The delightfully prickly Frederic Rzewski once commented somewhere that he couldn’t abide French musique spectrale because it all sounded like warmed-over Debussy to him, what with all the emphasis on timbre and the so-called “acoustic” scale. Rzewski was probably exaggerating for effect – that’s his well-known schtick - but his admittedly facile mot does lead to an interesting question: with their unprecedented reliance on tone color as a structural element, why haven’t more spectral composers revisited Debussy’s idea of “painting music”? Neither the best-known spectral pioneers, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, nor the more catholic post-spectral composers, such as Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, have shown much interest in exploring the gap between visual and musical representation. Perhaps it’s a function of fashion, at a time when writing a tone poem seems quaint and one daren’t admit that one enjoys Pictures at an Exhibition for fear of everlasting humiliation in the eyes of the all-knowing cognoscenti.
There is one man, however, who has based his entire compositional practice on the question of “painting music”: Hugues Dufourt (b. 1943). One of the originators of musique spectrale alongside Grisey and Murail, Dufourt is all too infrequently heard on this side of the Atlantic, though he’s every bit as accomplished as his more famous confrères. In addition to being a composer and a trained philosopher, Dufourt is a highly skilled amateur painter whose insight into the great canvases of the Western (and non-Western) tradition probably rivals that of any art history professor. It’s not surprising, then, that most of Dufourt’s compositions take a particular painting as their starting point. This new Timpani disc presents two contrasting products of Dufourt’s engagement with the visual arts: a work loosely based on Jackson Pollock’s Lucifer, from 2000, and Voyage par-delà les fleuves et les monts (Journey Beyond the Rivers and the Mountains), a take on the Song Dynasty painter Fan K’uan’s landscape of the same name, written in 2010. Both are imposing half-hour orchestral slabs that may seem rather impenetrable upon a first hearing, but for those willing to take the plunge, there are all manner of discoveries to be made here.
For this reviewer, Voyage is undoubtedly the more striking of the two works. Here, slow-moving chorale-like stretches alternate with episodes of scurrying string harmonics and glissandi and rough timbral admixtures destabilized by woodwind multiphonics. A recurring Peking opera-like refrain or “tag” for the marimba and oboe helps bind the score together, with the refrain eventually morphing into an extended solo for everybody’s favorite orchestral instrument, the temple blocks. It’s tempting to hear the temple blocks’ patter as mimicking the sound of the waterfall to the right of Fan’s canvas, but this impression is probably deceptive: Dufourt has no interest in sonic ekphrasis, he’s too canny a composer to go in for “transcribing” imagery through music. When Dufourt takes a particular painting as his starting point, it’s rather the painting’s intellectual ambiance, its technical and aesthetic ramifications, that inform the compositional process. In the case of the Fan, what’s important is the statement it makes about man’s insignificance in the face of untrammeled nature: as Dufourt himself points out, the human figures on the canvas are mere specks, minor blips in the workings of the cosmos. Through the combination of impassive, directionless chord sequences – akin to slowly-shifting cloud formations – and the occasional huge orchestral mass that rears up like a feral beast, Dufourt captures something of the painting’s extreme verticality, its evocation of the vertiginous, sublime feebleness one’s apt to feel atop an isolated mountaintop or a rugged valley.
As for the other work on the disc, Lucifer d’après Pollock, as Martin Kaltenecker rightly observes in his liner note, it’s difficult not to view it through the lens of Pollock’s famous action painting technique. Yet the parallel can’t be taken literally, for Dufourt never randomly “splatters” notes across the orchestra, as John Cage sometimes did. (That said, the piece is extremely gestural, particularly during the first fifteen minutes; a comparison with Varèse’s Arcana wouldn’t be totally out of place.) Instead, Dufourt seems to hone in on the un-Cagean aspects of Pollock’s practice, above all Pollock’s concern for unleashing the artist-creator’s subconscious drives and impulses. Consequently, Lucifer is considerably more violent and fragmented than Voyage - disorienting, even – with the preoccupation with process characteristic of so much spectral music being totally absent. In this sense, it marks something of a rapprochement with the serial language of the generation of Boulez and Barraque, against which spectral music was originally a reaction. More pertinent in the context of this release, however, is the odd fact that Lucifer makes much the same overall impression on the listener as Voyage. With its teeming, monstrous edifices and its uncanny snatches of something almost resembling tonality, Lucifer comes face to face with the sublime of the unknowable unconscious, of the personal subconscious as untamed nature.
As with their recent Xenakis series on Timpani, the Luxembourg forces sound fully at one with this music, undaunted by its considerable technical and intellectual challenges. Definitely worth exploring, and not just for those with a vested interest in spectral music.
Hugues Dufourt, Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (Timpani 1C1195, November 2012) | Buy on Amazon
Matt Mendez is an independent musicologist and critic. His personal blog is http://soundproofedblog.blogspot.com.