Born in Athens in 1945 but based in Paris since 1963, Georges Aperghis is a largely self-taught composer who studied briefly with his compatriot Iannis Xenakis. While he’s written for a variety of forces, he is best known for music-theater works that emanate a unique harmonic sense, as well as a vivid, playful energy. An early encounter with the great radical of French theater, Antonin Artaud, was key: After seeing Artaud’s works, Aperghis told an interviewer in 2005 he wanted to “do things that came from the body, including my body. I wanted to explain the world that I saw in my head. Not just in words or music, but with everything.”
Aperghis’s work is largely unknown in America, partly because of the production requirements of his most representative dramatic works. An ensemble that wants to perform them must be willing to embrace not only music of daunting complexity, but also with intricate staging, video, and electronics requirements.
None of which has prevented the New York-based Talea Ensemble from forming a long-running partnership with Aperghis. Last year, the Talea gave the US premiere of Aperghis’s 2007 “Happy End,” an evening-length theater piece for animated video, prerecorded voices, and an ensemble of 16 players. On May 8 the Talea brings “Happy End” to the Institute of Contemporary Art for its Boston premiere, a performance funded in part by the French-American Fund for Contemporary Music.
“Happy End” is based on the fable of Tom Thumb, with a libretto based on the version of the story by the 17th-century French author Charles Perrault. Seven children are abandoned in the forest when their parents can no longer afford to feed them. The youngest child — who was born no bigger than a man’s thumb, and who has always been thought to be simple-minded — outsmarts a child-eating ogre and guides his brothers safely home to their regretful, overjoyed parents. All live happily.
As in many fairy tales, a whimsical surface papers over a harrowing narrative core. Aperghis’s response to this combination was “quirky, strange, really high-energy music,” said Alex Lipowski, Talea’s executive director. “I think that’s mostly what drew me the most to it, because it’s hyper-virtuosic, energetic, nonstop music . . . like a small, playful little child.”
That makes it remarkably well-suited to the story, Lipowski continued. Where another composer might have focused on the story’s threatening qualities, Aperghis could appreciate both sinister and playful aspects. “I think that plays great into the thematic material of this piece, because it’s a children’s tale — dark and weird, but also kind of quirky and funny. He’s able to bring humor and energy and dense rhythmic structure that would otherwise on the page look intimidating, and it sort of rolls off the fingers, bounces along.”
The story, though, isn’t told in a straightforward way. Aperghis takes the text and dices it up into small cells of a few words which he repeats and reorders, giving the story a hallucinatory quality that’s accentuated by the sometimes surreal video by the Belgian video artist Hans Op de Beeck. The text is spoken by the prerecorded voices of two French actors — one of them Edith Scob, the composer’s wife — giving the sound an even more disembodied quality. The final component of the phantasmagoria is the bed of electronic sounds created by Sebastian Roux.
The entire experience obviously needs to be experienced live to be appreciated properly. It is also extremely difficult to pull off, as Lipowski acknowledged. “The video, the electronics, and the music all work so tightly together. It’s one package. It’s visual and aural in all ways. It takes the audience through this really quirky old fairy tale, [but] it’s gotta be dead-on, 100 percent accurate, to work. There’s no margin for error.”
In talking about the piece, Lipowski paid homage several times to the Ictus Ensemble, the Belgian group for whom “Happy End” was composed and which has worked closely with Aperghis for many years. (Talea, Lipowski said, has never worked directly with the composer, who refuses to travel to the United States because of a hearing condition that makes trans-
Atlantic flights painfully difficult.) Ensembles such as Ictus and Klangforum Wien generally have much longer, more deeply rooted traditions of playing and working with recent European modernists like Aperghis, Pierluigi Billone, Fausto Romitelli, and Georg Friedrich Haas.
US groups like Talea, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and Boston’s Sound Icon, by contrast, typically lack the close contact and performing tradition — not to mention the state support — that their European counterparts enjoy. Thus mounting large-scale works can seem like an uphill battle.
“Those [European] groups have been around for a couple more generations than anything that’s been happening in the United States,” Lipowski said, but in the work he’s done with Talea, and that of other kindred ensembles, he’s seen the tide begin to turn. “I think there’s a lot of groups that are really doing this music now, because they believe in it so much,” he said. “It’s a new set of voices for the United States. It’s amazing to see that groups are really able to do these pieces — and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be possible. They’re the next masterworks of our time.”
BSO announces tour programs
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has announced programs and soloists for its European summer tour, which begins Aug. 22 at London’s Royal Albert Hall and ends two weeks later, Sept. 5, at Berlin’s Philharmonie. Most of the repertoire is drawn from music director Andris Nelsons’s Symphony Hall programs from the current season, including Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Haydn’s Symphony No. 90, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben” and “Don Quixote,” and Brett Dean’s trumpet concerto “Dramatis Personae.” The sole work not played in Boston this season is Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, which will be performed at Tanglewood before the tour. Yo-Yo Ma will be the cello soloist in the European performances of “Don Quixote” and Steven Ansell the violist; Haken Hardenberger, who premiered the Dean concerto at Symphony Hall, will play it on the tour as well.
Georges Aperghis’s “Happy End”
At: Institute of Contemporary Art, May 8 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$15. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.orgDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.