From Sign to Sound: In the Forge of a Conductor

Ingrid Pustijanac
Head of DALM / Dialogic Approaches to Living Musics Research Group
Department of Musicology and Cultural Heritage – University of Pavia

Imagine you are a conductor being asked to conduct Gérard Grisey's Les Espaces Acoustiques, a magnificent cycle of six pieces that, starting with Prologue (1976) for viola solo, goes on to expand the sonic space through Périodes (1974) for seven musicians, Partiels (1975) for 16 or 18 musicians, Modulations (1976) for 33 musicians, Transitoires (1980-81) for large orchestra, culminating in Épilogue (1985) for four horns and large orchestra. As a conductor who probably has already been engaged in the performance of contemporary music, you may have conducted the chamber pieces of this cycle (Périodes and Partiels) in the past, as they have now become part of the repertoire of contemporary music ensembles and also of the ensembles of the conservatories that are most committed to contemporary music. On the contrary, it might also be that this is the first time you will be approaching spectral music, in general, and this cycle, in particular; and no doubt with a lot of excitement and a hint of panic. But no fear. This article is intended to act as an imaginary guide through the possible stages that lead from an initial performance proposal to the actualisation of the entire cycle. This journey will not be done in an abstract way, nor will it be based on my personal experience as a conductor [1], but will use the extensive material gathered during the project “Interpréter Les Espaces Acoustiques de Gérard Grisey” by the members of the Labex GREAM research group (which later became ITI CREAA) Pierre Michel, Nathalie Hérold, Camille Lienhard and myself, concerning the rehearsals of Les Espaces Acoustiques for the concert of the student orchestra of the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (ZHdK) at the Tonhalle in Zürich on 22 April 2016, conducted by Pierre-André Valade. As Pierre Michel and Nathalie Hérold emphasized in their presentation of the project [2], the various materials collected (consisting of videos of rehearsals, videos of interviews, as well as photos of the conductor's personal annotated scores) as well as the very act of participative observation during the last days of rehearsals by the members of the research group constitute a unique opportunity for dealing with the multiple perspectives of interpretation for the study of Les Espaces Acoustiques. The observation of the relationship between the musical idea, the notation and its realisation in sound will be adopted as a common thread. Therefore, in addition to the audio-visual materials, commentary on selected pages of the conductor's annotated scores will be used on several occasions [3]. The use of annotated scores as a study aid has been the subject of various methodological reflection and research on performance practice in relatively recent times [4]. Starting with the various signs annotated on specific pages of the scores, a number of reflections on the traces of the analysis, reading and interpretation of the composition revealed by the annotated scores and the complex system of references to the musical idea contained therein will be brought to light, in addition to precise technical-analytical information.