Les Espaces acoustiques - Gérard Grisey International Festival of Contemporary Music Warsaw Autumn

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It begins with the heartbeat of the solo viola and her flexible melody. More and more distortions and echo, eventually—an attack of noise. After it lapses, it is another instrument, another music. From behind the viola, the sextet emerges, oscillating in a breathing pulse between clean, regular timbre and a dirty, arhythmic one. The increasingly loud trombone opens another space: the fourth dimension of sound, a depth of harmonics, a temporal zoom. Other instruments join in, the entire 18-strong ensemble explores ever newer techniques and dazzling sounds: not acoustic, not electronic. Slowly, everything dies out in the breathing of wind instruments and the rustle of papers. Pause. Suddenly, an attack of two sound blocks, fluidly becoming alike. 33 instruments combine in spectral verticals or disperse in polyphony. Other techniques bring about sounds that are unheard-of, unheard, even unhearable. Finally, the entire orchestra of 84 musicians join in, the universe expands, harmonic timbre explodes. The double bass recalls those trombone attacks, after which the initial viola returns with its staggered melody. In the epilogue, four horns cue in, fighting a glissando erosion and an increasingly aggressive percussion.

The Espaces acoustiques cycle, initiated in 1976, was completed in 1985... 

The six movements may be performed without intermission, with each broadening the acoustic space of the previous one. The unity of this cycle is achieved through formal similarities of the different movements and two acoustic reference points: harmonic spectrum and periodicity. The musical language of this cycle can be summarised as follows: 

− Enough composing with notes, time for composing with sounds
− Composing not only sounds themselves but the difference that separates them (the degree of pre-audibility)
− Working on those differences, i.e. controlling the evolution (or lack thereof) of the sound and the speed of this evolution
− Considering the relativism of our aural perception
− Applying phenomena that have long been experienced in electroacoustic music studios to the instrumental domain. These applications will be much more radical and audible in Partiels and Modulations
− Seeking a synthetic style within which the various parameters contribute to shaping a unique sound. For example, the use of non-tempered pitches results in the creation of new timbres, which in turn triggers certain structures of duration, and so forth. Synthesis implies the creation of sound (material) on the one hand, and the various relationships existing between sounds (forms) on the other.

So it begins with the heartbeat of the solo viola and her flexible, microtonal melody. The Prologuebegins unremarkably. Subsequent repetitions yield calmness, almost a contemplative mood. But wait, these repetitions are not verbatim: the melody lengthens, changes endings, bends into different arches. All happens in the natural rhythm of breathing and heartbeat. The same contour is maintained but other sounds are added, new interjections and variations, changes in articulation and dynamics; the viola becomes increasingly bold. On the one hand, she is subjected to processes of growth, development, and expansion, but on the other, there is also echo, interruption, erosion. A paradoxical work. Difference and repetition. Finally, the first climax comes: trembling, trebled. Melodic jumps are ever larger and so are dynamic contrasts. Another paradox. Like a never-ending variation, the eternal comeback of Nietzsche. 

The inevitable comes: the viola becomes embroiled in obsessive gestures, increasingly gaudy, almost spasmatic: moaning glissandi. It calms down for a moment, only to lose ground again and slide over notes. The tension is at its highest. The instrument slides down into articulation inferno: extreme pressure of the bow onto several strings, a band of coloured noise. It moves slowly through registers, bound to be silenced in a few painful seconds. After this second crucial climax nothing is as it was before. There remains only a quiet, stable sound. The viola has come a long way, similarly to Kandinsky’s evolution from figurativeness to abstractionism: from a shape through a stain to a pure line. The sound lingers, joined by neighbouring tones and glissandi, almost nothing is happening, the viola plays alone and... 

Essentially melodic, the Prologue slowly and gradually departs from the gravity and hypnosis of repetition. The unique melodic cell, playing on pitches of the harmonic spectrum, creates an axis and starting point of a kind of spiral. All originates from this cell and all comes back to it, though never on the same level. The melody is transformed in its essence, its Gestalt, its silhouette, though never on the level of notes, as its component pitches gradually move away from the initial spectrum and eventually reach into noise, moving through various degrees of non-harmoniousness. This melodic silhouette also defines the overall form, tempi, and occurrence of two types of interjections: heartbeat (short–long) and echo. Non-tempered, the Prologue poses enormous challenges in performance (it is already di cult to play the viola in tune!). 

...Solo voice, ...combined with abstract, uncompromising structure: I hope to have at least partly conveyed what music is to me: a dialectic between madness and form. 


Nothing happens, only the solitary viola is heard, and... almost imperceptibly other instruments join her sound. This is the basic tone with its harmonics, the perfect pairing. The new structure remains very subtle, is if wavering in the wind. The viola’s sound attacks add dynamism, creating a basic pulse, though it immediately enters an irregular grid with other instruments—the hiccup of a medieval hocket. The sound is also subjected to disharmonisation and pollution, though this is short-lived. Through falling passages in heterophonic texture, the music slows down, harmonises, and brightens up: another stage of crystallisation concludes in the cyclic process that drives this movement. Now comes the ticking of a clock: regular, accentuated notes morph into chords of fluidly changing colours, as in the metaphorical title of a work by Ligeti: Clocks and Clouds. A new, distinctive protagonist enters the stage: the clarinet, completing the timbre of the ensemble. The course of musical narrative flows in waves, but as soon as movement expires in one layer, something begins to happen in another; when the melody falls in one layer, it soars in another. This pretty picture is spoilt by extreme noise and aggressive eruptions in the tutti, climaxing in a scream—bordering on shriek—and a triple general pause. After this, another surprise: the violinist appears to be tuning her instrument, looks at the violist and blinks, plays out of tune, disintegrates. As when the sound is reborn after the noise episode in the Prologue, we reach here to the fundamentals of music, the almost Brechtian shattering of the concert illusion. Eventually, the strings reconstitute their quartet and work out a formula ending in a trill, which is subjected to several accelerations and dynamisations, finally to give way to a more rhythmic, periodic (as per the title), almost motoric section. Then an almost silent testimony of the entire story can be heard: the trombone. Time after time, it initiates its prime tone, with other instruments trying to find themselves in its spectrum. Finally! 

In Périodes, three types of moments are represented: dynamism↗increasing tension, dynamism↗gradual relaxation, and staticity↗periodicity, in parallel to human breathing with its inhalation, exhalation, and rest. Periodicity is experienced here as a true gravity, a pole where the lack of new energy literally forces to move in a circle until an anomaly is found: the seed of a new development, the opportunity for a fresh start. However, these periodicities are not similar to those produced by a synthesizer; I call them “blurred,” like our heartbeat or walking, never rigorously periodic but with a margin of variability, which makes them interesting. 

Périodes is an intimate work2 in which the string quartet plays an essential, delicate role. Note especially the following:

1. The first “inhalation,” during which instruments circle around the note in the viola with its harmonic spectrum, then gradually distance themselves from it, creating sound complexes ever farther from the initial spectrum 

2. The second “inhalation,” of purely rhythmic nature (moving from periodicity to aperiodicity), originating from heartbeat 

3. The section where specific string instrument playing techniques are called for, allowing for a progressive change from very varied harmonic complexes to extremely simple timbres of the fundamental tone. 

As for the time structures, they are derived exclusively from the spectrum of odd harmonics used in this work. 


...eventually, at one point the trombone is answered by the entire enlarged ensemble. The answer is one of the most extraordinary chords in the history of music: saturated and rich, a true blend of timbre and harmony. This majestic beginning opens the eponymous “acoustic space.” Repetitions bring a further extension of timbre, adding subsequent harmonics (as per the movement’s title) but gradually polluting its initial purity through excessive articulation. At the end of this minutes-long process, the ruthless percussion enters, with its beats and infrasounds. Time stops; the narrative is silenced. Only from here registers move upwards until everything resounds again. The next climax brings hectic pizzicati in the strings, an insect-like hustle of woodwind; the flutes fall in cascades, bird trills lighten up. A world discovered anew. Subsequent layers continuously fight for priority, with a new one taking the lead over and over again. Perception fluently changes focus. Music is reduced to two tones and oscillating movement between them; the machine stops. Some sections, with their mechanical repetitions, resemble a curious sound factory. But these are merely appearances: nothing is the same and nothing is stable, hindered by the inner life of the various instrumental parts. Yet even that comes to an end. At the end of Partiels, movement slows down, lowering the registers and dying out in slow oscillation, sinister drones, whispers of the strings, whistles of the winds. Strange stuff is happening on stage again: musicians talk, crumple some papers (the score?), as if revolting against the music, in the mood of May 1968. All falls apart; a general relaxation ensues. Only the percussionist is busy with something, spectacularly raising the cymbals and... the end. Lights go on, the intermission starts; instead of an exclamation, a question mark. 

The title refers both to a part of a larger work and to the acoustic components of sound.

Two paths trace the development of sound: periodicity and harmonic spectrum. These easily perceptible variables define the continuity and dynamic of the musical discourse, which embraces the cyclic form of human breath: inhalation—exhalation—rest, or if you prefer: tension—relaxation—new in ow of energy. 

Many excerpts of Partiels anticipate the new technique of instrumental synthesis. Like additive synthesis used in electronic music so ware, this technique uses instruments (microsynthesis) to express various components of sound and work out a global sound form (macrosynthesis). As a result of this process, the various original instrumental sounds disappear from our perception, leaving space for a totally invented, synthetic timbre. These various fusions allow to articulate and organise an entire range of colours, starting with the harmonic spectrum and ending with white noise, going through different spectra of harmonics. 


After the intermission, we restart with a bang: two different, loud chords exchange re aperiodically and unpredictably. Apparently, no peace can be reached here. And none is. Instead, the chords fluidly become similar in timbre and content. They tone down, lengthen, until an impossible synthesis is achieved: blurred borders,modulations, fusion. The music again undulates like a calm sea in full sun. From this ocean, new, priorly unheard combinations of timbres and instruments emerge; almost imperceptible changes of articulation and register trigger a sensation of light gleaming on the water. Unexpectedly, a general pause happens, after which—like in Partiels—the percussion initiates a new section with its beats. It is procession of giant, spectrally saturated chords, slowly lightened up and disclosed, opening subsequent planes, like in a Renaissance theatre with many curtains.

Similarly to the Prologue, a great lesson of music is also unfolding here: the magical moment of moving from homophony to polyphony and back. First, one voice, then several, then another group of instruments, a monumental polyphony like in Renaissance music for dozens of voices. This spectral polyphony morphs into a jungle of chaotic individual parts and leaves way to a noisy exhibition of brass. Then it shows up again, again imperceptibly and ambiguously sitting on the fence between heterophony and homophony. Essential questions are asked: what is an individual in music and what is a collective; what is identity and unity? In the end, disharmonious blocks and fast succession of chords return, which... 

In Modulations, material does not exist in itself. Rather, it sublimates in processes of musical ow, subjected to continuous changes that are impossible to grasp at any moment: everything flows. The only points of reference in this slow but dynamic ow are the harmonic spectrum of the E1 note (41.2 Hz) and periodic durations. These reference points, crucial to our perception, allow to gauge the distance travelled, measure the level of disharmoniousness of an interval or compound sound, or the degree of aperiodicity of a duration. This work’s form is nothing else than a history of sounds that compose it. Sound parameters are oriented and driven in such a way that a series of modulatory processes is generated, many of which are based on acoustic discoveries: harmonic spectra, partial spectra, transients, formants, summary and differentiating tones, white noise, filters, and so forth. rough a sonogram analysis of brass instruments and their mutes, I have reconstituted their timbres synthetically—or conversely, distorted them. This brass timbre is also crucial to the very concept of Modulations. Since the continuing focus is no more substance but rather “emptiness”— the distance between one moment and the next (the degree of change or development), I believe I have come closer to the important psychological time with its relative values rather than chronometric time. 

Although development is continuous, five processes and one interruption of discourse can be discerned; their durations are proportional to the intervals between the components of the odd partial spectrum. 

1. Tension↘relaxation: homophony, two twin chords (sounds complexes and summary tones) change from heterogeneity to homogeneity, from aperiodic to periodic duration

2. Relaxation↗tension: homophony—polyphony—homophony; moving from binary to complex, followed by interruption and silence 

3. Tension↘relaxation: an increasing blurring of homophony, developing from annular modulations on various levels to none. Development of transitory sound states

4. Relaxation↗tension↘relaxation↗tension: homophony → heterophony (twenty actual voices) → block heterophony (four voices) → homophony. This process makes use of variously filtered harmonic spectra that develop towards complex non-harmonic spectra. Fundamental tones develop in the opposite direction 

5. Relaxation↗tension: moving from the binary to the indifferntiated, through gradual fusion towards the eventual white noise, with an increasing cymbal sound, reversing the moment when the “poor” percussionist showed up at the conclusion of Partiels...


...Suddenly fall silent, disclosing a quiet cluster in the strings. Several dozens of them, as the 33-strong ensemble of Modulations has just been joined by another 51 musicians. This magma flows in low registers in a hypnotically slow crescendo. As before a storm, clouds gather and the sky darkens, a climax seems inevitable. Finally, as in the film technique of brightening and dimming, new, gigantic spectra emerge. they in ate, too, up to a forte fortissimo, where the orchestra shows its power. After reworks in the winds, percussion announces an earthquake and a reminiscence of Partiels erupts in very low double bass register. At first solitary, it pulls brass and then woodwinds and the other double basses with itself. Other orchestral groups enlighten various sections of the harmonic series, which reaches infinite heights here. This is where the whole cycle is fulfilled: its highest climax. In the abrupt attacks of sforzato and pizzicato, the double bass transcends itself, the orchestra sings, the universe is in full expansion. All this does not last: growth engenders excess, tutti chaos. The triple impulses of tam-tams trigger a reduction to a single melody, the simplest intervals and rhythms. In the undulating movement, layers become separated, sounds fall like droplets on the surface of water, drawing resonant circles and moving through various phases of transience (as per the title). This time, brass contributes to the disharmonisation of timbre, with noise segments appearing in blocks. Only from this chaos can the flute and viola reemerge—yes, the same viola of the Prologue appears now here, in Transitoires. After simplifying the music to pure oscillation, it recalls the melody of the cycle’s opening. Actually, this could be an ending: an elegant arch form, heartbeat, but... 

While Prologue and Périodes emphasise string instruments, Partiels do so with woodwind and Modulations to brass, Transitoires with its rhythm is particularly demanding for the conductor! 

With its wide acoustic spaces, Transitoires and the subsequent Épilogue reach what remained hidden in the cycle’s other movements. The filter is removed, the time is stretched, the spectra explode to 55 components, and true spectral polyphony is scattered over the entire soundspace. 

In this piece, we find the same starting material, the same power fields and processes of the preceding movements. Many allusions appear to events that first happened in Partiels, but the melodic pattern of the Prologue is also present, with all the distortions of Périodes and the filtered spectra of Modulations. Apart from the above-mentioned techniques of using instrumental spectra, transitional states of sound, and various compound tones, the composer also makes use of instrumental frequency modulation to compute non-harmonic spectra. Reminiscence, return, and new beginning: Transitoires reveal unexpected aspects of the material, which converges into the “primary” melody, a kind of lullaby where the viola quotes numerous passages from the Prologue. From this Pandora’s box, the Épilogue will emerge. 


is the only movement of the cycle that cannot be performed autonomously; instead, it is a conclusion of Transitoires.
Is it an ending? I doubt it. I have had to arbitrarily introduce the process of “entropy” to gradually erode the open system of Espaces acoustiques. The four solo horns again pick up the material of the Prologue and superimpose in the process of filtration and distortion of the harmonic spectrum of the E note. This means I have introduced dualism that destroys the system: the discursive, individual time of language is superimposed over the collective, oniric time of the universe. 

...the orchestra does join in, in two waterfalls of tutti, beyond which four solo horns emerge in falling passages ending in a dramatic glissando slide, so that they are unable to conclude their melody. In the background, the orchestra shimmers, gradually decreasing its dynamics and size, until only brass remains, rhythmically commenting on the quartet. The end of the Épilogue is a piercing dialogue or rather lament of human horns, answered only by indifferent, cosmic timpani. This finale is shattering in its reductionist logic, which must end in silence. Hitherto expanding, the Acoustic Spaces gradually shrink, mirroring the theory of the oscillating universe, moving through phases of expansion and compression, and the beginning and endings of the cycle’s movements (like the Big Bang) are one-dimensional points. Grisey’s masterpiece has started with a single sound and it ends likewise: with a last dumb strike of the timpano; noise without qualities of pitch, colour, or rhythm is nothing else than a point in which the Universe ends. 

The cycle: lab and manifesto 

The cycle Espaces acoustiques (1974–85), is a wonderful, monumental work, undoubtedly a masterpiece of twentieth-century music. On the one hand, it is a true laboratory of techniques of the new movements; in its function of an etude, it is almost pedagogical: a manifesto of spectral music. It is hard to find compositions of comparable importance and size in other musical currents. For musique concrète, it could be Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Symphonie pour une homme seul (1949–50); for serialism, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1955–57); for aleatorism, John Cage’s Piano Concerto (1957–58); for sonorism, Friedrich Cerha’s Spiegel I–VII (1960–61); for repetitive music, Terry Riley’s In C (1964) or Steve Reich’s Drumming (1970–71); for graphic music, Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise(1963–67)... 

On the other hand, Espaces acoustiques is also a laboratory with all the shortcomings of pioneerism, including a rather uniform and monotonous narrative time. It is also a work based on original creative premises and compositional techniques, distinguished by high coherence and logic both of material and form, proving a masterful control of both the orchestra as a whole and each instrument separately. It is a work that highlights the sound phenomenon and at the same time, the listener’s perception: the quintessence of musical modernism according to Gérard Grisey. The cycle has been recorded twice and is interpreted every year at the world’s leading philharmonics: now finally in Poland, too. 

While the cycle includes six works composed between 1974 and 1985, they were not written in chronological order. Grisey discusses the cycle’s inception in his radio talks with Marc Texier and Guy Lelong: “When I composed Périodes, I realised their ending was not really an ending—it lacked a continuation. This is when I imagined Partiels, which was composed right after. As the former begins with a viola solo, I soon had the idea of writing a sort of prologue to the entire cycle; step by step, the whole concept of a great work came up... Also in the aesthetic and musical sense, the starting point of the cycle is Périodes, as it is where I tried to define the first acoustic and psychological foundations of a technique able to integrated a multitude of sound phenomena. More specifically, it is in that piece that I started controlling various degrees of harmonic tension (harmonic–non-harmonic), and on the rhythmic plane, operating the periodic–aperiodic opposition. Also in Périodes, the overall cycle form appeared as a quasi-breathing, based around a single field (the spectrum of E).”3 As we can see, the compositional process started with the second movement and for many reasons, this piece is the cycle’s core; in later reception, however, it is Partiels that gained the status of a manifesto and breakthrough work. 

Form and specificity 

Each movement, apart from Épilogue, can be played independently; for practical reasons, in a joint performance, an interlude is scheduled between Partielsand Modulations. The cycle’s movements show the following common characteristics: 

1. A subdivision into sections and episodes, marked by process type and compositional technique, together with an adequate naming of those sections

2. The beginnings and endings of the movements are correlated or overlap. Movements I, II, IV, and V have alternative codas in case of independent performance; II and V also have alternative beginnings 

3. A ubiquitous breathing rhythm: inhalation (tension)—exhalation (relaxation)—interval (rest)

4. Gradual changes in each subsequent movement: larger cast, diminution of the number of sections, blurring of the breathing cycle, extension of the total duration 

5. Linking harmony with periodicity (= order, predictability) and their opposites: disharmoniousness with aperiodicity (= chaos, unpredictability), then making them the two extremes between which the work’s dramaturgy unfolds and the audience’s perception is oriented 

6. Basing the entire cycle on the spectrum of the E1 sound of the trombone (movements I–VI) and double bass (V), with emphasis on its second and odd harmonics; from this, the following are derived: 
a. Harmony and timbre (via techniques of instrumental synthesis)
b. Dynamics (based on envelope, especially in II, III and V) 
c. Melody (thanks to the shifting of distance proportion between subsequent partials from the vertical to the horizontal dimension, especially in I, III and VI) 
d. Form (likewise but shifting the proportion to time relationships, following variable parameters)

7. Inclusion of a modified spectrum structure, depending on the trombone mutes used (III) or double bass articulation (V) 

8. Linking the movements notably through: 
a. Gestalt of the melodic cell (I, III and IV)
b. Monody of solo viola (I and V/VI)
c. Elements of instrumental theatre (II and III)
d. A special type of heterophonic texture (II–IV)
e. Disharmonisation in a dozen versions of synthesized trombone spectrum (III and V)
f. Spectral polyphony (IV and V) 

9. Adding notes derived from speculative operations on the spectrum, inspired by techniques of electroacoustic music (annular and frequence modulation: movements III–VI) or theory of harmony (subharmonic series in movement III) 

10. Emphasis on fluid changes, variability, continuity, processuality and making them very obvious to the audience; in the cycle, differential and threshold processes are mainly realised.

Alright, like in the classroom we have found the common characteristics of the various movements, but what is this form? Indeed, it is not a usual multi-movement work for orchestra and neither is it a cycle of etudes. Espaces acoustiques perhaps come closer to the form proposed by Pierre Boulez in his Piano Sonata no. 2 (1955–57) or Witold Lutosławski in Preludes and Fugue (1972): a skeleton, a structure of segments that can be performed separately or together, with their endings/beginnings duly synchronised. It is thus a strictly composed form with optional aleatory movement ordering. In terms of growing orchestra size and cyclic, symmetrical form of its episodes (breaths), I find no precedent in the history of music for Espaces acoustiques. As for the organic development and gradual synthesis of used solutions, some analogies can be drawn with Johann Sebastian Bach’s cycles such as The Art of the Fuge and, especially, Musikalisches Opfer; Bach inspirations can also be seen in the principle of overlapping and complementary movements (like a prelude and a fuge); this is particularly evident in the pairs of Périodes – Partielsand Modulations – Transitoires

It is also worth stopping for a while at the title itself, which suggests the opening of a new dimension of sound: depth, colour, and spectrum. When we spoke formerly about sound, we distinguished only its pitch, loudness, and duration. The cycle’s cohesion is guaranteed by the spectrum of the E note: this is the point from which the entire basic acoustic space is derived. The various movements will be its increasingly broad, full manifestations, as in a slow move out of the camera in cinema, a comparison used by the composer when discussing instrumental synthesis in Transitoires.4 In this context, we can talk of orchestra crescendo or intensification of sound; nonetheless, to stay with the title, references to distancing movement that unifies the perspective are inevitable.Espaces acoustiques have opened and defined the fourth dimension in music: the depth and colour of sound. 

Jan Topolski

(Translated from Polish by Wojciech Bońkowski) 

The text is a slightly edited version of the two opening chapters of the book Widma i czasy. Muzyka Gérarda Grisey (Spirits and Times. The Music of Gérard Grisey), Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2012. Reprinted with permission and thanks. 


1 Here and henceforth: Gérard Grisey, Les Espaces acoustiquesÉcrits ou l’invention de la musique spectrale, ed. Guy Lelong, Paris: Éditions MF, 2008:134–41. 

2 The French term intimiste also relates to Impressionism. 

3 Quoted after Jérôme Baillet, Gérard Grisey. Fondements d’une écriture, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000:70, 97–98. 

4 Gérard Grisey, Strukturowanie barw instrumentalnych, trans. Jagoda Szmytka, Res Facta Nova, no. 11/20 (2010), p. 165.