Gérard Grisey

1946 1998

Gérard Grisey



Gérard Grisey was a 20th-century French composer and co-developer of spectral music. Despite an unexpected and early death at the age of 52, Grisey made his mark as a teacher, composer and theorist. He was particularly influential on his contemporaryTristan Murail.

Grisey was born in Belfort in 1946 and became part of the stylistic movement that reacted toBoulez stylistically, rejecting the serialism that dominated the country in the 1970s. He received his training in Germany at the Trossingen Conservatory between 1963 and 1965 before pursuing his studies at the Paris Conservatoire withMessiaen. He studied at the Conservatoire from 1965 to 1967, then for a year withDutilleux at the École Normale in 1968 before returning to Paris to study until 1972.

Grisey’s broad musical education helped him refine his skills in sound, harmony and orchestration and prompted his interest in electro-acoustics. He continued to study through the mid-1970s, electro-acoustics with Jean Etienne Marie (1969), composition withXenakis and Ligeti (1972) at the Darmstadt summer courses and acoustics with Emilie Leipp (1974) at the Faculté des Sciences.

Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail met during their residencies at the Villa Medici in Rome in the early-1970s and became friends and colleagues. They formed the acclaimed ensemble L'Itinéraire in 1973, together with Levinas. The group consisted of young instrumentalists and composers who shared an interest in electro-acoustic music and a disdain for serialism.

As a teacher, Grisey was highly successful. He taught regularly at the Darmstadt summer courses from 1976 to 1982 and then held teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley between 1982 and 1986 and the Paris Conservatory from 1987 until his death in 1998. In Paris he began as the professor of orchestration and was later appointed professor of composition. Grisey appreciated an immense spectrum of styles including oriental and African music, the avant-garde and even the music and ideals of composers such asJanáček and Sibelius. His students, which included Eric Tanguy and Magnus Lindberg, were given the opportunity to explore different compositional styles and find their own voice.

Though Grisey was quite open-minded regarding the compositional techniques he taught, his music was much more focused. He aimed to explore human perception and acoustic properties in his works, which came to represent the new spectral music style which took the country by storm in the 1980s.

Grisey’s first major works to fully embody the new style were Dérives (1973-4) for two orchestra groups andLes espaces acoustiques (1974-85). The first of these,Dérives, centres around the harmonic spectrum of E♭ and involves many transformations. He explored this idea further with the 90-minute cycleLes espaces acoustiques, which took 11 years to complete. This work is based on the harmonic spectrum of E and a pattern of inhalation-exhalation-rest. During the inhalation phases, repetitive figures are presented and developed ‘into a state of maximum disorder and instability’ while the exhalation phases bring order back from the chaos, returning to E. During the rests, the harmonic spectrum remains for a period on E.

The orchestration differs greatly between the various movements, which can be played independently (with the exception of the Epilogue) or with an adjacent movement, as the end of one part forms the beginning of the next. The cycle opens with a solo viola Prologue (1976) and includes a large orchestra in Transitoires(1980) and the Epilogue (1985). Whereas in Dérives, Grisey focused on a tonal harmonic spectrum, in his cycle he also explored a non-tonal use of consonance.

Grisey developed a new concept with his cycle, which he named ‘instrumental synthesis’. This term describes ‘blurring of the distinction between harmony and timbre’. He also imitates the electro-acoustic technique of ring modulation using only instruments.

Other works from the 1970s that were not a part of the large cycle include the pair of works for ensemble and electronics,Sortie vers la lumière du jour and Jour, contre-jour. These two pieces are essentially studies in harmony and timbre.

With Tempus ex machina (1979) for six percussion instruments, Grisey explored a new obsession: time. In this work he used superimposed pulses and tempos which are transformed throughout the entire piece. This composition also shares its title with Grisey’s 1986 treatise investigating the ‘psychological and phenomenological properties of time, pulse and sound’. He explored the effects of tempo changes, in the form of accelerations and decelerations, and how they are perceptually significant. This treatise proved very influential, especially to his friend Tristan Murail.

Grisey’s music underwent further change in 1986, as he became interested in unpredictability and volatility. The first example of this can be seen in his largest work until this point,Talea (1986), which exhibits a nonlinear form full of abrupt motions and a very complex and discontinuous form. The concepts of continuity and discontinuity are exploredLe temps et l'écume (1988-9) for large orchestra. The work contains three states of time (extremely slow, extremely compressed and ‘normal’) which are superimposed and contrasted with one another. Sometimes the transitions between tempos are delicately composed and sometimes explicitly abrupt.

The idea of time is also present in the chamber piece Vortex temporum (1994-6), which is harmonically much simpler thanLe temps et l'écume; he made use of a less dense harmonic spectrum with fewer microtones.

An interest in language and vocal writing became Grisey’s next point of exploration. This phase began with theL'icône paradoxale (1992–4) and the Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (1997–8). Of these, the former contains harmonic spectra based on the name of the poet ‘Piero della Francesca’, whose text on perspective is used. The latter is a meditation on human mortality and hints and new harmonic techniques involving compression and filtering. However, Grisey was unable to continue his experiments with these techniques as he died suddenly of an aneurism.