From our Repertoire: Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques

From our Repertoire: Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques

"From our Repertoire" is a blog category featuring knowledgeable commentary on works from our diverse catalogues. We will introduce you on a regular basis to not only the best-known compositions but also to niche works that we think deserve a little more attention.

This time: Gérard Grisey's Les Espaces Acoustiques

“To not compose any more with notes, but sounds,” wrote Grisey about Les Espaces Acoustiques. Created over a period of eleven years (1974-1985), the six-movement cycle is a monument to the spectral school. 

After abandoning twelve-tone music in the 1970s, Grisey turned to the properties of sound itself and their effect on the human senses. By means of sonographic analysis, the composer devised both new timbres and structures that would challenge dominant tendencies in the European avant-garde.

The repeated, spiralling gesture of the solo viola in Prologue, counterbalanced by a pair of resolute tonic notes, already suggests a new alternative for form based on tonality while throwing its basic elements into question. Melody becomes a mere shape in time, and form the process itself.

The most influential technique for spectral music, which Grisey coined “instrumental synthesis,” emerges in the second piece, Périodes, for seven musicians, when a group of strings and woodwinds recreate the spectral frequencies of a trombone’s low E. 

In the following Partiels, the growling brass instrument dissolves marching low strings into an ethereal halo. The constant opposition between movement and stasis (“dynamique/détente progressive”) leads to a new sense of form and time.

The fourth Modulations sets out to evoke time that is not “chronometric” but “psychological”—now stretched like a rubber band with shivering winds that fade in and out, now compressed with ethereal timbres in a mosaic-like interplay.

Grisey first unleashes a full orchestra in the penultimate Transitoires with a cosmic range of textural contrast, from brooding, primordial brass to glassy strings squiggling on the surface.

Although the composer stipulated that the movements may be performed individually (with the exception of Epilogue, which must follow Transitoires), he creates an arc from beginning to end. The Prologue’s spiralling viola returns at the outset of Epilogue, only to disappear under the watery surface of a swirling orchestra and a quartet of brass that leads the way out of this galactic realm. 

Chattering glissandi nearly have the last word until the entrance of a militant bass drum, perhaps the only force able to quell this sprawling exploration of sound and space.

-Rebecca Schmid

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as The New York Times, Gramophone, and More on:

Gérard Grisey: work list