Peckham’s multi-storey car park is concrete, claustrophobic and, on an August night, London’s hottest music venue. And, yes, it does reek of urine. And lighter fluid. But no hipster worth their carefully-trimmed beard would have missed these performances of Gérard Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques on the eighth floor this weekend. The French spectralist, who composed ‘not with notes but with sounds’ would surely have approved, as trains wheezed and screeched by, punctuated by the ominous bass thuds of cars on the ramps below.
Multi-Story Orchestra was presenting the first half of this visionary, all-acoustic six-part work (1974-85), conducted by Christopher Stark. It opens with an extraordinary Prologue for solo viola, performed with compelling focus by Jennifer Coombes. Insisting on her mournful utterance, which begins to stray further and further from its pedal note, in ever more exuberantly virtuosic display, Coombes achieved a tour de force. Her expressive poise held rock steady as children screamed below and planes droned overhead, her scordatura pedal sounding a dusky, darkling timbre; as she wound it up for Periodes, six instruments began to seep into the same tone, moving in a curious slow motion, whining, siren-like, upwards. As my (child) companion commented sagely, ‘Very Southeast Trains’.
This almost imperceptible coalescence and dissolution, a rhythm of tension and release, sensuality and science, are features of Grisey’s musical process. But there’s a transparency and directness to his thinking, a simplicity of content, which carries unexpected emotional weight. In the beefier Partiels (for 18 instruments) a deep trombone pedal note acquires a halo of tones from its spectra, winds and strings imitating its timbre, conjuring up a melancholy sonic ghost; three repeated strokes from the bassist are greeted by warmly jangling chords of overtones. But we also taste pungent force and definition in Partiels, which climaxes in a celestial chattering, coming to rest in a delicate fugue on partridge calls.
Stark proved himself expert at handling the subtle flow of volatility and calm, particularly the almost mechanistic slow-down in Partiels where dense music has to sound as if it’s gradually losing a power source. The conclusion relaxes into theatrical high-jinks: subversive whispering, impatient rustling of music, a flautist leaves before time, and the cymbal player opens his arms for the Big One, only to be left, arms outstretched, as the lights go out.
As the setting sun enflamed the Shard, one could just make out St Paul’s quaint outline in the haze, a visual counterpoint to the haunting melodic relics which wind their way into Grisey’s masterpiece. Les espaces acoustiques can take the urban noises off, but this was a reminder that we need more of his subtle, ageless art in the concert hall.