Aperghis: Happiness Daily, Piece pour douze, Heysel; Xenakis; Rebonds, Phlegra

Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pousseur, Durot/Morlot

Cité de la Musique, 4 May 2009 5 stars

Gilles DurotOn the back cover of a collected edition, Susan Sontag calls Maurice Blanchot 'one of the small number of unimpeachably major, original voices in modern French literature'. It is an epithet that, adapted a little, describes well the composer Georges Aperghis, one of the most inventive composers currently writing music.

Born in Greece, Aperghis has been based in France since the early sixties. His career currently seems to be hitting something of a stride, with major recent works at L’Opera de Lille and the Strasbourg and Donaueschingen festivals, as well as two CD releases on the Ictus label and one upcoming on Kairos.

Aperghis' main compositional focus is music theatre, a focus that has seen him continue Berio's dictum of exploring 'the point of convergence between the musicality of the word and the verbalisation of sound'. Works such as Récitations for solo vocalist display a manner of composition that admixes improvisation and set instruction, histrionics and the staid, high art and the everyday.

Last Tuesday's concert at Paris' Cité de la Musique, given by Ensemble Intercontemporain, helmed by Ludovic Morlot, featured works by Aperghis alongside those of fellow Franco-Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. It was a well-considered programme that drew out a breadth of tapestry from both composers' oeuvres.

Opening things was Xenakis' Phlegra for eleven musicians. Dating from the mid-seventies, this work is not as abrasive as those most often associated with the composer's name. It instead gives prominence to a brilliant sense of form. The work distils and disperses several distinct textures, each of which is associated with the instrument on which it is first heard, with arrhythmic repeated notes on trumpet, scattershot high-register flurries on piccolo and oboe and pedalled low notes on bassoon. These texture-specific motifs become proliferated until the ensemble branches into sections devoted to each one. The consanguinity of the French spectral movement occurring around the same period came across strongly, with the piece orbiting around sustained pitch areas reminiscent of tonal areas and displaying similar formal processes. It is at this type of work that Intercontemporain excels, and they put in an exemplary reading on the night. Cellist Pierre Strauch in particular stood out with rabid glissando bowing.

Aperghis' Piece pour douze followed, underwhelming after the strong opening salvo. Dividing the ensemble into two groups with percussion in the middle, the work features alluring and deep textures tumbling over each other in a micro-drama of sounds. After a twin horn dialogue in the middle however, it never really went anywhere.

IntercontemporainAfter this was Xenakis' classic Rebonds for solo percussion. Here the young percussionist Gilles Durot put in a spectacular performance. The hall's lights dimmed to a single spotlight as he started into the opening measures with a metronomic bass drum down-stroke, gradually building up and elaborating the rhythmic process around the initial cell, bass and tom resonances exploding outward from their shells and filling the hall. Each bass strike seemed only to occur in order to stop the preceding sequence, and in doing so begin it again. The close of the first movement was somewhat ruined by a mobile phone going off and momentarily dispersing the spell. The second movement, even more virtuosic than the first, saw the performance become more evocative, the savage beating transporting the listener’s ear to somewhere other, with the compositional focus on the impact of the strikes rather than on resonance. Somebody sitting in front of me began head banging towards the end. Durot, intensely concentrated throughout, was visibly wearied towards the end, the myriad bongo strikes lagging very occasionally. He enjoyed a rousing reception in the hall when he did finish, the audience throwing his spent energy back at him. After this applause died down his colleagues could be heard cheering him backstage, to the general amusement of the hall.

The last work before the interval was Aperghis' short Heysel for ensemble. This work, composed to accompany a pre-existent dance piece, was quite different from the one heard earlier, with a squall of instrumental polyphony tied up like twine and rolling around in the dust of a marimba and celesta part which betrayed more than a hint of minimalism. This percussive propulsion emerged as the work’s salient feature, a repeated ninth interval chimed in a manner more skewed than any an orthodox minimalism could muster.

Following the interval, the highlight of the evening without doubt was Aperghis' Happiness Daily. For this music theatre piece Ensemble Intercontemporain were joined by soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac and mezzo Marianne Pousseur, who both wore microphone headsets. Hardly any pause was allowed by conductor Morlot before he instigated the headlong dive into the piece. The libretto, by Aperghis and François Renault, is comprised of random snatches of Paris street conversation that the composer heard drifting in through the window of his house. In interview he has referenced Joyce's epiphanies as being moot in relation to this, but it was the Irish author's Anna Livia Plurabelle that one more got the impression of, bizarre ejaculations by each vocalist rebounding back and forth, and each vocalist initially when not singing or speaking, panting or gasping out loud.

The work hurtled through a few different sections without any let up and its half hour length flew by in a flash. The impression was of something like a contemporary double concerto for vocalists, one taking in music theatre and a wide array of techniques in fast alternation meeting the ensemble’s backing and response. The instrumental accompaniment was exquisite, the ensemble's microtonal sheen cut for the most part from the same registral material as that of the vocalists' range. The experience of being a non French-fluent foreigner on a Paris street, with a garbled babble of conversation and urban clamour pouring into each ear, was well simulated – everything highly significant and meaningless at the same time. Dansac and Pousseur were stellar, throwing dramatic shapes and facial gestures and keeping intense focus, orienting the audience giddily through the onrushing traffic of the music, hiccupping, laughing, singing and chanting. Upon finishing, the composer joined the performers onstage for a considerable applause.

By Liam Cagney

Photo Credits for Gilles Durot: Nicolas Havette

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