An Introduction to Luc Brewaeys
Performer Champ d'Action, Koen Kessels
CD MDC 7827-28 35€ / order
About LUC BREWAEYS
An Introduction to Luc Brewaeys
Breaking the Sound Waves
Luc Brewaeys’s association with Champ d’Action goes back more than a decade, when just after the ensemble had been founded by his friend and colleague Serge Verstockt he served as principal conductor for one and a half years. For this disc, instigated by the conductor Koen Kessels, they come together again in what can be considered as a cross section of Brewaeys’s chamber music of the last ten years, but at the same time also a portrait of Champ d’Action itself.
Due cose belle ha il mondo: l’amore e la morte, originally commissioned by the ensemble L’Itinéraire, was written in 1986 but underwent substantial revision two years later. Its scoring for piano solo, chamber orchestra and live-electronics begs comparison with the earlier Trajet (1982), which uses the same solo instrument surrounded by an ensemble of half the size. Also in terms of the live-electronics, both works are similar as they dispense with the sort of gigantic electronic configurations typical of the time in favour of a focus on a single device, i.e. ringmodulation (addition and subtraction of the frequencycontent of the two inputs into an output that contains neither original signal). Invariably, Brewaeys always assigns a sine wave to one input and a (live) instrumental sound to the other input, so that the result is a complex coloration or distortion of the original sound. In Trajet, ringmodulation is limited to the solo instrument and functions as a mechanism of ‘verfremdung’, timbrally alienating the soloist’s sonic world from that of the surrounding ensemble. Due cose… on the other hand utilises no less than four independent computer-co-ordinatedringmodulators: one on the solo piano, another on a sub-group consisting of percussion, harp, electric guitar and bass guitar, a third one on the reverberated combination of the aforementioned two, and a last one on the whole ensemble. Throughout the piece, these prisms are mobilised in such a way that the final result is the aural equivalent of an intricate projection of different streams of broken light.
The introductory section of Due cose… revolves around the idea of meta-modulation, i.e. the defraction of already highly inharmonic instrumental sonorities.The solo piano opens the piece with isolated sounds from the margins lowest register and the inside of the instrument, and then gradually draws in percussion and harp/guitars, establishing a textural identity the composer has described as being inspired by Boulez’ Répons.After a brief transition dominated by sliding watergongs and glissing lower strings a reference to the ‘perforated’ sonic constellations of the composer’s First Symphony, the until then distorted spectral centre of C is heard without modulation, the ensemble stepping through its prismatic envelope as it were.While the piano continues to be engaged in its initial quasi-percussive activity all the way through this first section, the chamber orchestra undergoes one of the most amazing sonic transformations ever heard as it turns into a gagaku ensemble. Defraction is once again the key word: this time not electroacoustic but cultural. For indeed, Brewaeys is not so much interested in imitating the ancient court music of Japan, as he is with exploring the way in which an object changes by the glasses through which it is seen. Brewaeys’s keen ear for timbre and instrumental combination is evident from the orchestral treatment of this section. As an iconic representation of the hichiriki, he blends cor anglais (harsh tone), cup-muted trumpet and alto flute (played with a large breath-noise admixture, like a shakuhachi) into one timbre by treating them as overtone 1 to 3 respectively.The transposition of the studio technique of additive sound synthesis to the realm of purely instrumental music is but one of Brewaeys’s many strategies not only to compose relationships between sounds, but the actual physiognomy of sound itself. As a harmonic background, a virtual sho (Japanese mouth organ) is suggested by a softly sustained, irregularly wavering six-tone chord in typically narrow position played sul ponticello by the upper strings.Time itself is articulated by an untuned gong, a slit drum, crotales and a modulated harp/guitars section, while the spectral space is defined by long sustained tones in the remaining instruments.
The result is a powerful evocation of sonic depth and musical perspective. A second section, signalled by a return to the texture of modulated harp, guitars, percussion and piano, leads to the cadenza for the soloist, consisting of a chain of staccato notes at breakneck speed (similar to the piano part of the second movement of Aouelleaouelleaouelle). This chain is in fact a loop that the pianist runs through independently, only to jump out of it for short moments with orchestral involvement.After a slow third section – centred on G – in which a timbral exploration of the soundnoise continuum is undertaken, Due cose… reaches its ‘höhepunkt’. At this juncture, the entire ensemble is modulated by a sine wave that makes an uninterrupted glissando over no less than seven octaves in fifteen seconds time. The piece ends – back in C – with flashbacks to the Répons-sections. A number of compositions written between 1991 and 1997 included on this recording offer the listener an opportunity to discover aspects of Brewaeys’s creativity in coming to terms with a medium that forces any composer to express his thoughts in the most focused and condensed way possible, that of music for a solo monophonic instrument. The horn solo Jacquerie – Jacques qui rit (1991) was written for Jacques Delamarre, the son of the saxophone player featured on this disc, whose name – woven into a pun on a historic and gastronomic aspect of French culture respectively – constitutes the title. Reference is also made to the ‘laugh effects’ that occur in the course of this work.At the end of the piece two bars are repeated four times.The first bar involves no valve action but a lip glissando only, rapidly arpeggiating overtones 4 to 12 of a low-F fundamental, while the second bar does exactly the opposite in keeping lip pressure constant but quickly alternating finger positions. With every repeat, one of the four tubes of the horn is pulled out in the first bar, the noise of which is to be clearly audible in performance.As a result, the notes of the second bar are changed – both in pitch and in colour – with each successive repetition.The piece ends with the most reduced sonic image of the instrument imaginable: air.This instance is in a sense paradigmatic for the entire collection of solo pieces on this recording. Music is born out of the investigation of the phenomenological roots of the instrument: the mechanism of sound production itself becomes the material of a composition, not just abstract pitches, rhythms and dynamics.
The short Dirge for Dina (1991), composed overnight upon receiving news of the death of a close friend, is one of the many pieces that came out of Brewaeys’s intense collaboration with some of the most extraordinary exponents of contemporary saxophone music.The recurrence of two alternating multiphonics highlights the ritualistic character and provides a framework for further explorations of the sonic flesh of the soprano sax.The last piece (for now?) focussing on the anatomy of the saxophone, Attention:Alto Solo! (1994), is very close in spirit to the bassoon solo Le Chant de la Sirène, from the same year. In both works, Brewaeys pushes the instrument to the limits of monophonic and polyphonic tone production: different shadings of the same pitch, timbral trills, multiphonic chord progressions, quartertonal wanderings, endeavours in the registral upper extreme: postcards from the edge. It should be mentioned here that multiphonics – so often used as mere ‘dominant-sevenths of contemporary music’ to quote Helmut Lachenmann – are always carefully chosen in function of their harmonic and timbral characteristics, not just for the effect. In a sense, they are microscopic representations of Brewaeys’s overall musical grammar.The most recent solo piece on this disc dates from 1997 and was written for the Italian flautist Roberto Fabbriciani, whose infinite possibilities and limitless musical commitment has inspired many composers world-wide to create some of their most important work. In Per Roberto F., many types of material – ’musical life-forms’ as it were – coexist in marvellous unity: rapid pianissimo conjunct figurations, combinations of voice and flute sound, trills between different fundamentals giving the same harmonic, violently attacked high partials, and so on. Once again, a composition sounding out the instrument, as much as vice versa.
The remainder of the disc is made up of some of the musical harvest of 1996, again for larger groups of instruments. OBAN – commissioned by Champ d’Action – is the fifth piece in a series of works named after single malt whiskies, the (anything but silent) witness of the composer’s enthusiasm for this spirit. The titles are somehow relevant to the music in the sense that time and (metaphorical and/or real) space are the main determinants. The piece is scored for an ensemble of nine instruments that can seem a little strange at first sight: bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, percussion, piano, viola, violoncello and double bass. According to the composer, the choice of this particular combination was motivated by the fact that the whisky whose name the work carries, is fairly smooth, round and deep in taste. OBAN is an unbroken stream of music, consisting of four large sections.The first one – actually written in 1994 – is real vintage Brewaeys, constructed around the three strings bringing out the natural harmonics of their lowest string (C), against which the rest of the ensemble places a variety of figural constellations. The remainder of the piece was composed in 1996, after finishing the second string quartet Bowmore, and is heavily marked by the innovations of the latter. What follows, is a fast section in what the composer has described as ‘(dis)-articulated rhythmic unison’ (first one single structural line, then two such lines), reflecting his recent pre-occupation with the concept of ‘speed’. As he writes: “Most of the time, contemporary music is either fast and ‘rock’-inspired or ‘refined’ (in timbre) but static or slow. My present concern is to create something in which both aspects can be fused.” The slow, third section contains two subsections, the first of which is dominated by ‘modulated sonorities’: bassoon multiphonics, long sustained tones of a clarinet above a sliding, resonating timpano, and so on. In the second phase, the listener enters an inharmonic, quasi-mechanic universe created by breathnoise in the brass duo, watergongs played by the woodwinds, distortion effects by increased pressure on the bowed strings and the treatment of the piano as a guiro (with a coin on the keys). The final part of OBAN is very short and extremely fast, picking up the idea of deranged rhythmic unison again, with, towards the end, a fleeting melodic reference to Debussy’s La Mer in the bassoon and viola.
Just before starting work on OBAN, Brewaeys wrote a short piece for 15 instruments in honour of the sixty-fifth birthday of his composition teacher André Laporte. It occupies the second place in an ongoing series of miniature musical birthday tributes to composer- friends for various instrumental combinations, collectively entitled Nobody is Perfect! (The first was a piano solo for Michael Finnissy’s fiftieth and the third a string quartet for Lukas Foss’s seventyfifth; a fourth one-? in progress – honours Jonathan Harvey on his sixtieth birthday.) Nobody is Perfect! (André Laporte sixty-five) opens with a dual texture – inspired by the opening of Sven-David Sandström’s Requiem – consisting of overlapping ascending chromatic runs in high woodwinds and strings, on the one hand, and long held tones in the lower register by the rest of the ensemble, on the other.The central section was used as a little laboratory for OBAN and many aspects of the latter can indeed be heard germinating here. The conclusion, with its pendulum chords, refers to the end of the dedicatee’s opera Das Schloss, leading one critic to coin the phrase “la serrure de la porte du chateau de Kafka.” Indirectly, it also points to Alban Berg, whose Wozzeck was the analytical subject of Brewaeys’s first session with Laporte. The last item on this disc originated in the most unlikely of circumstances. Whilst preparing for the broadcast recording of a contemporary music event, Brewaeys received news that part of the program of that evening’s concert had to be dropped due to the illness of one of the protagonists. His own response to that crisis was to retreat to the local pub where – a quality Belgian beer in one hand, pen in the other – he wrote (a) Last Minute Piece, a duo for oboe and clarinet. At the first performance, the interpreters spontaneously provided the proverbial blink of the eye by actually incorporating the composer’s final words on the score – “That’s it!” – into the piece.On this occasion, however, it is Brewaeys himself who utters the envoi to the piece as well as the entire disc. In all its modesty, Last Minute Piece nonetheless testifies to the seamless creativity and intensity of vision of a composer whose musical universe presents the committed listener with an opportunity for powered flight. The only limits are the limits of our imagination.
S t e f a a n Va n Eycken