Tristan Murail

Tristan Murail


• Born 1947


Tristan Murail is a French composer and performer of electronic instruments such as the synthesizer and ondes martenot. His music, like that of his contemporaries in post-Boulez France, is often viewed as a response to the serial music that dominated the country in the mid-1970s. Murail’s music is greatly influenced by his teacherOlivier Messiaen, in terms of an interest in resonance and instrumental timbre. Together with Gérard Grisey, Murail developed what was to become known as Spectral Music, a new style based on acoustics and the perception of sound.

Murail studied and received degrees in a variety of subjects including classical and North African Arabic at the Ecole Nationale de Langues Orientales Viventes, music at the Paris Conservatory music and economic science the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, from which he graduated in 1970.

At the Conservatory, Murail received composition lessons from Olivier Messiaen. He received numerous awards during his student years, including the coveted Prix de Rome in 1971 and a First Prize in composition from the conservatory. After completing his studies, he moved to Rome to spend two years at the Villa Medicis.

Murail returned to Paris in 1973, at which time he helped form an ensemble of young composers and instrumentalists, Ensemble L’Itineraire (also referred to as Group de l'Itinéraire). The group was notable for their experimentation with and research within the genre of instrumental performance and live electronics. Other composers associated with the ensemble include Michaël Levinas, Gérard Grisey and Hugues Dufourt.

As a composer, Murail composed some of his most important works for the group and as a performer, Murail participated on the synthesizer and the ondes martenot, among other electronic keyboard instruments. In fact, Murail has quite a reputation for his ability on the ondes martenot and has been a featured soloist in performances and recordings of works by Messiaen, including theTurangalîla symphonie and the Trois petites liturgies.

In the 1970s, two of Murail’s first works to show display the new genre of spectral music were composed,Sables (1974) for orchestra and Mémoire/Erosion (1976) for horn and nine instruments. In these works, Murail created structure through moments of total consonance using the natural overtone series contrasted with moments of “white noise” and extreme dissonance.Sables lasts nearly twenty minutes and contains smooth transitions between consonance and dissonance, without any spaces.

Mémoire/Erosion uses a ‘re-injection loop’ in which ‘an instrumental sound is recorded and passed across multiple tape-heads while new sounds are fed in’. The horn is the leader and the ensemble imitates the horn at every turn, resulting in canonic and echoing effects. Eventually, the sounds will deteriorate from the repeated copying process and become noise.

Several more of Murail’s works from the 1970s display his development of the techniques used inSables and Mémoire/Erosion, namely Esthers (1978) for flute and five instruments andLes courants de l’espaces (1979) for ring modulated ondes martenot and small orchestra. These works use his new techniques involving ring-and frequency-modulation. This technique allows the composer to control the ‘degree of inharmonicity’, in other words how far the tone deviates from the natural overtone series. Other works using this technique on a large scale includeTreize couleurs du soleil couchant (1979) and Gondwana (1980).

By the 1980s, Murail had begun to focus on a new area of research using computer technology to analyze and synthesize acoustics. To this end, he developed a system for microcomputer-assisted composition. He also collaborated with the French Institution IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, “Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music”), where he taught composition throughout the 1990s. Works from this period includeDésintégrations (1982-3) for 15 instruments and computer-generated tape. In this work, computer analysis is used to create the harmonic language and form. In addition, as opposed to his previous works, Désintégrationsuses silences and seamlessly blends electronic and instrumental sounds.

Murail’s next works at IRCAM include the orchestral works Sillages (1985) and Time and Again(1985) which use ‘flashbacks, premonitions [and] loops of time’. Allégories(1989) marks a new direction in Murail’s compositions, in which he focuses on what he refers to as ‘complex objects’. The work focuses on variations of a rise and fall gesture.

While at IRCAM, Murail helped in the creation of “Patchwork”, a computer-assisted composition programme completed in the early 1990s. He has used this programme extensively since its development. He also taught at the Paris Conservatoire at this time. Some of his most notable students from Paris include Marc-André Dalbavie and Philippe Hurel.

Some interesting works to come about in the 1990s include L’esprit des dames (1996) which uses Jew’s harps and Tibetan trumpets andPartage des eaux (1997) which is based entirely on a recorded sample of the receding tide on a beach.

Murail moved to New York in 1997 for his appointment as professor of composition at Columbia University, where he taught until 2010.  He then returned to Europe and remained active as a teacher and speaker in worldwide masterclasses and seminars. He held a guest professor position at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg for three years and now holds the same position at the Shanghai Conservatory in China.

Murail’s most recent works make use of combinations of orchestra, choir, instrumentalists and electronics. Most recently, he composedTravel Notes (2015) for two pianos and two percussionists,Un Sogno (2014) for ensemble and electronics,Reflections/Reflets I-II (2013) for orchestra. In 2011 and 2012 Murail focused primarily on chamber music, completing six works in this genre and one concerto. He has also composed a number of works for soloists, though the most recent work wasLe Travaux et les jours (2002) for piano.

Murail’s music has been recorded on numerous occasions and is featured on pianistPeter Hill’s 2016 album released by Delphian, La Fauvette Passerinette, alongside works by Maurice Ravel, Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhousen, Julian Anderson, George Benjamin, Henri Dutilleux, Peter Sculthorpe, Douglas Young and Toru Takemitsu. The album has received much praise, withGramophone describing it as an ‘outstanding recital disc…greatly enhanced by the exceptional quality of the recording’.