Is there music in the night sky?
Of course thinkers from Pythagoras to Johannes Kepler have pondered “the music of the spheres,” and composers from Gustav Holst to Mark-Anthony Turnage have on occasion waxed astronomical in their own works.
But none have addressed the question quite as literally as the French spectralist Gerard Grisey, whose hourlong percussion work of 1989-90, “Le Noir de l’Etoile,” would seem to settle the matter once and for all. Conceived for six percussionists, tape, and live electronics, the piece takes as its inspiration and musical DNA the captured sounds of two actual pulsars, rhythmically beating from distant corners of the universe.
And at sunset on May 25, the sounds of those pulsars will be returned to the night sky once more, as a group of percussionists in residence at Yellow Barn will mount a rare outdoor performance of Grisey’s bracing masterwork in an open field part way up a mountain in Putney, Vt. The musicians will perform on six platforms encircling the audience.
“There are a few pieces out there that go beyond drumming,” said Eduardo Leandro, a percussionist who has served on the Yellow Barn faculty and first proposed doing the Grisey outdoors. Leandro regards “Le Noir de l’Etoile” as a landmark 20th-century percussion score on par with iconic works by Varese, Xenakis, and Reich. “These pieces have an artistic and aesthetic core that remind you of the reason why percussion exists.”
Grisey first heard the rhythmic beating of pulsars in California in 1985 and, in his words, “immediately wondered, like Picasso picking up an old bicycle saddle, what in the world could I do with this?” He chose to build a complex rhythmic world around them, erecting dense structures that set off two prerecorded interludes featuring the noise of the actual pulsars, as captured by radio telescopes.
The Vela pulsar, the first of the two, makes a cameo appearance some 20 minutes into the piece. According to a prologue that will be recited before the performance, the Vela’s rhythmic pulsing represents nothing more or less than “the remnant of the explosion of a supernova that primitive men could no doubt see in daylight 12,000 years ago.”
The Vela is the speediest of celestial metronomes, its pulses clocking in at exactly 11 beats per second. The second featured pulsar is known only by its astronomical coordinates — “0329+54” — a location so far away that the pulsations Friday’s audience will hear took some 7,500 years to reach Earth. Grisey uses both pulses to steer the course of the surrounding music. “Like great lighthouses in the heavens,” the prologue, written by astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet, declares, “pulsars will guide our musical navigation.”
The performance comes as the fruit of a weeklong residency underway at Yellow Barn, for which two of the festival’s percussion alumni, Doug Perkins and Greg Beyer, are joined by four early-career percussionists. Each player in the Grisey performs on some 30 noisemaking instruments, from standard gongs to spring coils of the sort used in the shock absorbers of trucks. Students of Putney’s Greenwood School, whose campus Yellow Barn shares, have been constructing pulsar-themed art installations for their gymnasium, in case of rain. And Tom Geballe, an astronomer from the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, will give a pre-concert lecture and deliver the prologue in Friday’s performance.
Of course, serving up sweeping modernist percussion scores al fresco brings challenges all its own, and Perkins, for his part, is no stranger to them. In 2010, he was part of a group that performed Xenakis’s “Persephassa” floating on platforms in the middle of Central Park Lake for an audience in rowboats.
A few weeks ago, Perkins paced out the field at the Greenwood School, searching for the right spot for the performance by clapping his hands and listening for the resonance, eventually finding a place where the sound seemed to be naturally amplified by a canopy of nearby trees. “Playing outdoors is an imperfect art for sure,” said Perkins, “but the beauty is that the pieces take on a completely different sound depending on the specific environment. You get a real sense of the biorhythm of the place.”
Meanwhile, Yellow Barn staff have been delicately apprising their rural neighbors of the interstellar happening soon to touch down in their backyards, and kindly requesting that dogs be kept inside during the performance.
It won’t be the first time the Putney community has been plied with bracing avant-garde music, though most festival concerts take place inside the Big Barn concert hall, where the new summer season begins July 6. Program details have not yet been announced but artistic director Seth Knopp has earned a reputation in recent years for his curatorial imagination. Speaking by phone from his home in Baltimore, Knopp let slip a few anticipated highlights, including music by contemporary composers Jorg Widmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, Georg Friedrich Haas, Jonathan Harvey, and Brett Dean intermingled with works by Berg (“Seven Early Songs”), Shostakovich (the Blok Romances), Janacek (“Diary of One Who Disappeared”), and Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”).
How exactly does one build summer festival audiences around such fare? Adventurous chamber music fans have of course come to seek out Yellow Barn, but for everyone else, according to Knopp, a lot comes down to the approach. “If a performance is convincing, if it is striving for something, if that sense of exploration and that sense of wonder are present, I think an audience will be open to it,” he said. “We don’t play this music out of duty, really, but out of a desire for everyone — the musicians, the audience — to have a full experience of what’s around us, and to try to understand where it came from.”