toc toc toc

february 03, 2005.

Présences, the yearly French Festival de Création Musicale of Radio France, the french public radio, is a very generously sponsored 'high brow' (better: academic/institutional ...) music event. All of the no less than twenty-something 'grand classical' concerts that are part of it, most of them taking place at the Maison de Radio France, are absolutely free. The festival offers to relative 'outsiders', like myself, a unique opportunity to get an impression of what kind of orchestral and ensemble music some of the 'younger', living - French and other - 'art' composers have been writing over the past couple of years.

But is the 'impression' given by Présences of the musics behind and between the 'new notes' being scribbled and schemed here and there in our western world a trusty one?

The salle Olivier Messiaen, where most of the Présences concerts are taking place, is spacy, light, clean and very 1960's; it emanates a spirit reminiscent of the one that pervaded the roman catholic church buildings which I used to frequent in my youth; built, in that same time frame, as part of freshly erected suburbias. As soon as I sink into one of its reasonably comfortable seats, I start feeling cosy, safe, and far from the worries and dangers of the real world. But surely that cannot be the reason that also so much of the music that I hear there sounding strikes me as being so very, very safe? As just too seldomly more than on the average ten, fifteen minutes of smartly interwoven tunes, harmonies and orchestral colours, to dreamily close one's eyes by, then gently, wisely, wave one's head to? Hardly unpleasant. No. But ...? Safe ... as in 'void of ... life, void of ... passion' ... ? I do image some, but I can't imagine all of the composers Présences presents being that life- and passionless, so partly this impression must be due to pale and insufficient performances of at least some the pieces. But for another, large, part: there are the choices being made by the programme committee ... safe choices ... reason-able choices ... mob choices ... politics ? ... Choices. That seems evident, for it surely can not be true that all 'academic' music written nowadays here in France (and elsewhere) is as lacking in sense of adventure and risk taking as are so many of the works that during the first weeks of every year's february are 'proudly presented' in the Maison de Radio France?


With the festival comes an expensive looking glossy one hundred and plus pages booklet including bi-lingual (french/english) notes covering not only all of the works and their composers, but also the performers. Excellent musicians! Every single one of them holder of the most prestigious of diplômes. A crême de la crême, honored by many, many, first prizes, other prizes, gold medals and other medals... Surely such medal-bearers should appreciate being invited to do a little ass-kicking every now and then? Or is that bad for one's carrière?

"Right. But then what about the orchestras ..." I hear you asking? I am glad you did ... For these are equally excellent. No exception. Whether they'res from heres or from theres ... With all of thems finely polished instruments (wo)manned by as many crafty professionals. 'Professional' to such extent, that quite regularly over the past couple of years I noticed - torn between envy and admiration - how some managed to work their way through the 'world premiere' (création mondiale) of a far from undemanding composition, while paying more attention to their wristwatch than to the score. Fascinating example of 'hit and run!' ...

So ... Oh... do I feel disapproving looks? Am I being too cynical? Well, I did see it happen ... These, though, might have been mere incidents, by chance occurring in my présence. They might have ....

For fact is that: at the opening concert of this year's, the 15th, edition of the festival, on saturday january 29th, the Orchestre National de Montpellier, directed by Juraj Valcùha, did an exemplary job. I was really glad I had brought the kids along. They had a great time watching a dedicated director and his orchestra turning notes into music. (The illustrations are my daughter's [Gersande, 7] impressions of the event, which she drew onto the pages of her copy of the festival's glossy booklet while listening to the concert). Which did not, however, prevent - again - that nagging feeling of having to attend to such very safe sounds ...

This year's 'star' of the festival is Marc-André Dalbavie (1961), a relatively young French composer, said to belong to the (French) school of 'spectral composers', who - very, very generally spoken - take on the 'timbre', the 'sonic spectrum', as being central to their work. [Anthony Cornicello's thesis (may 2000, pdf) contains a lot of interesting background material on what has come to be known as 'spectral music'.] Saturday's concert opened with 'The Rocks under Water', a 2002 work by Dalbavie for orchestra, about 12', originally written for the inauguration of the Peter B. Lewis Building in Cleveland. A beautifully calm, near serene, piece of orchestral music, with some interesting rhythmic surprises, and nice percussive colouring. But hardly something that could be called a 'statement', worthy of opening a Présences-like event. Maybe it is just me having unreasonable expectations? I would have liked this (or any) composer on a such occasion to step forward and say: "Hi there! Here I am! Smell me ! ..." Nothing though could have been further from this than Dalbavie's 'Rocks under the Water' ... Actually I could well imagine how wonderfully this so unobtrusive, atmospheric music must have 'worked' within the confines of Frank O Gehry's fine Cleveland architecture, on the occasion of a 'classy' inauguration, with expensively dressed bobo's 'n' beauties drinking champagne, roaming among (said the program notes) 'the different instrumental groups placed throughout the building' ... But here there was no champagne to zip from, while wandering from strings to horns and back again; this wasn't an inauguration in Cleveland, it was a Présences in Paris, France, with but one stage at the Maison de la Radio ...

The second offering of this year's opening concert was an 18' piece by the Canadian composer Jean Lesage (1958), entitled 'Les mécanismes multiples de l'ivresse et de la nostalgie', written especially for this year's Présences. A promising title, but I am afraid that Jean Lesage and myself do not get drunk in exactly that same manner; even though the piece did manage to frighten a little friend of my daughter's that had come along to the concert with us, and who in the very middle of it burst out in tears, wanting right away to go back home to her mummy ...

It took a break, candy, coke and the comfort of a woman friend's arms to convince the little one to sit through yet another thirty five minutes of symphonic surprise.

Fortunately these were worth it.

toc toc toc

Mixing water and oil ... Of course we know that it cannot be done. But isn't it fun to every now and then, stubbornly, go ahead and give it another try? In 'Hier, aujourd'hui, demain', composer and former director of the music department of Radio France, René Koering (1940), joined forces with DJs / producers Manu le Malin (Emmanuel Dauchez) and Torgull (Phillipe Daveney) in a co-signed and co-performed 'Moloch' for techno and symphony orchestra. With Manu, Torgull and their techno-ware set up behind the Montpellier orchestra, in front of the pipes of grand orgue, Koering took place at the grand piano's keyboard, hitting and clustering up several fine fffff...ff storms. Yes! Yes! Do it! And then let's not forget there also was Gilles Yanetti, chest covered by a but smallish shiny gold-blacky t-shirt, voicing, voicing, and often screaming ("C'est qui qui crie?" Gersande asked me) at the top of his lungs, without ever having formally been taught how to, with neither medals nor diplômes. Says his bio: Gilles (a singer, painter and sculptor) just "discovered quite by accident that he had a lovely voice". A lovely voice indeed. And quite suddenly, unexpectedly, through this salle Olivier Messiaen did roam a spirit, that during so many of my earlier visits had been missing: that of an energy, of an art and of artists that intrepidly are moving forward, without the fear to fall ... I loved them for it. And so, undoubtedly, did most of the public. When I looked around me it seemed as if people actually - god forbid! - were enjoying themselves ... And so was the orchestra. You should have seen that headphoned trombonist kicking ....!

But still .... water and oil, of course ... It was interesting to observe how the symphony orchestra in this 'fusion' rather effortlessly out-noised all the amplified 'techno' that was being mixed in 'from behind' (hardcore as it may be, but largely deprived of what of course is techno's 'umbilical cord': the - repetitive - beat ... even though, as witnessed by the above interpretative drawing, techno's 'toc toc toc' apparently did get picked up by my daughter :-) ... ). Also 'spectrally' spoken, the electronics/vinyl sounds were no match at all for the timbral abundance of the Montpellier orchestra, which through most of this 'Yesterday, Now and Tomorrow' continued to arouse symphonic avalanche upon avalanche ... In short: though maybe already beforehand destined to fail, this was a fascinating confrontation, for many a reason. Even though I do think that in the end techno will fare far better without the back-up of a symphony orchestra, and that orchestral music will do just fine without techno-ic intervention, this was a brave thing to try, a fine - and truly an - 'experiment' ... just the sort of thing I think Présences should present.

Now let's sample this!

[ As over the next couple of weeks I'll be off, first to Amsterdam, then to Montréal, I will not be able to catch much more of the festival. For those of you that are in or passing through Paris the coming weeks, here's a couple of 'recommandations':
- you might want to lend an ear to the 'Antoine Hervé' project, this saterday 5-2 (17h00, Studio Charles Trénet);
- also on saturday 5/2 (18h00), though - exceptionnally - not at the Maison de Radio France, but in the Espace d'Animation des Blancs-Manteaux, rue Vieille du Temple, Paris IV, you may witness three of Marc-André Dalbavie's works that ask for a 'spatialization' of the orchestra; really sorry I have to miss this, actually...
- the programme of sunday 6/2 (18h00, salle Olivier Messiaen), includes a transcription (for two pianos and three players) of Conlon Nancarrow's sixth player piano study;
- the 'electronic part' of the festival, Présences Electronique, 17/2 - 20/2 ...
And if you go to one of these, why not share some during-and-after concert impressions by leaving a little comment below? :-) ... ]

[ added june 2005: GRM WebRadio has a reportage on each of the four Présences Electronique evenings, with short interviews and live performance extracts. (Click on 'reportages de concerts' for the full list of available reportages). ]

[ Earlier related SB-entry: bulimia, luilekkerland! ]

[ I - temporarily - removed the comment sections from the Archived pages, because of excessive spamming ...]

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