Conductors: Yves Prin and Karl-Anton Rickenbacher
Orchestras and performers: French National Orchestra, Beethovenhalle Orchestra, and Ensemble l’Itinéraire
Years of recordings: 1980, 1987, 1986
SPARS Code: DDD
About the Composer: Tristan Murail (1947- ) is a trailblazer in French electronic music and has had a storied involvement with the Paris-based Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music (IRCAM).
About the Music: Murail is regarded as a pioneer of spectral music, which can be described as a style or aesthetic in which a composer analyzes sound spectra in order to make compositional decisions. Listening to Murail’s pieces will lead many to mistakenly assume that the term refers to music that is primarily ghostly; though highly technical in nature, his work will definitely keep listeners on edge. All of the works employ a bevy of traditional instruments, but it is the electronic devices that really make things interesting.
Gondwana: Gondwana opens with a terse, serpentine rattling that gives way to a series of arresting waves propelled by the percussion and the rest of the orchestra. The piece is named after the sunken continent prominent in Indian legend, and it contains numerous passages which effectively represent the eerie recesses of the abyss. I appreciated the sinking sensation that Murail creates about eleven minutes into the work, but felt that the subsequent turbulence from the instruments, meant to signify a volcanic eruption, could have been even more high-strung. The sounds slowly wilt as they reach the conclusion.
Désintégrations: I felt like my mind was being funnelled through an arrangement of dark glass beakers when I first heard the magnetic tape that is employed extensively in this haunting work. Murail has punctuated Désintégrations with several moments of sudden silence that allow you to be easily caught off guard when a bizarre mixture of noises remorselessly pounce on your tympanic membranes. The sounds are unique enough to prevent the nearly 23-minute long piece from meandering into repetition, and they certainly are provocative; witness, for example, the disturbance roughly three minutes into the piece which could be taken to resemble the blaring siren of an otherworldly ambulance as it crawls along the void. The unexpected cascade of percussion sparkles that follows shortly afterward should sound comforting, but it’s certainly not in Murail’s universe. It’s not long before the tape and the ensemble emit a series of thunderous, electrified gulps and sneezes that may either frighten or possibly elicit a chuckle from some listeners. The cacophony doesn’t end there, however; there are also some curious passages in the final minutes which feature a peculiar yet persistent droning noise, reminiscent of an electric razor, which may lead some to posit that extraterrestrial forces surreptitiously entered the studio in an effort to supplement the composer’s handiwork. But does Murail really need assistance from the Greys? I don’t think so!
Time and Again: Named after the novel by American science fiction legend Clifford D. Simak, Time and Again is Murail’s stab at conveying music in which the passage of time is distorted, causing several flashbacks and premonitions to occur during the work’s 17-minute length. A loud and extremely discordant piece, I didn’t appreciate it as much as Désintégrations. I did enjoy the pleasantly unnerving finale, however, which consists of an unexpected smattering of radio static coupled with arcane tapping noises.
The liner notes are brief yet succinct. This disc is an appealing glimpse into Murail’s creative approach to electronic composition.