Jean-Luc Hervé is among the generation of French composers to have come of age after the spectral 'moment' in French composition. Though by no means universally popular with audiences and ensembles – even within the field of contemporary music – the spectral school has undoubtedly had an influence on some of the main composers at work in France today, and that influence continues in the conservatoires and in Ircam.
In this way it is interesting to see how composers such as Hurel, Leroux and Hervé have absorbed and expressed that influence differently. Each in their own way has moved away from strict adherence to its original precepts and towards the application of spectral ideas to different stylistic avenues. Not least in quality among these present-day composers is Hervé.
Born in 1960, Hervé studied philosophical aesthetics as well as music, submitting a doctoral thesis on the former subject. For a time he worked closely with Gérard Grisey as the elder composer's assistant, an encounter that was formative and which led to a book on Grisey's Vortex temporum. Since then Hervé has spent time as a composer in residence in Kyoto and with the DAAD in Berlin, currently teaching at the Conservatoire Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris.
Dans l'heure brève brings together mainly chamber works from the past thirteen years. It is the second collection of Hervé's music to have been set to record, following Sillages on the Empreinte digitale label a few years back, and both records show well the development of his talent. Ensemble Court-circuit here are the perfect interpreters, matching instrumental prowess with veracity of understanding.
The theme of this collection, as shown in its verdant cover and meditative sleeve notes, is ecological, seeing the musical work as providing an experience not unlike a journey through a park or landscape. Movement is necessary and is provided for by the laneways and paths by which one traverses the terrain; but at any point one may halt and take in the changing prospect.
The title work is the record's opening track. Two violins chatter shrilly in a sort of duo aria. The backing ensemble features an organ, which, as Hervé writes in his sleeve notes, at times gives the work the feel of a distant echo of a baroque double concerto. The overall impression over the course of the work is of the momentary flaring up of a brilliant red sunset.
The next track, Amplification / propagation 3, brings us initially into unpitched territory from the preceding work's vivid harmony. Opening with pizzicato and brushing on strings, the initial gesture gradually expands over the course of the work, like a complex deckchair, via the piano into an expansive and interconnected network of shapes. The idea of process is here used to bring the listener into a drama of expansion and contraction reminiscent of Autechre's 'Xylin Room'.
On Hervé's previous collection, Sillages, were collected some works attesting to his interest in birdsong, an interest of course famously shared by his older compatriot Messiaen. Birdsong features here, too, on Dans l'heure brève and In sonore. This latter work opens with some extremely slow-moving, deep shifting sounds. Process is again used to gradually bring these shapes into a different time and harmonic focus, and speeded up the listener comes to realise they're actually trapped birdsong, stored in the work's vessel as if in amber.
Déjà is so-called because it presents its conclusion first, in a brief opening salvo, before over the course of the rest of the piece showing us how that conclusion came about. Written for piano and electronic piano on tape, the electronic piano is tuned a quarter tone away from its acoustic twin, the impression thus given being delirious and carnivalesque, occasionally bringing to mind Ives' similar work for double keyboard piano with quarter tone difference.
The shortest work in the collection, Amplitude for solo cello, shows the juxtaposed meeting of two separate figures, one gradually intruding and superseding the other.
Dans l'ombre des anges was written in memory of Grisey shortly after the elder composer's premature death. As the title suggests, its colours are dark, the work moving slowly through shaded, saturnine registers, its contours quietly drifting by in waves and ripples. The presence of gong and other percussion give the work a ritualistic feel, and end the record in the midst of an ongoing thought, ever unended.
There will always be some who bemoan contemporary music as wilfully obtuse, unable to 'do its job' and provide us with a tune to whistle happily on our way to work in the office. For anyone with ears open to listening, though, there is plenty to listen to, and of a high standard. The question is whether one is willing to devote one's time to it – to sit down for an hour or so and do nothing other than open one's ears and welcome what emerges from the acoustic space given presence by the composer. If so, you could do worse than start here.
By Liam Cagney