Argento New Music Project is well-primed to present songs by Tristan Murail, having worked with the French spectral music composer for a decade. The ensemble’s director, Michel Galante, talks about Murail, whose work will feature in the second “Spectralism in America” program on May 19 at the French Institute/Alliance Française. The program will also include pieces by three composers who studied and worked with Murail, including Galante himself.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
THE COMPOSERComposers for a while were pretty frustrated. I don’t want to say bored, but frustrated with the grayness or the lack of color in the harmonic world of contemporary composition. It just wasn’t something that people felt excited about. By the end of the ‘90s people were pretty fed up, actually. And to have a composer who had all kinds of other options, and to have all kinds of other choices that he could teach people and bring via his music was really, really exciting for younger generations of composers.
THE STYLEThere is actually an infinite number of notes. Taking all of the notes in the world and bringing it down to 12 and putting it on a grid is a reductive choice that you make so that you can work with it. What [spectral music composers] did in the beginning was they started to do musical experiments without the 12 pitches, so they would take things like complex sounds from bells. If you’ve ever been in the subway and you hear someone with steel drums, they’re playing a tune, but actually if you listen really closely, every one of those notes is really complex sounding and actually has a lot of notes in it. And they’re weird. They’re really colorful but they sound kind of strange. So by working with open strings, and from the pitches that come out of open strings on a string instrument, or with the harmonics that come out of basically all kinds of ways of producing notes that aren’t just straight out of the 12 pitches, and they started making pieces based on that.
THE PROGRAMWhat’s exciting of course is the directions that we took those pieces in, that we took these techniques in. [Huck] Hodge, his piece is just for solo cello but it explores reverb. I have one piece called “Leaves of Absence.” This piece, you know there’s an effect where a fire engine or an ambulance is coming from far away and it comes closer to you and it goes back into the distance, and actually as it’s getting closer, even when the siren stays the same, the pitch goes up in your ear because it’s getting closer, and as it goes away the pitch goes down. But if you’re in the ambulance the pitch stays the same. It’s called the Doppler effect. So this explores that.
THE ENSEMBLEWe try to bring something new to the audience. An ideal situation which is not always realizable, but in an ideal world every single person in the audience would hear something they’ve never heard before. Or they’ve never even thought of before. That’s kind of a lofty thing to say, but that would be a great thing. That’s a great day when you have a new experience.