In Memoriam: Gérard Grisey

Last year when asked to write a piece for the University of Delaware Percussion ensemble , I felt I was finally ready to write a piece in memory of my mentor, Gérard Grisey.  I studied with him at UC Berkeley as a graduate student and then at the Fontainebleau Conservatory in France for a summer in the late ’80’s.  In my two years with him, Mr. Grisey questioned all I had learned and encouraged me to cast off all that didn’t fit my musical aesthetic.  This was not an easy process and I remember being frustrated when he told me that I was “too young to be so conservative.”  However, I also remember how rewarding it was to witness his reaction to a movement I wrote while at Fontainebleau at the moment he realized that I “got it.”  One problem with assimilating his lessons and deciding on my direction was that I floundered as a composer for longer than I should have.  While I didn’t adopt the “spectral” techniques of Grisey, I was incredibly influenced by his ideas about musical form,orchestration and process.   He wrote, that “music transfigures Time” and while the blank slate of Time is a pretty daunting canvas, he helped me understand that when planning the progression of a work over time, one could plan for and set up a moment that could shape a psychological response in a listener.

In this piece for six percussionists and video, I start with the gesture Grisey used at the end of Partiels.  At this moment, the audience waits in anticipation as the sound dissipates and a percussionist with hand cymbals slowly prepares to crash two cymbals together.  The crash never comes and the piece ends.  This gesture was the basis for this movement for finger cymbals as the video leads a “ballet” of circular movement choreographed for the percussionists who are lined up at the edge of the stage.

The second movement was inspired by a conversation I had with Grisey after spending an afternoon at the Pompidou Center in Paris.  I was taken by a piece by François Rouan, a contemporary of Grisey’s and a painter he knew.  We discussed pattern and the intricacies of Rouan’s work.  This piece is a concept piece and the ensemble pantomimes their own performance on the screen.  Notes were selected for performance that bring new meaning to the “pattern,” which is a popular funk rhythm.

I used a short motive from my favorite Grisey piece, L’Icone Parodoxale in the third movement.  This motive is placed in a way that won’t be recognized but is the glue for the architecture of the piece.  There is always a sublime moment in Grisey’s pieces when you realize that you are hearing something that goes beyond beauty to truth.  I remember him stating more than asking, “who cares about your emotions?”  He was referring to the obvious intent of my motives and at the time, I didn’t understand what this meant since I always felt an emotional connection to his music.  However now I realize that he accessed the audience’s emotions in a honest manner, not by obvious placement of a melody but by leading the audience to the moment when all elements, including motives, come together.  Musical architecture was his vehicle for this and the structuring of Time was very important to him as it became for me as well. The video for this movement was inspired by artist Julie Mehretu whose work often starts with a underlying grid.

The final movement is meant to be fun as the percussionists quickly rotate through the instruments and the video and percussionists lead the audience in the asymmetrical beat pattern.  Like his teacher, Olivier Messiaen, Grisey referred to non-Western music often in his lessons, and it was because of him that I became a student of rhythmic practices after studying with him.  As the process for writing and producing the video for this piece comes to an end, I would like to thank Harvey Price and the University of Delaware Percussion Ensemble for their openness to this project.  This piece allowed me time to reflect on my journey as a composer and student of music, and provided an opportunity to share the ideas of a truly innovative composer.

About efjcomposer

Composer/New Media Designer/Educator
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1 Response to In Memoriam: Gérard Grisey

  1. Martha Crowell says:

    Ellen, this is wonderful. I wish I’d met this man. I love reading about the moment moving beyond beauty to truth.

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