In July 1996, Gérard Grisey was at work on the first movement of what would be his final composition, the “Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil”  (“Four songs for crossing the threshold”) when he made a note to himself in his journal. “If I ever compose an opera,” he wrote, “make the stakes and the tragedy come not from the external situation of the voices among themselves, but from the relationship between the voices and the sound of the cosmos.” This opera never materialized—shortly after completing the “Quatre chants,” in November 1998, Grisey died of a brain aneurysm. He was 52 years old. 

But the “Quatre chants,” scored for a wind-heavy chamber ensemble with two low saxophones, two tubas, and solo soprano, dramatize indelibly the condition of the conscious human in a beautiful yet indifferent cosmos. In Grisey’s composition—which sets works by the French poet Christian Gabriel/le Guez Ricord, along with texts from the sarcophagi of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, apocryphal ancient Greek poet Erinna, and the Epic of Gilgamesh—death is profoundly impersonal. There is no posthumous reward or punishment, no chance at enlightenment. There is no individual destiny. Just bald obliteration. 

Clockwise: Kerstin Avemo, Kristina Stanek, Sophia Burgos, Klangforum Wien conducted by Peter Rundel • Photo © Volker Beushausen, Ruhrtriennale 2022

On August 11, the 2022 edition of the Ruhrtriennale, a festival of the arts in western Germany, opened with an evening titled “Ich geh unter lauter Schatten” (“I walk among many shadows”). The performance staged the “Quatre chants,” interspersing the rarely-performed, 40-minute work with one other composition by Grisey (“Tempus ex Machina” for six percussionists) and pieces by Giacinto Scelsi (“Okanagon” for amplified harp, bass, and tam-tam), Claude Vivier (“Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele,” for voices and ensemble), and Iannis Xenakis (“Nuit,” for 12 mixed voices). The predictably outstanding Klangforum Wien performed, led by Peter Rundel. It‘s an ensemble with a deep understanding of the “Quatre chants,” having released the premiere recording in 2001. The staging was by Elisabeth Stöppler, the “house director” at the Staatstheater Mainz and a professor at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg.

The evening was a musical triumph. Contemporary music festivals have a tendency to program concerts as if coloring by numbers, choosing a prefabricated mix of representatives of different musical styles in the name of a pipe-dream completeness. In contrast, the program for “I walk among many shadows” was made up of five works with common aesthetic preoccupations and with similarly high levels of musical craft, performed with sensitivity and vigor by Klangforum and the vocal ensemble Chorwerk Ruhr. (For example: Rundel chose exactly the right tempo for the second movement of the “Quatre chants,” which is often performed too slowly). This program was a pleasure especially potent because of its rarity: An entire new-music evening hearing works in a single, rich aesthetic vein. The imposing, industrial Jahrhunderthalle in the city of Bochum, lit evocatively by Ulrich Schneider, undergirded the cosmic austerity of the repertoire. 

Unfortunately, Stöppler’s staging detracted from the musical programming, introducing dramaturgical problems into a collection of pieces where almost none exist. With overly-concrete imagery, Stöppler subverted the cosmic indifference at the heart of Grisey’s “Quatre chants” and evoked subtly in the other pieces—another strength of the musical curation—and dragged the compositions incongruously into the here-and-now. As glorious, enigmatic sounds filled the space, a series of tired German theater clichés paraded by: actors in drab, Communist-factory clothing; a singer in a white nightgown and long, unkempt hair reminiscent of the 2002 horror movie “The Ring.” There was lots of wild gesticulation, a vacuous depiction of insanity. One performer seemed to be dressed as Marilyn Monroe. 

Kristina Stanek • Photo © Volker Beushausen, Ruhrtriennale 2022

Stöppler’s concept inhabited the no-man’s land between plausible narrative and aestheticized abstraction. The latter would have served the music best. The Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s elegantly mysterious choreography to Grisey’s “Vortex Temporum”—which premiered at the Ruhrtriennale in 2013—makes visible latent structures in the music. Stöppler’s staging imposed clichés present neither in the central “Quatre chants” nor in the other pieces.  

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Do directors owe their audiences a kind of Hippocratic oath—first, do no harm to the music? I don’t think so; intervening in the score can be a powerful technique. But a radical intervention must be preceded by a clear idea. In the performance, certain choices weakened the effect of the music without a commensurate dramaturgical benefit. In the first movement of “Quatre chants,” Grisey creates a miraculous, heraldic blend between voice, flute, trumpet, and violin, evoking the power and vulnerability of an angel on the verge of being fallen. But because Stöppler has the singer wander around during this movement, the timbres are less able to blend, and the pitches don’t coalesce; it sounds just like a simple chord. A similarly careless intervention takes place between the third and fourth movements of the same work, which are meant to be played attacca, and where Grisey builds with mathematical meticulousness from immobility to one of the most violent passages in his entire oeuvre, an evocation of the flood from Gilgamesh (and the Bible). Noah didn‘t get a break for tea before boarding the Ark. 

In the rare moments when Stöppler chose stage effects implicit in the scores, the result was breathtaking. The second movement of the “Quatre chants” hints at an ancient Egyptian belief that Grisey was particularly fond of, that a successful journey through the underworld ends in blinding sunlight. At the end of the evening, during the final lullaby of the “Quatre chants,” the singer walked on a long, raised platform as she intoned the final pitches, from the cool light of the Jahrhunderthalle toward the radiance of whatever lay beyond. The quiet and focus in the hall at this moment—after over an hour and a half of contemporary music—was absolute. 

Just as the cosmos is indifferent to the petty concerns of humans, great art is often impervious to superficial attempts to tinker with it. In the fourth movement of the “Quatre chants,” the flood sweeps away the weak attempts of early civilization to impose itself on the world, leaving the singer in a virtuosic panic at her own irrelevance. At the Ruhrtriennale, the works of Scelsi, Vivier, Xenakis, and Grisey swept away the irrelevance of the staging almost as easily. We were left to wonder, unhindered, at music as mysterious as the universe beyond. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.