Total Immersion: Tristan Murail

BBC SO; Guildhall New Music Ensemble; BBC Singers/Rophe, Valade, Morgan

LSO St. Luke's, Barbican, 9 February 2009 4.5 stars

Tristan Murail

The Barbican is running three Total Immersion days this year, each consisting of concerts, films, talks and free events celebrating three interesting composers and their music.

The first of these days took place in January, and it centred on Stockhausen. The third will feature the music of Xenakis and is scheduled for March 7. Tristan Murail was the focus on Saturday. Considering the relative paucity of performances his music has received in this country, this second day of immersion was perhaps the most tantalising of the three.

Murail's soi-disant spectral music-an approach to sound he pioneered in the seventies alongside Gérard Grisey and Hugues Dufourt- takes the spectra of sounds in themselves as the first objects of composition. By analysing the acoustic structure of sounds (the frequencies of the harmonics of the sound and the intensities thereof), and composing out from this information a music of intensely wrought sound in a largely continuous textural mode, Murail and his colleagues wrestled the art of music back from the brink of abstraction, towards a more purely musical (in the absolute sense of an art of sound) fluency. Subtly gradated qualities (relating to micro-pitch and timbre) of sounds, and their psychoacoustic plasticity, are paramount in spectral composition. This connects the approach to the wider opening up to timbre as a determinant that has taken place throughout the modern audio culture, in noise music as much as in more traditional modes of composition.

As the zeitgeist moved ever further away from the number driven games of the serialists (to put a perhaps unfair gloss on their variegated efforts) in the sixties and seventies, the whole culture of music became more immersive, ear-driven, and porous. In notated music, it has largely been this group of French composers and those they have influenced, from Ligeti to Radulescu to Harvey, that have pushed this new aesthetic sensibility, where timbre and harmony have equivalence and equality, into a fertile creative space.

Pierre=Andre Valade So on this day of music (two large concerts and one small, one film with discussion and one somewhat more technical discussion), the soubriquet of the series found its truest application. Murail's music celebrates the uncanny, it revels in bliss. It can be understood as giving part satisfaction to Susan Sontag's plea for art to rail against hermeneutics in favour of pursuing the erotic, transcendent aspect of aesthetic experience. The sounds Murail designs, at their best (in terms of their creator and transmitter's achievements), appear in one sense as if they are spontaneous, naturally occurring shudderings of the earth. Primal tremors and oceanic tumbles abound.

In the first concert, which took place in the warm and vibrant acoustical surroundings of LSO St Luke's in the early afternoon, all of these features were present. The young and highly accomplished members of the Guildhall New Music Ensemble were led by the spectral specialist Pierre-André Valade in a vivid concert of some of Murail's, and one of Dufourt's, chamber pieces.

The opening Winter Fragments, written as a memorial to Grisey after his sudden death in 1998, is an elegiac, twilight creation of great depth. Like much of Murail's work the form gradually evolves over interlinked sections, where an elastic pulse and a basic set of materials are subtly transformed in a graceful musical movement through flaccid and floating formal boundaries. The materials here are simple, yet they appear totally refined. The work shape shifts out from its opening flute figure that wisps through a non-tempered and ghostly fifth, through a sombre play of motif and sound. (Spectral music, which concentrates after all on non-tempered tuning systems and 'inharmonic' and 'complex' sounds such as the spectra of bells or gongs, is indispensably microtonal and non-tempered). Valade ensured that the texture was delicate and the colour vibrant throughout, always measuring the ensemble's contributions against the electronic part (pre-programmed by the composer, this was cued by a member of the ensemble on synthesiser, and regulated by the sound projectionist Ian Dearden), and wedding the spectral intent to a deep sense of emotional commitment to the music's melancholic expression. As the piece developed, allusions to Grisey’s own work became more prominent. In the final section, where the piano gives skeletal versions of the fundamental spectra in support of a darkening movement, the amplified cello and violin exchange bare versions of the melodic basis of the composition- the opening viola melody to Grisey's monumental cycle Les espaces acoustiques. This conclusion was given an intense pallor by the performers, and the two string players brought a kind of sorrowful serenity to their exchanges.

The rest of the concert did not quite live up to the moving opening. Murail's substantial solo piano piece from the late seventies, Territoires de l'oubli, was performed with great verve and extension on the part of Rolf Hind, but you never quite felt the pianist made as much as he could of the constant flow of accelerandos and ritardandos, though his was a capable enough approach, the supple nature of the flow being profoundly difficult to get across well. Hind did attend well to the colour of the music, constantly drawing out the variances of sonority and intensity required by the oblivion of the title (which adverted to the sustain pedal being held down for the entire twenty-five minutes), and he managed to create many moments of stunning richness of sound. Treize couleurs du soleil couchant, another work for ensemble and electronics, this time from the seventies, foregrounds the essential hierarchy underpinning spectral music: the basic generative fundamental sound, and the overtones that it suggests. The flute and clarinet play each such fundamental in each section, and the other instruments elaborate the colour, with much use being made of extended bowing techniques, and other such devices, and the movement is defined by an explosion and then implosion of brightness in the sound. The performance was strong, with much of the subtle spectral detail receiving some degree of nuance and singularity within the sound.

Hugues DufuortThe next piece was from the mind of Hugues Dufuort, an aforementioned old compatriot of Murail's. Insistently simple, and yet supple enough to just about maintain interest, Hommage à Charles Nègre (1986) evoked the eponymous photographer's sepia-tinted nineteenth century pictures of slums in the Midi region in France, by assembling a bizarre ensemble (which included contrabassoon, contrabass clarinet, piccolo flute, electric guitar, and bass flute), and having each of them play at the extremes of their register, thus destabilising the sound. The dynamic is hushed, and the texture again like in Murail is elastic. Despite the occasional moment of lassitude, the performance maintained interest, and gradually revealed Dufuort's clear sensitivity to colour and timbre evident in the work's construction.

The final work on the program, Pour adoucir le cours du temps from 2004-5, showed off Murail's now more highly developed sense of formal construction, whilst also exuding all the glittering freshness found in the earlier scores. For a large ensemble (featuring a strong double bass performance at its centre from Nikita Naumov) and electronics, the piece moves through 31 sections, each emerging from the last in a broad arc of contraction and then expansion towards and away from the central electronic section, whilst all the time throwing up an array of fresh timbral ideas, taking some up, discarding others. Valade again showed himself a master of bringing forth both the rigorous construction of this music, whilst always pursuing transcending moments of sonority and colour, and distant echoes of the sublime. The Guildhall Ensemble absolutely played their part in this; their skill and commitment suggested that this country can currently boast a wealth of young performing talent. Ian Dearden, again in charge of sound projection, did well to control the great washes of electronic sound that infiltrate the piece, though at times it must be said he allowed these to overpower the acoustic contributions to too great a degree.

Before the climactic orchestral performance in the Barbican that evening, Tristan Murail and Julian Anderson conducted a discussion on music and acoustics that complemented their earlier talk, which had focused more on biographical and poetical aspects of Murail's character and aesthetics. (This took place before the first concert at 1100, and it was accompanied by a screening of films of performances of three of the composer's more famous works). The discussion at 1700, given to a packed Mozart Room full of composers, musicologists, performers and of course more casual fans, dealt primarily with the precise nature of Murail's approach to sound, how he works up his compositions, and how he conceptualises them to himself.

The dialogue, admirably, always stayed close to a publicly understandable mode of discourse. The cheerful, affable and open Murail still managed to convey the intricate technical details of his compositional method nevertheless. He spoke of his preference for 'complex' sounds as germs for composition (i.e. those with inharmonic acoustic structures), of his vision of timbre essentially being in union with harmony, of how his embrace of new technologies in the early eighties (such as spectrum analysers and samplers) profoundly aided his work, and of how he viewed the spectral approach as representing a functional use of harmony, in a similar sense to how tonal composers used harmonic strategies to define form and emotion in their music. Murail was lucid and frank, and his description of how he embraces the sublime orchestral sounds of the period 1880 – 1920 from composers like Strauss, Debussy, Scriabin, and Sibelius, spoke loudly to the flexibility of the approach of modern musicians to their predecessors, an approach which defies the sometimes burdensome inheritance inflicted upon them. Student composers from the Guildhall had pieces performed by a group that included members of the evening's band, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and also member’s of the Guildhall Ensemble, in a short free event held before the main concert of the evening, in the Barbican Foyer. Pierre-André Valade conducted. These short octets were (by design) inspired by Murail's music, and they each boasted many arresting moments, and a good range of ideas.

Pascal RopheThat concluding concert saw the BBC SO being led by Pascal Rophé in a program of three of Murail's large orchestral works. The opening Gondwana, perhaps Murail's most famous work but here being professionally performed for the first time in the UK, is an evocative creation full of turbulence and monumental charge. Suggesting something of the tectonic shuddering implied by the title (Gondwana is the name of one of the two large land masses that gradually broke and separated into the present arrangement of land on earth), the rich colours and uninhibited dynamics are again encased in a supple, elastic form in which the material is gradually transformed in a seamless and arresting flow of sound, here given particular expressive force by the wave-like motion choreographed by the composer throughout. The conductor and orchestra gave an astonishing performance that gripped throughout- rarely has an English concert hall been so ripped apart and transfigured by transcendent chaos as it was here. The following Time and Again struggled to live up to this opening though. The form is choppier, and the use of electronics much more gauche than elsewhere, and the hieratic progress of harmony became buried somewhat in this performance by clarion brass, and violent phrasing. However the gloriously creative writing and performance of the percussion parts, the effective use of harp sounds on the synthesiser in dialogue with those percussionists, and the capable handling of the palette of spectral intensities by Rophé, made up for these shortcomings.

The BBC Singers and their conductor James Morgan slotted into the middle with a committed and flexible (particularly to the varying modes of vocal production, pacing, and intensity required), if at times untidy (for example in the ‘Deinde’ section where they tripped over themselves somewhat) reading of …amaris et dulcibus aquis…. The blending of electronics with choir was especially effective here, with an ear-catching overlap of character occurring throughout, for example at those moments where the low drone of the men joined with that of the synthesiser to create harmonic beating that suggested such third-ear effects as you find in drone minimalist music. Bringing the concert and day to a close, was a periodically stunning ekphrasis; Murail’s Terre d'ombre (2003-4), a work which takes its formal and expressive impetus from Scriabin’s orchestral tone poem Prometheus. This was an at times scorching performance of a flinty and fiery work. Rophé imbued things with a great sense of purpose, and generally managed the rolling form with great skill. Despite the potency of the work however, the performance was at times less than captivating. Some of the local sonorities got buried, and the singularity of Murail's voice became somewhat muddled in a drift towards bombast. In the final analysis though, particularly after a stunning final sprint where all were rallied and a great head of steam built up, the ardent aspect of the source was reconfigured by the conductor to sound anew through the Murail, and the impression one gets of great scope in the latter's recent compositional output, was reinforced. An interesting day then, long overdue.

By Stephen Graham