Obituaries: Gerard Grisey
Tuesday 24 November 1998
An initiator of so-called "spectral" composition, a new style of music developed mainly in France from the detailed study of the acoustical life of sounds, Grisey produced a large and varied output of colourful works, often laced with unexpected touches of humour and caprice. He was also an influential teacher, whose numerous pupils included such prominent figures as Magnus Lindberg.
Born in Belfort, France, in 1946, Grisey initially studied in Germany at the Trossingen Conservatoire, later returning to his native country to study with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire and Henry Dutilleux at the Ecole Normale. From both his teachers Grisey inherited a sensitivity to sound, harmony and instrumentation, and he shared with Messiaen an almost naive freshness and sense of wonder in his attitude towards culture in general.
Grisey's fascination with Oriental and African music was matched by an unusually catholic taste in Western music - he was one of the few French composers to love the music of Jancek and Sibelius, for example. Grisey also attended the Darmstadt Summer School for New Music where he studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose 1968 work Stimmung was a crucial influence.
Grisey won the coveted Prix de Rome, and stayed at the Villa Medici between 1972 and 1974. He remembered this as one of the most exciting periods of his life: he struck up a friendship with a fellow composer, Tristan Murail, with whom he founded the ensemble L'Itineraire; and composed his first mature work, the orchestral Derives.
Grisey had been a keen student of acoustics during his Paris years, and his personal style emerged through investigating sound and exploring the nature of human perception. For instance, Periodes for seven instruments, from 1974, was based around sections of regularity and consonance, distorted into chaotic and unpredictable textures, which in their turn transform back into simple harmonies.
It was a characteristically simple yet expressive idea, which Grisey also used the following year in the Partiels for 18 players. These two works became the centre of a vast cycle of six pieces, ranging from a viola solo to music for large orchestra, entitled Les Espaces Acoustiques ("Acoustic Spaces", finally completed in 1985), lasting over an hour and a half.
Each can be played on its own, or connected to any adjacent work in the cycle - the ending of the first piece is the beginning of the second, and so forth. Grisey was very proud of Les Espaces Acoustiques, and its complete performance in September 1996 at the Strasbourg Ars Musica Festiva, where he was featured composer, played to a sold-out hall to great acclaim. He was also featured composer at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on two occasions.
Grisey's sudden emergence as a new voice in French music, quite distinct from the school of Boulez, won him immediate attention and he began to be much in demand internationally both as composer and teacher, especially in Italy (where he signed a long-term contract with Ricordi Publishers) and in Germany (where he taught for many years at the summer school in Darmstadt).
From 1982 to 1986 he taught composition at the University of California at Berkeley, and then returned to Paris in 1987 as Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire, where he remained until his death.
He made an ideal teacher - widely read and very witty, he had a ready sympathy for young composers and was proud that, on the whole, his pupils wrote such different music from both him and each other. His class was notable both for its lively, often hilarious atmosphere, and for the range of music he analysed - anything from Machaut to Stockhausen, via such favourites as Jancek, Messiaen or Scelsi.
A thoughtful man and a fastidious composer, Grisey preferred to work patiently at those pieces which really mattered - there are no minor works. After 1986, his style changed substantially, with such works as the compelling Vortex Temporum for ensemble (1996), which created a sensation at Huddersfield last November, and above all the major song- cycle to texts by Piero della Francesca, L'Icone Paradoxale, a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic who premiered it under Esa-Pekka Salonen in 1996.
Wilder and more agile than his previous music, these bold pieces confirmed his position as one of Europe's key composers, whose music appealed to audiences, without any stylistic compromise or concession. Just before his untimely death, he had completed a BBC commission for the London Sinfonietta, inspired by the inscriptions on ancient Egyptian sarcophagi and to be premiered in London next February.
Gerard Grisey, composer: born Belfort, France 17 June 1946; teacher of composition, University of California, Berkeley 1982-85; Professor of Orchestration and Composition, Conservatoire de Paris 1987-98; married (one son); died Paris 11 November 1998.
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