Finally Getting Grisey

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Last week (yep, up-to-date as ever) I went to the UK premiere by the London Sinfonietta of the late Gérard Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques, a landmark work of late 20th Century music. The cycle of six compositions was begun in 1974 and completed in 1985.
What is it with the British coming so late, so often, to presenting major works by prominent composers across the Channel? Perhaps, in Grisey’s case, his reputation as the founder of the “spectralist” school of music did him more harm than good in British concert halls. The British are innately leery of the French habit of dressing up their creative inspirations as universal theories.
Perhaps that reluctance isn’t such a bad thing, much of the time. I’d heard a couple of Grisey’s pieces before but until now I’d never “got” him, having been distracted on previous occasions by trying (and failing) to hear his vaunted theoretical ideas at the expense of his music. Or else I was showing my British roots.
I became a believer after hearing Les espaces acoustiques, a rich, sensual, gorgeous work, superbly played by the London Sinfonietta, aided by orchestral ring-ins for the last sections, which require an orchestra of over 80 musicians. As well as working purely as music at face value, Grisey’s conception of music as a synthesis of harmonies and instrumental timbres was made very clear in Les espaces‘ explorations of sound. Conductor George Benjamin (a composer in his own right) allowed the sonic richness to saturate the performance without ever letting the music wallow in a shapeless, plodding indulgence.
Grisey’s music can be alternately subtle and dramatic, sometimes almost excessively so. He is praised for inventing a new language of sound, free from the stultifying elements of musical modernism, but in his limitations he is equally beholden to them. It is telling that the violist and composer Julian Anderson, who played the opening section of the cycle, says “It really was quite significant” that Grisey included a distinctive, hummable melody in a composition written in 1976. Outside the institutions of the European avant-garde and romantic traditions, discoveries (and rediscoveries) similar to Grisey’s had been going on for years, and pursued more radically and thoroughly than in Grisey’s music.
In America, composers as diverse as La Monte Young and James Tenney had spent the 1960s exploring tonality, the harmonic spectrum, new sounds, forms and structures. Europeans largely thought of them as amateurs, pranksters. Grisey, on the other hand, was the professional: he knew that a composer needed a computer laboratory, a symphony orchestra, and a tendency to disrupt his new sound world with conventional dramatic gestures to be taken seriously.