In the last few years i’ve written about a number of pieces that languished ignored and unplayed for decades, and earlier this year another such work received its first UK performance, which was also—as far as anyone can tell—only the second time it had been heard. That fact is somewhat surprising considering that the work in question was Mégalithes, by the renowned French composer Gérard Grisey, whose work has long enjoyed an enthusiastic following throughout Europe, in part due to his innovative approach to sound, which became known as spectral music. Mégalithes predates those developments, however, composed in 1969 when Grisey was just 23 years old. The combination of that striking title and its scoring for 15 brass instruments (4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 6 horns and tuba, distributed around the performance space) suggests not so much a composition as a granite-hewn edifice. Yet Grisey’s motivation was neither hard nor impersonal; described as an “oeuvre composée à la mémoire des victimes du Biafra”, Mégalithes commemorates the million-plus innocent victims massacred in the Nigerian Civil War, which took place through the last three years of the 1960s.
Connotations of both these inspirations are established at the opening, Grisey overlaying unison pedal notes implying something broad and portentous, only to switch abruptly into clashing upward glissandi before splintering into a dense hailstorm of rapid-fire shards of pitch. This assault is in turn emphatically checked by a subdued episode, the product of sounds emanating from mutes and mouthpieces, retreating from pitch to a place of percussive and breath sounds, with some middle-distant moans. Grisey restablishes pitch via an echo of the opening, another unison, instigating an extensive tuba solo; it’s not exactly a melodic line that the tuba traces, more a sequence of simple phrases, most of which are repeated, stated in a plain and somewhat aloof manner. Regardless whether Grisey features an instrument in isolation, as here, or all 15 at once, it’s clear that the entire ensemble is working towards the same end, and are doing so together, as a single, homogeneous group. The hectic exchanges are not so much retorts as the quick-draw chatter of a long-established relationship; likewise, the work’s subsequent restraint—even withdrawal—into an altogether more solemn soundscape exhibits the same kind of performative dialogue, combining with and imitating one another’s material. Superficially, the music seems grotesque but is surely evoking the pre-aesthetic kind of elementalism implied in the title. Rough-hewn, jagged, solid, implacable—it isn’t difficult to find parallels with the dreadful human impact wrought by and upon the Nigerian people—and yet, there’s beauty in the music too. Admittedly, sometimes that beauty is found only in negative space, the brief, weighty moments of silence that punctuate the material, and it would be wrong to suggest Mégalithes is anything other than a serious, sober and sombre act of expression. Fittingly, it’s a conflicted work, epitomised by the work’s ending: a lengthy pause followed by a truly inscrutable chord that would be massively dissonant if it wasn’t so softly played, notes dropping out to leave an oblique kind of perfect fifth. If ever a chord could be said to encapsulate every human emotion, it’s this one.
Mégalithes received its world première just five years ago—40 years after the date of composition—in Lucerne. This second performance took place at the Barbican in January, performed by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.