Grisey’s Talea in different hemispheres

While in Europe on an ArtStart, studying with musikFabrik’s Helen Bledsoe and Kaija Saariaho’s flute muse Dr Camilla Hoitenga, I’ve fallen on my feet a bit and managed to land a gig playing with Ensemble Fractales from Brussels playing Grisey’s Talea and Murail’s Treize Couleurs in early June.

This will be my second time performing the Grisey, having played it with my ensemble Kupka’s Piano in Brisbane in March. Both have been without conductor, which has been an interesting and useful challenge. It’s an explosive work of music: impacts and voids, long spectral sweeps, piano rumbles and sympathetic reverberations, aftershocks. But the tension and power of these moments is completely lost if you are not exactly together, so there’s a lot time to be spent lining things up, learning cues, making eye contact. All of this is much easier the second time around, as you are building on an established knowledge base. It’s a second performance for Fractales too, which means we are free to explore the piece in a bit more detail – an exciting prospect for an Australian musician!* What’s more, we were lucky enough to have a coaching with pianist and conductor Alain Franco who had some really interesting things to say about the work. So I thought I would lay down a few rather uncollected thoughts on my experience of rehearsing and performing Talea.

There is so much kinetic energy in this piece – it’s very physical for all the musicians. Even within each line there’s a sense of energy moving, energy holding and releasing. Even the silences are never quite static, you get a sense of the sound developing well before you can hear it. It’s excellent chamber music, forcing you to really listen and interact with all other members of the ensemble.

In the beginning you are controlling the flux of range, of materials, the dense, manic outbursts and the ever so gradual move from the very, very soft (pppp) to the very soft (ppppp) to the kind of soft (pmp). Alain Franco said there is a kind of violence to retracting the sounds – moving from impact to void, being “actively non-active”. It’s like someone being muffled in a suspense film. These changes need to be executed with absolute control.

The tempo relations given by Grisey are also of utmost importance. In the second half the piano rumbles along at 128 BPM then picks out 80 or 64 or 96 – tricky, but important because this dictates the density and texture of each specific moment, the expansion and contraction. It is felt like a kind of internal wave. Every gesture is totally corporeal. These piano bass notes are hitting the whole thing off, extending into washy waves of sustained sounds from the rest of the ensemble. The moments of activity that arise out of this are a kind of after shock, but also an agitation – a transition into the next spectrum.

It’s interesting to see which passages are best developed fully in the practise room and which need the context of the full ensemble sound before you can really work out what you’re doing. Some of those active passages in the second half are like examining a note from many different angles – the changing colours as you look at the different facets of a diamond. One exposes the difference between a staccato low C on bass flute and a tenuto or marcato one, then there’s tongue slaps or pizzicatos, and articulated aeolian sounds, rolling sharp and flat, and accented breath sounds. But this interacts with the cello and clarinet, so that some attacks need to be brought out much more than others. On the other hand, I have little solo lines where I am turning down a note with quick, regular re-articulations, finding the lowest point and bringing volume to it then revisiting it more softly. Here I can mostly develop the sound I want out of context.

One of the great tenets of chamber music is this: you are only part of it if you give the others space. Everyone has to step up and work to be heard in chamber music, but the reverse is also true: everyone has to step back and let their colleagues be heard. In this piece it really is a matter of sticking to the written dynamics, which are clear, but sometimes it’s also about working to overcome your instrument’s limitations. The flute must play with a richer, denser sound to get volume; the clarinet often needs to bring it back a touch. The kind of attack I am using needs careful consideration, and variation depending on context and what will be heard.

Who and how to cue is another big thing. In Brisbane I was leading and cueing a lot – such is my role in Kupka’s. In Fractales I’m the newbie, so I was mostly taking leads from the others. It’s nice not having that responsibility so much! But as you get to know a work, eye contact can act as much of a cue as a big gesture. Really knowing who to look at at what point is a big thing. Just a glance across the group can be enough to ensure you land exactly together. Pop!

This year I’ve learnt Philippe Hurel’s Loops in addition to this piece, and if there’s one thing I’ve discovered, it’s that passages with lots of microtonal fingerings take a million times longer than normal noted passages to drill into your brain and hands. The first three pages of Talea took as long as the rest of the whole piece to learn. And to relearn! It’s hard. But so rewarding because I love the sounds – the colour changes that come from wonky fingerings, and the distortion of our normal pitch expectations.

I’m playing Talea with Ensemble Fractales on June 5 in Ghent, Belgium.

*Due to the costs of touring in Australia (cities a long way apart, lack of resources such as good pianos and percussion instruments in regional centres, and lack of presenting bodies in the form of venues or specific festivals) it is very often the case that each concert program we present is performed just once or twice. In Europe it is far more common to revisit repertoire because you don’t have to travel far to present it to a new audience! This allows for much deeper interpretation, as well as efficiency of rehearsal time.

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