Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Gerard Grisey: Les espaces acoustiques @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

14 October 2008

Gerard Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques is a ground-breaking work which defies all assumptions about what music “ought” to be. Not for nothing did the composer describe it as “a great laboratory”, exploring the way we listen.

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

Written from 1974 to 1985, it’s actually six pieces which can be enjoyed separately.

This was the first UK performance of the whole cycle.

It starts with a single violist, expanding to ensembles for 7, 18, 33 and 84 musicians. Grisey uses chords that endlessly morph and oscillate, displaying the full spectrum of sound. Hence the term “spectralism” which Grisey later abandoned. This is very organic music, in harmony with the biorhythms of the human body, like breathing, steadily exhaling and inhaling.

This isn’t music to “audit” passively as it’s complex, but it’s also strangely therapeutic. Afterwards, you feel refreshed, as if you’ve had a workout. If you’ve been listening well, you probably have, since the more you put into this, the more you get back.

Yet Les espaces acoustiques grows outwards from extreme simplicity. A basic melodic cell repeats like in spiral, back and forth, each time with tiny gradations of pitch. It’s a tour de force. Paul Silverthorne demonstrated why he’s the foremost violist in Britain, and a long term stalwart of the London Sinfonietta : fifteen minutes of seamless bowing, energetic yet subtly refined.

Grisey himself said such progressions were specially difficult on viola, so Silverthorne’s virtuosity deserves much praise. Even when the viola plays alone, though, there’s a “rponse fantomatique” with the other instruments. The viola is the heartbeat, they are the echo, unheard at first.

In the second section, Priodes, Grisey adds to the breathing motif an extra level of “rest” as natural rhythmic as walking. It’s never mechanical but blurred, allowing variations of tempo, stillness and pitch. Most dramatic perhaps is the theme on double bass, played by Enno Senft, but there are many other intriguing variations. This is music that proliferates, building elaborations upon itself, like cell divisions, like fractals in mathematics.

Grisey was a student of Olivier Messiaen, and dedicated the 4th section, Modulations, to him. Since George Benjamin (conductor) was also Messiaen’s student, this performance took on overtones reminiscent of Messiaen, particularly Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The double bass theme reflects the “walls of solidity” and the extensive brass the “final trumpet” fanfares. Benjamin connects Les espaces acoustiques to the ideas of time, space and eternity in Messiaen, like borrowed vistas in landscape.

Just as Grisey’s music expands from simple cells, it thus grows “beyond” itself, into a vast new conceptual universe. Benjamin was extremely perceptive, for this “value-added” approach enhances Grisey’s concept of infinite possibility. You can enjoy this music in a vacuum, but it’s so much more fulfilling in a wider context. In some circles, it’s fashionable to call Messiaen “history” but anyone with any knowledge of his influence on composers as diverse as Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, Grisey, Murail, Anderson and Benjamin himself, will know that’s nonsense.

Messiaen also influenced conducting style, since music of such subtle colour needs performance of great clarity. Benjamin is a lucid conductor, and gets brilliant results. The London Sinfonietta has long championed Grisey’s music. Balances were finely judged, even details like the varied mutings of brass deftly executed. When the viola resurfaced between the 5th and 6th sections, it shone clearly, proving its central role in the whole structure of the cycle. In the Epilogue, the four horns stood proud above the massed orchestra.

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