In our current globalized world, with music effortlessly available from almost every country, the most compelling musical identities transcend national borders. Fabien Lévy represents a model of today’s international composer both in his life and his compositional œuvre. Born in Paris in 1968, he has lived in France, England, Italy, Germany, and the United States and has been engaged in the different local music scenes. His delicate music unites influences ranging from spectralism, musique concrète instrumentale, and minimalism to the poly- rhythmic music of Central Africa and Gagaku of Japan.
Lévy first studied mathematics and economics before finding mentors in Gérard Grisey as well as Jean-Claude Risset and Hugues Dufourt. His œuvre, comprising works for orchestra, vocal and instrumental ensemble, solo instruments, and electronics shows post-spectral traits in several ways: it features the composer’s fascination for sound as a sensual experience with all its complexity, ambiguity, and finally ineffability.
Lévy is a master of surprise, establishing listening expectations only to subvert them and shift the listener’s attention into another direction. The ear, Lévy seems to suggest, is as susceptible to illusion as the other senses. He was led to this attitude not only by research on perception by Risset but also by his experience with non-Western music. Lévy passionately explores the diversity of musical cultures of the world. While studying ethnomusicology—in addition to composition, music analysis, harmony, and orchestration at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris—he investigated pygmy music in Cameroon. This engagement taught him that listening is culturally conditioned and hence relative, an awareness that constantly flows through his own music.
Extra-musical inspirations and stimuli play a crucial role for Lévy, and he does not hesitate to share them with the listener, as in À propos (2008) written for the German ensemble recherche. Each of the four movements is dedicated to a visual artist: Jeff Wall, Giuseppe Penone, Alberto Burri, and Tim Hawkinson. Together they form Lévy’s “little imaginary museum,” as he puts it. The piece also shows his interest in musical form, representing, for Lévy, the influence of the German tradition on his musical thinking. In 2001 he first went to Berlin and remained there until he became Professor of Composition at Columbia University in New York in 2006. Six years later he moved back to Berlin as Senior Professor of Composition in Detmold, a historic town with a well renown conservatory.
As in many other works like durch (1998) and towards the door we never opened (2013), both for saxophone quartet, rhythm is a dominant feature of À propos. The steady regular pulse and the concern with meter grant Lévy’s music the character of flow, of always moving forward. One might hear this as an influence of first generation minimal music, or as a shadow of Lévy’s earlier engagement with jazz. He delights in building complex poly-rhythmical structures and uses a variety of techniques and mathematic models, like cross rhythms and rhythmic canons. Thanks to this strong, rhythmic dimension his music is highly accessible to a broad variety of listeners.
With Après tout (2012) for vocal and instrumental ensemble and live electronics, Lévy composed a 50-minute musical meditation on the possibilities of forgiving. It was inspired by a debate between the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch and a German high school teacher, Wiard Raveling, about whether it would ever be possible to forgive after the Third Reich. The topic touches upon the coordinates of Lévy’s own life as a secular French composer with Jewish roots who lives in Berlin. At the end of his “grand theater of forgiveness,” he refuses a moral judgment but leaves it open to the audience to decide whether forgiving is possible—a powerful statement with a strong impact on the listener as the first performances in Berlin and Stuttgart showed. The experience was equally moving for the audience and for the com- poser himself, as the fine and subtle music succeeded to reach and deeply affect many listeners who had never been in touch with con- temporary music before.
One of Lévy’s favorite lessons from Grisey is that composing is not about producing but about creating. This summarizes his own musical credo. In a musical world that prioritizes premieres and always demands more new pieces, Lévy allows himself to focus on writing very few pieces per year and to develop a new approach for each one of them. As a result, none follows the same strategy or method as any others. In Pour Orchestre, written for the orchestra of Komische Oper Berlin, he deconstructs the traditional symphony orchestra as a mirror of the Western world with its implied hierarchies and mechanisms of power. This begins with a “geography of the ensemble” when the harp and woodwind sections take the place of the strings, which must instead move to the background. It continues with the musicians enacting the utopian ideal of a different society, in which 67 individuals interact as equals in a polyrhythmic structure.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Fabien Lévy’s music stands out for its rhythmical delicacy and deep sonic sensitivity, multi-dimensionality and perceptual richness. No matter how intellectually charged and philosophically reflected the music is it remains playful and joyous, inviting the listener to follow Lévy through his musical world.
by Lydia Rilling
Photo: Kai Bienert