A concert presenting the full cycle of Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques is a rare event. The project had not been performed by the Ensemble Intercontemporain for a decade. The strong forces of the Conservatoire National de Paris were also needed in order to perform the last three pieces, written for orchestra.
Grisey initiated, with his colleague and friend Tristan Murail, the “spectral music” movement, of which Les Espaces Acoustiques, a cycle in six parts, is an example. Grisey wrote Périodes, for seven instruments, in 1974, while he was in residency at the French Academy in Rome. This work is built from the spectral image of a single sound (the founding E) analyzed with a spectrograph. Partiels, for eighteen instruments, is Périodes’s prolongation, its emblematic title referring to the components of the acoustic spectrum. From then on , Grisey could see the cycle in its entirety, going from the soloist (Prologue, for viola) to the full orchestra (Epilogue, which also features four solo French horns) including Périodes, Partiels, Modulations and Transitoires. This cycle’s conception, which lives up to Grisey’s visionary mind, centers on the phenomenon of sound, and on what it can become when activated with tranformation processes. The composer worked on this cycle for eleven years, until 1985.
Pascal Rophé, who acted as a substitute for Lothar Koenigs, was the true manager of the concert. His demanding nature, the precision of his gestures and his commitment are well-known. The cycle was performed according to Grisey’s wish, including an intermission after Partiels in order to change the set. The composer even imagined a kind of dramaturgy in the cycle: at the end of Périodes, the violist, who plays a quarter of a tone off from the violonist, start to tune his instruments onstage ; the instrumentalists grow restless (crumpling pages, scraping rosin, among other noises) in the near-silence in which Partiels is supposed to end ; the cymbals, ready to be clashed, suddenly have to wait when the light are turned off just before the intermission, and so on.
Grégoire Simon was impressive. He started to play Prologue dal’niente from up-stage, using a mute, in a silence filled with the – crowded – concert hall’s rumbles. Gradually deploying his exceptional energy, Simon projects into space a three-dimensional sound spiral, the transformations of which could be followed. From sheer fulfillment to a more noisy, saturated state, the listening experience is amazing and was led to perfection by Simon, who was definitely possessed by the sound energy that had been Grisey’s wish.
Simon had again his hands full in Périodes, a chamber music piece with a conductor. Rophé superbly showed the strangeness of its trajectory. Grisey expands time and space and rubs us inside the sound, by means of both an enriched sound palette and a unique temporal experiment, close, according to him, to the human breathing: inhalation (tension), exhalation (release) and rest (waiting time in this periodic cycle).
Partiels (eighteen musicians, including the accordion) needed the full power of the bass player and trombonist – the prodigious Nicolas Crosse and Jérôle Naulais – to strike this founding E on which the composer developed his spectal textures, following the principles of instrumental synthesis. The work is almost pedagogical, but the fact remains that it is a seminal masterpiece of Grisey’s aesthetics. It was splendidly well performed that night by the instrumentalists, who were electrified by the exceptional conducting, which gave an incredible dazzling quality to the blazing and shimmering sounds of the ensemble.