The Challenge of Tristan Murail's Work
translated from the French by Jacqueline Rose
This innovation, originating in France between 1975 and 1985, will perhaps
create a snarl in musical history. Here is why.
|What is the specificity of Murail's works? It is
to have invented a sort of musical time, that while being irreversible
and nostalgic, exists before the score is composed; a time without beginning,
in the process of being constructed. Murail's music : an aeolian harp?
This innovation, originating in France between 1975 and 1985, will perhaps create a snarl in musical history. Here is why.
Between 1975 and 1985, Tristan Murail (1947 - ) laid the foundations for a style of musical notation no longer derived from the symbolization of instrumental figures, which had, under Boulez's influence, reached spectacular heights.
During a conference held at IRCAM in April 1985, Murail distributed
the following summary-program:
Once he began writing music, Murail, much like György Ligeti, endorsed a way of listening that was global but which avoided being "probabilistic". He designated composers Olivier Messiaen and Giacinto Scelsi as sources of inspiration. However, his pursuit of a "role model" disappeared with his first significant work Mémoire/Erosion(1975-1976), in favor of the "trans-scription" of dynamic acoustic phenomena.
"Trans-scription", by all means! Henceforth, composition would consist of simulating the psychoacoustic properties of timbre, such as fusion and fission, through the use of suitable algorithms, and then making them audible by choosing the instrument best corresponding to this or that psychoacoustic characteristic. By grasping easily identifiable procedures exposed during a work, (such as the delay and treatment process in Mémoire/Erosion or the bell sounds in Gondwana ), the listener identifies a group of acoustic forms and comprehends their internal dynamic and evolution as the singularity of style.
These forms will be called perception models. A model implies the notion of analogy and must satisfy criteria whose choice depends on the intended result. The ensuing object does not render all of the model's possibilities and responds to only a limited number of correlations, otherwise, both model and object would be identical. On the one hand, using a model allows noticeable data from a given object to be formalized inductively, and on the other hand, grants it a prospective quality which incites bringing apparently different models together.
Murail's works, from the decade being considered, contain perception models falling into two general categories: models using simulation, and models using flexion. Since the composer's use of flexion models is limited ( see part IX of Désintégrations , or pages 42-43 of Time and Again ), this article will concentrate on only simulation models, and more precisely, with archetypes of this sort.
The following works are based on the imitation of procedures analogically
exported from electronic music technology.(1)
Mémoire/Erosion (1975-1976), for horn and nine instruments, simulates the delay and treatment process:
"The solo horn produces sounds which will be 'recorded' by a purely imaginary setup. As in the case of electronic sampling, each phrase played by the horn will be heard again, repeated after a certain period of time. The other instruments obviously provide the replay. However, the original phrase or sound will never be repeated as is. With each repetition, the erosion process enters into action, so while the original structures derived from the horn solo are being destroyed, new structures are progressively being constructed. These will then also be subjected to the erosion process, and so forth. Many types of erosion are at work in Mémoire/Erosion : timbral erosion, smoothing or rounding of edges, proliferation, interference. (...) Each of the horn's interventions can be compared to a planted seed that germinates and develops, but is overcome by entropy. By the end of the score, all that remains is white noise, complete disorder, and total lack of differentiation."(2)
"Take the phenomenon of echo. Considering that a normal echo repeats steadily and identically - which is not of great interest - it is possible to imagine a type of echo, which, for example, slows down through each consecutive repetition, and at the same time modifies the repeated object according to certain rules. The following example shows a sound (the note C) which is subjected to this type of imaginary echo. In this case, the harmonics of C appear progressively and are lowered an octave with each repetition, to produce increasingly complex timbre-chords (this is the opposite of a natural echo, which tends on the contrary, to filter)."(3)
"A person can also be inspired by the process called 'phasing', which produces a sort of shifting filter. Translated into instrumental writing, this process generates internal movements in the harmonic mass; a manner of sweeping through all of the frequencies. I used it particularly in Ethers." (4)
" This type of process can be put into general use to organize a passage, or even an entire score with a system that creates successive pitches. Formulated in this way, the laws of harmonic progression will easily encompass all categories of complex, intermediary or unstable sounds, etc. ... obliging theses sounds to be used. The total structural form of Treize couleurs du Soleil Couchant and certain passages of Partiels by Gérard Grisey are based on diagrams of this type.
The sound generator (a) creates its own harmonics (by passing through an intermediate stage (a') where the timbre breaks down), harmonic 1 creates its own harmonic (c). The sounds (c) and (d) react on each other as in a ring modulator, making difference (1) or sum tones (2) audible; (2) then serves as a sound generator, etc. ..."(5)
Spectral simulation first appears with Gondwana (1980), for large orchestra. It consists of reproducing specific aspects of a "natural" spectrum (derived from the acoustic analysis of instrumental timbres) or an "artificial" spectrum (derived from frequency algorithms). The spectrum's internal make-up is based on theories of differential fields and the superimposition of multiple components interacting between themselves, which force the composer to write for a sizable orchestra and to use specific instruments.
Two examples reveal how the "mysteries of the sound spectrum" are simulated:
In the Eighties, many composers were fascinated by the sound of bells; this being the first non periodical complex timbre to be precisely reproduced (cf. Mortuos plango, Vivos voco (1980), for tape composed by Jonathan Harvey).
A bell's tone, even though perceived in time as a distinct and unmistakable timbre, is very difficult to hear with regards to a specific pitch; it causes a large number of partials to vibrate, which are not whole multiples of the reference frequency. Such a sound is called an "inharmonic", as opposed to a "harmonic" sound where all the partials are whole multiples of the fundamental. These sounds are unstable at a fixed and defined pitch, because the perceived pitches vary greatly from one hearing to the next. It is however possible to "experience" an impression of pitch due to what the ear assigns as a "mean pitch" (this not necessarily being the lowest frequency).
The timbre of a bell is determined by the shape of its spectral sound envelope, the model being: a short attack followed by an exponential decay. The envelope controls frequency durations and the amplitude ratios imposed on the partials. The ear detects and easily recognizes the shape of an envelope; if the outline changes in the course of time, the timbre will be perceived differently. Since bell sounds are non periodical, the acoustic cycles of each partial will not coincide in time, and their respective periods will be constantly out of phase. Murail used this psychoacoustic fact to compose Gondwana : joining two inharmonics makes perception unpredictable, and moreover, uncontrollable.
The first section of Gondwana is based on the transmutation of
an inharmonic (simulated bell spectrum) into a harmonic (simulated trumpet
spectrum), while the strings successively play twelve different types of
envelopes that have been enhanced with subtle accelerandi and
ritardandi. With each hearing, the ear attributes a different pitch
sensation to this passage, just as for a bell, always choosing a unique
trajectory irreducible with the previous one. This remained to be proven!
During the Eighties, the DX7 was the most famous of all numerical synthesizers. It had the advantage of being able to create a multitude of complex harmonic or inharmonic sounds, impossible to produce with an analog synthesizer. Each user could elaborate a "personal" sound with a finely controlled level of inharmonicity. Murail, like so many other composers, discovered that this instrument enriched spectral material. He could "interpolate" timbres without resorting to manipulating technology that was difficult to access (such as the IRCAM computers).
In Time and again , the DX7 is used for specifically structural purposes, treating the orchestra with a dual function: "amplifier" and "prism".
Section C of the work begins with an amplification relationship.
The DX7 plays the partials contained in the timbre of its own spectrum
(inharmonic) while the piano and the other orchestral instruments enrich
this spectrum with approximate partials belonging either to this spectrum,
or to the potential fundamentals which would be composed by the DX7. Each
note on the DX7 keyboard is orchestrated with a specific instrumental color.
At the end of section C, the DX7 produces spectral supports, while the
orchestra diffracts the partials of the resulting spectra by using a filtering
process or a defective doubling process. Like a prism, the orchestra
deviates and breaks down the partials of each spectrum created by the DX7.
The effect is particularly striking.
Simulating a pulsation process, implies looking for immediate emotional
stimulation. This simulation, which is present in almost all of Murail's
works, is produced when numerous qualifying factors converge, and only
one resultant emerges, which itself is the result of temporal relationships
between sound events and the energy that produces them. Two aspects of
this sort of simulation will be explored: simulating accelerando/ritardando
and the simulation of a spectral collision in Désintégrations
(1982-1983) for tape and ensemble.
When Murail writes an accelerando or a ritardando, he does not organize the sound events according to an arithmetical progression. His only concern is the representation of a logarithmic system that translates durations into real time perception. In this way, he transforms this information's usual function. See, for example, the three pieces in the cycle Artisanat furieux from Boulez's Marteau sans Maître , which present every conceivable manner of fluctuating tempo:
In this cycle, Boulez composes "tempo dynamics". Oscillating between metronomic but wonderfully flexible speeds (the rhythm supervises the tempo), durations are perceived with reference to the relationships found between short and long note values. Conversely, Murail lets us hear the relationships between impulses so clearly, that duration is actually perceived as a continuum of events (one reference, among others: the ritardando at letter E in Gondwana ).
When Murail superimposes an accelerando and a ritardando
by making dynamic contours confront each other (see letter I in Ethers,
for flute and five instruments), the listener perceives an auditory
illusion dear to Jean-Claude Risset: the "paradoxical rhythm" of an overall
pulsation becoming increasingly rapid while at the same time slowing down.
In the first section of Désintégrations , a spectral
collision is simulated when two spectra, whose fundamentals are a minor
third apart, fuse to obtain a resultant spectrum that sounds like a bell.
Murail makes them pass from one to another, like an irregular pendulum,
in non-linear time ratios.(6) The spectra are
filtered differently each time.(7)
The listener, captivated by the swing between spectra, is caught
constantly waiting for the fusion, while at the same time sensing that
it is imminent. The tension reaches its peak when Murail perturbs the perception
of organized durations with a logarithmic ratio used to simulate accelerando/ritardando.
Pieces composed by Murail between 1975 (Mémoire/Erosion ) and 1985 (Time and Again ) result from the work of sampling orchestrated spectra. They do not contain a referential spectrum, and in addition, are written with numerous models that are occasionally combined. From time to time, Murail lets fragmented models be heard during the same piece, but in any case, a single model never suffices.
"All procedures have direction and meaning, or even significance, that allow the listener to sense that he is being taken somewhere, and that there is someone in the driver's seat. Vectoring the musical discourse inevitably creates sensations of tension and release, of advancement or of stagnation, and plays on the comfort of the expected and the pleasure of surprise, on the phenomena of thresholds, or, on the reversal of insidious trends, which creates the dynamism of discourse; in a nutshell, that which, beyond writing styles and styles in general, and beyond superficial revolutions and sterile arguments, directly summons the mental schemata of the occidental listener."(8)How does perception find its way through Murail's music? Since the composer has defined a dialectic system of tension/release, or rather "inhalation/exhalation", each piece wavers constantly between groups of one-to-one relationships of the sort: sound/noise, harmonic/inharmonic, recurring/non recurring, static/dynamic, that are analog to the natural evolution and vicissitudes of a sound's life. Through these relationships (real two-dimensional references for the listener) it is possible to situate the perception models' development at any moment. When defined within the immediacy of hearing, these relationships enable a more or less rudimentary syntax to be established for the works, based on the fact that:
The "trans-scription" of a model, is an immutable writing process; that is to say, the choice of a simulation and the description of its psychoacoustic characteristics which can be formalized as:
b) creating a model in which we recognize the initial data system.
"To trans-scribe" means writing a "program" or set of instructions that allows a given series of operations to be carried out. Once the material has been chosen, the composer creates a network of transformations on the "interior and exterior" of each model, making its structure vary by rules specific to that model. Most of these rules are based on elementary acoustic laws which instruments put into practice.
A model consists of an outline (produced by the interaction between envelopes and temporal functions) and of dynamic spectral components. This polymorphous property will be, in many respects, illustrated by the comparative study of all the ritardandi in Murail's works - from the ritardando in Tellur (1977), for guitar, to the ritardandi in Time and again (1985), for large orchestra. The same is true for the delay-transformation process in Mémoire/Erosion : Changing the material and/or the instrumentation will not significantly alter the work. A model represents the result of a correlation, in which the outline's autonomy can be noted in relation to the sound material.
During his first ten years of composition, Murail was looking for just
this: the form of a type of perception drawing its resources from only
the "enthusiasm to create".
How does innovation suddenly appear in musical composition?(11) It is no doubt related to a perception code dating from a specific period, allowing an inspired creator to understand how to define a particular function when confronted by something unprecedented. Though radical innovation is impossible, it is not necessary to appropriate the nostalgia for a work or tradition from which the creator cannot be detached. Who has not one day desired to be the genius author of a previously written score?
By reconsidering the relationship systems between sound events in a work, through organizing sound material in a way that overthrows commonly held compositional ideas, and by putting aside the concept of thematic figures when writing a work, Murail proposed a new relationship to musical time based on the association of technological gestures with spectral sensitivity, which integrates each instrument into a work's genesis, because the choice of instruments is based not only on acoustic pleasure (in contrast to Boulez who wrote only for the instruments that he was fond of), but also on submission to the particularities of writing with perception models (for example: the orchestration of a spectral formant will require a trumpet or a flute, depending on the instrument's level of harmonicity or inharmonicity).
A final evaluation will of course be made someday, but that is not the question. With absolute specificity, Murail has, through the processes belonging to his first decade of creation, dared to relentlessly "trans-scribe" the spectrum while only slightly evading traditional rules of composition. But, that is not all. According to Prigogine, "time has neither beginning nor end", "it precedes even the birth of our universe".(12) Is it not here that we find the fundamental intuition which drastically differentiates the propositions made by Murail from those of Boulez? Irreversible and nostalgic, time exists before a work's composition, and is not consubstantial to it, due to the anteriority of the perception models. In a work by Murail, an instrument's timbre is the "trans-scription" of the sound material, and the absolute of notation which, for the interpreter and the author, becomes THE finality of a work.
This is the challenge of tablature, because here, the future is not
given, it becomes.
After Time and again (1985), Murail composed Les sept paroles du Christ en croix (1986-1989), Vues aériennes (1988), and Allégories (1989); as many works dedicated to different instrumental ensembles, as responding to singular aesthetic stakes, but all the while maintaining the specificity of instrumental timbre and tablature as compositional absolutes.
"And Serendib (1991-1992)?And L'esprit des dunes (1993-1994)? Will you smirch them as well with a new quest?", retorted someone to me, while winking an eye. "Hasn't Murail, with Time and again , taken the decisive step toward an opening of his musical language, which takes him away from his former writing techniques?"
"What are your principal compositional preoccupations at present?"Thus, Murail goes further, but subtly, without renewing his original intuition; for these "complex musical objects", developed through advances in the computer realm, are the technological prolongation of the spectrum principle. On the other hand, they make a clean cut with the past in their way of implementing the capacity to dictate the manner in which the composer must describe them and the terms of their intelligibility. More radical than the spectrum, this sort of object permits composition, that no longer flirts with a creative context having a deterministic connotation ("we will no longer be confronted by lists of simple static frequencies, as was the case about ten years ago"). Here, creative activity is resolutely probabilistic in construction; the model generates sound material that is not more definite, but is however feasible and irreversible (an illustration: Le partage des eaux ). It remains to be seen, whether in the next pieces by Murail, these objects will be capable of providing the expected "behavior" and results, according to the situations in which the composer stages them. In any case, Murail remains optimistic; he has given up nothing and yet continues to evolve. In addition, his work is inspired by of one of the most promising theories of physics belonging to this fin du siècle, that of Prigogine. (In the simplest terms, processes of unbalance create dissipative self-organization, from which a fundamentally oriented, but not essentially phenomenological time emerges).(14)
Prigogine: "macroscopic irreversibility is the expression of aleatory characteristics on the microscopic level".(15)
In fact, the only thing that matters to me in Murail's
music, is the singularity that, because the work as a whole does not create
its own time, it never ceases conversing with the global time that
enables it to be heard.
Murail's, is a music with indistinct boundaries. Does a work actually begin (see the introduction to Ethers )? When does the work end, if at the last audible note one has the impression that an almost infinite number of possible extensions still exist (see the end of Désintégrations )? In fact, Murail's music makes me think of an aeolian harp in action. The aeolian harp is the only "instrument" whose "music" is totally implicated in the present.(16) Wind, ever changing and dependent on aleatory phenomena, is the unstable and irreversible source, that passing through the harp, makes it sound by causing its cord's (or tube's) harmonics and partials to resonate. The same wind passing through the same harp at a later time or passing through different harp placed in another location, will sound otherwise. The wind, is what I consider musical time in Murail's music (the time being independent from the piece's form), and the harp, the musical composition.(17)
As a result, isn't the performer left feeling condemned to fulfill his role in a reductive manner, having only "to refine his sound" (though such an operation can prove itself to be difficult, as in Ethers for example)? In Murail's music, the periods of pulsation are large, and blend into the model's overall movement without allowing the performer to intervene, and even if the performer shifted some element of the dialog slightly, nothing fundamental would change for the listener. It is not that Murail's music repudiates the use of rubato, it makes rubato rather permanent, and this is what irritates the performer: having the rubato taken out of his competence, and escaping him!(18) In fact, the specific characteristic of rubato, in its traditional usage, is that of not being written, because its strength is precisely to permit constant osmosis between a piece's notation and the performer's fleeting gesture.
The moment is approaching when it will basically no longer be possible
to compose as has been done for so long.