Tristan Murail, “Cloches d’Adieu, et un Sourire” (1992)

Murail is associated with the movement, or aesthetic, or group, or set of techniques, known as spectral composition. (See Wikipedia for an introduction: members of the “group” traditionally deny it’s a group, and its definition has never been distinct beyond an interest in the acoustic properties of sound, especially timbre, as they are revealed in electronic analyses.) This piece is an homage to Murail’s teacher, Messiaen, who wrote a piano prelude called Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu; it’s the most ambitious of the eight Preludes. The evocation of bells in Murail’s piece is done in several ways: with clanging chords that play changes on simple harmonies; and with repeated drone bass tones, first g and then b.

The problem is long-term structure.  There are echoes of Messiaen’s piece thorughout, at first in tempo. Messiaen’s piece also has isolated g’s and b’s in the opening pages. Murail’s piece ends with three rising chords that include the same notes, b E# B, as the end of Messiaen’s piece.  But those echoes don’t account for the form of Murail’s piece, which is largely independent.  An interview with Alvin Lucier (link is on Wikipedia’s page for Murail) suggests that a great deal of what happens in Murail’s scores is intuitive, and that seems right: but it begs the question of what justifies the length and form of the pieces. “Cloches” is both an A-B-A structure, with a climax in the middle, and a rising structure of bass notes. Neither provides much traction. The opening page is a very interesting evocation of the clanging of a large bell, which can seem to introduce harmonies and dissonances as it resonates. The second page is an equally convincing evocation of sounds dying away. But the virtuoso falling chords on p. 3 and 4 seem to be part of some different logic: they are reminiscent of the way Messiaen put all sorts of landscape features into his Catalogue d’oiseaux. But in the absence of notations to that effect (Estuaire has some such notations, about waves building up and breaking, and passages to be played “like embroidery”) one can only assume Murail is drawing on some result of acoustic analysis, such as Fast Fourier Transformation, which isn’t audible — i.e., the structure doesn’t make sense in situ. And that, in turn, relieves me of the obligation to attend to large-scale structure.

(Parenthetically: it seems clear I’m missing something: what, I wonder, is the “sourire”?)

Murail’s score is easy to play — far easier than, for example, Estuaire, which is handwritten, and which Lemoine sells in a version that’s almost too small to read.

(These notes were written without engaging in the literature on spectralism; see the review of “Territoires de l’oubli” on this site for more on the question of spectralism’s sense of its purpose.)