On August 16, the Salzburg Festival ended its focus on the French composer Gérard Grisey with a complete performance of his cycle “Les espaces acoustiques” by the Austrian ORF Symphony Orchestra and Maxime Pascal conducting. It was an hour and a half during which the music’s timbral and structural richness occupied the brain’s entire perceptive capacity. The first time I heard Grisey’s music was in a seminar room in college. We had weekly courses devoted to contemporary repertoire, and they often left me cold. In pieces of Boulez, Stockhausen, and other post-war titans, I would find myself playing a game of trying to follow along with the incredibly complex scores as a way to pass the time.“Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil” changed all that. It was music of gripping beauty and, essentially, emotional immediacy. Six years later, I’m still fascinated with Grisey’s relatively small, potent output. In this playlist, I wrote about some of my favorite works. Two composers familiar with his music, Joshua Fineberg and Arash Yazdani, contributed selections as well.

“Les espaces acoustiques,” VI. Modulations, V. Transitoires, VI. Épilogue – Pascal Rophé (Conductor), Ensemble Intercontemporain, Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris

YouTube video

One day a few years ago, I woke up at 6 a.m. to apply for a visa at the Foreigner’s Office in Berlin. But I had chosen the wrong day, a Wednesday, and anyway, I would have been much too late to get a walk-in appointment. With no plans and an entire day yawning before me, I returned to my apartment, walked out to the balcony, smoked a badly-rolled joint, lay down in bed, and put on Grisey’s cycle “Les espaces acoustiques.”

Sometimes it takes a moment of alienation, vulnerability, or loneliness to enter inside a piece of music. The fifth movement, Transitoires, was particularly indelible. I remember the swaying of horns, the intricacies of the harmonic moments, a potent discomfort at my stoned inability to fully grasp them as they passed me by.

Can I find that music again? I’m not sure. Whenever I listen to the piece now it sounds so different.

“Les chants de l’amour” – Walter Nussbaum (Conductor), Schola Heidelberg

YouTube video

There are many layers of construction and architecture in this Grisey work. A analysis by two musicologists describes how, “spread throughout the 28 sections of the piece, [a scale of 16] vowels reconstitute…the vowels contained in ‘I love you.’ Inside each section, a similar form is reproduced…” In fact, Grisey was a detailed planner generally, creating structures of great complexity that are difficult even to reproduce.

This piece has a direct sentiment at the heart of it. There’s no reason to think that it was meant in a smirking way. I’ve met a few people who knew Grisey, and by all accounts he appreciated the finer things in life, like food and wine. His apparently warm temperament never interfered with the intellectual rigor of his work, but I think you can feel it anyway—a certain lack of Boulezian austerity.

“The Pygmies of the Ituri Forest” – Ethnic Folkways Library

YouTube video

According to the same musicologists, one influence on Grisey for “Les chants de l’amour” was “Pygmy polyphonies.” And there is an overlap: the texture of Grisey’s computer generated tape has a familiar kind of stasis about it. These musics are patterned tapestries, rich to the ear both from afar and up close.

“L’Icône paradoxale” – SWR Symphonieorchester Baden-Baden

YouTube video

“We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, plastic arts, quantum theory, geology, astrology, or acupuncture.”

“This is a funny quote coming from Grisey. Here is a composer who wrote a piece called ‘Le Noir de l’Etoile,’ which is built around the sound of a pulsar; and a piece called ‘L’Icône Paradoxale,’ that’s based on a De La Francesca painting. The whole ‘Les Espaces Acoustiques’ cycle has a very large theatrical component; and had he lived longer, he might well have made it around to geology and acupuncture as well. While one might simply decide that he changed his mind in the years after he wrote those words—since most of those pieces are from somewhat later—I don’t think that is the case. I believe that right up until the end of his life this conviction had not changed. I do not think he ever believed that composers should not be nourished by extra-musical ideas from unrelated fields. Rather, he thought that in the end, whatever ideas helped get you there, what matters, what music ultimately is about, is the transformation of sound and its effect on a listener. Whatever extra-musical ideas might have led you to create your sonic objects, they in no way validate them.

“I believe that what he meant was that for him a piece of music is not a work of symbolic philosophy that, incidentally, can be performed sonically. Nor is it a mathematical proof of a concept that can be heard. It’s a piece of sound, which could be studied in other ways, but ultimately derives its justification from what it does sonically in the ears and mind of a listener. If this idea doesn’t seem so shocking to us now, it is a testament to the powerful effect he has had on the musical world over the last 40 years, because even in the 1980s or ’90s this was still a completely radical position.

“This stance was a revelation that changed my musical life completely. His approach and his music remain the single most visionary and important body of work from the late 20th century. There is a physicality and an architectural power in his music that remains completely overwhelming.”—Joshua Fineberg

The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox

Success! You're on the list.

“Vortex Temporum,” II. – Kwam Ryan (Conductor), Ensemble Recherche

YouTube video

In this piece, Grisey changes the tuning of just four notes on the piano, but they are enough to morph the sound world completely, infusing faded equal temperament harmonies with vivid color. The second movement is the perfect antidote to endless debates about the relative merits of “tonality” and “atonality” in that it’s intensely expressive enough to render them completely meaningless.

In the second movement of “Vortex Temporum,” I always find myself particularly struck by the downward minor thirds in the piano part. They give the line something discursive and archaic, like a shaman telling a story by a fire.

As with so many pieces of new music, YouTube is a rich vein for commentary on “Vortex Temporum.” One listener writes, “Excellent ‘stuff’ to play to terrorist prisoners!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Another, more perceptively: “This sounds [like] the inside of a pomegranate.”

Hugo Wolf arr. Gérard Grisey, Four Songs – Jeannine Hirzel (Mezzo-soprano), Pierre-Alain Monot (Conductor), Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain

YouTube video

“The springs bubble rashly / singing to the ears of mother Night,” reads a line from “Um Mitternacht,” a poem by Eduard Mörike that Wolf sets and Grisey orchestrates here. It’s a small detail, but Grisey has the strings quickly switch between bowed and pizzicato colors underneath the line, creating a kind of pleasantly hectic effect to illustrate the springs. It shows care and thoughtfulness, and an inventiveness worthy of the songs of Schubert.

“Sortie vers la lumiére de jour”—a recording, possibly from a rehearsal, of an early excerpt of the work, via Centre de documentation de la musique contemporaine |

“As I casually entered Basel’s Gare du Nord concert hall—not exactly known for its sound insulation—I had a beer in hand and was chatting with colleagues, ready to resume the second half of the concert. I felt an uneasy sensation of some pulsating energy; some kind of interference of barely audible and extremely high frequencies. Were the sounds coming from the concert hall? Or were they incidental noise from the sound system? It was only after the first musician randomly and unceremoniously (which later turned out to have been quite dramatically) entered and started playing that I realized the piece had been started long before any notes were played.

“As the piece is quite unknown it is hard to find a recording in public domain. This excerpt is from the opening as you’d hear it upon entering the concert hall; a few minutes later the first percussionist enters by ominous and slow hits on bass drum, followed by a second percussionist with a second bass drum. Other musicians enter one by one, at long intervals, and the ensemble is completed after the conductor comes on stage.

“This relatively little known gem of Grisey’s is one of his best and most uncompromising pieces. It puts you on edge before it starts and after it finishes. It’s dramatic yet coherent. It’s theatrical yet unostentatious. It’s virtuosic, yet with a focus on the sound; traditional, yet staggeringly innovative. In short, it’s what you’d expect from Grisey, with added savagery and brutality. ‘Sortie vers la lumiére de jour’ is like a punch to the gut.”—Arash Yazdani

“Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil,” V. Berceuse – Allison Bell (Soprano), Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra


In this movement, Gilgamesh has just survived the Flood. “I open a window / And the day falls on my cheek / I fall to my knees, motionless, and cry…” reads part of the poem which Grisey sets. Accompanying the voice are wave-like lines that alternate and crest. Percussive hits strike the ear the way reflected light strikes Gilgamesh’s face. The final movement of Grisey’s last work sounds like a lullaby with the power to put the last living thing on earth to sleep.

In his collected writings, Écrits: ou la invention de la musique spectrale, Grisey recalled his first attempts at composition, during his grandmother’s illness and death. The two were close, like Proust and his grandmother, and he would attempt to notate the sounds of her songs on his accordion. After her death, Grisey wrote that he realized “that only the magic of sound will ever be able to evoke the lost voice.”

The Berceuse from “Quatre chants” does not really end; it simply continues until it doesn’t. Like Gilgamesh—“I look at the horizon / of the sea, the world”—Grisey squinted as far across the threshold from life to death as he could in the piece, not quite reaching, but coming as close as perhaps anyone ever has to seeing the other side. ¶

Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 800 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...

3 replies on “A Gérard Grisey Playlist”

Comments are closed.