Gérard Grisey (1946-98) first heard the deep sound of the cosmos in 1985, in Berkeley, Calif. There, the French composer associated with the spectralist school met astrophysicist Joe Silk, who played him the sound of a pulsar, a fast-rotating neutron star that survives after a massive star collapses. The sound of the Vela pulsar was low, percussive, and absolutely regular. The experience, Grisey later wrote, was to his mind akin to Picasso picking up an old bicycle seat and asking, “What in the world could I do with this?”
The answer came to the composer only gradually: a piece in which taped recordings of Vela and another pulsar, “0359-54,” were integrated with an array of percussion sounds — mostly unpitched skin and wood instruments, chosen for what Grisey called their “primordial and implacable” characteristics. The audience would be encircled by six percussionists, so that the sound would surround listeners like sonic transmissions through the universe. The physical arrangement would also accentuate the music’s ritualistic feel, especially when the piece was played outdoors. “When music conspires against time,” Grisey wrote, “it becomes invested with Shamanic power, that of connecting us to the forces around us.”
The resulting piece, “Le Noir de l’Étoile” (“The Black of the Star”), for percussion sextet and tape, was completed in 1989, and quickly became a prized work of European avant-gardism. New England was lucky enough to have had a chance to hear “Le Noir” in May 2012, when it was performed at the Yellow Barn festival in Vermont. In what must be analogous to a nanosecond in the time cycle of contemporary music, the piece can be heard again on Friday, when Sound Icon presents a performance at the Center for the Arts at the Armory in Somerville — the kind of open, high-ceilinged interior space in which the work’s elemental sounds can coalesce.
Sound Icon, which has given authoritative readings of recent European music, specializes in works for large ensemble and small orchestra. “The instrumentation is a significant departure,” said artistic director Jeffrey Means, who’ll be one of the percussionists in “Le Noir,” which doesn’t call for a conductor. “But the scope and status of the work is very much in keeping with what we try to do as often as possible.”
What was it about pulsars that captured Grisey’s imagination so intensely? Means thinks that it wasn’t so much the quality of the sound as “the intensity of what that physical object is. It’s this wildly dense energetic object, so dense that it would be impossible for us to really imagine the magnitude of it here on earth. There’s something of that intensity in Grisey’s music as well. The architecture of his music is tight in a way that almost no other music is.”
“Le Noir de l’Étoile” begins with simple slow notes, with each percussionist adding minutely to the texture. The music changes shape so slowly that the evolution goes virtually undetected. “All of a sudden,” Means said, “it’s completely new music that happens so gradually that the change is nearly imperceptible. and the piece proceeds that way throughout. That idea of slowly changing, kaleidoscopic textures is central to the spectralist sensibility.”
Of crucial importance, he went on, is the fact that the taped sounds of the pulsars are used sparingly, and don’t make their entrance until about 10 or 15 minutes into the piece. “Grisey was, at least as much as any other composer, a master at pacing out pieces. He sets up this increasingly intense expectation of when that’s going to happen. And then you listen to only the pulsar for at least three minutes. And then the percussion starts to dovetail in and there’s a dialogue between the constant pulsar and the swiftly changing percussion sounds.”
“Le Noir” does not unfold according to any traditional musical template, but cyclical forms are crucial to its architecture. The percussionists stand in a circle, and the music moves in layers of concentric rings. That kind of structure was important to spectralist composers, but its presence here also connects it to the idea of the pulsar and its rapidly spinning motion. Those connections emerge at the end of the piece, in which a note is played on a vertically positioned cymbal.
“The pulsar spins on the same kind of axis, this fast spinning that creates this cycle of vibrations, just like how a pitch is created,” Means explained. “So it’s like all the ideas on all the levels of abstraction come together. In that final note is the entire idea of the piece and the entire idea of the pulsar. It’s almost like the piece happens in reverse. We hear that single kernel the piece is formed from in the very last note.”
Poignantly, the score of “Le Noir” is dedicated to Grisey’s son Raphaël — a sign that the piece held an importance for him that was not only cosmic but also deeply intimate. “We think of our place in the universe, and just how insignificantly small our place in the universe is,” Means ruminated. “I think that the profundity of that notion is in some way related to the profundity of our most personal relationships. I think that the fact that he dedicated the piece to his son does say something about how profound he found the idea of this work.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.