Gérard Pesson – Aggravations et Final

After quite a deal of searching today and not really finding any music that made me excited, I happened to stumble upon Aggravations et Final, a piece for large orchestra by Gérard Pesson, a contemporary French composer. What good fortune! Similarly to yesterday’s entry, I had never heard the music of Pesson before this piece, but I am excited to hear more of his output as I continue to listen to new music.

Like many of the contemporary French composers I have heard, he has an unbelievable palate of tone color that he creates his music from. However, this palate seems to be informed much less by the spectralists like Grisey. Instead he pulls more from the instrumental musique concrete soundscapes of Helmut Lachenmann. Though he uses larger groupings of instruments at times, he is never afraid to sparsely score the piece which is a huge asset in this piece. Unlike many pieces that hulk and lumber about because of their perpetually, excessively dense scoring, this piece is able to attain a very impressive lightness in quality. To be sure, his intimidatingly large sound vocabulary and his impeccable scoring are some of the most powerful aspects of this piece.

Interesting sound qualities, however, do not inherently create interesting musical experiences. What really pulled me into the piece musically was Pesson’s complex rhythmic language interacting with his timbral precision.  Much of the piece is highly syncopated allowing the music to dance and keep the listener on the edge of their seat. This syncopated music is contrasted with long notes that allow the listener to relax for a few moments before more interruptions shake up the music once again. Beyond this, he allows there to be moments of silence and paces the music expertly. To me, this allows there to be breath in the music that gives it life. This makes the piece feel more like taking part in a discussion than listening to someone just talking at you for minutes on end.

Through the piece, regimented rhythmic motives that are markedly more square in rhythm and repetitious, intrude into the other music. These regimented rhythms become increasingly present in the music until about 12’20” into the piece when they take over the music altogether. In this section, the brass and strings quietly play pulsing eighth notes on a single pitch class, but never play the exact same number of eighth notes consecutively. Because of the asymmetrically repetitious quality of this section of music reminds me of the “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring where most the orchestra are playing rhythmically unison sixteenth notes that never quite fall into a pattern one can follow. This section of the Rite of Spring is loud and brutal, but I love that because Pesson uses soft dynamics through this climactic section of Aggravations et Final, it actually brings out violent qualities of the music that are more intense than if it were loud.

Much like Pinter’s The Birthday Party, where banal chitchat that is usually nonthreatening is used as a vehicle to expose the play’s violence that lies just below the surface, Pesson has hidden the aggression and intensity of Aggravations et Final in its charming timbres like atmospheric, extremely light strings in the highest registers and instruments like harp and celesta, warm sonorities, and soft dynamics. However, when the music arrives at the more mechanical section of 12’20” these lighter features are present only as fleeting intrusions to the heavier, regimented music that he has been building to throughout.

Finally the piece comes to an extremely quiet sparse resolution. I really enjoy that he plays with the listener’s expectation that a finale is surely to build up to over the top, booming conclusion by instead doing just the opposite. The final notes have powerful impact because of their austere, even barren, surroundings. The lightness of his orchestration, which may seem at first to betray the concept of aggravation, ultimately serves to be one of the most powerful proponents of it.

Highlights:

  • 1’15”-1’55”- The celesta, trills, and woodwind writing make this music float in the air delightfully.
  • 4’-5’ – Held sonorities, lots of space, and even lyrical violin lines bring wonderful contrast to the faster material that occasionally interrupt.
  • 10’50”-11’10” – What would be restful horn fifths in any classical or romantic symphony become very tense from the clocklike persistence of the quietly pizzing strings around them and other intrusions.
  • 12’20”-end – Great closing to the piece.

No score this time, but I hope you enjoy the music!

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