Vol. 31 Issue 1 Reviews

Jean-Claude Risset: Elementa

Compact disc, 2001, INA_C 1019; available from Ina-GRM, electronic mail memoire_vive@ina.fr; Web www.ina.fr/produits/disques/ina-GRM/disque217.fr.html; in North America, contact DIFFUSION I MéDIA, 4580 avenue de Lorimier, Montréal, Québec H2H 2B5, Canada; fax (+1) 514-526-4487; electronic mail info@electrocd.com; Web www.electrocd.com/cat.e/ina_c_1019.html.

Reviewed by Margaret Schedel
Point Richmond, California, USA

In the program notes for his new disc Elementa,Jean-Claude Risset writes: “I invite the listener to a journey for the ear which, I hope, could be captivating: but it is left for the music to speak for itself and try to be convincing.” Elementa takes the listener from a sheltered marine cave to a furious oceanic storm, from a Celtic harp weaving around a tonal center to gloriously out-of-tune arpeggios, from a pianist playing with his own echoes to creating his own kaleidoscopic reflections, from sound and silence to sounds both present and absent, from water, to fire, to air, and finally to a return earth.

Avel, a two-channel tape work from 1997, opens the CD with an expansive meditation on the wind. The piece opens in a cave, with drops of water hitting rocks and each other. The gathering storm sweeps up everything, including pitched material in its path. It is difficult to shape wind sounds successfully and Mr. Risset does a superb job giving distinct structure to the pitched noise/noised pitch. The pitch content grows, a downward-pitched motive tangles with an upward wind sweep, and they merge into a ghostly choir. Several of the sounds seem to have traveled a long distance  to the listener’s ear, leaving behind meandering melodies as a delicate afterthought.

Lurai, a two-movement work for tape and Celtic harp from 1992, is performed by noted harpist Denise Mégevand. At some points in the piece I couldn’t tell which sounds were being produced by the electronics and which were being producRisseted by the harpist, a measure of success for any instrument-plus-tape work. I especially loved Ms. Mégevand’s technique of roughening her plucks and augmenting them almost instantaneously by buzzing her fingernails against the string to produce a grudgingly beautiful timbre. In another section she rubs the strings of the harp creating a stunning, soft, yet resonant timbre. The composer uses samples of the harp to build up other textures using delays; at one point it seems that an entire swarm of bees has flown out of the left loudspeaker around my head and into the right loudspeaker. The tape part interacts wonderfully with the live harpist bringing the pre-recorded sounds from close to the harp to far, far away in terms of both timbre and space. There were a few clichéd tape-plus-instrument moments, but they are clichés because they work so well. Mr. Risset composed Lurai in 1992; it is astonishing that more of the work does not sound dated.

Trois etudes en duo (1991)uses a process Mr. Risset first implemented in 1989 with Eight Sketches: duet for one pianist. I had the pleasure of going to the Peabody Conservatory of Music with Wan-Ching Li when she was preparing a lecture-recital on the Eight Sketches. I loved the formal clarity of that piece. Even though the interaction is basic, the piece transcends its simplicity to become eloquently expressive. In Trios Etudes the writing is more complex, but I never felt completely at ease with the music; the formal structure created by the different methods of interaction are obscured by the sheer number of notes. Mr. Risset is a deliberate, attentive composer, and the powerful elegance of his writing shows throughout this piece: delicate polyrhythms dance off the keys, phrases flow deftly from one to another, the entire range of the piano spanning a single gesture. The work is a fun ride, but I couldn’t really grasp it. Perhaps if I studied the score and the Max patch, or even saw the piece performed live, I could develop a deeper understanding of Trois etudes, akin to the appreciation I have for Eight Sketches.

Tracks seven and eight, Invisible Irine (1995), are inspired by one of my favorite books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. (I only read program notes after listening to works.)  The samples of Irene Jarsky are gorgeous and the sonic transformations weave spells around her voice, enveloping and enhancing the melodic/poetic fragments. This piece truly showcases Mr. Risset’s facility with mixing pre-recorded samples with synthesized sound as well as his uncanny ability to manipulate spatial perception. So few composers are able to move easily between perceived spaces; this one composes within a strange paradox, able to combine sounds that live in distinct acoustic realms and making them peacefully coexist. When Mr. Risset's combinations go beyond peaceful coexistence, they are even more potent for their unlikeness.

The last work on the CD, Elementa (1998), creates a soundscape so intoxicating and permutable, so enraptured with its own sounds and textures, with its overblown harmonic crackles and dripping sedimentary layers, that the listener wants to burrow into every sample and settle there. Mr. Risset’s homage to the elements has an almost pagan sensuality encompassing the infinite and mundane simultaneously. Elementa is formally, sonically, and emotionally convincing. The four movements sound well individually, but together they showcase a composer completely in command of his own voice. It is fitting that the composer took the title of the CD from this stunning work.