Composers about composers

Composers about composers

On our blog, our contemporary composers present their favorite work from our catalogs. This time: Fabien Lévy writes about Stèle by Gérard Grisey.

Stèle by Gérard Grisey

15 years ago, on the 11th of November 1998, Gérard Grisey died suddenly at the age of 52. I will remember for a long time that Wednesday when the news reached us, his students at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris. (I was then in the last year of the composition class and was supposed to be taking my finals some months later.) As usual, we had had a class the preceding Saturday, and Grisey mentioned for the first time the death of Messiaen, his composition teacher. By another strange and sad chance, which for a long time made me think it was intentional, Grisey was in the process of writing the Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold), four magnificent pieces on the theme of death.

Four years previous, on almost the same date (29 November 1994), the young composer Dominique Troncin had died at the age of 33, after a long illness. Dominique had also been important in my life because when I was still only an amateur composer and following scientific studies, he suggested I should go and study at the Conservatoire Américain de Fontainebleau, a summer school founded before the war by Nadia Boulanger and intended particularly for American students. That year (1990), Dominique was acting as coordinator and teacher of analysis, and Tristan Murail and André Boucourechliev were teaching composition there. A great coincidence, because ten years later I was to become a colleague of Tristan Murail at the Columbia University in New York, and I myself would teach composition at the American conservatory at Fontainebleau from 2007 to 2010.

After the death of Dominique Troncin, the ensemble Fa, directed by Dominique My, organized a concert in his honor at Radio France, and numerous composers wrote new pieces for the occasion. Stèle (1995) by Gérard Grisey was one of these premieres in homage to Troncin, and stood out from the series of rather anonymous pieces by its originality and depth, which was even more surprising given that the instrumentation of the piece was more than limited: just two bass drums!

This was not Grisey’s first piece for unpitched percussion. At the end of the 1970s, when the word ‘spectral’ began to be used to define the group to which he belonged and when the frequency techniques used by this group were being established, Grisey, refusing as always to follow the herd, decided to write an unpitched piece. This was Tempus ex machina (1979) for six percussionists. In 1991 there followed le noir de l’étoile, for six percussionists and the sound of a live pulsar broadcast. (The premiere, 16 March 1991 in Brussels, began at 5:00 p.m.; the signals from the pulsar [0329+54] being expected at 5:45 p.m. precisely.) However, both pieces required a generous number of instruments.

Stèle, by virtue of its extremely limited instrumentation, presents quite another constraint. One has briefly to resume the history of unpitched percussion to understand the historic ingeniousness of the piece. Percussion instruments have always been secondary accessories in Western music. Exported by the Turks and their armies of janissaries (i. e. Mozart’s Turkish March), for a long time they did nothing in the orchestra but mark the accents and the tuttis, and accompany ‘pitched’ music. Noise was in effect a stranger in Western music. It is equally surprising that in the West each instrumentalist in the orchestra was highly specialized, but that the musicians called ‘percussionists’ were expected to play everything that the others did not play, from xylophone to whistle to slide flute, passing by the wind machine, cymbals and timpani. The percussionists in effect did the ‘odd-jobs’ of the orchestra, almost vilely subservient. The first work for percussion alone only appeared in the first third of the 20th century, with Ionisation (1933) by Varèse (1883–1965), a composer influenced by the noisy theories of the Italian futurist, Luigi Russolo. This is a long way from the very ancient and elaborate practices of unpitched percussion in most other cultures, whether they be in Africa, America, or Asia. Another oddity in our Western culture is that, while many cultures use a minimal number of percussion instruments with myriad colours and performing techniques (for example, the famous tabla of north India), Western composers use each instrument more or less to produce a single sound: the bass drum goes ‘boom’, the side drum ‘ping’, the cymbal ‘tschhh’, and the gong ‘doon’—a profusion of means but very little subtlety, as so often in the West . . . .

Stèle is extremely innovative and ingenious in this respect: two bass drums, one of medium size and one large. The latter is draped with a string of wooden beads to ‘dirty’ the sound, a little like those African instruments that one prepares to make their sound less harmonious and more rich (little balls of spiders’ webs to make wind instruments buzz, little metal discs for the sanza). As for the Indian tabla or mridongam, different places on the stretched skin of the bass drum are used in Stèle to vary the colours. Finally, six sticks of different hardness, thickness, and material (wood, felt, bundled dowels of the ‘hot rod’-type) are used as well as two types of brushes (which scrape the skin in order to ‘inhabit’ the silence). The bass drums also have mutes to dampen and modify their sonority. The two instruments are thus used to their full coloristic capacity.

The composition itself is equally ingenious: the instrumentalists have to be placed apart to create echo games, ritualistic effects, slow and funereal patterns which become dramatic, in rhythmic and polyrhythmic writing that is extremely precise, clear and effective.

At a time when so many composers were or are creating ‘contemporary music’ without originality, hiding their lack of subtlety with a fake, superficial, seemingly ‘dissonant’ complexity, Stèle, like the rest of Grisey’s work, remains a model for composers: the piece is highly inventive and deep, musically. It uses minimal means that are explored in an ingenious fashion and in their entirety. Grisey was in fact a demanding composer, passionate about good music, and in this sense modest. He refused to make a career for himself (only one CD had been recorded at the time of his death) or to caricature himself. He worked every day but only wrote around one piece every two years. But what works!--unique, single-minded. He required his pupils also to take real risks, ones which were audible even if they would disconcert the public or contradict the ‘contemporary music industry’. He told us to compose and not to ‘produce’; always to strive to give of our best, even to the point of surprising ourselves.

Some months after his death, we all went to London to hear the premiere of Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil. While we expected to hear a piece in the manner of his last works, Vortex temporum or Stèle, Grisey renewed himself yet again and presented us with a last composition lesson, posthumously and unforgettably.

— Fabien Lévy, 11 November 2013