Gérard Grisey – Mégalithes

by 5:4

For much of its life, Gérard Grisey‘s Mégalithes has languished in obscurity. A work for 15 brass instruments composed in 1969 when Grisey was 23, the work was essentially forgotten, perhaps due to a lack of interest on Grisey’s part (due to his subsequent focus on spectralism) and short memories on everyone else’s. It wasn’t until 2008 that the piece was revived, performed in Lucerne before receiving its UK première the same year (a performance i’ve explored previously). It’s taken a further 15 years for the first ever recordings of Mégalithes to be released, a month ago, one of which is on the Norwegian LAWO label. It’s performed by the NyNorsk Messingkvintett – expanded to three times their normal size – conducted by Halldis Rønning, the same performers who gave the impressive Norwegian première that i experienced at Only Connect 2018.

The title, Mégalithes, references stones that are both large and ancient, and Grisey evokes this in the work’s musical language, which is stark and elemental. It’s also reflected in its architecture, being constructed from nine blocks of material – musical megaliths – that can be arranged in nine specific permutations. The durations of these blocks are of two kinds: either fractions / multiples of a minute (30″, 60″, 120″, 180″) or prime numbers (2″, 5″ , 17″, 37″, 73″ 97″ – 2 and 5 always appear together as a single block – arranged 5 + 2 – thus making an overall duration of 7″, also prime). The nine permutations contain numerous similarities and overlaps. Only three blocks can begin the piece (37, 60, 180) and only one can end it (17); furthermore some blocks always appear in the same order (120 and 30, 97 and 73, the latter usually preceded by 5 + 2), and each block can only be used once, so in fact the permutational scope of the work is relatively small, and all versions will have the same overall duration, 621 seconds (or 10’21”). The diagram below illustrates the nine versions and their structural similarities.

Mégalithes: versions and structural similarities

This modular structure is broken down further by each block comprising a number of subsections – 37, for example, is structured 6+10+2+3+16 – and many of the longer subsections are themselves articulated according to either 1- or 2-bar subdivisions. It’s worth noting, particularly as Mégalithes remains at this time relatively unknown, that Grisey has actually made an error in one of the blocks. The 73″ block comprises the subsections 3+4+3+27+3+9+3+18, which only adds up to 70. As this block uses several 3-second subsections, it seems entirely possible that Grisey intended to have one more but neglected to include it. It would be interesting to see what sketches remain for Mégalithes, as they may indicate what is evidently missing from this block in the final score.

The structural similarities shown above are mirrored by behavioural similarities in the blocks and their subsections. In general, the musical behaviour largely consists of loud rising flourishes, very low sustained pedal tones, staccato accents, rapid chatter, growling swells, weirdly undulating glissandi (usually muted), and soft hanging chords. The longer blocks tend to contain all of these ideas, while the shorter ones, consist of just one or two of them. What this means from an aural perspective is that regardless of which block permutation is performed, the overall result is, aside from obvious differences – most notably the way the piece begins – comparable with the others. In this respect it’s almost a work that could be presented with one section per track and then played in shuffle mode – except that Grisey specifies particular changes in the way the music is executed depending on certain block permutations.

Mégalithes is a bracing, exhilarating work. It’s like a sonic Stonehenge, its music makes one feel small, in terms of both stature and longevity. Like the apes in 2001 encountering the monolith, there’s a palpable sense that this music is entirely “other”: a group of strange, enigmatic, powerful, implacable, primordial shapes that bespeak immensity and enormity, bypassing (or transcending) understanding and tapping straight into the mind and emotions. It is at once lofty and unfathomable; before time, beyond time, timeless.

The NyNorsk Messingkvintett recording features two of the nine permutations, versions 3 and 7 (presumably, future recordings of the work will also specify which version they’re using, though it’s perhaps only of academic interest). Maybe this is splitting hairs in such a modular work as this, but personally, for more of a sonic difference, i’d have liked to have heard one of the two versions where 5+2 doesn’t connect to 97 (as shown above, this happens in versions 5 and 9, where it connects to 120). They are both superbly focused performances, version 7 benefitting from a slightly expanding performative dynamic range, such that the swells and greater, while they tiny sounds become miniscule. Considering Grisey’s attention to durational detail, these performances are generally pretty good, though in both cases the 60″ block is a considerably longer 97″. Comprising a contrabass tuba solo, it’s performed here by Berger Iver Færder who chooses to be rather more expansive than Grisey intended, but the result is quite wonderful, so it’s hard to complain.

The album also comes with the piece that was included at the Only Connect 2018 performance, Anders Tveit‘s Untitled Echoes for Adjacent Rooms. Listening to Gérard Grisey, an electronic work derived from the sounds in Mégalithes. Positioned between the two performances of the Grisey, it’s a gloriously immersive addition to the soundworld, one that in no way detracts from its monumentality. If anything, it adds an air of gothic to the album, threatening to overwhelm but holding back, often reducing the brass sounds to fleeting, distant traces set in an abyssal trench, surrounded by hard to parse generalised stuff. That being said, it’s just as tactile as the Grisey, especially later on when it feels as if one could just reach out and touch the sounds. Sonically sympathetic and beautifully shaped, it’s a perfect complement to Mégalithes, making this album as a whole one of the most exciting and refreshing things i’ve heard this year.

Mégalithes is released by LAWO and is digital only. And if this whets your appetite, the other recording of the piece that was released last month is on a new album on the Bastille Musique label, which i’m hoping to explore soon.

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