Notes and Editorial Reviews
Alain Trudel (tb);
Juliette Hurel (fl);
Sonia Wieder-Atherton (vc);
Ian Pace (pn);
class="ARIAL12">Pascal Rophé, cond; Montepelier NO;
Christoph Eschenbach, cond; Paris O
NAÏVE 782181 (77:05)
7 Solos for Orchestra
Pascal Rophé, cond; Liège Wallonie Bruxelles PO
NAÏVE 782180 (2 CDs: 90:32)
String Quartets Nos. 1–5. String Trio
Arditti Str Qrt
AEON 0893 (2 CDs: 105:25)
This may be a little longer than usual, and so I promise to try to be as concise and entertaining as I can, in exchange for your time. You’ll also notice from the headnote timings that there’s a
of music under review.
Pascal Dusapin (b.1955) may well be the most prominent French composer of his generation. His output spans all the major classical genres and media, and he’s had commissions and performances by ensembles and organizations of the first rank. I actually know him, though not as a close friend. We met in Paris around 1980, when he was still “emerging” (and in checking my archives I find to my pleasure we shared a program at IRCAM in 1982). I wrote one of the first articles in English about his music (in a suitably obscure publication). I’ve seen him infrequently since, a couple of times in the last decade, once in New York and once in Paris. I bring up the personal connection because Dusapin’s persona is useful to know in relation to his music. He’s a large man, burly like a Depardieu, except with finer features; there’s also a certain boyish quality about him even now. He’s supremely confident, yet very down-to-earth and unpretentious. He wants to talk aesthetics more than career. He’s very generous and easy to laugh, and his good humor is infectious. At the same time, you know he has strong opinions and will not hesitate to stake his claim openly for what he believes.
From very early on I was impressed and intrigued by his music. Part of it came from the fact that he was just about the only real student of Iannis Xenakis (I mean a one-to-one, regular lesson student), and his music shared certain characteristics of his teacher (more on that later). It had definite visceral power. And perhaps most strikingly, it seemed very un-French in the context of the time. The late 20th century in Paris was dominated by the rise of the Spectralists, composers (such as Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail) who modeled their music on acoustic discoveries in the microscopic structures of sound, and in particular the overtone series. Dusapin had nothing to do with this, and frankly professed little or no interest. His music, even though scrupulously notated, tended to project a raw surface, verging on messy. Sounds were constantly bent, smeared, broken. One could call it Expressionist, except that emotion didn’t seem to be the point. Rather, one sensed one was entering into a wild “natural” zone, where unpredictable forces could emerge and overwhelm. I often found myself wondering, “How can they [i.e. the French] let him get away with this, even reward him so? It seems so counter to the precise, coloristic impulse everyone else is so invested in.”
Well, I still don’t have a conclusive answer to that question. But over time, especially as demonstrated by this spate of releases (essentially the equivalent of what in the visual arts would be called a “mid-career retrospective”), the investment has paid off. Dusapin has become a truly masterly composer, a real voice for our era.
I admit that much as I enjoyed the music for its strength, individuality, and “otherness,” for a long time it also left me a little hungry, as the French say. All the sonic deformations seemed a little too similar from piece to piece, and I couldn’t help but feel there was something else struggling to come out, that had to be squashed in the service of a more modernist, or perhaps deconstructionist ideal. What these discs show, however, is that at a certain point (and I would say sometime in the 90s), Dusapin reached a turning point where his carefully constructed tool kit of devices, his “tics” (again
comme dissent les Français)
could be deployed toward a richer, more humane aesthetic. In each of these releases one feels a turning point occurs, where the music comes out of a tunnel to a new level of luminosity. In the quartets release, it occurs in the middle movement (of five) of the Third Quartet, which tellingly has a superscription in the score of “seek a simple sound, open and resonant.” In the orchestral
, it is
(2002). The four concertos all seem to share this new freedom and openness, but the earliest is 1994. Something seems to have been going on.
And what is “it”? I’m not going to give a detailed exegesis of all this music—that would become boring and I think miss the point. I can’t even mention every piece. Dusapin seems to be a composer constantly writing, and over time the tidal nature of his output shifts; his
is more a stream of music gradually shifting perspective rather than a series of gemlike individual artifacts. I’ve described the earlier work (and indeed perhaps the quintessential example is the Second String Quartet, “Time Zones,” which is an immense, nearly 40-minute, gangly collection of 24 pieces, many striking but ultimately exhausting as a listening experience; it seems to be a piece that “had to be written,” and then the composer, having established his
, could move on). The more recent work shares the following qualities:
There is a greater simplicity and clarity, though that doesn’t mean the music has become spare or fragile. Rather, stronger, more authentic melodies are allowed to emerge, and hierarchies between layers, between melody and accompaniment, are more evident, if not traditional. (This is particularly clear in the last two quartets. The Fifth opens with a long pensive violin melody over ruminating
strings.) The composer obviously has embraced modalism as his primary harmonic practice, and one feels often that long passages, even entire pieces, are the exploration of a single scale, stretched out both horizontally and vertically.
The orchestration becomes far more brilliant. The dark sonic palette of earlier work progressively brightens with an upward registral expansion and inclusive of bell-like timbres. Percussion gains more prominence.
The formal flow becomes more open and “breathlike.” Before, there was a certain torturous quality to the formal discourse of Dusapin’s works; one could always count on surprise and rupture (paradoxically). But now, especially in the final three
) one senses a deep tidal flow propelling the music. There are genuine waves of sound that enhance its expressive impulse.
Finally, there are just great, individuated sonic moments. In
, the trombone concerto, there’s a long passage where the soloist softly buzzes a low B? while singing a simple melody in B?-Major (!): completely haunting, and then a little later there’s an extended duet for trombone and piccolo. There’s a similarly ghostly moment in the Fifth Quartet where all the strings play
sounds so faint it sounds like either a conversation or running water heard at a great distance. In
, the piano concerto, the third movement begins and ends with an extended piano solo, which is slow, spare, pensive, and positively bluesy without being any cheap reference (indeed, I suspect it’s just the result of the mode Dusapin has chosen, not any conscious reference).
Dusapin likes to think of his pieces as very specific shapes set in motion, subjected to processes of transformation that alter their contour. He often speaks of the
in ways that refer to topology, and this concept of form is perhaps where he is closest to his teacher Xenakis. But another composer now seems at least as close in spirit and practice, if not closer, i.e., Giacinto Scelsi. The Italian’s embrace of modality, of expressive microinflection, and of a mystical grandeur seems more akin to Dusapin’s aesthetic now (note how I’m talking as though an ancestor is mimicking a descendent; in art now and then influence really does move forward and backward). There’s also a
spirit to Dusapin that is closer to Scelsi than Xenakis, who always had to have an ironclad technical armature, no matter how wild the music might become.
I’ll even go one step farther to say I hear an even more distant predecessor asserting a claim, Sibelius. The sort of oceanic flow that now drives Dusapin’s music, and carries me along as a listener, with its gradual, inevitable transformations, seems increasingly evocative of the earlier composer.
Finally, I think that Dusapin’s extensive, cumulative experience with opera has made him far more open to events and moments that before might have seemed too obvious or cheap to him. This is what makes the concertos such a pleasure for me. Rather than casting the form as a struggle between the individual and the group, I rather feel it as more
: The soloist is an agent who finds himself in different environments and encounters, caught in a surprising dramatic narrative where you never know what might turn up. There are moments of surprise, delight, terror, grief. The result is deeply dramatic and, again, humane.
These are all stunning performances, made by musicians with an obvious love for and commitment to the composer. The Ardittis have premiered most of their disc’s program, and they play with the resultant authority. I’m particularly impressed with how strong the Montpelier and Liège orchestras sound; these are technically provincial groups, but wow!
Are you still with me? Dusapin is in it for the long haul. The
are actually an excellent example. He wanted to write a vast orchestral cycle, but knew no one would commission such, so he charted out his plan and then wrote each work in the series for each subsequent commission that came along, over almost two decades (lucky he had
commissions!). He has made authoritative contributions to orchestra, opera, concerto, chamber music, piano. He covers the waterfront; he’s the real deal, the total package. This is music of enormous, direct impact, tied to the deep values of the grand tradition, yet not turning its back in any way on the contemporary experience, or the legacy of Modernism. I feel I’m just starting to plumb its depths. You’ll find the concertos in my current Want List, but all of these warrant similar attention. This is a set of breakout releases from a composer who’s been steadily developing his craft and spirit, and now speaks strongly to the new century, giving us hope in a dark time.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Trombone "Watt" by Pascal Dusapin
Alain Trudel (Trombone)
Montpellier National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Concerto for Cello "Celo" by Pascal Dusapin
Sonia Wieder-Atherton (Cello)
Montpellier National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Concerto for Piano "Á quia" by Pascal Dusapin
Ian Pace (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
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