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10.7.10

Seven More Last Words

Ircam and the Centre Pompidou commissioned Tristan Murail to create a new work called Les sept paroles, a setting of the seven final words of Christ on the cross for orchestra, chorus, and electronics. It sounds like something that would be quite interesting to hear -- and you can via online audio from France Musiques (it was premiered at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on April 10 and reprised in Paris on June 12) -- based on the composer's description:
Instead of computer intervention during the concert, an extensive collection of samples elaborated by the composer and his assistant (Grégory Beller) in the Ircam studios in Paris, is used. During the concert, the audio samples are triggered from a single keyboard placed in the center of the orchestra. In this way, the synchronization between the acoustic and electronic music is perfect. This technique allows a virtual choir to be integrated with a real choir. This is extremely important because regardless of how talented the singers may be, they are limited in terms of register as well as intonation possibilities. Tristan Murail explains: "at certain precise moments, the virtual choir sings in the extreme high register or the extreme low register and produces micro-intervals that supplement the diatonic pitches of the real choir. I also use effects of electronic echo and of spacialization similar to those of the Berlioz Requiem."
Marie-Aude Roux spoke to Murail about the new work during his appearance at the Festival Agora in Paris. He told her that the work's genesis goes back to the late 1980s, when he was trying to combine human singing, orchestral instruments, and synthesizers and found the existing technology deficient for what he wanted to do. New technological developments at Ircam made this possible and inspired the completion of the work, as he explained in Roux's article (Virtuelle et humaine, l'agonie de Jésus mise en musique par Tristan Murail, June 12) for Le Monde (my translation):
With Les Sept Paroles, for human choir, virtual choir, orchestra, and electronics with computer-created bell sounds, Murail has made one of the longest and most ambitious works of his career. "It is the work and existence [of the technology] that gave me the courage to go through with it," he confides. "Today I am managing to integrate elements that I would never have dared to use before." Murail does not deny that today he is searching on the side of late Romanticism and the early 20th century -- Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Richard Strauss, whose orchestral palette he admires, and even more their "freedom and ease of expression, which we have lost today," he claims. "I would love to return to a coherence that allows so many digressions, to be capable of writing music that goes from the humorous to the sublime."
The computer-generated chorus adds effects beyond the ability of the human voice, very high or very low pitches, complicated microintervals. The echo and spatialization effects, according to Murail, are the musical equivalent of three-dimensional effects in film. Do have a listen to the online audio of the concert, broadcast on France Musiques on June 24 (and available for streaming only until July 24). The use of gongs and bell sounds recalls Varèse's Poème Électronique: Murail describes the piece as an orchestral work with voices rather than an oratorio, and he studiously avoids anything that suggests the traditional division of voices into soloist and crowd. Amid the croaks and twitters of indescribable noises, Latin words can occasionally be understood, while some strikingly gorgeous textures rise out of the chaos here and there, informed by the post-chromatic harmony of Messiaen. I would have to study the score and listen to it more to understand why I think this, but first impressions are that this is a modern masterpiece.

The concert opens with an even stranger piece by British composer Jonathan Harvey called Speakings (winner of the Prince Pierre de Monaco Composition Prize in 2009), which uses an orchestra to create sounds like human language, inspired by the "pure language" of Buddhist meditation, everything from uncanny, hair-raising baby's cries to deep, wailing moans. The performance is by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under the direction of Pascal Rophé. We had to miss Tristan Murail's recent appearance last fall at the Phillips Collection, but Murail will reportedly play the Ondes Martenot in Christoph Eschenbach's keenly anticipated performance of the Turangalîla-Symphonie next season with the National Symphony Orchestra (March 10 to 12, 2011).

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