Gérard Grisey’s “Le Noir de L’Étoile” at Yellow Barn, Putney, VT, Friday, May 25 at 8.16 pm

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Vela Pulsar
Vela Pulsar

Listen to Vela Pulsar:

Residency Discussion With Tom Geballe
Tuesday, May 22 | 7:00pm
Putney Public Library, Putney, VT
Free admission

Tom Geballe
Astronomer Tom Geballe of the Gemini Observatory in Hilo, Hawaii presents a talk titled “Why It Is Dark At Night”, followed by an open discussion.
Supported in part by the Vermont Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities

Pre-Concert Discussion
Friday, May 25 | 7:15pm
The Greenwood School, Putney, VT
Free admission
Tom Geballe

Friday, May 25 | 8:16pm
The Greenwood School, Putney, VT
Free admission
Rain location—The Greenwood School gym
Post-concert reception with the artists
Please arrive before 8pm for parking.
The audience will be sitting on the lawn. Bring your own blanket or folding chairs.
Chairs will be available for those who need assistance. Please call Yellow Barn at (802) 387-6637 to reserve.
The piece will finish after sunset. The campus lights will be on, but flashlights are recommended.

Gérard Grisey (1946-1998) Le Noir de l’Etoile (1989-90)
for six percussionists placed around an audience
James Beauton
Greg Beyer
Amy Garapic
Doug Perkins
Jeff Stern
Mari Yoshinaga

On 25 May 2012,  Yellow Barn presented a unique event: an open-air performance of Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile. This roughly hour-long work for six percussion players encircling the audience was Grisey’s response to his discovery of the sound of pulsars. Neither Grisey, although he taught at Berkeley  for four years, nor the largely European movement to which he belonged for a while, Spectralism, is very well known in the United States. Last year’s American tour by Les Percussions de Strasbourg in which they played Le Noir de l’Étoile (for a review of their Lincoln Center performance, click here) and the New York Philharmonic residency of Grisey’s pupil, Magnus Lindberg, have done something to correct that. Susanna Mälkki recently conducted Grisey’s 1977 work, Modulations, with the San Francisco Symphony, reviewed here by Steven Kruger.

By the time Grisey came to write Le Noir de l’Étoile, on commission from Les Percussions de Strasbourg in 1989-90, he had moved beyond Spectralism, which was a highly rigorous method for composing music from the nature of sound itself and the way it is received by human perception. For him “music is made with sounds, not with notes.”  In 1986, Grisey began to focus on unpredictability and volatility in music, and the organization of his works became less readily apparent, fractured as they were by abrupt changes and outbursts. In this work he turned to the nature of recently discovered entities in space, pulsars, which exist far outside our solar system, following processes alien to the regularity of the cycles we have come to depend on for life on our planet.

In the composer’s own words:

When, in 1985, I met the astronomer and cosmologist Joe Silk at Berkeley, he made me discover the sounds of pulsars.

I was seduced by those of the Vela pulsar, and I immediately asked myself, like Picasso picking up an old bicycle seat, “What could I do with it?”

The answer came slowly: integrate them into a musical work without manipulating them; allow them simply to exist, like landmarks at the heart of a piece of music that would be in some way a showcase or a stage set for them; and finally to use their frequencies as tempi and to develop the ideas of rotation, periodicity, slowing, and acceleration, and of “glitches,” which the study of pulsars suggests to astronomers. Percussion was the obvious choice, because, like pulsars, it is primordial and implacable, and, like them, delineates and measures time, not without a certain austerity. Finally, I decided to reduce the instrumentation to skins and metals, to the exclusion of keyboards.

Le Noir de l’Étoile was born, or almost…It remained to imagine a luminous complement to the score, to work out a scenography, to convince the community of astronomers at Nançay to transmit a pulsar to a concert hall, and finally to bring together a team that as was excited by the project as I was.

When music succeeds in conjuring time, it is invested with a real shamanic power: that of connecting us with the forces which surround us. In past civilizations lunar or solar rituals had a conjuring function. Thanks to them the seasons could return and the sun rise every day. How does this relate to our pulsars? Why make them come here today, at the time when their courses in the northern sky make them accessible?

Of course, we know — or think we know — that with or without us 0358-54 and the Velar pulsar will continue their endless courses, and, indifferent, will sweep the interstellar spaces with their rays of electromagnetic waves. But isn’t it when we capture them in a radiotelescope, then integrating them into a sophisticated cultural event — a concert — that they send us more than their own songs?

In fact, the moment of the passage of a pulsar in the sky constrains us to a precise date and, in riveting the concert to this faraway clock, il becomes a localized event, more precisely an event situated in time, bound to cosmic rhythms. Thus the pulsars will determine not only the different tempi or pulsations of Le Noir de l’Étoile, but also the exact date and time of its execution. Music with pulsar obbligato!

However, let no one conclude from this that I am an adept in the Music of the Spheres! There is no Music of the Spheres other than Internal Music. This pulses even more violently than our pulsars and every now and then obliges a composer to be on the alert, listening.

— Gérard Grisey, quoted on the site of Les Percussions de Strasbourg; translation by the author

In this rather benign account the composer only hints at the disquieting feeling of contemplating pulsars through Grisey’s music and listening to them directly. These cosmic entities are powerful forces which function to their own laws, uncaring of the humanity which has only discovered them quite recently.

For many centuries people have tried to see in music the embodiment of symmetries and harmonies, which not only make the cosmos predictable and beneficial to man, but also reflect a transcendent ontological and moral plane, the divine, which the human being should strive to realize in his works and in his own development, in order to fulfil its seed, which was imperfectly manifested within him at his creation. Today science has inundated us with data which has cast that into doubt for many. In basing his music on the nature and rhythms of these remote, still imperfectly understood bodies, Grisey found underlying chaotic forces in nature which further undermine any rational or harmonious system in music. The composer and writer Paul Schiavo is surely correct in calling it a nature piece and comparing it to works like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, and Debussy’s La Mer. However, he omits Haydn, who actually portrayed heavenly bodies in his music, for example the sun. His Creation is, I’d say, the perfect counterpart for Le Noir de l’Étoile, in as much as order, light and darkness, the variety of living creatures emerge from a chaos that is far more orderly than any passage in Le Noir, which, unlike The Creation, recreates chaos as an ongoing state, which has no consciousness of, relation to, or benevolence towards humanity. Another stark contrast lies in the most familiar musical composition to describe extra-terrestrial bodies, Gustav Holst’s The Planets (written between 1913 and 1917). In this widely beloved work, Holst, inspired by the astrological enthusiasms of the playwright and mystic Clifford Bax (brother of the composer Arnold Bax), reached back beyond Haydn’s Christian Enlightenment to a fully anthropomorphic view of the seven extra-terrestrial planets known at the time. The seven movements of the work are character studies like Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, but Holst’s psychology is founded on astrology rather than Elgar’s empiricism. Nothing could be further from Grisey’s stark contemporary worldview.

Pulsars, as he imagined them, inspire the kind of awe the sun and the starts inspired in “pre-scientific” humanity. The only consoling notion Grisey offers us is the primitive religious action of shamanistic conjuring — which still begins and ends with its human practitioners. The pulsars continue on their own.

In Le Noir de l’Étoile Grisey created rather a hugely ambitious, awe-inspiring landscape of nature as he knew it. For this reason, I think this a work of the highest importance. It attempts to portray nature as contemporary science reveals it. If you take the natural orders of Pythagoras, Plato, Dante, and Milton…and Alan Leo (author of What is a Horoscope?, Holst’s major source) this is what is left. Grisey’s work in Spectral Music gave him a non-tonal system entirely devoid of the comforts of classical harmony, and he had already rejected this in favor of an even more disjunctive method. As Grisey said, Joe Silk made it possible for him to “listen” to the “sounds” of pulsars, which are actually light waves, translatable into electrical pulses that can produce sounds through loudspeakers. (It is amusing to compare this with Holst’s introduction to astrology on an artists’ retreat in Mallorca, also attended by Clifford Bax, who notoriously monopolized the conversation with his talk about astrology.) When Grisey considered the musical application of the rhythms emitted by the pulsars, the result of their rapid rotation, that, is several to several dozen times a second, he used two sources, a recording of the emissions from the Vela Pulsar, the one he had first heard at Berkeley, and a live transmission of pulsar 0329+54. This can only be done when the pulsars are in the proper alignment. Grisey recommended a live pickup, but because it is next to impossible to coordinate this with the schedules of major urban concert venue, recording are usually used, sacrificing the ritualistic periodicity of the work.

Each of the six percussionists who sit at the front, sides, and back of the audience play to different pulses, realizable only by means of individual audio tracks accessible to the players via headphones. The source of these rhythms are the pulsars themselves, as Grisey explained. Although the percussionists play their own independent meters and tempi, they respond to one another, most spectacularly when they performed in relay, with one player passing the music on to another, proceeding from left to right, creating a vast swirl of sound. The scale of Grisey’s vision is truly immense, and it comes as a surprise that a composer was writing a work of this ambition and scale in 1990, when post-modern trivialization was the order of the day.

The idea of a performance of Le Noir de l’Étoile under the stars is hugely appealing, and Seth Knopp is to be congratulated for realizing it through Yellow Barn’s Resident Artist Program. Yellow Barn percussionists Greg Beyer and Doug Perkins, joined by astronomer Tom Geballé of the Gemini Observatory in Hilo, HI, lead a week-long workshop dedicated to its preparation, culminating with an outdoor performance of this work at sunset on Yellow Barn’s summer campus at the Greenwood School.

As I expected, the performance of Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile was unique, but only after being there and experiencing it can I appreciate just how this could only have happened in Putney, Vermont, under the auspices of Yellow Barn. I heard the work for the first and only time until now in February 2011 in Alice Tully Hall, played by one of the world’s great ensembles, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, who commissioned the work and premiered it in Brussels in 1991. There was something special in this New York performance, because the acoustics of the new Alice Tully Hall permitted them for the first time to play the work without amplification. Since the work is written for six percussionists surrounding the audience, most halls require a modicum of amplification to enable everyone in the hall to hear more or less the same thing. The work is immensely complex, and I consumed my dollop of free champagne after the concert wondering if any other group could even attempt to perform the work.

The answer is “yes, and very well,” as James Beauton, Greg Beyer, Amy Garapic, Doug Perkins, Jeff Stern, and Mari Yoshinaga demonstrated most impressively. I spoke with Doug Perkins briefly after the concert, and he confirmed with some enthusiasm that Le Noir de l’Étoile is just as hard as it sounds to audiences. The group were in residence for a week in Putney, rehearsing and making themselves available to the Yellow Barn students. (Yellow Barn is, like Marlboro, first and foremost a music school.) Modestly, he said they could have used a week or so more with it, and mentioned that a number of groups have recently taken up the work, one in Chicago, and another in New York: Talujon will play it on June 17 at the Winter Garden.

The performance at Putney was a great success in itself, but the circumstances added something marvellous to the event. The masterful performance in Alice Tully Hall was a high-profile concert at Lincoln Center. Yellow Barn’s was — at least intended to be — an open-air concert in rural Vermont. Bad weather reports convinced the organizers to move it to the rain venue, the Greenwood School gym. It turned out to be a lovely evening, and it was a disappointment not to sit under the stars for this astral music, but there were advantages. For one thing, the gym, which is less than a quarter the size of Alice Tully Hall, required no amplification for the percussion instruments; for another, the crickets and tree frogs were in full chorus that night and would most definitely have made their contribution. Everything was quiet in the gym, except for one constantly chattering boy, whose parents seemed unable to persuade him that silence was in order. Some people were meditating during the music, and at the very least Grisey’s composition requires full concentration. (The family eventually decided to leave about a third of the way through. I hope the child was punished for disturbing everyone around him and spoiling his family’s evening.) Otherwise the informality of the occasion was all to the advantage of the music. There were chairs by the walls between the percussionists, but most of us sat on mats on the floor. I sat more or less equidistant between two of the players and could hear everything in balance.

This performance was somewhat more careful and by no means as loud as the one at Tully. My hearing was perfectly normal at the end of it — not a trace of deafness. I felt the nature of pulsars as time-keepers came through especially well. Pulsars keep their own time, which is entirely alien to ours. In fact the experience becomes something like what a dialogue with a visitor from another world might be like. On the other hand, the wood blocks and other exotic-sounding instruments evoked the rituals of “primitive” peoples — what Grisey himself described as “shamanistic conjuring.” (A student of religions might call this mediation.) In this second encounter with the work, I experienced the music of the pulsars themselves as an epiphany. The percussion music that preceded it might well have been a calling of the phenomena, and the music that followed as a petition or attempt to interact with them.

The space was splendidly decorated with a beautiful colored banner and a ring, and the spinning cymbal, which marks the conclusion of the work, stood at the center of the space and the audience, not at center front stage — a great advantage.

Bravo to Seth Knopp and all concerned for organizing a musical event at which the ears, the intellect, and the spirit were equally rewarded.

NB – Anyone interested in the energies of things in nature translated into sound will find it rewarding to hear the “Plant Music” artist Joanna Gabler has extracted from living plants. An hour-long recording is played as an accompaniment to her exhibition, “Transcapes: Vermont and the Berkshires” on view at the Bennington Museum, May 12 – June 24, 2012. 

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