L'Esprit des dunes
28/05/1994 - Paris - Ircam - Ensemble intercontemporain - Pascal Rophé (conductor)
The electronic sections of this work were produced at Ircam.
Electronic Music Design: Serge Lemouton and Leslie Stuck
Deserts have always had a particular attraction for Murail. He has visited several himself and images pertaining to them often crop up in his work, a notable previous example being the large orchestral piece Sables which perhaps marks the start of Murail's personal style. In that earlier work, the desert was used as an analogy for the musical processes of the work, which were dominated by slowly drifting masses of sound in which "individual notes have no more importance than individual grains of sand - what counts is the mass shape". In the present work, however, the desert is evoked as much for its psychological resonances as for any technical analogy. The analogies here are anyway a matter of convergence between certain features of Murail's music and the work of a number of other artists, as well as an allusion to the locations of the source material for the piece. For the first time in Murail's output, there is an explicit allusion to the music of other cultures, as the sounds from which the music is derived are taken from the traditional musics of Mongolia and Tibet, both countries dominated in their different ways by deserts of a sort - the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and the craggy, sparsely populated mountain landscapes of Tibet.
The work carries a double dedication "to the memory of Giacinto Scelsi and Salvador Dali". Scelsi's emphasis on the inner life of sounds, most obviously in such radical works as the Four pieces on a single note, parallels the complex melodic and timbral evolution found within single pitches via the Mongolian overtone-singing technique. The dedication to Dali, however, is not an allusion to the many evocations of vast, alienating desert landscapes found in so many of Dali's paintings, but to Dali's bizarre film Visions de Haute Mongolie in which a single object - the metal tip of a fountain pen - is focussed upon and magnified to such a degree that whole interior worlds are evoked therein, often bearing a striking resemblance to certain desert landscapes in Mongolia and elsewhere - another parallel with Murail's constructing entre melodic worlds out of the insides of instrumental and vocal sound spectra. The composer has also cited the well-known phenomenon found in the Gobi desert of mysteriously voice-like rounds probably caused by the friction of sand-grains blown against each other in the wind - so that metaphorically in his piece, as the Mongolians say of the Gobi, "the desert sings".
This, Murail's second Ircam commission, makes a very different use of the institute's resources than Désintégrations of eleven years before. Taking advantage of the explosion in personal systems over the last six years, Murail is able to dispense with the cumbersome rigidities of tape and to achieve a more flexible, refined and sophisticated fusion of live instrumental sound with electronics - arguably his finest to date. The basic sound material is again that of actual vocal and instrumental sounds, which in the present work comprise the following: from Tibet, samples from monastic rituals including the extraordinary, cavernous sounds of monks' chanting, of the equally deep tones of the ritual trumpets known as dung chen, and of a Jew's harp - and from Mongolia, the famous vocal technique known as khöömiy, which enables a single singer to produce a melody and a drone simultaneously by highlighting successive harmonics of a low sung fundamental.
These sounds were digitally analysed via a method known as "partials following": tracing the evolution and amplitude of the partials of any sound, the computer can store the resultant information on hard disc and use it either to re-synthesize the original sound, or as a model for constructing new sounds. Thus the electronic sounds heard in the piece range from ones clearly and audibly related to the original samples to elaborately distorted ones whose origin is far from obvious. An equally vital technique made possible by this method of analysis is that of "hybridisation", in which a fresh timbre can be produced by crossing the spectral characteristics of one sound with another - either of one of the sampled sounds with another (they already possess a number of timbral similarities, viz. Tibetan chanting and the Mongolian khöömiy singing), or indeed of a sampled sound with the spectrum of one of the instrumental sounds. This range of techniques builds not only the entire electronic part but also supplies all the pitch-material on the instruments, Murail as insistent as ever on the necessity of linking timbre and harmony to the extent that one can scarcely tell them apart.
Of Murail's works to date, none (with the possible exception of the quartet Vues aériennes) features such elaborately developed melodic writing as L'esprit des dunes. This is immediately obvious at the opening of the work, in which a series of melodic guirlandes distantly derived from khöömiy, which centre around a basic shape (heard initially on the oboe) evolving in a dialogue between synthetic sounds and wind instruments. Below this a limping, irregular dance-like texture evolves, mainly on pizzicato strings and tumbas evoking a sort of imaginary folk music, whilst the melodic development continues on woodwinds.
As the music grows more sustained, new synthesised sounds are heard, based upon the spectrum of the long Tibetan trumpets (most prominently on a sustained low D) - the instrumental harmonies evolve meanwhile into increasingly harmonic spectra to match those of the trumpets and the two fuse. A new melodic idea evolves out of the higher partials of these spectra on the synthesised sound and this is once again shared with the woodwinds as the surface of the music becomes more agitated. Paradoxically, this brief burst of flourishes leads the music back to the sustained D first heard in the previous section, and the most nearly consonant music in the whole piece.
A series of sudden eruptions for the whole ensemble (derived from the spectral fusion of the sounds of tearing paper with instrumental timbres) ruptures the musical stability, and pushes the synthesised sounds onto more vocal spectra, and these eventually transform into sonorities closely reminiscent of Tibetan chanting. A long solo for the synthesised sounds links these vocal spectra with those of the Mongolian overtone chanting and just as these make a definite and unambiguous appearance, the ensemble abruptly resumes its eruptions, confirming the arrival of the khöömiy spectra and creating another of the structural "loops" which are so typical of this piece.
The melodic figuration heard earlier returns with renewed force and vigour - indeed, this section is a sort of melting-pot for the entre repertoire of melodic figures used in the work - before everything is dissolved into a single spectrum on a low C sharp on a hybridised electronic timbre. This appears to be leading the music to a stable harmonic cadence, but at the last minute the melodic figures reassert themselves and lead the music to an unexpectedly violent conclusion.
in Tristan Murail, CD Accord (AC4653052)
1 CD Accord, AC4653052
Serendib - L'Esprit des dunes - Désintégrations
Ensemble intercontemporain, David Robertson (conductor)
Hervé Bailly-Basin (video artist)
This work uses electronics sounds (obligatory) and images (optional) which are projected behind the musicians.
Electronic sounds are synchronised with live performing of the music by a Midi keyboard.
The keyboard is connected to a portable computer reading a Max6 (Max MSP/Jitter) software. Same process is to be used to project the video, with a second computer.
The downloading addresses for audio and video softwares and datas will be given to you once the hire contract has been signed.