Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – Honorable Mention – Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

Gérard Grisey deserves an honorable mention in my Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical for his entrancing work, Les espaces acoustiques, a huge undertaking that took him about 11 years to complete. My Top 50 list isn’t a list of “the most important” or “the most innovative,” but just what I enjoy listening to and what I feel are amazing pieces of classical music. In that sense, this piece is a tough one to place somewhere because it’s both difficult to listen to because I’m not a fan of “atmospheric” music while at the same time, there’s some truly amazing things happening in this piece. 

Gérard Grisey

Following in the French lineage from Rameau through Debussy, Satie, Ravel, and Messiaen, French composers explored the harmonic overtones of sound. The 20th century, in particular, was replete with composers exploring beyond tonality. Most music today is based off the equal temperament tuning system, where the octave frequencies are divided into twelve equal tones, the twelve-tone system of notation tuned to the A440, of 440 Hz which is denoted as the note A. That’s the note orchestras tune to, starting with the oboe. The natural world of sound is far more elaborate than twelve notes between octaves. There are literally hundreds of gradations between one note and the next. You can hear this when someone “sings out of tune” or “plays flat” on an instrument. 

When someone sings a note, or plays a note on a particular instrument, from cymbals to woodwinds, to brass to strings, to percussion, the sound created resonates not just on the main pitch sung, but on the partials, essentially notes above that note sung that resonate with the frequency of the sung note. It vibrates along with the sung note. The partials are not equal tempered. The first two partials ARE equal tempered in that they are the octave, followed by the fifth. Once you get past the first three or four partials, the gradation breaks from the equal temperament, thus going into micro-tonality. 

Our instruments and notation today are designed for equal temperament, of which I don’t mind, because the music created under equal temperament is truly spectacular and lovely, at least to my ears. I’m not a fan of most of the music, or sounds, created outside of tonality, because it lacks that lovely melodic quality which my ears enjoy the most. I tend not to follow the music of Varèse, Xenakis or Stockhausen for this reason, among others. 

Gérard Grisey, however, created a masterpiece of spectral music with his Les espaces acoustiques, a six movement piece that explores the full range of sounds available. The piece begins with a 15 minute prologue just for one viola. And you’d ask, what exactly can you do on one viola for 15 minutes? This is where Grisey mixes in minimalism along with spectralism, as he repeats motives frequently, expanding on them with each repetition, a lot like Steve Reich does with his minimalist pieces. 

As the soloist crescendos in intensity, the piece moves into the second movement, now with an ensemble of players and they explore further the motives introduced with the viola. This second part is called Périodes and it leads to my favorite part of the three, Partiels, where the whole notion of spectralism has its main show. Partiels is founded upon the spectral analysis of an E2 note played on a trombone. What Grisey does is realize the sounds of the upper partials of the E2 note on the trombone through our modern instruments. So really high, very flat, microtonal partials are played by flutes, strings, any instrument that can reach up high, thus using the slow growth of sound from a large ensemble, we get to hear the full range of sound that comes out of just one little trombone playing a low E2. 

Partiels sounds both lovely and scary. The ultra close together and flat/sharp microtones of the overtone series can sound very scary, like the high pitched shrieks of Bernard Herrmann’s score of Psycho. We generally associate that kind of dissonance as frightening, thus making it harder to appreciate the beauty in such sounds. 

Modulations is the next movement in the six movement piece, and it tends to be more messy and chaotic. It is then followed by Transitoires, where the orchestra is a full sized symphonic sound where the ideas in Partiels are developed further leading to a gorgeous explosion with a major triad, such an outlier in the exploration of this piece. This movement is the one that seems to borrow a lot from Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” and could fit perfectly with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey film. Transitoires concludes by dropping back down to the viola again, the piece concluding with an epilogue that reiterates some of the ideas explored. 

Les espaces acoustiques is usually a harmonic feast when listening to the whole, at almost an hour and forty minutes in length. I’m going to  link here a recording of the full version in concert done in 2013. It really is an impressive piece. 

#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain

#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera

#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky

#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1

#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110

#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95

#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32

#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57

#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano

#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables

#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

#40 – Miranda Hamilton

#41 – Strauss Salomé

#42 – Britten Peter Grimes

#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady

#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes

#45 – Webber Evita

#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian

#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti

#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50

#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Honorable Mention

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759

Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17

Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

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