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Gerard Grisey




Gerard Grisey died in Paris in November of 1998 at the unready age of 52. He and his comrades Tristan Murail and Hughes Dufour belonged to the French compositional school called "spectralism," but neither Grisey nor his music were well known in the U.S. That's why, in January of 1996, Esa-Pekka Salonen had brought him to the attention of Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences by performing some of his works (including a new commission) in concerts with the orchestra. Grisey was in Los Angeles for those concerts and spoke with me on January 18, 1996. We spent a half hour boring into the theoretical foundations of his art, which became a little abstract at times during our discussion as I tried to grapple with the concepts in his mental/cultural vernacular. The following interview transcript was published in the March, 1996 issue of 20th-Century Music.







It seems somehow fitting that the spectral music movement -- a conscious effort to create new harmonies (in a departure from serialist traditions) by basing music on prescribed harmonic pitch series or spectra -- should have been spearheaded by a small group of French composers. For one thing, it was a Frenchman -- the Napoleonic-era mathematician Joseph Fourier -- who first postulated that any complex waveform of finite duration could be resolved into an infinite series of pure sine waves, each having its own frequency (thus, any time signal has its equivalent representation as a spectrum in the frequency domain). For another thing, Gallic composers have always remained aloof from the Germanic mainstream; from Janequin and Machaut to Messaien and Boulez, the French have always been possessed of a slightly different perspective and have tended to follow their own parallel but fiercely independent paths.

Gerard Grisey (b. 1946) was one of the founders of the spectral movement in France. Though he claims to have moved away from the tenets of spectralism in recent years, his association with spectral music is likely to dog him for the rest of his life -- in the same way that the Impressionist label followed Maurice Ravel to the end of his days and beyond. Grisey attended Germany's Trossingen Conservatory (1963-65) and the Conservatoire National Superieur in Paris (1965-72), where he studied composition with Messaien. He also studied under Dutilleux at the Ecole Normale Superieure and attended the seminars of Stockhausen, Ligeti and Xenakis at Darmstadt. He studied acoustics at the Paris Science Faculty (1974), won a study grant to the Villa Medici in Rome (1972-74), and was in residence at IRCAM in 1980. He has taught composition at Darmstadt, IRCAM, the Scuola Civica in Milan and at various American universities. From 1982 to 1986, he taught at U.C. Berkeley and thereafter, at the Paris Conservatoire National.

We caught up with Gerard Grisey in downtown Los Angeles at the Inter-Continental Hotel, a popular stop for foreign travelers (it's a stretch, but one might mistake the hotel lobby for the United Nations, what with the din of European and Asian tongues all going at once). It was the day following the world premiere of Grisey's ņ L'icone paradoxale, a work jointly commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and conducted for the first time by L.A.'s Esa-Pekka Salonen. We found Grisey to be relaxed and open, and despite his reputation for speaking in abstract and abstruse ways, he was quite lucid on topics related to music and theory.


DB: I'd like to ask you about the origin of the name 'spectral music.' Is that a name that you chose for yourself or was it, like Impressionism or Minimalism, one that was forced on you.

GG: No, of course not. There was a period when I was writing a certain kind of music along with other colleagues of mine, and we slowly discovered that we had something new. Hughes Dufour was one of us and was a philosopher. He wrote an article about this aesthetic, and in this article, he used the word "spectrale" -- "musique spectrale." I can't explain why that has been taken over by a few musicologists, reviewers and musicians. It is, of course, very limiting as are all descriptions. It's something like a sticker.

DB: To what extent do you employ spectral principles or methodology?

GG: Spectralism is not a system. It's not a system like serial music or even tonal music. It's an attitude. It considers sounds, not as dead objects that you can easily and arbitrarily permutate in all directions, but as being like living objects with a birth, lifetime and death. This is not new. I think Varese was thinking in that direction also. He was the grandfather of us all. The second statement of the spectral movement -- especially at the beginning -- was to try to find a better equation between concept and percept -- between the concept of the score and the perception the audience might have of it. That was extremely important for us.

DB: How do you achieve that?

GG: I think it's important to know our perceptive limitations as human beings. I started in the late '70s with an extremely basic attitude towards sound -- thinking, "What is an octave? What is a minor third? What is a dissonance? What is a consonance? Why do we have periodicity? Aperiodicity?" And in dealing a little with acoustics and psycho-acoustics, there were a few taboos that were thrown away in that period. The taboo of using dissonance/consonance. There was a period when people tended to say, "Well, there is no such thing as a dissonance and a consonance." But you can reconsider the question and see that they basically do exist on two levels. The first level would be a rather physical one. It's true that we have sounds that are more complex than others. It's true that we have timbres that are more in a state of fusion than others. It's true that our ear reacts differently to different stimuli. So it's true that we have an array of possibilities that goes from the most simple to the most complex. Now, what is cultural is what function you give to those poles. The first attitude considers that I have this array of possibilities from simple to very complex, and my ear won't react to a minor third as a minor second or whatever. It will react differently. We will react physically differently. Now the function you decide to have within the music is cultural.

DB: Okay, and that's the second level?

GG: That's the second level. It's cultural. But in both cases, I have to acknowledge the differences and avoid flattening everything. Making everything flat and equal. It's a way of recovering the hierarchy.

DB: Which one defines the intervals or note combinations more, the physical or the cultural aspect?

GG: I personally start more with the physical aspect of things, the physical aspect of sounds, of different spectrums, the quality of spectrums. And I leave the rest -- it might be most important -- but I leave the cultural aspect to the audience. To the listener. And also the completely enormous subconscious aspect of writing music -- which I am totally unaware of what I am doing.

DB: But in your mind, you start with the concept of a spectrum.

GG: Yes. Or several concepts. At the very beginning, I started with real spectrums that I would analyze and then transform into external types of writings. But now, not any more. I quit. That was 20 or 30 years ago.

DB: So actually, you're not a spectral composer any more?

GG: Well, I don't care! [laughs] I really don't care. That's just -- as I told you -- just a sticker that we got at a certain period. I think my attitude is basically the same, but the departure point of spectralism was -- besides the two points I noted -- was the fascination for extended time and for continuity. How to compose an extended type of time in a composition without writing the sort of chromatic clusters like Ligeti in Atmospheres. What language does that extended time imply? That is really the starting point of spectralism and not the writing of spectrums or whatever.

DB: There's a dimension of time that's implicit in a spectrum. When you wrote in the spectral mode, did you think of the spectrum in terms of a single chord or a bar or a phrase or the entire work?

GG: That's exactly what I was telling you about extended time. It implies not to use just long durations. If you extend time, you extend in all directions. You extend in this direction -- going up -- and in depth. So it has nothing to do with long values and short values. It's something completely different. And this extended time and continuity forced me to deal with all sorts of spectrums and, therefore, also with microintervals. I never intended to write microintervals as a superextension of twelve-tone to 24-tone but as a need given by the nature of sound, which is basically not tempered.

DB: It's natural to feel confined by the twelve tones, but are you able to use the microintervals as equals to the others or rather as passing tones?

GG: No, no. Not at all passing tones. They are definitely used as part of the musical language. I was amazed yesterday after the premiere of L'icone paradoxale, and I spoke with Esa-Pekka Salonen last night about this. They had a synthesizer to give them an A a quarter-tone lower for the instruments that were tuned a quarter-tone lower, and the tuning on-stage lasted for about 10 seconds. And then the real A-440 came, and it lasted a minute! I think it's a normal reaction for the musicians. It's very hard to consider that microintervals are as fixed and as important as the tempered ones, but surprisingly, it doesn't take much time to train musicians. I started a long time ago in Paris, and I know how hard it was at the very beginning -- even with l'InterContemporain in the premiere of Modulations [in 1978]. We had all sorts of trouble -- people not finding the right fingerings and not being sure of the intonations. Then they did the piece again a few years later, and it was immediately there because, in the meantime, they had had to perform a few pieces like that. I must say, in France -- I don't know why -- but most of my students, most of the students of other composers, and most of the young composers use microintervals now. Almost all of them, so that the musicians from their youth are not so afraid of it any more. And it's very easy to train the ear.

DB: I think Varese said back in 1916 that we needed new musical instruments very badly. Now we have the new musical instruments, but today in 1996, I thought he would have said we need new musicians very badly.

GG: And perhaps new music, too, because we have all sorts of means. We have more tools than we ever had in music history.

DB: Do you make use of those tools?

GG: Very little with computer and electronics. I think there are mainly two reasons. The first is one is personal -- I'm not very talented in the use of computers and digital electronics. But of course, I could have an assistant or get help one way or another. But the second one is much worse than that. It's that all of the pieces I have written that have implied electronics have to be revised constantly because of the change of technology. The technology of new instruments, of synthesizers or whatever, is not done for us. It's done for the business. Therefore, every other year, the whole system changes. And I see around me all composers running, literally running after new technology that's going to be better in a few years. As soon as you buy an instrument, they tell you, "Wait! Next year is going to be better." And this is not the way to be an artist. You can't go like that. Always learning the new. And so therefore, if you write a piece for electronics, you're constantly forced to renew the system to make it still available for the concert hall. And I hate going back to old pieces -- unlike Boulez who always comes back and does it again over and over. For me, that belongs to the past. I very rarely listen to it. And I think it's the best way to go forward. Technology forces me to go back and work over again. A new tape. Changing from a tape to computer. And then from computer to a new type of computer. Or from one synthesizer to a new type. And it's endless.

DB: So you're not likely to buy a hypercello from Tod Machover. Are there many composers who feel that way?

GG: Just like me? I don't know. I can't answer. I think this is a sociological and political trap in which we must be cautious not to fall.

DB: I suppose there will come a time when --

GG: -- when things are going to be stabilized. Well, I hope. But you know, a few years ago we all thought the Yamaha DX-7, for instance, was going to be stabilized. A lot of composers have written pieces for this wonderful instrument, and I have done it, too -- integrating it in a large orchestra. Here we are with an instrument that is already totally outdated, and it's going to be hard to find one in a few years. We belong to a throw-away society, you see, so they ask for pieces that are not supposed to last more than a few years. I don't want to be part of that.

DB: You spoke earlier of sounds as living things. We live in an age in which information is as much a real entity as matter or energy in the universe. Is that how you think of the existence of sound? As information?

GG: One can say so. But certainly not only that. What, for me, is very important is to have a sort of ecological attitude toward different sounds, to just accept them as they are and try to find the right place or right function for them in the context of the piece. This is one of the problems composers have -- how to find the right function of the right sound at the right moment. The second problem is how to deal with time. There is no concept in the world that can tell you this is too long or this is too short and tells you exactly why. This has to do with information, of course. And the third problem is that tonal music had the wonderful advantage of being stabilized for a long time so that people knew the predictable patterns. There was a first layer in the education and memory of the listener upon which a composer like Beethoven could play his music and say, "Okay, you're all for waiting for that type of modulation, but I -- Beethoven -- am going to design it differently. So I will trigger a surprise to the listener." So this game between predictability and unpredictability, expectation and surprises is what makes time living and musical. How can we now make such a game between predictability and unpredictability without an established musical language? My personal answer is that I am always trying to first establish the rules of the game -- the process of the form -- for the listener rather clearly -- very often too clearly -- in order later on to be able to distort it or to change directions. I do not want to put the listener behind a wall of information through which he is incapable of finding his way. There must be some path, some thread -- like Ariane in the labyrinth. I'm very much concerned about this in L'icone paradoxale, which involves three time frames throughout the piece and is very difficult for the listener to follow. I've been constantly concerned with how to make it as clear as possible and not get lost in the complex world of sounds. So I use all sorts of means and all sorts of tricks to make it more apparent. Later on, I met Giacinto Scelsi, but Scelsi didn't influence me really because I had already several pieces -- it was more of a meeting.

DB: It seems that through the ages, composers have made their music self-referential to achieve that sort of immediate familiarity -- by the use of recurring ideas and frequent repetition. Is that one of your tricks?

GG: Yes, of course. That's one way. If something happens exactly the same way three or four times, we are all stupid -- we expect that the fifth time will be the same [laughs]. So you can play with this.

DB: Aside from that, what else can you do?

GG: Well, you know, I have very often been to juries for composition all around the world. When you look at the scores of young composers, very often you don't have time to look at the scores completely. But the most important moment is the first change. The composer comes and establishes an idea that everybody understands. Everybody can have an idea. Everybody. The problem is to have a second one. This is a greater problem. And the major problem is to know where and when to bring in this second idea. And very often, you realize after a few pages that he is not a musician. He does the wrong thing. You have this feeling. And yet, you have composers as fascinating as Morton Feldman, for instance, who do the opposite. With Feldman, it's absolutely extraordinary. It's like anti-music in the sense that all expectation is constantly deluded. He puts down a pattern and you expect it's going to go in that direction, and at that moment it doesn't. Later, it changes at exactly the moment when you think, "That's going to last." He is constantly negating whatever you expect. For me, he is the true and the only Minimalist.

DB: Who else's music do you find most interesting?

GG: Most interesting? Well, there are not so many but quite a few [laughs]. There is music that has been important for me at certain periods. Like the music of Conlon Nancarrow because he deals with music in compressed time -- the sort of music written for and by insects or for small animals. Extremely compressed in time. I'm fascinated by that. I'm trying to integrate that time with the time of language speed and with extended time -- that's what L'icone paradoxale is about -- the three time layers. I think there are three composers that have had a strong impression upon me as a young composer. Messaien, who was my teacher for four years, for the sense of color and harmony and translucence. Second, I would name Stockhausen for the sense of the dramaturgy, the sense of form and time. And Ligeti, as third, for his use of extended time and continuity.

DB: One of the teachers you didn't mention was Dutilleux. What did you get from Henri Dutilleux?

GG: You know, I studied a very short time with him. Just two or three months. He is an extremely fine and talented musician. And he's a fake traditionalist. If you listen to his music, it sounds like something you know or you have already heard, and yet, there's always something that is not trivial. It's absolutely fascinating. Another man who uses language that's a little bit old fashioned is Kurtag, and yet it's still constantly genuine. There are a few composers like that. I would tend to divide music very roughly into two categories. One is music that involves declamation, rhetoric, language. A music of discourse. Berio and Boulez are in that category -- just as Schoenberg and Berg have a way of saying things with sounds. The second is music which is more a state of sound than a discourse. It's the difference between Monteverdi, which mainly says things, and the music of Ockeghem, which says, "This is the world." And in that category, you can put Xenakis, for instance. You can put a large part of Stockhausen -- though he's very often both. And I belong to that also. I would put myself in this group. Maybe I am both, I don't know. But I never think of music in terms of declamation and rhetoric and language.

DB: So really, if you were able to categorize yourself, you wouldn't be a spectral composer. You would be a state composer.

GG: [Laughs] No, no. Don't put a new sticker that's going to last for the next ten years of my life.





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