Les Percussions de Strasbourg play Xenakis and Grisey at Tully Scope.

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Les Percussions de Strasbourg. Photo © Guy Vivien.

Les Percussions de Strasbourg. Photo © Guy Vivien.

Friday, March 4 at 7:30 pm
Les Percussions de Strasbourg
Jean-Paul Bernard, artistic director
Grisey – Le noir de l’étoile (New York premiere)
Post-performance discussion with Jean-Paul Bernard, Olaf Tzschoppe, and Jean-Pierre Luminet

1er mouvement
Pulsar Vela
2e mouvement
Pulsar 0329+54
3e mouvement

Saturday, March 5 at 7:30 pm
Les Percussions de Strasbourg
Jean-Paul Bernard, artistic director
All-Xenakis program

One of the truly important events at Tully Scope was the two-day visit of Les Percussions de Strasbourg, the virtuosic percussion ensemble devoted to contemporary music, who are in the process of celebrating their fiftieth anniversary in a series of concerts and worldwide tours. Formally founded in 1962, the original six core musicians first played together in a 1959 concert conducted by Pierre Boulez. They have been leaders in the field ever since, having commissioned a great many of the prime works in the contemporary European percussion repertory. Some of these works, like Bernard Grisey’s Le noir de l’étoile are so complex that one might well wonder if any other group can bring them off, but Les Percussions de Strasbourg have survived retirements and personnel changes this long, and the tradition continues, currently under the direction of Jean-Paul Bernard.

The two concerts, if grafted into one, would have lasted only a little over two hours, but the intense concentration demanded of the musicians and the physical limitations of audiences listening to percussion music made the division into two programs a wise decision. The second consisted of two compositions by Yannis Xenakis, and the first of one work by Gérard Grisey, who studied with Xenakis at the Darmstadt summer courses in 1972. His work is little known in the United States, although he taught at Berkeley for four years, between 1982 and 1986. After that, he returned to France and remained in Europe until his early death, aged 52, in 1998. Although he worked in the mainstream of European music, he and the technique he pursued during the 1970s, Spectral Music, never received a great deal of exposure in this country. However, last fall the ice was broken by a New York Philharmonic CONTACT! concert, which was focused on Grisey in one of his own works, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, and another by his pupil, Magnus Lindberg, Souvenir (in memoriam Gérard Grisey). Mr. Lindberg is now about to begin his third season as Composer-in-Residence at the Philharmonic.

For an interesting interview about Grisey and Spectral Music see David Dominique’s interview with Joshua Fineberg in The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

By the time Grisey came to write Le noir del’étoile, on commission from Les Percussions de Strasbourg in 1989-90, he had moved beyond spectralism, which was a highly rigorous method for composing music from the nature of sound itself and the way it is received by human perception. For him “music is made with sounds, not with notes.”  In 1986, Grisey began to focus on unpredictability and volatility in music, and the organization of his works became less readily apparent, fractured as they were by abrupt changes and outbursts. In this work he turned to the nature of recently discovered entities in space, pulsars, which exist far outside our solar system, following processes alien to the regularity of the cycles we have come to depend on for life on our planet.

For many centuries people have tried to see in music the embodiment of symmetries and harmonies, which not only make the cosmos predictable and beneficial to man, but also reflect a transcendent ontological and moral plane, the divine, which the human being should strive to realize in his works and in his own development, in order to fulfil its seed, which was imperfectly manifested within him at his creation. Today science has inundated us with data which cast that into doubt for many. In basing his music on the nature and rhythms of these remote, still imperfectly understood bodies, Grisey found underlying chaotic forces in nature which further undermine any rational or harmonious system in music. Program annotator Paul Schiavo is surely correct in calling it a nature piece and comparing it to works like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, and Debussy’s La Mer. However, he omits Haydn, who actually portrayed heavenly bodies in his music, for example the sun. His Creation is, I’d say, the perfect counterpart for Le noir de l’étoile, in as much as order, light and darkness, the variety of living creatures emerge from a chaos that is far more orderly than any passage in Le noir, which, unlike The Creation, recreates chaos as an ongoing state, which has no consciousness of, relation to, or benevolence towards humanity. Another stark contrast lies in the most familiar musical composition to describe extra-terrestrial bodies, Gustav Holst’s The Planets (written between 1913 and 1917). In this widely beloved work, Holst, inspired by the astrological enthusiasms of the playwright and mystic Clifford Bax (brother of the composer Arnold Bax), reached back beyond Haydn’s Christian Enlightenment to a fully anthropomorphic view of the seven extra-terrestrial planets known at the time. The seven movements of the work are character studies like Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, but Holst’s psychology is founded on astrology rather than Elgar’s empiricism. Nothing could be further from Grisey’s worldview.

Grisey created rather a hugely ambitious, awe-inspiring landscape of nature as he knew it. For this reason, I think this a work of the highest importance. It attempts to portray nature as contemporary science reveals it. If you take the natural orders of Pythagoras, Plato, Dante, and Milton…and Alan Leo (author of What is a Horoscope?, Holst’s major source) this is what is left. Grisey’s work in Spectral Music gave him a non-tonal system entirely devoid of the comforts of classical harmony, and he had already rejected this in favor of an even more disjunctive method. Grisey first learned about pulsars in 1985 from a colleague, the astronomer Joe Silk, while he was teaching at Berkeley. Silk made it possible for Grisey to “listen” to the “sounds” of pulsars, which are actually light waves, translatable into electrical pulses that can produce sounds through loudspeakers. (It is amusing to compare this with Holst’s introduction to astrology on an artists’ retreat in Mallorca, also attended by Clifford Bax, who notoriously monopolized the conversation with his talk about astrology.) When Grisey considered the musical application of the rhythms emitted by the pulsars, the result of their rapid rotation, that, is several to several dozen times a second, he wanted to use them in their raw form, that is, “letting them exist simply as points within music, that, in some way, would be the setting, ultimately using their frequencies as tempi, and developing ideas of rotation, periodicity, deceleration, acceleration, and glitches that the study of pulsars suggests to astronomers.” For this Grisey used two sources, a recording of the emissions from the Vela Pulsar, the one he had first heard at Berkeley, and a live transmission of pulsar 0329+54. This can only be done when the pulsars are in the proper alignment. Grisey recommended a live pickup, but because it is next to impossible to coordinate this with the schedules of major urban concert venue, it was decided to use a recording in this performance.

Each of the six percussionists who sit at the front, sides, and back of the auditorium play to different pulses, realizable only by means of individual audio tracks accessible to the players via headphones. The source of these rhythms are the pulsars themselves, as Grisey explained. Although the percussionists play their own independent meters and tempi, they respond to one another, most spectacularly when they performed in relay, with one player passing the music on to another, proceeding from left to right, creating a vast swirl of sound. The scale of Grisey’s vision is truly immense, and it comes as a surprise that a composer was writing a work of this ambition and scale in 1990, when post-modern trivialization was the order of the day.

In the discussion after the concert, the great French astronomer, Jean-Pierre Luminet, who consulted with Grisey while he was writing Le noir de l’étoile, acted as the late composer’s spokesman. In fact, Luminet’s recorded voice began the performance with a brief science lesson, in which he explained pulsars — an exercise surely not lost on the Lincoln Center audience—or on me, for that matter, who am rather challenged in the sciences. Jean-Paul Bernard, the director of Les Percussions de Strasbourg also informed us of an important aspect of the Tully Scope performance, that it was the first performance in all these years to take place without a small amount of amplification to balance the six percussionists around the room, so that the entire audience hears more or less the same thing. The balance was almost perfect, in fact, an impressive testimony to the unique qualities of the new Alice Tully Hall. As far as the performance is concerned, I can only wonder if there is another group capable of playing this complex work, certainly not one that can play the music with the same understanding, based on twenty years’ experience playing it.

The second concert was devoted to one of Grisey’s teachers, Yannis Xenakis, a powerful figure in the development of music in the second half of the twentieth century. His music is not only constructed with the kind of rigor only and architect/engineer could bring to it, it is robust and expressive, even somewhat Romantic. I plan to write at greater length about the composer in the future and will be extremely brief here.

Persephassa (1969), which concluded the concert, was Xenakis’ first effort in music written purely for percussion. As in Grisey’s Le noir de l’étoile, the percussionists are arranged around the hall. It is a dark, violent work with occasional military qualities, written for the 1969 Shiraz Arts Festival, where the Percussions de Strasbourg played its premiere. It would seem that there is a pun in the title of the work, Persephassa being a variant of the name Persephone, which appears in Aeschylus and Sophocles. However, Xenakis also saw “Persian” in the first syllable of the name of the reluctant wife of Hades, who divided each year between the world of the living and the dead. Pléïades, which was also premiered by Les Percussions ten years later, in 1979, at Mulhouse. Here the allusion to heavenly bodies remains comfortably within the realm of Greek mythology and its role in mapping the night sky. Xenakis chose the title because of the arbitrary arrangement of the constellation. His music, in fact, calls for chance rhythmical variations in a structure built on transformation and superposition. In the work he intended to evoke images of galaxies and celestial clouds. Another potent, transporting work from this fascinating composer, architect, and student of ancient Greek mythology and literature.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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