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Gérard Grisey & Maurice Saylor--Creating Music for Other Worlds

Recently the Dresser has heard musical works that have been created with a limited segment of instruments normally played in most classical compositions or with an unusual emphasis on an instrument or selected instruments. For example, Philip Glass in his opera Satyagraha used only winds and strings, cutting out the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra. On June 4, 2008, at the Église Saint-Eustache in Paris, France, the Dresser experienced the all percussion work Le Noir de L'Étoile by Gérard Grisey and on June 8 at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, she heard two pieces by Maurice Saylor: Concerto in A for Cello and Vocal Orchestra (one cello and 32 human voices) and The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (two separate choruses totaling 68 voices and a collection of unexpected instruments not generally employed for a classical composition, such as accordion, harmonica, and banjo.)


Le Noir de L'Étoile concerns the death of a pulsar and had its genesis when French composer Gérard Grisey met the astronomer and cosmologist Joe Silk at University of California Berkeley in 1985. Silk introduced the composer to the sounds of the Vela Pulsar. Grisey, who died in 1998 at the age of 52, taught at UC Berkeley from 1982-1986.

In the gothic Saint-Eustache church, the 60-minute concert began shortly after 10 p.m. In France at this time of the year, it's not dark until 10 p.m. and the Dresser and her friends surmised that the producers wanted the audience to be in touch with the night sky. In the dimly lit church under its 112-foot vaulted ceiling, the Dresser felt her attention directed away from things terrestrial. Six platforms of percussion instruments were stationed around the perimeter of a large energetic audience. After the concert, the Dresser told her seatmate composer John Supko, when he asked what she thought, that L'Étoile gave a whole new meaning to crescendo.GriseyPercussionist.jpg[Percussionist Olaf Tzschoppe talks with John Supko]

Being the daughter of a dad who played drums in a dance band, the Dresser has a certain appreciation of rhythm, sound texture, and silences before a mallet, drum stick, or brush strikes. Le Noir de L'Étoile was not jazz, rock, or heavy metal. There were moments of shocking explosive sound. Still, what impressed was the integrity of the work that measured silence against audible impact. In addition to the percussion, there were bits of a recording from the Vela Pulsar, which came across as static. GriseyDrums2.jpgIn certain ways, the concert in its arrangement of where the instruments were stationed and the subject matter reminded the Dresser of a Paul Winter Consort concert that she heard in Washington, DC, at the National Cathedral. Where Winter had wolves in the voice of his soprano sax, Les Percussions de Strasbourg--the same group of percussionists who premiered Le Noir de L'Étoile--produced explosive flames of the dying star. When the concert finished, the audience produced a thunder of appreciation.

This concert was the opening night of the Festival Agora, which runs until June 20 in various locations around Paris and is a production of the IRCAM-Centre Pompidou with the support of the SACEM (an organization like ASCAP here in the United States). The IRCAM (Institute for Acoustic and Musical Research and Coordination) is a musical research institute that past French president George Pompidou asked Pierre Boulez to create in 1970 in association with a national center of contemporary art that would eventually be built and named the Centre Pompidou. Serendipitously, the Dresser decided to visit the Pompidou the day of the Grisey concert to see "Les Traces du Sacré," an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, installations, and videos that covers the history of art in the twentieth century addressing, in the face of an intellectual world believing God is dead, the questions of who are we, where do we come from, and what will happen to us. (This exhibition runs May 7 to August 11, 2008.) Needless to say, this exhibition handsomely dovetailed with the intellectual construct of the concert. Also it was no accident that the Festival Agora began with Grisey's work. Grisey, who was first known as a Spectralist and later renounced that pigeonholing as Philip Glass refuses to be called a Minimalist, was influenced by his teacher of four years Olivier Messiaen as well as Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. In 2008, Festival Agora has built their programs around the work and philosophy of Gérard Grisey.


When Gisèle Becker asserted to Maurice Saylor that she wanted her Cantate Chamber Singers to mount another production of his The Hunting of the Snark (Cantate commissioned and then gave The Snark its world premiere), she also commissioned Saylor to compose a companion piece. Saylor.jpgBecause The Snark with its ever-changing rhythms is a hard piece to sing, Saylor wanted to make its companion a work of worthy duration, difficulty, and invention that would "not put undue strain on a group that will already be burdened with hunting a Snark." Concerto in A for Cello and Vocal Orchestra is the four-movement work featuring the cello and using a vocalizing chorus in place of a traditional orchestra of strings, winds, horns, and percussion that resulted from this commission and the composer's vision of what works with The Hunting of the Snark.

The opening movement entitled "Moderato" created a mood similar to the cemetery scene in Thornton Wilder's Our Town and as set by Ned Rorem with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy. In keeping with Saylor's predilection, the "Moderato" has a fair amount of syncopation. The singers vocalized a variety of vowels and the cello wove in and out. The second movement "Scherzo-cadenza" featured the cello alone with an interesting mix of pizzicato, strumming, and the more traditional bowing. Cello-Snider.jpgIt allowed cellist Nancy Jo Snider to strut her ample talents. Movement three "Elegy" mirrored the mood of the "Moderato" and brought back the choral orchestra with some standout solo parts particularly in the soprano section. The final movement named "Allegro" had the most energy of the four pieces. As often is the case with a new work, the singers seemed to gain energy and confidence as the piece progressed. Saylor said afterwards that he plans to add a choral score for the "Scherzo-cadenza" and make some other adjustments to the overall work. Plans are in the works for a couple of other productions at DC university concert halls, including American University where cellist Nancy Jo Snider teaches.


The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits is based on a text by Lewis Carroll. It is an elaborate work that featured for this production the Cantate Chamber Singers, a short section by all girl members of The Holton-Arms Lower School Chorus, and a zany mix of instruments that Saylor calls his Snarkestra. Thirteen musicians play eleven kinds of instruments but some of the instruments, like clarinets and saxophones, are in a variety of keys. Predominately the ensemble is reed instruments (five musicians play more than one reed instrument) with two kinds of strings (electric violin and banjo), two kinds of keyboards (accordion and piano), percussion (there are three percussionists), and harmonica. Emphasized in this piece is the accordion, which carries the motif of the Snark. Andrew Simpson, who is a composer, pianist, and co-founder of the Snark Ensemble, originally learned how to play accordion for the 2004 premiere of The Snark and he actually plays two different pitched accordions. SimpsonAccordion.jpgTwoAccordions.jpgJust watching Simpson and the reed players change instruments is an exhilarating experience.

The Dresser's favorite section is the fifth fit which is subtitled "The Beaver's Lesson." The girls of The Holton-Arms Lower School Chorus did a great job delivering the text so that every word was understandable. They ably complimented the outstanding delivery of the Cantate Chamber Singers. The girls also had the awesome task of responding to these lines:

A pencil that squeaks on a slate!
"'Tis the voice of the Jubjub!"

What was the response? A cascade of screams that were both terrifying at the volume of noise produced and hilarious because the girls clearly enjoyed this requirement.

The Hunting of the Snark reminded the Dresser of Bohuslav Martinů's La Revue de Cuisine, which similarly has wild tempo changes, rich harmony countered with dissonance, and that wonderful element of jazz. Saylor, who also writes music for silent films and then uses his Snark Ensemble to play that music, is an aficionado of cabaret music and knows how to have fun with his own compositions. A recording of The Hunting of the Snark featuring the singers and musicians from this concert will soon be available.

While the Dresser was in Paris, she had the opportunity to hear and then meet Michelle Noteboom, an American poet living in the City of Light. This poem has the wackiness of the Lewis Carroll text The Hunting of the Snark while also venturing into outer space and the world of music. She is author of Edging.


Alas my love you do me wrong to cast me off like a wreckfish clunkfest jester, but the essence of the lesson isn't lost. Crouching in the embryonic kitchen with jellylike genitalia eating figs off strings and glass and silkscreens. Orion spread-eagled across the sky. An odd hand job turned sexy arty affair. You ain't no aerosol man pssshhhhht! now you see it now you don't, a mock mongrel ur-babbling on morphogenesis in a trenchcoat on a payphone in the metro. Number nine number nine, Chernobyl's on the line! Anagrams of interstitial dental work sported by heavenly-bodied astrolabial nymphs. We'll keep track of our phonetic landmarks while pillowcasing the joint and subcontracting to some weirdo with a dorsal fin. "Bull honkey," he cried, "we've got more galaxies than anyone else so smarten up." Inventorial oxydation of eucharistic shampoo approved by the suitor's staff etherized out in the stable. The frog unbuttons its belly to the tedium of icecaps. Cuspate coeducationally for the mizzling orgy's clubbiness and joust. Pianissimo, adagio, trim the shoetree. Just don't let me die in Disneyland.

Noteboom.jpgBy Michelle Noteboom
First published in MiPoesias and forthcoming in Van Gogh's Ear

Copyright © 2006 by Michelle Noteboom

[Michelle Noteboom on June 2, 2008 reading at Shakespeare & Company, Paris]

Photos of Andrew Simpson and the accordions by Wayne Guenther


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