I reached the French composer Tristan Murail on a Tuesday afternoon at his home in Provence. Since moving back to Europe from New York, where he taught at Columbia University for 13 years, Murail has built himself a kind of comfortable semi-retirement, though he is still composing and teaching: family, year-round good weather, separate studio, pool. His English is fluent, but free of Americanisms. We spoke about the guesswork of microtonal music, the attraction of the ondes martenot, and the way total serialism continues to hurt the contemporary music scene.

VAN: You finished teaching at Columbia University in 2010. How would you describe your time there, with hindsight?

Tristan Murail: It was a great experience. It was quite a different thing from being in Europe. I taught mostly doctoral students, so very advanced people. The drawback was that there’s no conservatory of music [attached], so you couldn’t have an interchange with players.  

I saw the contemporary music scene in New York change quite a lot while I was there. When I arrived, it seemed a little, sorry to say, provincial. The new music concerts were mostly with local people. There were not many groups. People didn’t know what was happening in Europe. Lots of composers who are really famous nowadays, people didn’t know them, or they knew the names but not much about them. One of the first things I did was to present the music of my colleagues: not only me, my colleagues and I invited Helmut Lachenmann to New York, we played the music of Grisey and Sciarrino. After that the Columbia students started forming their own ensembles and learning to play the extended techniques. Now the contemporary music life in New York is really quite exciting.

When you were writing your first microtonal pieces, wasn’t it hard to know exactly what they were going to sound like?

Nowadays I use computers, I can play very complex things as I want. In the beginning, it was [laughs]…more experimental, let’s say. You had to imagine. One of the first things I did was to buy an organ with two keyboards, and I could tune one of the keyboards a quarter-tone higher. I played and played it. But what you can do with this technique is quite limited, because you can’t really play fast things or complicated chords. It was especially hard to imagine successions of complex chords. In 1984, the MIDI standard appeared, and you could control synthesizers from computers, and I started writing my own [programs] too, to make calculations, but also for playback. I don’t think you can really imagine hearing things that you’ve never heard before.

What’s really difficult is not to hear one chord, but to imagine a sequence of harmonies in time, in a specific tempo. I believe there’s a very strong interaction between time and harmony. With computers, you can reduce the number of mistakes you make.

YouTube video

Tristan Murail, “Ethers” for small ensemble

As a student, you learned classical and North African Arabic. Are there particular works of art from that tradition that are important to you?

I’ve always been very interested in foreign languages, especially languages that are very different from our Indo-European ones. They reflect different ways of thinking. If you know even a little about a foreign language, it helps you understand how people think: it would be a very good antidote for racism. But that’s another story.

I studied these languages only for three years, it was like a Bachelor’s. I can’t pretend that I mastered them, especially classical Arabic. I wouldn’t be able to read an Arabic book. But I love classical Arabic music, too.

It’s hard to mention names of particular artists, because most of it is kind of anonymous. In the Andalusian tradition, like the Moroccan, you have the nubah, which is like a suite of pieces. Ottoman music is also really fascinating, with its different modes and rhythms, and the Arabic tradition, and there we do know composers. It’s interesting to see how people think about music in a very different frame, in a different culture.

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You were a close colleague and friend of Gérard Grisey, who died very suddenly, in 1998. How did this affect you?

It was a great shock, of course. At that time, we didn’t see each other very much, because he was back in France, and I was in New York. It’s a tragic thing, because he still had so much to do, and create.

His last work, “Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil,” almost seemed to predict what happened.

Yeah. I don’t know what to say.  

How did you get started as a performer on the ondes martenot?

In fact, I was very young, I was like 16. I was intrigued by electronic sounds, and at the time there were no synthesizers. There was only the Hammond organ and the ondes martenot. There have been a number of electronic instruments that have been invented in the 20th century, but none of them have really remained, except maybe the theremin. So I was very curious. I went to see Jeanne Loriod who was a famous ondes martenot player, and also Messiaen’s sister-in-law. She gave courses, and I went there and learned with her.

But I had no idea that I wanted to be an ondes martenot player; I was interested by the sound, mostly. Then very quickly she asked me to play in concerts.

There’s a famous recording of the “Turangalîla-Symphonie” that you’re on, with Simon Rattle…

…with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. At that time, Simon Rattle wasn’t as famous as he is now. Well, I must say: I was terrified! [laughs]

As the beginning of your career, you struggled with the dominance of Pierre Boulez, and total serialist music. Would you agree that his style now almost belongs to the past?

Sure. When I was a student with Messiaen, it was very much the trend in Paris. Lots of composers were writing strict serial music. And Messiaen himself tried to. It wasn’t very successful. There’s the famous piece for piano, “Mode de valeurs et d’intensités,” which he wrote for Darmstadt. I remember that he talked about the piece, and he went, “Yes, I tried, but it was not successful.” He was quite critical about that.       

But he also thought, in fact, that young composers should do this kind of thing, that it was very advanced. Even if he was not successful with it. He changed his mind afterwards. At that time, it was very hard. I remember there was a music review in Paris, Musique en Jeu, and everything that was not serial or like Boulez was nothing, nonexistent. We had to be very stubborn to do what we wanted to do. On the other hand, perhaps it was historically necessary, at that stage. The problem is when things become political, and when it becomes like a revealed truth. I must say, it did some harm to the contemporary music scene. Even now, for lots of people, new music is that; they can’t imagine that there’s something else. ¶

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… 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...