Proms 2016: Georg Friedrich Haas – Open Spaces II, Gérard Grisey – Dérives (UK Premières), Mica Levi – Signal Before War; David Sawer – April \ March (World Premières)

by 5:4
9 minutes read

Finally. Five weeks into this year’s season, the Proms at last finds its way, Red Riding Hood-like, away from the safe, well-trodden path into the unfamiliar terrain of the avant-garde. Twice, in fact; first thanks to the London Sinfonietta, whose afternoon concert at Camden’s Roundhouse last Saturday (there’s presumably a clause somewhere prohibiting anything too radical from being performed within the Royal Albert Hall), conducted by Andrew Gourlay, presented new works by Georg Friedrich Haas, Mica Levi and David Sawer alongside, among other things, Ligeti’s great classic Ramifications. And later that evening, Ilan Volkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra brought Gérard Grisey’s Dérives to these shores. Quite a day!

The works by Haas and Grisey, with Ligeti at least a partial inspiration, found their voice in that most ostensibly equivocal of modus operandi: texture, avoiding the thick-felt-tip-pen outlines that have plagued so many of this year’s premières in favour of a combination of illusion and allusion, in hypnotic, evolving displays of mist and fragrance. For Georg Friedrich Haas, in the the first UK performance of Open Spaces II, composed in 2007 in memory of James Tenney, this was on the one hand given a twist through use of microtones. Scordatura is applied to all 12 string players (6 violins, 2 violas, cellos and basses), some by minute amounts (a mere two cents), the largest a quartertone; just six of the 48 strings on stage are at their original pitch. Yet if that portends the prospect of a harmonic palette with the astringency of lemon juice, the resultant music comes as a surprise. Haas exploits the ear’s ability to ‘resolve’ out-of-tune pitches (often within the context of an apparent harmonic series), to an extent aided by metallic percussion that smooths things further, or combines them to create delicate shimmering threads, or reconciles them above a deep bass drone. It’s not just with respect to pitch that the piece walks a fine line in its maintenance of stability; behaviourally, there’s a continual sense that the music could simply evaporate, or slide off the rails, or trill itself apart, but somewhere within Haas’ continually shifting textures is a distinct inner tension, like the centre of a Rubik’s Cube holding together everything turning around it. This enables Open Spaces II to be entirely unpredictable, constantly—and dramatically—staring at risk while never losing a grip on its vaporous integrity.

It took just under a decade for Haas’ work to reach the UK, but a downright incomprehensible 42 years for Gérard Grisey‘s masterpiece to travel the 214 miles from its Paris 1974 world première to London. Dérives (‘drifts’) emerges from the clarity of the orchestra tuning up, arguably the work’s most crystal clear moment. From this point of departure, Grisey slowly manoeuvres the players—moving as two separate groups, an amplified ensemble of thirteen players and the rest of the orchestra—across an uncertain sea. Slowly is putting it mildly; oftentimes, Dérives is about an unhurried as orchestral music gets, chords materialising out of thin air, pitches imperceptibly gaining purchase or losing grip on their focus, blankets of texture subject to the most infinitesimal wafts of wind. But despite appearances, there’s no stasis here, never a complete lack of movement, nor is what happens merely a kind of organic evolution. Grisey throws rocks into the water, causing marked repercussions (or, as with the very first of them, actually reducing volatility) and shifts in the direction and character of the music. Yet the plausibility of its procession of ideas is absolute, encompassing an impressively wide range, from soft radiant light early on to a febrile texture of shivers and swells, through violent, halting staccato blurts followed by rude ululations into a gorgeous nocturnal environment of freely floating pitches. As with Haas, despite the extreme contrasts of its mode of expression, everything holds together and remains cohesive, enabling Dérives to attain at its end an entranced state of ecstasy. One of the truly great orchestral works of the twentieth century, it’s astounding and no small disgrace to British orchestras that it’s taken so long to come here; hopefully after receiving this wondrous performance, it’ll stick around for a while.

In an almost entire contrast to these pieces, David Sawer‘s new ballet piece (for the Royal Ballet, though strangely the world première was sans dancers) April \ March is all clarity. Beginning from a tentative, meandering melodic line embellished with an assortment of gestures (skittering upper strings, isolated pizzicati, rising staccato wind phrases), the first of its three movements is cyclic, beautifully coming to resemble an intricately fashioned music box with a multitude of concentric layers moving at different rates. Sawer then manhandles the music into a more lively, pointed form, rendering it rather breathless, as though the orchestra lacked the energy to execute it properly. It falls to an oboe to show the way, passing through a quick-fire sequence of episodes (each with their own type of motoric rhythmic repetitions, some less regular than others) until suddenly falling into a soft, lilting, muted melody, with a perpetual inclination to rise. Sawer then brings about a texture of his own, made from blunt, prodding staccatos, until a rather magnificently bold trombone lets rip with some splendid nonsense. A lovely section combining high strings with vibraphone follows (a throwback to the marvellous delicacy at the start), but there’s a nagging sense that the continual stream of invention in April \ March is a little over-long; the last five or six minutes in particular, despite a return from that swaggering trombone, sound tenuously connected and lend the piece a certain arbitrariness. Nonetheless though, as one expects from David Sawer, there are genuinely magical, memorable moments in April \ March, but perhaps the lack of its choreographic visual element makes too much of it sound insufficient.

From many ideas to just one: Mica Levi‘s new work Signal Before War, given its first performance by solo violinist Jonathan Morton, comprises a four-minute slow glissando from bottom G♯ up almost three octaves to top F♯. Inspired by the idea of an air raid siren, this glissando, initially featureless and uninteresting, over time becomes increasingly weird, as though the instrument were fixed to a mediaeval rack, being stretched inch by excruciating inch. Remaining on the G string throughout, the vibrato-less tone of the instrument, as it rises into its third octave, starts to sounds rather horrifying, Levi finally flooding its dull surface with a surfeit of emotion at the glissando’s zenith, causing the violin to throb wildly with vibrato. The ‘war’ of the title is the audience’s applause that ensues, and coming in the wake of those harrowing four minutes, applause has never sounded so brilliantly inappropriate.


Georg Friedrich Haas - Open Spaces II
  • Loved it! (38%, 15 Votes)
  • Liked it (28%, 11 Votes)
  • Meh (3%, 1 Votes)
  • Disliked it (15%, 6 Votes)
  • Hated it! (15%, 6 Votes)

Total Voters: 39

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Mica Levi - Signal Before War
  • Loved it! (17%, 7 Votes)
  • Liked it (24%, 10 Votes)
  • Meh (31%, 13 Votes)
  • Disliked it (5%, 2 Votes)
  • Hated it! (24%, 10 Votes)

Total Voters: 42

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David Sawer - April March
  • Loved it! (30%, 13 Votes)
  • Liked it (32%, 14 Votes)
  • Meh (25%, 11 Votes)
  • Disliked it (9%, 4 Votes)
  • Hated it! (5%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 44

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Gérard Grisey - Dérives
  • Loved it! (60%, 18 Votes)
  • Liked it (27%, 8 Votes)
  • Meh (7%, 2 Votes)
  • Disliked it (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Hated it! (7%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 30

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Programme Note

Dérives resembles the path of a ship, which, wishing to go from one point to another, is forced to correct its way constantly. The whole piece revolves around an ideal trajectory, with a departure slowly to a point of expulsion; it comes close after somewhat coming about.

The maximum distance is silence. The ideal line is defined by instantly recognizable auditory cue points: junction points or, more, a fusion between the sequences of the small group and those of the full orchestra. These moments always contain some of the harmonic spectrum that constitutes the axis of Dérives and where the density of events is virtually zero.

A small set of thirteen musicians is there to give depth and spatial dimension to the sound event. The sound makes visible all the imperfections, the incessant changes, everything about the infinitely complex network of micro-drifts which spreads in the period of an instrumental sound, as simply as possible. The eight sequences of the small ensemble and those of the full orchestra act as so many deviations from a reference point and in each of them, emphasis is given to a particular parameter.

These deviations reflect the same intention: the composer is no longer the object, but rather the transition from one object to another and its evolution. This in no way prevents control of the nature of the sound object being manipulated, but it only makes sense over time, inserted into a context that defines it. The path is more important than the vehicle.

—Gérard Grisey (via Google Translate – with help from Simon Cummings)

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Chris L

Re: inspiration, I’d go further and say that Ligeti (as well as late Rubbra, of course 😉 ), namely ’80s and ’90s “non-atonal” Ligeti, also finds his way into the Sawer. But not the Levi, which resembles nothing so much as Scelsi’s Anahit reduced claustrophically to its barest essential.


Just a small point – Signal before War wasn’t played all on the G string – Morton used all 4 strings. I loved it, my partner hated it

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