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Franck BEDROSSIAN (b. 1971)
Twist, for orchestra and electronics (2016) [10:09]
Edges, for piano and percussion (2010) [10:10]
Epigram, for soprano and 11 instruments (2010-2018) [35:33]
Donatienne Michel-Dansac (soprano)
Duo Links
SWR Symphony Orchestra/Alejo PÚrez
Klangforum Wien/Emilio PomÓrico
rec 2008-18, Donaueschinger Musiktage & Wittener Tage fŘr neue Kammermusik, Germany; CNSMDP, Paris
Texts by Emily Dickinson for Epigram included
KAIROS 0015042KAI [56:08]

Franck Bedrossian is a native of Paris and studied at his local conservatory with luminaries such as Allain Gaussin and the late Gerard Grisey and at IRCAM with Tristan Murail and Philippe Manoury among others. Listening to the works on this new disc, his subsequent studies with Helmut Lachenmann perhaps provide more of a clue to the rather analytic nature of his music. The high esteem in which Bedrossian has been held is borne out by the fact that he has spent more than a decade as an associate professor of composition at the University of Berkeley. The booklet essay, a complex (as opposed to pretentious) affair compiled by Thomas Meyer places Bedrossian at the forefront of a group of composers drawn to what has become known as ‘musique saturÚe’ (saturated music). This refers to music that is over-enriched with detail; tiny components which coagulate into sonic phenomena which seem to inundate one’s ears. Bedrossian’s biography on his publisher’s website characterises it thus: “Saturation, a musically rich concept, both process and result……the saturated phenomenon in the acoustic domain is an excess of matter, energy, movement and timbre…..inharmonic, distorted and multiphonic sounds, the Berio tremolo doubling a flatterzunge, Larsen effects, static, etc. are part of the field of saturated sounds.”

Make no bones about it, all three pieces on this portrait album are confrontational and harsh. It is for others to describe whether there is beauty too; while I have struggled to find it I suspect it may lurk deep in the undergrowth of this overwhelmingly dense music. Twist is scored for what sounds like a large orchestra and features a degree of electronic manipulation. At its outset tornados of knotted and loud orchestral sound spew forth from the speakers. Fine threads of warbling free-jazz gestures connect these sonic cascades. Electronics amplify the weather-beaten angst at its heart while a tumbleweed kind of eerie calm interrupts the onslaught rather than silence. To extend the metaphor listeners are advised to equip themselves with a robust sou’wester before venturing headlong into this volatile and frankly hostile front. Such allusions are reinforced by weird textures seemingly supplied by accordions or harmonicas over strings and electronics. Throughout Twist’s ten minute duration noisy swirls of sonic matter emerge, accumulate and disperse possibly triggering a sense of catharsis in the listener and/or performers. Rumbles of distant bass thunder conclude this uncompromising, impenetrable piece.

Edges is dedicated to the two Durupt brothers who populate the piano and percussion combo Duo Links. The strange rustlings and clockwork mechanisms that comprise its beginning gestures could emanate from either source, although the bass notes that then surface are certainly pianistic. An all-consuming abyss of echo yields delicate harp-like pluckings and mysterious overtones. From 2:50 more appealing tintinnabuli (antique cymbals?) materialise to prick the piano’s threatening bass machinations. I suspect Edges constitutes as visual an experience in live performance as an auditory one. Some jazz piano syncopations threaten to escape from Bedrossian’s inscrutable textures before at roughly the half-way point, the creepy sound of a slowly tightening mechanism threatens to snap over a heavy pedal echo. A quasi-vocalisation is discernible, somewhere. More dramatic, violent noise briefly elicits an unexpectedly sensible rhythm from which a cool vibraphone provides a welcome oasis for the listener. Duo Links sound as though they’ve been sent into battle with their respective instruments –Edges seems to expend an immeasurable quantity of repressed energy. Its final minute or so is a psychotic dance which quite defies analysis.

I noted that some of the publicity material issued to accompany this release referred to Bedrossian’s tripartite Epigram as ‘one of the iconic works of the decade’. I find that descriptor unnecessarily extravagant. It’s a sequence for soprano and eleven instruments based upon the poems of Emily Dickinson, but I would hesitate in calling it a song-cycle. Encountering this big piece and Dickinson’s terse compressed stanzas during a pandemic-forced lockdown is as timely as it is disturbing. Emily Dickinson was legendarily reclusive, and hearing her words emerge (most of the time) from Bedrossian’s rather claustrophobic piece makes an odd sort of sense. Epigram’s two outer panels are of similar length – about 13 minutes while the central one might be perceived by some listeners as a ‘slow’ movement and lasts about eight and a half. I’m not sure if the ‘attractiveness’ of any of this music can act as a measure of its success, but this middle panel certainly seems the most absorbing and distinct. The ‘soprano’ is the contemporary specialist Donatienne Michel-Dansac but even though she is accorded this role in the blurb accompanying the disc the theatrical nature of her performance encompasses speech, whispering, declamation, sobbing and breathlessness as well as singing with an extraordinarily wide vibrato. In this Epigram II an aural curtain of percussion and laughing strings is drawn to reveal strangled, sobbing vocalisations. The words “I am alive – I guess…“ are delivered in a smoky, disembodied manner; they are reflected rather literally in Bedrossian’s instrumentation. Subsequently Michel-Dansac deploys a range of odd accents which render the text even weirder and amid the softer instrumental textures it is ultimately reduced to the level of demarcated syllables, or sound for sound’s sake. The huge extended vibrato at the end of the section (on the word “Thee”) cloaks choking sounds that well fit the fraught, demented music.

The outer movements employ similarly confrontational devices in instrumental music which provokes and disarms. It’s consistently brittle and serated. On occasion Michel-Dansac adopts a vocal style that seems to reference jazz and cabaret although at no stage can any of this music be described as light. At other times she delivers the text rather in the manner of a newsreader. To be honest I found Epigrams I and III excessively long, but oddly my curiosity was sufficiently piqued to want to persevere. I’ve played the sequence twice and there seems to something elusive that draws me to it – something that is conspicuous by its absence in the couplings. As far as I can judge, the performance of Klangforum Wien (here under the direction of Emilio PomÓrico) seems characteristically to be as committed as it is assured. But I cannot sugar-coat the nature of this music – it is fierce and formidable.
The passing of Kryzysztof Penderecki (one week ago at time of writing) prompted many tributes and a good deal of reflection. Possibly the most perceptive words I found turned up in an old Guardian interview with the Radiohead guitarist (and fine composer) Johnny Greenwood who collaborated with the Pole in his twilight years: "His pieces make such wonderful sounds. And it is a beautiful experience to hear them live. Of all the composers whose music suffers from what recording does, Penderecki is one of the biggest casualties. I think a lot of people might think his work is stridently dissonant or painful on the ears. But because of the complexity of what's happening – particularly in pieces such as Threnody and Polymorphia, and how the sounds are bouncing around the concert hall, it becomes a very beautiful experience when you're there. It's not like listening to feedback, and it's not dissonant. It's something else. It's a celebration of so many people making music together and it's like – wow, you're watching that happen." The saturated music of Franck Bedrossian is as dense with friction, complexity and noise as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima seemed forty years ago when I first encountered it. As Greenwood implies, maybe such pieces make a lot more sense when performed live in the concert hall in front of an audience.

Richard Hanlon

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