updated 27 May 2021

Gérard Grisey

French composer born 17 June 1946 in Belfort; died 11 November 1998 in Paris.

Gérard Grisey was born in France in 1946. He showed an early interest in music, and began composing at the age of nine. He traveled to Germany to study music at the Conservatory of Trossingen (1963-1965), then returned to France to enroll in the Conservatoire de Paris, where he pursued a classic curriculum, receiving degrees in harmony, counterpoint, and fugue, and excelled in music history and piano accompaniment. At the same time, he took composition with Olivier Messiaen (1968-1972), studied with Henri Dutilleux at the École normale de musique (1968), and learned electroacoustic techniques with Jean-Étienne Marie (1969).

His residency at the Villa Médicis from 1972 to 1974 was the occasion of several important encounters, notably with poet Christian Guez Ricord, and discoveries, notably the music of Giacinto Scelsi. Classes with Ligeti and Stockhausen, and, to a lesser extent, with Xenakis, which he attended in 1972 during the Darmstadt Summer Course, would bolster his own musical passions and exert an enduring influence on his work.

In 1973, Grisey took part in the founding of Itinéraire, whose goal was to promote a nascent reperoire with specific needs through quality performances. A course in acoustics taught by Émile Leipp at the University of Paris VI (1974-1975) would lay the foundations of Grisey’s scientific approach to sound. Starting in 1982, he began an intensive teaching career, first at the University of California, Berkeley (until 1986) and then at the Conservatoire de Paris (CNSMDP), where he taught orchestration and composition. Grisey died on 11 November 1998 of a ruptured aneurysm.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2019

By Pierre Rigaudière

If there exists a single most striking aspect of his music, it is Gérard Grisey’s unfailing commitment to his artistic vision. This unwavering determination, pushing the composer to relentlessly hone his definition of an aesthetic idea bordering on utopia, would seem to suggest an evolutionary outlook on the whole of his output, with the consistent refinement of his style as a driving force. The idea of progress, often suspect when speaking of art, cannot be entirely dismissed from the persepctive offered by the timeline of Grisey’s works, even though each composition should obviously not invalidate the previous one.

With Charme for solo clarinet, composed in 1969 at the summer academy in Siena, the composer’s allegiance to serial rhetoric is clear. Even though this first published piece is not at all representative to the subsequent output headed firmly in the opposite direction, it nevertheless draws attention to a combinatory approach whose influence on Grisey’s musical thought processes should not be downplayed; at the same time, we see the beginnings in embryonic form of the polarization of shapes into pairs of opposite categories. The linear direction of the musical discourse, transforming one sound into another, or more generally passing from one state to its opposite state (especially from sound to noise), designated by the term ‘process,’ was a prevailing characteristic of Grisey’s grammar since the composition of Dérives for two orchestral groups in 1973-1974. As Peter Niklas Wilson points out1, the piece is a technical manifestation of an aesthetic of integration, of bringing opposites into line.

With the obvious corollary of continuity—avoiding evident contrasts such as sudden breaks and ruptures—between two opposing poles whose contrast must be unequivocally perceptible, the logic of this sort of process quickly found itself reproached as being too ‘readable,’ a didactic aspect Grisey himself acknowledged in Partiels. Beginning with Modulations, Grisey worked into his processes the variable of ‘a degree of predictability,’ which he would codify decades later with the name ‘degré de préaudibilité.’ The cycle Espaces Acoustiques, which occupied the composer for over ten years, is divided into six movements whose titles clearly call attention to the acoustic and electroacoustic models which inspired the work: Prologue (1976), Périodes (1974), Partiels (1975), Modulations (1976-77), Transitoires (1980-81), and Epilogue (1985). The six ‘episodes’ are scored for an ever-expanding ensemble, culminating with large orchestra, with the harmony of a spectrum based on a low E as common material. The internal life of these long processes is derived from observing sonograms (graphic representations of spectral evolution in time), whose reconstruction, whether literal or not, designated by the term ‘instrumental synthesis,’ demands a sort of temporal expansion. This plunge into the interior of sound phenomena is what justifies the slow pace of Grisey’s musical narrative through the mid-1980s. The transfer of electroacoustic techniques to the instrumental domain first appears in Partiels with simulated ring modulation (the addition of the sum and difference of two given frequencies); the filtering of entire registers, common in Grisey, can be found a bit earlier in Ligeti‘s Atmosphères (1961), though in a more empiric fashion. The idea of regrouping several pieces into a cycle was essentially motivated by the composer’s chronic difficulty in finding logically suitable endings—as seen in the theatrical ending of Partiels, which seems a bit dated today.

The ‘spectral’ material chosen by Grisey lends his music with several readily recognizable characteristics, the most prominent of which is a sort of harmonic hedonism. Even while developing a ‘harmony of frequencies’ with occasional non-tempered pitches (approximated to the nearest quarter- or sixth-tone), the composer does not completely rule out a ‘coloristic’ approach, confirmed by an approach to orchestration in which it is difficult not to see the influence of his teachers Messiaen and Dutilleux. From this point of view, Grisey remains a ‘harmonist,’ whose attempts at theorization—largely tied to his music’s solid anchor in the acoustic reality of sound—move towards a rehabilitation of notions of consonance and dissonance, divorced from a tonal framework. Elsewhere, when the differential sounds obtained through ring modulation are too low to be played, Grisey represents them as a rhythmic beating corresponding to the very low frequency. This procedure, used extensively in Partiels, would be later systematized in Tempus ex machina (1979) for six percussionists, where a continuity is established between rhythm and timbre based on thresholds of perception—an approach found earlier in Stockhausen‘s attempts at synthesis in Kontakte (1960).

It is hardly surprising that Gérard Grisey set down the basics of his theory in a seminal text at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse, in a context where the writings of composers, bordering on manifestos, were sometimes motivated by a need for legitimacy, aiming to explain their complex reasoning. Grisey’s reflections, which he expanded two years later, rely heavily on Abraham Moles’ Information Theory (1973) to highlight the need for a sense of musical time based on perception rather than being abstract, arbitrary, linear, and punctuated. Boulez, and to a lesser extent Messiaen, were criticized for their structuralism based on a denial of phenomenological time: “structure must end with the perceptibility of the message.” From this point of view, the proportional rhythmic notation of the Prologue is significant, as it testifies to the expulsion of a coded significance of rhythmic values, favoring an analogy between graphic layout and duration. Such intoxicating perspectives would lead Grisey to establish a sort of implicit equivalence between the perception of sound and the perception of time, underscored musically by the pairing of categories such as consonance and periodicity on one hand, and dissonance and aperiodicity on the other.

Strengthened by this scientific positivism, the composer relied heavily on psychoacoustic principles to sketch the contours of a music with human dimensions: It is tempting to discern in this attitude an echo of Scelsi‘s mystic plunge into the interior of sound, which we know was a strong influence on Grisey. Absorbed in his own quests for the universal—separate from the path explored by François-Bernard Mâche—Grisey spontaneously turned towards natural (physical) models. If one is tempted to interpret this naturalist tendency as a bridge towards the aesthetic orientation of Tristan Murail, we can nevertheless note that Murail’s outlook on nature is rather contemplative, sometimes including a landscape impressionism or the quasi-theatrical staging of certain elements and their evolution. Grisey’s physiological models on the other hand (several pieces, such as Prologue, feature a dominant iambic rhythm reminiscent of a heartbeat, whereas others make use on several formal levels of a ternary articulation that traces a respiratory rhythm) aim instead to infuse the music with a sense of corporality that links it in turn with the composer’s preoccupation with universals.

Talea (1985-86), a chamber piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, marks a clear stylistic turning point. With its rapid rhythmic figures largely absent from earlier works, and with the expanded possibility of narrative enrichment, the stakes are higher: from here on, Grisey will explore the potential uses of rupture, and with it a new dramatic potential, without undermining his core principles of continuity and directionality. Local processes give way to a meta-process which governs the alternation between textures and contrasting objects. In Le Temps et l’Ecume (1988-89), a title culled from a concept introduced to Grisey by the astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet, the composer develops the compositional implications of relative sensations of time. Another naturalistic, even zoological metaphor (should we interpret this as Messiaen’s influence?) justifies the shift between two rhythmically contrasting sections: Rapid figures corresponding to a “birds’ time” counterbalance a heavily dilated “whales’ time,” with the middle ground between the two representing a human sense of time. Le Noir de l’étoile (1989-90), an extension of Tempus ex machina, pushes even further into the domain of astrophysics; In addition to his lineup of percussion and tape, the composer employs a live retransmission from an observatory of the sound obtained by ‘listening’ to a pulsar (a radio signal at a fixed frequency emitted by a neutron star turning on itself). Since the pulsars are only audible at precise times, the organizational constraints give the performance a certain sense of a ‘happening’ reminiscent (partly due to its subject matter) of Stockhausen’s Sternklang. The acoustic model of the first movement of Vortex Temporum—three sonic waveforms: sinusoidal, square, and sawtooth—is applied to the material in a rather abstract manner, a move which could be interpreted as a disavowal of his earlier refusal to incorporate extra-musical sources as outlined in his first manifesto. However, its consistent association with melodic profiles urge the model to be considered more as a gesture, a sort of attempt at sonic calligraphy. In addition, the inclusion of a short melodic arabesque borrowed from Daphnis and Chloé offers an interesting example of the neutralization of material, which serves to defuse any impression of a direct quotation. From an instrumental point of view, note the scordatura of four notes in the piano, each lowered a quarter-tone to integrate the piano into the thread of spectral harmony. The second movement, a sort of zoom or close-up of Ravel’s fragment, again illustrates the principle of an expanded sensation of time.

The absence of vocal music in Grisey’s catalogue up to the early 1980s is striking, though perhaps unsurprising given the composer’s preoccupation with consolidating an innovative language whose theoretical foundations fear the semantic dimension inherent in vocal texts. He takes up the challenge with Les chants de l’amour (1982-84), but the largely onomatopoeic treatment of the vocal material can only be seen as an attempt to sidestep. The abundant stage directions in the score unequivocally underscore its theatrical dimension. Amongst the material sung by the twelve mixed voices (while a thirteenth synthetic voices is broadcast in four channels) are few words chosen uttered in ten languages. In its vocal textures as much as its attempt at a syncretic utopia, we hear them influence of Stockhausen, of Stimmung as much as Hymnen. Equally apparent is Grisey’s deep attachment to the idea of a form legitimized by the material that produced it.

It was a graphic stimulus, a painting by Piero della Francesca, that inspired L’Icône paradoxale (1992-94) for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and large orchestra divided into two groups. Again neutralizing the semantic dimension of the voice, here by using a text stripped of any emotional weight—extracts of a treatise on perspective in Piero’s work—Grisey moreover banishes all lyricism by limiting the vocal material to a few impersonal lines with a preference for fragments of scales. This quasi-intrumental treatment of the voice is also found in Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (1996-1998) for soprano and fifteen musicians divided into four groups–the composer’s final piece. The extended use of quarter-tones poses occasional intonation problems and constrains the performers, making a faithful execution extremely difficult (even if the boundaries are clearly less rigid than before). Based on a several texts from disparate sources which share death as a common theme, these songs struck many listeners as a premonition. Whether it was coincidence or prescience of the end at hand, their impression is underscored by the mood of serenity emanating throughout entire piece. The culmination of certain compositional questions, the songs should nevertheless not be heard as a testament or legacy; rather, they raise the unanswerable question of which threshold the composer would have next wished to cross in the name of perfecting his art.

Translation: Christopher Trapani.

  1. Peter Niklas WILSON, « Vers une “écologie des sons” », Entretemps n° 8, 1989, p. 55-81.
  2. « Zur Entstehung des Klanges », Darmstädter Beiträge zur Neuen Musik, Band XVII, 1978, p. 73-79, Schott.
  3. For the latest revision : « Tempus ex machina », Entretemps n° 8, 1989, p. 83-119.
  4. « Tempus ex machina », p. 99.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007

Bibiographie sélective

  • Entretemps, « Grisey/Murail », n° 8, Paris, 1989.
  • Jérôme BAILLET, Gérard Grisey (Fondements d’une écriture), Paris, L’Harmattan, 2000.
  • Danielle COHEN-LEVINAS (sous la dir. de), Le temps de l’écoute (Gérard Grisey ou la beauté des ombres sonores), Paris, L’Harmattan, 2004.
  • Danielle COHEN-LEVINAS (sous la dir. de), « Gérard Grisey : du spectralisme formalisé au spectralisme historisé », dans Vingt-cinq ans de création musicale contemporaine, Paris, L’Itinéraire/L’Harmattan, 1998.
  • François-Xavier FÉRON, « The Emergence of Spectra in Gérard Grisey’s Compositional Process: from Dérives (1973-74) to Les espaces acoustiques(1974-1985) », Contemporary Music Review, vol. 30, n° 5, 2012.
  • François-Xavier FÉRON, «  Gérard Grisey : première section de Partiels (1975) », Genesis n° 31, 2010.
  • François-Xavier Féron, «  Analyse de Prologue de Gérard Grisey », 2016, à lire à cette adresse : https://brahms.ircam.fr/analyses/Prologue/ (lien vérifié en mai 2021).
  • Gérard GRISEY, Écrits ou l’invention de la musique spectrale, édition établie par Guy Lelong avec la collaboration d’Anne-Marie Réby, éditions MF, collection « Répercussions », 2008.
  • Jean-Luc HERVÉ, Dans le vertige de la durée (Vortex Temporum de Gérard Grisey), Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001.
  • Lukas HASELBÖLCK, Gérard Grisey : Unhörbares hörbar machen, Rombach Verlag, Freiburg - Berlin - Wien, 2009.
  • Theo HIRSBRUNNER, « Composer avec les sons. Composer les sons : Gérard Grisey et la musique spectrale », Dissonance 71, 2001, p. 4-9.
  • Pierre RIGAUDIÈRE, « De l’esprit au spectre : mysticisme et spiritualité chez les compositeurs du courant spectral »,* Circuit* n° 21, 2011.
  • Makis SOLOMOS (sous la dir. de), Iannis Xenakis, Gérard Grisey. La métaphore lumineuse, L’harmattan, collection « Arts 8 », Paris, 2003.
  • Ulrich TADDAY (éd.), « Gérard Grisey », Musik-Konzepte, edition Text+Kritik, Heft 176/177, 2017.

Discographie sélective

  • Géragrd GRISEY, Vortex Temporum, dans « Gérard Grisey / Fabien Lévy. Pascal Gallois Conducts Prague Modern », 1 Cd Stradivarius, STR 37111, 2019.
  • Gérard GRISEY, Partiels, dans « MusikFabrik n°13 - Kreuzungen », Ensemble MusikFabrik, avec des œuvres de Vassos Nicolaou, Johannes Schöllhorn et Dieter Mack, 1 Cd Wergo, WER 68662, 2018.
  • Gérard GRISEY, Le temps de l’écume ; Les chants de l’Amour, ensemble S, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, direction : Emilio Pomàrico, Schola Heidelberg, Walter Nußbaum, 1 sacd Kairos, 2008.
  • Gérard GRISEY, Vortex Temporum ; Périodes, Ensemble Risognanze, direction : Tito Ceccherini, 1 cd Stradivarius, 2007, n° 33734.
  • Gérard GRISEY, Les Espaces Acoustiques, Garth Knox, Asko Ensemble, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, direction : Stephan Asbury, 1 cd Kairos, 2005, 0012422KAI.
  • Gérard GRISEY, Le Noir de l’étoile, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, 1 cd Accord - Universal Classics France, 2004, n° 4761052.
  • Gérard GRISEY, Vortex Temporum, Talea, Ensemble Recherche, direction : Kwamé Ryan, 1997, 1 cd Accord-Una Corda, 464 292-2.
  • Gérard GRISEY, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, Catherine Dubosc, Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Cambreling, 2002, 1 cd Kairos, 0012252KAI.
  • Gérard GRISEY, Solo pour deux ; Anubis-Nout ; Stèle ; Charme ; Tempus ex machina, Ernesto Molinari, Uwe Dierksen, Ensemble S, 2006, 1 cd Kairos, 0012502KAI.