Happy birthday, Grisey!

Happy birthday, Grisey!

As Jérôme Baillet wrote in his essay for Ricordi's catalogues, “in order to present Gérard Grisey's art, one has to retrace almost thirty years of continual thourght concerning the question of musical time, conceptualized as the conjuction of different times surrounding a musical work: the time imagines by the composer, the chronometric time of the execution, the subjective and psychological time of the listener's perception, etc. Grisey considers time as being the very object which has to be shaped and organized by the composer, like a demiurge, who himself alone has been able to offer contemporary man the ability to experience the pure sensation of time as it passes”.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the birth of Gérard Grisey, on June 17, we would like to remember the French composer with this mini-portrait made up of excerpts from an interview that appeared in the daily newspaper L’Alsace in 1996, which coincided with that year’s Strasbourg Music Festival and the major retrospective dedicated to him in honor of his 50th birthday. The previous year, the festival played host to the world premiere of Grisey’s Vortex Temporum I and II, performed by Ensemble Recherche, conducted by Pascal Rophé.

Les oiseaux et les baleines

Excerpts from the interview with Gérard Grisey, by Olivier Brégeard
L’Alsace, September 28, 1996


Three influences. “Messiaen, who was my maestro, especially with regard to coloring, and the almost ethical attitude he expressed when it came to being a composer. Stockhausen, for a kind of dramaturgy in form. And Ligeti, for the notion of dilated, drawn-out time”.

Three Overlapping Tempos

Relative tempo. “From Bach to Schönberg, music is more or less played out according to the speed of spoken language. To explain relative tempo, I like to use an analogy that compares whales, birds and humans. Whales make sounds that are extremely drawn out, dilatated, which for us apparently have no relationship with sounds made previously, while for the whales, those sounds might actually be simple consonants. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are birds, whose song is so compact, so high-pitched, that I can’t manage to perceive all the articulations. Which means I’m forced to transport it, to broaden it. If birds listened to people talking, they might have the same impression we have when listening to whale sounds. They would not be able to grasp that this immense, drawn-out and apparently amorphous sound is part of a larger structure. Thus, in L’Icône paradoxale there are three overlapping tempos. The same kind of music seen, if you will, in the different tempos of sounds produced by whales, birds and humans. There are points where these tempos converge – holes, or moments of transition from one tempo to another. All this generates a form”.


Escape from Prevailing Structuralism

Spectral music. “I was one of the people that started it, along with Hugues Dufourt, Tristan Murail, Michaël Levinas. […] As far as I’m concerned, I went ahead with it more out of an accumulation of interests. Spectral music takes into account dilated time, and makes it possible to write by following a process (the progressive transformation from one type of sound to another), although rhythm, metrics and acceleration remain unsolved problems. So, I sought to progressively expand my own musical writing into areas that had formerly been outside my range of interests. In particular, this had to do with speed and metrics, as seen in my latest work, Vortex Temporum.”

Contemporary music and the public at large. “It’s completely normal that not everyone, at any given moment, understands all the music that’s out there. Different kinds of music have different kinds of functions. It’s normal to have a limited audience, but if you’ve got no audience at all, that’s a problem. We live in age that’s been awfully contaminated by a sort of faucet spewing lukewarm sounds. Apart from the internal combustion engine – the 20th century’s worst invention – there are loudspeakers, which are everywhere. How can anyone make music with all this background noise?”

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Photo: Gérard Grisey by Salvatore Sciarrino