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Rapturing and rupturing the sound barrier: big music by Gérard Grisey and Kaija Saariaho

The Sound Barrier for Sunday 1 July 2018

This weekend on The Sound Barrier I will be taking you into the depths of the sonic spectrum in two big works by composers who have shown us how much more there is in sound beyond what we think our ears have heard.

The spectralist school of composition, interested in the structural elements of sound – its overtones, harmonics, and microtonal resonances – is, like so many musical 'clubs', a potentially misleading way of thinking about the music that is seen to have emerged from it. One of its most core founders, Gérard Grisey, ultimately disowned the descriptor and one of its many acclaimed students, Kaija Saariaho, often had only scant regard for its rules.

The works that I will be bringing you on this weekend's show will, though, just show how miraculous and wonderful these composers' journeys into the structure of sound was, whatever labels might be ascribed to their work, and how much we owe not only to their creativity, but to the advances of sonic technology – at first through spectrograms and sonograms, and then through computers – in enabling the structure of sound to be dissected and analysed.

We will hear Saariaho's early and magnificent Lichtbogen (1986), constructed through a computer analysis of a single, tiny, cello gesture, transported to a work for nine instruments and live electronics, depicting the shimmering textures and colours of the Northern Lights, as well as the pivotal work of spectralism, Grisey's expansive Les espaces acoustiques (1974-1985), which takes the sonic compass outwards from its opening for solo viola to a huge orchestral web of sound and then back again as four horns filter and disintegrate the harmonic spectrum.

A show with just two works, it will be an intense and immersive passage into the minima and maxima of that thing that lies at the core of everything we hear: sound.

I hope you can join me this Sunday night at 10.00 PM (AEST) for two hours of sonic rapture and rupture. You can listen live on radio at 106.7 on the Melbourne FM band, or on PBS Digital radio, or from anywhere in the world via the PBS app or online. The show will also be available to listen back to, as an audio stream here on the website, shortly after it has gone live to air.

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