Saturday, 14 February 2009

Tristan Murail Terre d'ombre

Terre d'ombre is a shade of brown frequently used in oil painting because it adds a warm "burnt umber" glow. The colour, for most people, connects to nature, the soil, growth, fertility. Murail's choice of this name for this piece refers to his father, a painter, and to Messiaen for whom colour was inextricably connected to music. "Spectralists" (to use a horrible blanket term) extend the concept so that visual connotations are as valid to the musical whole as any other reference. Just as painters extend the depth of colour by adding density, composers can "paint" by intensifying sound.

Murail's Terre d'ombre, though, also references Scriabin's Prometheus, the Poem of Fire. Scriabin was probably clinically synaesthetic, unlike Messiaen who would have liked to have been, so again the reference is to the concept of colour in music.

Perhaps too much can be made of Murail's fondness for quotation. In many ways it's a good thing because it helps access since it gives those new to the music something to relate to. But it's also misleading because it underplays the originality of the work. God forbid that the anti atonality fundamentalists get hold of Murail and use him to beat up on modern music. These extremists, who don't usually actually listen, are crazy enough, so it's a real threat.

Here Murail uses a massive orchestra, no less than 12 cellos, 8 double basses, a swathe of violas and a panoply of dark brass. Cue the idea of "ombre", earth tones, depth of shading. He uses a large orchestra because that in itself allows a wider range of sound, getting round the problem of fine tuning or de-tuning instruments and working out modulations and micro tones which only the most sophisticated musicians can play. Electronic projection is still an important feature, but it doesn't act like a soloists in a concerto, like the piano part in Scriabin. Rather it works with the orchestra, extending its range. This is a much bigger piece than Gondwana, and more sophisticated.

Terre d'ombre also refers to the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, bringing light to mankind. Murail's treatment is no way as profound and passionate as Luigi Nono's Prometeo (see links to that amazing piece in the subject list on right, below). Nontheless the dark, throbbing resonances do evoke a sense of primeval struggle. Poeme d'Extase it isn't. Note that even fifteen years before this, Murail was quoting passages from Scriabin in Gondwana, with its slowly building mountains of sound, themselves reminsicent of Messiaen's shifting tectonic plates.

Terre d'ombre is a spectacular piece, perfect for large scale auditoriums like the Royal Albert Hall, where its dark richness will wow the audience. The piece is only five years old, and Proms planning has a run in of several years. It is an ideal Proms piece and would be a huge hit. Much fuss has been made of the fact French music doesn't get Proms coverage "because of Boulez" which is a laugh, since even Boulez and Birtwistle were relegated to the "ghetto" of late night slots in recent years. So much modern French music, specifically Maurice Ohana and Dutilleux, is chamber music, not suited to the Proms ambience. Besides, why shouldn't the BBC favour British composers, even if they choose Thea Musgrave et al year after year?

Murail himself uses the metaphor of cooking to explain what he does. With his FM and computer generated calculations, he's working out the "chemistry". Boulez is more like an intuitive cook who just "knows" by instinct and experience. FM allows precise perfection. Boulez doesn't do much electronic/computer enhancement but without him, there would have been no IRCAM, no Ensemble Intercontemporain, no springboard for so many French (and British and German) composers. And in this Murail Immersion day, let's not forget, we heard Hugues Dufourt. (see the link below or use the subject list at right)

Photo of the paint pigment is from

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