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ABOUT: CULTURAL SPACE & Full-Fire Tribute to Tristan Murail

The Three-Day Festival formed in collaboration with ABOUT, Institut
Franais, Onassis Cultural Center and Megaron (17, 19, 20, February 2013).


Excerpts of the this lecture-recital with Maria Aloupi were given on:
February 20, 2013


Tristan Murail and Spectralism sighted through Les Travaux et les jours

By Keith Moore
Assistant Professor & Assistant Chair of Music Department
University of Indianapolis Athens Campus

Murails Biography and Full-Fire Tribute to Tristan Murail

Welcome to the final concert of this extraordinary festival celebrating the music
and artistic influence of Tristan Murailand thank you for asking me to speak on
this occasion. Im deeply honored to deliver remarks tonight about Tristan
Murail and his music, and about the rise and development of spectral techniques
in general.

Tristan Murail was born in Le Havre in 1947 and came of age as a composer in
late 1960s and early 1970s Paris. During this period he studied composition at
the Conservatoire National Suprieur with acclaimed composer and pedagogue
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and quickly began writing provocative works like
Couleur de Mer (1969) and Altitude 8000 (1970). In 1973 Murail, together with a
group of like-minded musicians, formed ensemble LItineraire. Their mission
was to explore and champion a music not immediately comprehended by many
performing and cultural organizations and Murail composed his most distinctive
early works in this context, including Mmoire/Erosion (1976), Treize Couleurs
du soleil couchant (1978) and Ethers (1978). The mission of LItineraire was a
resounding success. By the end of the decade they fostered and promoted a new
approach to music compositionspectralism and the roots of spectralismthat
now enjoyed recognition in Europe and beyond. In the 1980s Murail had
increasing contact as composer and researcher with IRCAM (an internationally
known institute at Centre Pompidou founded by Pierre Boulez and the French
Ministry of Culture and Communication in 1977 and dedicated to the
technological exploration of music and acoustics.) This relation of composition
and research at IRCAM deepened in the 1990s with Murail also co-developing
the seminal software package Patchwork and teaching on the aesthetics and
techniques of electronics and computation in music. Compositions
Dsintgrations (1982-1983) and LEsprit des dunes (1994) are representative of
these fertile decades in Murails output. In 1997 Tristan Murail became Professor
of Composition at Columbia University in New York City, a post he held until

2011 when he retired and was named Professor Emeritus. Recently (2012),
having returned to Europe, he was appointed Professor of Composition at the
Universitt Mozarteum of Salzburg.

I had the pleasure to come to know Tristan in New York, where I studied with
him at Columbia University. I also worked closely with Tristan in a university
related project mounting public performances of large-scale compositions
utilizing spectral techniques and an array of electronic and computer technology
that had not been heard live in New York. Again, as it had been with LItineraire,
Tristan wanted musicians to comprehend the distinctive intentions and
challenges of his music and related works, and to have these compositions heard
publically in knowledgeable performances. His efforts were a success once more
and the New York new music scene, which in many respects sets the bar for
contemporary music activity in the United States, has not been the same since.

This festival has a similar goal. The performers are well versed in Murails music:
Ensemble 2E2M plays many works involving spectral techniques and they are
champions of earlier composers important to the rise of that tradition; Murails
Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) was amongst the first works in the
young Ergon Ensembles repertoire; and Pianist-composer Maria Aloupi has a
strong dedication to the work of Murail and has performed his piano
compositions extensively. Over the last days weve witnessed Tristan Murails
music in the context of related composers, both younger and older. From Murail
himself weve heard compositions from the recent and ongoing Portulan Cycle;
tonight we hear excerpts from his piano collection Les Travaux et les jours
(2002), which dates from the same period, and we glimpse the development of
Murails style through three important earlier works.

Quotations and Reminisces

Most of you will be happy to know this isnt an academic lecture on Murails
work. So let me begin with a couple quotes from Tristan and three anecdotes you
might enjoy.

First Tristan has always insisted: there is no spectral music; there are only
spectral techniques.

I may slip up and speak of spectral music tonight, but its important I get that
idea out there first. Tristan is correct for insisting that composers envision their
own music, and spectral techniques do not limit the musics one can imagine.

What spectral techniques do is allow composers to seize on some aspect of
sound itself as an organizing principle; and it is likely that in some corresponding
waylarge or smallthis moves the composer away from handling the
traditional elements of musical notation as organizing principles. Tristan, very
simply, puts it like this:

Why do we always have to think of music in terms of notes? We work with

sounds, for which notes are simply symbolsnotes and sounds are not the same

Well see and hear the implications of this kind of thinking tonight in the works
of Tristan Murail.

But first, as we miss Tristans presence tonight, let me give you a few stories.

Tristan is surely the only composer of his stature I ever found myself alone with,
wrapping cables late night in a grungy session room after two long rehearsals. It
was one of those warehouses spaces just off 42nd street, called Ricks or Micks,
11:37 pm and counting. The fact of it hit me on the spot, spooling a greasy XLR
cable around my wrist and elbow.

This wasnt at all because Tristan is humble. It was because from his early days
he respected and knewexactly and completelywhat it took to get something
right; and he was still on the job, like me, one rehearsal to go and a critical
performance just around the corner. Now for you young performers and
composers out there dont expect Tristan to be wrapping cables with you! He
wont speak to me again! But its a great example of how to handle your own

Regarding the Portulan Cycle, I always remember how Tristan dreaded the cult
of the composer. In lessons and weekly composition seminars he plainly stated
a piece of musics interest was in the music, that it had nothing to do with the
maker of the work. Accordingly, he showed great displeasure with the design of
Ensemble Intercontemporains new composer portrait CD serieseach a
composer against a white background; leaning on an invisible wall, or stooping
and waving; shirt tucked in, or shirt not tucked in. Tristan went through great
lengths to ensure his Intercontemporain CD, when released, had no image at all:
just his name and the titles, and a white background. Yet, at the time, he was
quietly building Portulan, a series of works comprising indirect autobiography;
each about nounsome person, place or thingimportant to the composer. This
is a great example of Tristans creative and surprising response to obstinacy. If
query keeps coming up, he finally fixes it with his own unique reply.

In those same lessons and seminars, Tristan spoke with brutal but polite honesty
about what he perceived as the weakness of compositions made from short
unconnected movements. (Looking at his works list, it was certainly clear Tristan
was a fan of single movement compositions.) Whether the presenter was a
student or guest, you could see the remark written across Tristans face.
Sometimes he wouldnt say it, but usually he would. And so it was one Tuesday
we students all sat together in Miller Theatre with jaws dropped at the premiere
of Les Travaux et les jours (2002), which we hear tonighta large piano work
formed from nine short separated movements! Again, it seems Tristan decided to
say, OK, look. This is how its done!


Lets quickly put spectralism in context and then explore some particulars from
Les Travaux et les jours (2002). When Murail was starting out serialism or post-
serialism still held sway in most corners of Europe and America. (Even his
teacher, one of the great originals of the dayand not a serialistrecommended
the technique to his students.) Young composers received a one-dimensional
aesthetic framework: a path with one direction for conservation, and the other
direction for progress.

Though dominant serialism had already received two influential schools of
critique, both of which were important to the rise of spectralism. First were the
sound mass composers, such as Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), Gyrgy Ligeti
(1923-2006) and Friedrich Cerha (b. 1926) who from the late 1950s began
writing musical works with densely figured events meant to be taken in their
totality, rather than for their precise internal construction or contrapuntal
relations. The second wave of critique came from minimalist composers Terry
Riley (b. 1935), LaMonte Young (b. 1935), Steve Reich (b. 1936) and Philip Glass
(b. 1937) who in the mid 1960s began writing pieces with radically limited
materials that often developed through clear and gradually unfolding processes.

For some spectralists, including Gerard Grisey (1946-1998), the minimalist
lesson of discrete process was deeply influential. In Murails music, however, we
rarely encounter a vestige of gradual process in the minimalist sense. If we need
a new term, perhaps its better to speak of progressive or continuous
development: in any case Murail resists didactic formal patterning. His organic
approach to large-scale form was influenced more by the Italian composer
Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose music was championed by LItineraire and
who Murail dubbed the first de-composer, and by the legendary modernist
Edgar Varse (1883-1965), who wrote relatively little but managed to be a
precursor to much of the 20th Century.

But resting behind sound mass and minimalist composers, lays the broader
influence of technology. Composers in each movement worked directly with the
tools of technology as electronic music first took shape in the 1950s and 1960s.
Both took concepts from technologysuch as the possibility of infinite sonic
sustain, or mechanical and independently unfolding metricsthat ultimately
found metaphoric partners in their music for musicians. The lessons of electronic
music technology were radical and abrupt; waves of influence beyond its
material basis were surely inevitable. But, the tools of early electronic music
were also brittle and for this reason too many composers ultimately felt it easier
to take their ideas into the domain of concert music.

The concepts of electronic music also found their ways into general theoretical
writings, most immediatelyand conspicuouslythey informed Karlheinz
Stockhausens seminal article how time passes which managed to influence
the serialists and any number of its critics including the spectral school.

Spectralism gained from all the musicians, ideas and materials we have
mentioned, but regards technology they were in a unique and much different

historical position. Eventually, with the rise of computing in the 1970s and 1980s
they were able to keep the dialog with technology ongoing and explicit, even in
the realm of purely instrumental music. Chief amongst the spectral tools made
available by computers was the spectral analysisthe ability to look into sound
itself and finely discern its material and unfolding.

Referring to all this historyto Varse, to his appropriation by the serialists, to
composers of early electronic musicand to his own formal-musical ambitions
in the face of the new computer analysis and computation, Murail states: the
sound object does not exist any more it is subsumed in pure development.

Works of Murail

The early works of Tristan Murail combine calculation, aural sonic analysis, and
formal concepts that bare metaphoric relations to electronic technology, like
those discussed earlier.

Mmoire/Erosion (1976) for horn and nine instruments provides a clear example
of such a formal relation. The work is based on the re-injection loop, a studio
technique involving tape loops and more than one magnetic tape machine. In this
process sound is recorded and plays back before traveling a certain physical
length (which also means a particular length of time, i.e. the tape loop) and
playing back once more, therefore being recorded and played back again, with
the process continuing.

In Mmoire/Erosion the horn introduces all the new material, which enters the
other instrumental parts in a similar fashion. But Tristan goes further. In the
physical process unavoidable noise also enters the system, from the grit of the
machinery. Rather then rid himself of that worldly fact, Tristan actually
orchestrates the noise in, thereby taking up the passage from harmonicity, to
inharmonicity, to noiseone of his principle sonic interests. With a humorous
nod, the piece through with a giant clicking that switches off the work and the
imaginary tape machines in one touch!

Cest un jardin secret, ma soeur, ma fiance, une source scelle, une fontaine close
(1976) for solo viola, which weve just heard in a marvelous performance from
Krystalia Gaitanou, displays these passages from pitch to noise, here achieved by
applying various levels of finger pressure in the left hand and bow pressure in
the right hand. The compressing and dilating tempi of the work have their
origins in sounds of the natural world, clearly revealed to the composer through
the means of electronic technology. Such rhythms pervade Tristans music and
are highly characteristic in Les Travaux et les jours (2002).

One of Murails most often played works, Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant
(1978) for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello has a relation to technology
much like Mmoire/Erosion, but here it is to the process of ring modulation. [Ad
lib. ring modulation and Tristans process of deriving pitches]

Ethers (1978) for flute and five instruments brings the process of frequency
modulation literally into the music by delivering them through multiphonics.

The combination tones of multiphonics are heard separately, but nonetheless do
fuse a degree by emanating through the same resonator and radiator. When
Tristan creates and orchestrates these combination tones individually, in
different spatial locations, he re-fuses them by adding the subtle swishing noise
of maracas. Drawing on psycho-acoustic research, Tristan was well aware that
noise binds elements related or not. In Ethers he used those findings to create
an intriguing and unprecedented ensemble texture.

Gondwana (1980) for large orchestra also uses frequency modulation to create
the principle harmonies of the work and at the same time bridge the divide
between the extremes of pitch and noiseall of which is beautifully orchestrated
by the composer.

With Dsintgrations (1982-1983) computer-assisted instrumental analysis
finally comes into the foreground and never leaves the composers toolbox.
Through spectral analysis of the timbres of a various instruments a new kind of
instrumental & electronics writing emerges, the two being perfectly fused and
the electronics only taking over when the instruments themselves can go no

Incidentally, these same analyses seem to provide Murail with a material so
fecund he is compelled to revisit them repeatedly and different perspectives; and
so, as something of a first, a degree of discontinuity and cyclicity begins to enter
his formal designs.

From here on, these techniques never leave the composers toolbox. Rather in the
1990s his spectral techniques develop further carrying greater detail about the
role of timethe envelope of soundregarding spectral elements, and he moves
on to evermore exotic and intractable sound sourcesfrom extended non-
Western vocal techniques and archaic instruments in LEsprit des dunes (1994),
to the deeply inharmonic sonic fingerprints of water, rain, lightning and thunder
in works like Le Partage des eux (1995) for large orchestra and Le Lac (2001) for
large ensemble.

Les Travaux et les jours (2002)

Looking at Murails work as a whole, Les Travaux et les jours (2002) is a radical
return and a radical departure at one and the same time.

Murails basic sound source is more familiar (even having first appeared in the
1977 piano work Territoires de loubli), but the short movements, formal
discontinuity and contrapuntal presentation of ideas, seems totally new.

Consider the first figure.

Maria p.1 / system 1

As given to us now, the figure sounds like a harmonic series, but one distorted
through dilation and compressionboth familiar techniques in Murails toolbox.
Ultimately we will see this is more of a reference then a generating process, but
lets suppose this is how its made, to familiarize you with the concepts

If we remove the distortion of this figure, as its written in the score, the music
will go right off the piano! So lets hear the figure once more, but down an octave,
and well work on it in this position.

Maria p.1 / system 1 / down one octave

Can you play the three notes of that figure resting in normal position (F#, A#,

Maria plays example 1.

Now lets play the natural version, with no compression or dilation, while
keeping those notes in place.

Maria plays example 2.

OK. That was a normal harmonic serieswith one exception well talk about
laterapproaching, and ascending from, those three central pitches.

Now lets add logarithmic compression above those three pitches, bringing the
distance of each note increasingly closer together:

Maria plays example 3.

Whats amazing is we see those final repeated notes are actually different
pitches! Only the piano doesnt have in between notes to play when the pitches
get so close, so Tristan just repeats them and then moves up. Remarkably the
idea is so clear we ignore the piano and here the image! Theres no better
demonstration of Tristans words We work with sounds, for which notes are
simply symbolsnotes and sounds are not the same thing.

Now lets add a static level of dilation below those same three pitches:

Maria plays example 4.

Finally lets make that dilation logarithmic as well, stretching that final bottom
interval just a touch:

Maria plays example 5.

OK. Thats our original figure (but down one octave!)

(For the more technically minded, notice regardless of how we derive the object,
the bottom octave is still divided, so at this point we know the real fundamental
is at least one or more octaves lower. Simply stated, this is because the harmonic
series fills in with more notes in each successive octave, and if we know these
are higher octaves, these pitches must be a selection from a wider palette of
choices. In the works final measures, the true origin of this figure is revealed
when the material is placed into the resonances of the pianos low F.)

The next figure in the score is the original one, but minus four notes on top and
one on bottom. Selection and re-contextualization of a source are key building
techniques in Murails work.

In this example the reduced figure is heard and expands once more. It then
begins to descend, and is cut off by a wide trill figure, a second sound object, that
pervades the whole workbinding it together, while also enforcing harmonic

Maria p.1 / system 2, 3, 4.

Now we hear recurrences of the original figure compress in the time domain,
effectively layering statements against each other and creatingfor Murailan
oddly contrapuntal texture; the trill figure then interrupts once more.

Maria p.1 / system 5 though p.2 / system 2.

Later in this movement we hear a different approach to temporal compression.
After a brief climax the pace of rapid descending arpeggiations begins to slow
down and notes to be presented start to pile against each other once more, but
this time falling into thicker and thicker chords whose harmonies begin to shift
around a common tone B natural (just below middle C.) The space between
statements of the final chord begins to widen and finally the opening figure has
space to unfold once more. Lets listen to that!

Maria p.4 / system 1, 2, 3, 4.

Heres the whole of Movement I.

Maria Movement I.

In Movement II, Murails selection/re-contextualization becomes proper
fragmentation, allowing for poised juxtapositions of the two figures.

Maria p.5 / system 1, 2, 3, 4.

Movement III takes slow chords into a climax of rapid notes so far afield of the
previous movements character that after two final low, crashing chords the
opening figure returns to remind us the very distance of the travelperhaps its
just me, but I cant resist hearing it as the memory of the lost just as it appears
to Berliozs fallen hero just before the drop of the guillotine.

Maria Movement III.

Movement VI revisits the opening of Movement I. But here the original figure
appears descending, and already in spiral-contrapuntal form; it dominates the

Maria p.27

Movement VII is a compressed and climactic stretto of all ideas previously

Maria excerpt pages 32 & 33.

Movement VIII is long work that presses into new ground while also recycling
previous figurations, such as the descending opening of Movement VI and the
final low crashing chords of Movement III.

The final movement, Movement IX, begins with the quizzical B-C trilling figure.
The compositions opening figure is heard and gradually relaxes into the position
of its primary resonance above low F.

Maria excerpt pages 46 & 49.

Now lets step back a minute and look at Movement V, which brings back the
thick low chords we encountered in Movement I. Lets hear them, first played
normally; then again with just the repeated Bbs that lead to B natural followed
by the final high chord for reference; and again with all the notes back in and the
Bbs and B natural emphasized.

Maria p.24 / system 3 example (normal; monophonic; and normal with
the Bbs and B natural emphasized.)

One may be tempted to think of Messiaens modes of limited transposition with
these repeating Bbs. Here is Messiaens way of handling a similar texture; the
example comes from the work we heard earlier tonight.

Maria Messiaen example.

Lets listen to Messiaens example the same waywith just the repeated upper
common tone, and then again the full excerpt with those notes emphasized.

Maria Messiaen example, 2 & 3.

Low rich chords like these are more common in Messiaens piano and orchestral
music. In Les Travaux et les jours (2002) Murail has the harmonic colors of his
former teacher in mind, but Tristan clearly has a different generating source. For
Murail these repeated notes are shared resonances amidst contrasting
fundamentals, the analogy for how he uses them is surely something closer to

formant frequencies, which keep a color constant against shifting chordal and
spectral content. The rising bass and rising inner voices in Murails chords seem
to push the Bbs up, with the Bbs finally breaking their threshold and reaching up
to B natural. (Similar chords sequences are conspicuous in Murails recent Terre
dombre (2003-2004) for large orchestra and electronics.) What Id like you to
appreciate is how unusual these sonorities are for Tristan. Evidently hes using
the lowness of the chords as a kind of fusiona fusion he often goes out of his
way to avoid.

By way of demonstration consider Cloches dadieu, et un sourirein memorium
Olivier Messiaen (1992) which was heard earlier this evening. This work has only
one chord below F3 with an interval smaller than a minor sixth, and that chord is
also the only chord below F3 with more than 2 notes! It appears at the climax of
the composition, and after three consecutive articulations, it thins out and dies
down to a solitary repeated B3 closing the piece.

Listen to these two excerpts from Cloches dadieu, et un sourirein memorium
Olivier Messiaen. The first presents the compositions typical usage of the bass
register and the second shows the exceptional case discussed above, which
forms the climax of the work.

Maria Murail Cloches examples, 1 & 2.


I hope this brief tour has provided you a general context with which to
appreciate the work of Tristan Murail. By highlighting a few of his principal
concerns as a composer and listen to individual passages from his piano music, I
hope the basic organizational strategies of his music and these works were
revealed to you in greater detail.

Friends, enjoy the rest of the concert, and thanks again for inviting me to be here
with you tonight.