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Spectral Music Invades Slee Hall

Talujon percussion ensemble visits the dark stars of deep space

On Tuesday, April 24 at 7:30pm, the final concert in this academic year’s Slee/Visiting Artist Series in Slee Hall at UB features the New York City based percussion group Talujon in a rare performance of Gérard Grisey’s landmark work of spectral music, Le Noir de l’Étoile. Composed for six percussionists and magnetic tape, the work is built upon the retransmission of astronomical signals from pulsar stars located in deep space.

When it comes to booking touring musical groups, it always helps to have a personal connection, as is the case with UB assistant professor of percussion Tom Kolor, who along with the other members of Talujon—Ian Antonio, Matthew Gold, Michael Lipsey, and Matt Ward—last performed in Buffalo in March 2010. Melanie Voytovich, who is in the final semester of her master of music studies at UB, will join Talujon as a guest artist for this performance.

In writing spectral music the composer bases compositional decisions on the analysis of sound spectra, focusing on manipulating the features identified through spectral analysis, while interconnecting and transforming them. The composition of spectral music emphasizes timbral structures by making decisions about the use of timbre based on a particular method of mathematical analysis known as the Fast Fourier Transform, which involves the use of the fundamental properties of sound as a basis for harmony.

Grisey (1946-1998), who won the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious award in French music, while still a student, was a key figure in the development of the techniques used in composing spectral music, though he eventually repudiated the label itself. Grisey spent much of his career exploring the spectrum of tone color between harmonic overtones and noise, while also being fascinated by musical processes which unfold slowly, making musical time a major element of many of his compositions.

About the genesis of Le Noir de l’Étoile, which lasts just over an hour, Grisey writes:

When I met the astronomer and cosmologist Joe Silk at Berkeley in 1985, he introduced me to the sounds of pulsars. I was seduced by those of the Vela Pulsar, and like Picasso picking up an old bicycle saddle, immediately wondered, ‘What in world could I do with this?’ The answer came slowly: integrate the sounds into a musical work without manipulating them; let them simply exist like reference points within a music that would be some sort of setting or stage for them; finally, use their frequencies as tempi and develop ideas of rotation, periods, slowing down, acceleration and ‘glitches’ that the study of pulsars suggests to astronomers. Percussion was an obvious choice, for, like pulsars, it is primordial, and like them, it defines and measures time, not without austerity. Finally, I decided to reduce the instrumentation to skins and metal, to the exclusion of keyboards.

When music succeeds in conjuring up time, it finds itself vested with a veritable shamanic power, that which connects us to the forces that surround us. In past civilizations, lunar or solar rituals served to conjure. Thanks to these rituals, the seasons could return and the sun could rise every morning. What is it about our pulsars? Why bring them here, today, at the time when their passage in the boreal skies renders them inaccessible?

Of course, we know—or think we know—that with or without us, 0359-54 and the Vela Pulsar will continue their interminable rounds and indifferently sweep the intersidereal spaces with their beams of electromagnetic waves. But is it not by trapping them in a radio telescope, then integrating them into a sophisticated cultural event—the concert—that they will then send back to us more than their own songs?

Indeed, the moment of a pulsar’s passage in the sky limits us to a precise date, and by pinning the concert on this faraway clock, it becomes an event in situ or, more exactly, in tempore, thereby linked to cosmic rhythms. Thus, the pulsars will determine not only the different tempi or beats of Le Noir de l’Étoile, but also the date and precise time of its performance. Music with pulsar obbligato!

However, it should not be deduced that I am a follower of the Music of the Spheres! There is no Music of the Spheres other than Inner Music. That alone pulses even more violently than our pulsars and, from time to time, obliges a composer to remain listening.

Talujon will also present a composer workshop session, which is open for public observation, on Monday, April 23 at 1pm, in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall.

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