Contes Cruels ("Cruel Tales") is the title of a collection of short novels by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, a French writer (1838-1889).
The piece is written for 2 electric guitars and a small orchestra (woodwinds by 2).
The 2nd guitar is tuned up a 1/4 tone. Both guitars use a number of electronic transformations, notably ring modulators, echo and distortion.
The guitars sometimes play as real soloists, or sometimes propose sonic models which are imitated or commented by the orchestra.
The form of the piece is like a series of "tales" which are embedded in each other, like in the "Arabian Nights" (or like in a piece of LISP programming...).
However there is no programmatic intention and these musical tales don't tell any precise story !
With 2 exceptions:
- at the beginning, and in a number of occasions thoughout the piece, the guitars play a pattern based on the words "Il était une fois" ("Once upon a time") - this pattern uses ring modulation on the guitars - a very distinctive sound, which is often reverberated in the orchestra. It acts as a sort of signal, or as milestones, indicating a change of "tale" in the fictive narration.
- one of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's cruel tales has for title "Le secret de l'ancienne musique". It is the bizarre story of a chinese hat player (the chinese hat is a percussion instrument which consists in numerous little bells arranged around a central rod, and which is very difficult to prevent from sounding). The chinese hat player is hired to play a solo part in a new piece by an avant-garde composer (of the XIXth century!) - his part consists of crescendos of silence...
At the end of the concert, the player publicly protests against the novelty of the music, so vehemently that he falls into the bass drum, breaking its membrane and vanishing inside.
An attentive listener will hear a few humoristic allusions to this tale in my piece...