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I'll start with Gérard Grisey's Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil: the harmonic language and colour palette is simply extraordinary. It is the final piece in Gérard Grisey's output, and sadly he passed away before the premiere of the piece. Grisey worked on this piece from 1996 to 1998, and it was premiered in 1999 by Valdine Anderson and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by George Benjamin.

First, the ensemble enters with breathing sounds, and emerges into a muted, mid-low register space, where the voice appears in short bursts and individual held notes. A moment that I find particularly extraordinary is when the voice and trumpet enter simultaneously for the first time: the way the trumpet reinforces the voice is quite something. It's also fascinating how the different instruments and voice change roles throughout the pieces, and how textures are transferred from one group to another: the first movement prominently features descending patterns which are embedded into a very specific type of harmonic language. In the second movement, the texture is much more static, with longer lines in the voice – there are longer range ascending lines that move more slowly than in the first movement, and the vocal line is the fastest moving feature in the texture. There's almost a mystical feeling to this movement, which is reinforced by the low register and use of harmonies that incorporate beating (among other things).

Much of the texture of the third movement does feel like it connects to the first two movements, but it's been remade into something different. This creates a sense of connection, while also preventing it from becoming too predictable. There's sweeping gestures that move from high register to low register, but these also incorporate more localized upward moving gestures that could potentially refer to the second movement. Glittering percussion is used to punctuate phrases. About halfway into the movement, we get references to the second movement through harmonies and static chords that hark back to similar effects in the second movement (although here everything is in a much higher register). This gradually dissolves into a section with indefinitely pitched percussion, that morphs straight into the fourth movement without an interlude (as we've had between all of the previous movements). In the fourth movement, the energy intensifies until we get to a climactic passage with punctuating wind runs (these are also imitated in strings sometimes), held brass notes, and a very virtuosic soprano part. The energy gradually fizzles out and moves into a lower register – this then moves into the a section that cross-references earlier sections of the piece. Everything comes to a big dramatic pause, and then we a section with very slow descending lines. This section also comes to a big dramatic pause, which is followed by an epilogue with rich harmony that refers to various sections from earlier in the piece, and has some truly exquisite harmonies and colours.

There's so much more one could write about this piece, but I'd need to go write a proper scholarly article to articulate everything!

 

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What @composingmusic just did with the first post is great. Because he hears and sees so much in the music he posted, I feel encouraged and motivated to listen.

I don´t have enough time to listen to the piece carefully tonight but already I started my orientation by reading something on the composer and listening to a few minutes here and there, just to get a picture of the techniques used, the atmospheres, textures, processes and the drama. That music sure SOUNDED delicately good!
Thank you! I'll continue doing these when I've got time – a piece here and there, that I particularly enjoy. Glad to hear that I've encouraged and motivated people to listen, and that's also a great motivator for me to do more of these!
 

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OK, so today I had the time to listen to Gérard Grisey's Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil.

This is music to which you must have referred to as the French approach: everything must be heard. Yes, everything can be heard and the outcome is most delicate and refined.

Just like you, I found the long note sustained intervals with the soprano and the trumpet very appealing. Also all the ornamentation of the vocals is gorgeous and the vocal parts as whole were very well thought out.

Also I liked that there were distinct phases, and the quiet drum rolls (at least they sounded like that) were a repeating feature between the phases.

At first listening, maybe this piece of music was a bit too long for my likening -- maybe 30 minutes would have been enough not to make me lose my intensive listening focus at times. But this tells more about me than the music, maybe. And I might later think differently.

Thanks for the great link, @composingmusic !
Really glad to hear you've enjoyed this! I'll come back and do another one of these soon, once I've got the time (hopefully within the next day or two).
 

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Oliver Knussen's O Hototogisu! – his last completed work.

Video here:
Score here: O Hototogisu! | Faber Music

The piece starts with a bird-call like figure in the flute, which gets taken up as a resonance in string harmonics. The hototogisu is a type of Japanese bird, and it is a popular motif in haiku poetry (conveniently the name is five syllables long). On the wikipedia page, you can hear what this species of birdcall sounds like, and compare that to the opening flute melody: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesser_cuckoo

At around 1:40, the texture really opens up: we get low register piano, bass drum, and low harp notes for the first time. For me, this is a magical moment, and it's a moment of potential just before the singer enters – it really sets the scene in quite an incredible way. The type of chords that are introduced here then appear in dialogue with the singer, alternating in phrases.

Wood block and flute punctuate the end of the second poem, and make way for the third one. Here we get an interesting effect of the movement sounding as though it's moving at a faster rate, even though the metronome mark itself has slowed down. There is greater dynamic contrast, with more angular figures. The flute, which was largely absent after the initial introductory section in the first song, plays an important role in this section. A dialogue between the birdcalls in the flute and the soprano unfolds, culminating at just before 4 minutes (into poem 5). Poem 5 begins with a texture that resembles the moment I've outlined at 1:40, with low register material entering and giving the texture some grounding.

As we can see, wood block and percussion in general play a structural role in this piece, serving as punctuation. At the start of the fifth song (4:01), we get a percussive chord in the winds, punctuated by wood block and pizzicato viola. Again, there is so much detail in the score: the singer is reinforced by sul tasto harmonics in the violas, which move to a sul tasto trill in the second violins (all the while the first violin holds a high harmonic). Muted brass gestures, moving at a slower rate than the singer and flute, appear just after the fifth song as a very brief interlude, and these continue to feature in the sixth song. At first, they provide contrast by alternating with the faster moving flute and soprano gestures. However, these brass gestures gradually speed up and move into a similar time scale to the faster material, and this brass material becomes increasingly fragmented.

The final song begins on a held C sharp in the strings (5:50), and the singer enters a few octaves down on the same pitch. The first two lines of the poem are followed by a long interlude featuring flute and piano playing birdsong-like material, with the rest of the ensemble providing a slowly moving harmonic backdrop that has a beatiful internal luminosity. The piece ends with the words "O Hototogisu!" sung unaccompanied, apart from the last syllable, which is doubled in the rin (Japanese standing bells) and pizzicato viola.
 

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It's been a while since I've posted here – life has kept me quite busy, as I've just finished up a piece I've been writing for some time now, and that's been fairly intense. Here's another piece I'm quite fond of:

Tristan Murail's Winter Fragments

It's quite amazing how the electronics unfold from the acoustic instruments. I'm not sure what processes Murail used to create these sounds, exactly, other than he's using various types of spectral sound processing based on recorded sounds (if I'm remembering this correctly). What I can comment on is that the electronics are triggered by someone playing on an electronic keyboard, and there is a rather complicated MAX MSP patch that links the keyboard to these sounds, which are triggered by pressing specific keys. The synthesizer part isn't difficult technically, but it's got to be absolutely together with the ensemble, and the synth player has no control of the dynamics at all (that's all done at the mixing desk). Even though there's a lot happening in real time, the sounds themselves are entirely pre-recorded.

This piece begins with a rather bright synthesizer chord, doubled in piano and flute. The next gesture, which consists of cello harmonics and a flute glissando gesture, is mirrored in the electronics, and Murail has created a sense of space in the echoing electronics that follow. These two gestures are central to this first section of the piece. Around a minute into the piece, these gestures and their electronic counterparts start to vary more in pitch and duration. There's a brief moment of recall at around 1:30, but this is quickly shattered by what happens at 1:40, where the low range is introduced for the first time in this piece. Suddenly, the texture is much thicker: violin trills, low piano, and cello pizzicatos blend to produce a more expansive sound than the single lines we've had previously.

Murail does cross-reference the first section, keeping the bright chords from the opening, and the glissando gesture that originated in the flute. However, this next section is much more active and prominently features the low range. There's a certain foreboding quality to this music, in my opinion at least. At 2:10 or so, the music starts to move back into the higher range again, and becomes more familiar – it's now quite similar to the beginning once more, but Murail has kept some of the low register material in the distant background, which gives the music a particular type of resonance. From 2:20, something extraordinary happens: the bright chords start to evolve into arpeggiated overtones, and this creates a sense of opening up in the high register. Then, the music accelerates and moves back down to the low range. A darker, more foreboding section follows at 2:43, which cross-references material from 1:40. This then transforms into what seems to me to be a time-stretched (and pitch-shifted) version of the opening material.

At 4:02, there is a sudden shift to a much higher activity level and faster rate of change in general. Murail introduces a series of cascading gestures that occur over very bright electronic sonorities (see the opening of the top register that started at 2:20). These also start combining the earlier instrumental gestures and electronics in various ways, and the individual gestures tend to gradually slow down and lose energy before restarting at a higher energy level once more. Finally, this energy dissolves at around 5:30, and Murail recalls the earlier time-stretched and pitch-shifted version of the opening material. It's important to note that this is not an exact repeat; the material is being continuously transformed throughout the piece. This dissolution of energy continues to 6:10, where we are left with just electronic resonance.

6:20 marks an important formal moment: the foreboding low energy material returns with a vengeance in a big gesture. This ushers in a section that combines the low electronic gestures from 1:40, along with a higher register version of the violin material from this section and the opening flute gesture (note: in a more expansive form, and louder dynamic). As the energy level increases, Murail returns to the cascading gestures from 4:02 (this is at 6:52). The texture eventually thins out to a degree, and something very interesting happens at 7:24 – Murail quotes Gérard Grisey's Prologue from Les Espaces Acoustiques in the string parts. This is another musical gesture that will return several times in the final sections of the piece. At 7:32, we return back to the high-energy cascading gestures once more.

Murail keeps recombining these bright cascading gestures with earlier material, including the low electronic gestures from earlier, bright synthesizer chords, and flute glissandos. At 8:26, he quotes Prologue for a second time, but this time slowed down from the earlier instance. This leads into 8:41, where a large upward swoop transforms into a high-register, pointillistic texture between piano and strings. As the energy intensifies once more, the texture morphs into a cascading texture (which is less energetic than previous instances). Gradually, the music dissolves into overlapping fragmented instances of the opening gesture.

There is another large formal boundary at 10:02 – after the piece has faded into complete silence, a loud, low electronic gesture appears. This gesture is juxtaposed against an extremely soft gesture in the flute and string harmonics, which is then followed up by another similar gesture. Murail follows this up with a few bright chords in the electronics, and enters a sound world similar to the initial opening at 10:37, although the gestures here are more expansive and contain more variety in pitch content. This is almost immediately combined with material similar to 1:40, and here Murail starts combining and recombining material from several different sections (bright chords, flute glissandos, low electronic material from various sections, arpeggiated overtones, etc). 11:50 in the flute and clarinet really reminds me of the earlier Prologue quotes, but this is more of a distant memory than a direct quote, for me at least. There's an extremely quiet section that fades into 12:09 or so, after which the energy begins to snowball once more.

12:21 leads into one last hurrah, with a final section of descending glittering cascades – this dissolves into the softer section following at 12:35. Here, the cello and violin directly quote Prologue repeatedly, and this becomes almost obsessive. The texture slows down and thins out until only the cello is left. A final, partial iteration of Grisey's quote is then followed up with one last bright synthesizer chord, which is doubled in the piano.

Winter Fragments is dedicated to Gérard Grisey, in memoriam. Grisey had passed just a year before the completion of this work.
 

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I saw this performance of the Witold Lutoslawski Concerto for Cello and Orchestra and I was quite blown away. I knew the composition but it's power was overwhelming when I saw it live . There is so much to enjoy and discover in the piece that I would recommend it to each listener that is not acquainted with his work or even that of the second half of the 20th century.
Indeed, it's a marvellous piece. I've done a good deal of analysis on this piece, as part of my coursework for my current degree (I'm studying composition), and there is quite a lot to unpack.

It's worth mentioning that this is one of a number of pieces that Rostropovich commissioned. He also commissioned Dutilleux to write a cello concerto (that's another piece that I'm a big fan of), Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Gubaidulina. Rostropovich was also critical for Messiaen's La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ and Boulez’s Messagesquisse for cello septet – in the Messiaen, there's a large solo cello part that's written for Rostropovich, and Messagesquisse was a commission by Rostropovich for Paul Sacher.

Lutoslawski's concerto begins with a 4-5 minute solo cadenza, which ends with brass interruptions. This dynamic, with the cello being interrupted by various instrumental groups, is a central idea of the piece – there is an ongoing power struggle between the cello and the orchestra.

The first movement consists mostly of this aforementioned cadenza, and ends with the brass interruptions that I mentioned. This feeds into the second movement, titled Episodes: each episode begins with pizzicato cello gestures, and ends with brass interruptions that mirror the end of the first movement. There's a specific, very chromatic, symmetrical hexachord (0,1,2,6,7,8) that these brass interruptions use. Another thing worth mentioning about these episodes is that Lutoslawski tends to focus on specific instrumental groups – there's something quite block-like about how he's doing this. In some ways, it reminds me of Stravinsky and Messiaen's use of blocks of material (purely in how these people tend to construct blocks of material and use them as objects, even if they sound completely different from how Lutoslawski is using his material). It's also worth pointing out that there is a kind of pitch anchor on the cello's open D string. This is not to say that this music is tonal, but there is a prevalence of this specific pitch, and I think it acts as a pitch centre of sorts.

Following these episodes, Lutoslawski moves into a more lyrical approach for the third movement, Cantilena. At the start of this movement, the strings play Arco for the first time in the entire piece. Longer phrases appear in the instrumental texture, although we can still see passages where Lutoslawski is using the earlier short, interrupting passages. Lutoslawski also introduces a new pitch anchor, which is a low E at the bottom register of the cello. Gradually, the intensity of the music begins to grow, and leading into the fourth movement, Lutoslawski presents an extraordinary passage where all of the strings join the solo cello in unison, in fortissimo. This melodic passage is very compact in range (a perfect fifth spanning G to D), and the line itself moves by major and minor seconds. Another thing that makes this passage particularly striking is the turbulent nature of the relationship between cello and orchestra, which I've mentioned earlier; however, here these two opposing forces are acting together instead of against each other.

The final movement grows from a series of interruptions, as various sections of the orchestra interrupt each other in growing intensity. This culminates in a climax that contains all of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. There are juxtapositions here between passages where the cello plays completely alone, and the entire orchestra functions as a single, extremely loud, extremely chromatic, monolithic object. Gradually, the energy dies down, and the cello has an epilogue that mirrors the opening passage. The piece ends with a repeated A in the cello, two octaves above the open A string.
 
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