aural cohesiveness in the form of a perceptible harmony or individualized sonority — forget about tonality, which plays no part at all. Total differentiation of sound is what happens all the time; this is maximalism, not minimalism, with no aurally perceptible form except vague differentiation into sections — slow here, faster there, sostenuto or brittle or loud or soft or thick or thin, such as one could vaguely describe verbally. But this is true with nearly all of the music that I have heard coming from France since the end of the Second World War, with some notable and shining exceptions such as Henri Dutilleux (a consoling believer in harmony) and sometimes the earlier Pierre Boulez. And I was hearing French, German, and even American music like this 60 years ago in college, where the performers’ level of virtuosity kept the concentration of notes down to a pointillistic level of precision. Back then a French composer stated dogmatically: “It is unthinkable today to compose music where each individual note does not have its own separate dynamic marking.” I am not sure whether this new French music rises to that ultramontane standard.
The young to middle-aged professionals who gave us these brilliant performances — there is no other word — were excellent in every way: Barry J. Crawford (flutes); Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinets); Andrew Nogal (oboe and English horn); Adrian Morejon (bassoon); John Gattis (horn); Steve Beck (piano); Matthew Gold (percussion); Emilie-Anne Gendron (violin); Hannah Levinson (viola); John Popham (cello); Brian Ellingson (contrabass); David Adamczyk (synthesizer and other electronics); and James Baker, conductor. A word about James Baker’s conducting. His beat was spacious and admirably clear, hands-only, and he was attentive at every instant. Yet it was apparent from his beat that several times in the Grisey and Murail scores where there were long sustained notes and chords that otherwise imperceptible changes of meter and tempo were taking place. Had I been able to glance at the scores, I might have understood why.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.