Columnist William Beauvais reflects on the two concerts of recently composed music in Paris, and why his summer will include lots of old-fashioned writing by hand.
A short while ago I was in Paris and attended two concerts of recently composed music. Both were in sumptuous halls, and it would be hard to find more brilliant performances. The concerts were well attended; some seats were even sold twice. [There is a French practice of discounted student seating and even paid for vacant seats are given over to theses attendees.] All pieces were vigorously applauded, and audience favourites got three or four curtain calls.
It would be hard to find more competent musicians anywhere, metric modulations were handled with ease, extended techniques showed polish and there was an exquisite control over dynamics and articulation. The interesting thing about such skilled renderings is that weaknesses in the composition are revealed. We hear exactly what was on the page, and if the music is not compelling it is not the fault of the performance.
The first concert was at the Radio France auditorium. My daughter directed us there with her cell phone and Google had chosen a route from the Marais that followed the Seine. We were still a bit jet-lagged, and the blustery wind badgered us for two hours. We arrived at the hall and were happy to be inside, happier still to sit down. This was the final concert in the Présences Festival which this year celebrated Finish born composer Kaija Saariaho. She is one of our time’s best-loved composers and Paris has been her adopted home for many years. There were 17 concerts in the series, each with at least one of her works on it. The program, the size of a 200 pages graphic novel, was beautifully printed and well designed.
Kaija was there for a brief interview before each concert and one I saw opened with one of her strings trios. It was easy to see why she is held in such regard; within a few phrases, I was captivated. There were gestures like the sweeping of the bow up and down the strings that placed it in a time frame — numerous other works from the same decade did so as well — but in her music, the gesture created a sense of space, a relief from the continuous sound of bowed strings. We were brought to the just audible level of sound, allowing us greater appreciation for the music that followed.
Each of the works presented was for a different set of instruments so the stage crew was very busy between works, resetting chairs, music stands, tables, mike stands and cables. Each reset took about six minutes during which not one move was wasted. An enviable crew, it is hard to imagine a local group ever having the budget to have such a team.
At times there was a dazzling array of wind instruments on tables — bass, alto, regular flute and piccolo for example. The clarinet player had a contrabass, bass, alto, regular and Eb clarinet on a table at his side. I looked forward to hearing those sounds, especially bass flute, which Paul Horn used so effectively in the 70’s and 80’s. My hopes were crashed as players were asked only to make sounds with the keys — no actual pitches. I suppose there were high, medium and low clicks.
As we got into the third piece I noticed that the selection of pitches for each work was chosen from the overtone series. No noticeable pulse, no chords just those predictable pitches. At some point it felt like the composers had put their music in a very small box, avoiding anything that one might — enjoy. Lots of varied articulation, timbres and dynamics not to mention the clicks, but I was tempted to think that such a highly skilled group of musicians could improvise more interesting music.
The final work on that program, Talea by Gérard Grisey was filled with vitality. Metric modulations abounded throughout and of course, since it was written in the 80’s, so did quarter tones. It contained a number of surprises and ended with a devilish virtuosic violin flourish. My daughter exclaimed right after her bow lifted from the strings that there was smoke rising above the instrument. The audience responded with thunderous applause and four curtain calls.
The next concert was at the new Philharmonie Hall in Paris. This was a sold-out presentation of the Ensemble Inter-Contemporain, founded at IRCAM and one of the world’s leading new music groups. The program featured works inspired by paintings and sculpture. The first set ended with a piece by the conductor/composer who turned his back to the players at the coda. The players finished without conductor a couple of minutes later. My ears began to tire of hearing the overtone series re-enacted in different ways, and I began my little meditation about improvising again.
The closing work for that concert was Rothko Chapel, a piece for double choir, celeste, viola and percussion with lots of chimes. Morton Feldman was old school, writing everything down, even repeats, because he believed the composer had to process every sound completely in the imagination. He was so devoted to writing, that later in life, legally blind he refused his publisher’s offer of music copyists saying, “I write one page then copy it, and in copying find out what will be on the next page.” Rothko Chapel lasts about 25 minutes, but it felt so refreshing that I would have happily sat through it again.
I was so struck by Feldman’s notion about the power of pencil and paper, that my summer will include lots old-fashioned writing by hand. There is a sense of the pencil poised over a void, directed by an uncontrolled motivation. Reminiscent the Yaqui Indian sorcerer Don Juan Matus directing Carlos Castenada to jump into the abyss.