Thierry Pécou: Outre-mémoire

Thierry Pécou: Outre-mémoire
Ensemble Variances
St John’s, Smith Square. 22 February 2017

Villa-Lobos: Le Cygne noir
Thierry Pécou (b 1965): Outre-mémoire

There are many ways to listen to music. One is to just let it waft over you, without knowing anything about it. The other end of the spectrum is to study the background to the composition and composer, the social situation in which it was composed, the composers notes about it, the score (if accessible), and anything else you can get hold of. Those attending this performance of Thierry Pécou’s 2004 Outre-mémoire (Beyond memory) who adopted the first approach would have missed a vast amount of information that is (possibly) essential to understanding the 75 minutes long piece.

For those who just watched and listened, what they heard was an extraordinary range of musical textures, using piano, normal and bass flute and clarinet, and cello, together with tiny high-pitched little bells, a gong, fingers waggling in a bowl of water, rustled blue plastic bags, and several sound effects produced from the instruments themselves. Outre-mémoire started with the quadraphonic tinkling of tiny bells from the four performers, initially surrounding the audience, but then slowly moving towards the stage. A serious of rapid little high-pitched flourishes from the piano was eventually joined by the other three instruments but, here, as throughout the piece, it was the piano that totally dominated the sound world.

On this occasion, the composer was the pianist, although he didn’t give the first performance in 2004. But it is clearly intended to showcase the virtuoso abilities of the pianist. The furious piano toccata that followed the opening sequence was evidence of this compositional approach. The piano was frequently either very high, or very low pitched, and was more-or-less percussive throughout the piece. The sustain pedal was often kept depressed, adding an acoustic bloom to the sound. After about 25 minutes the pianist moved to a large glass bowl of water and waggled his fingers in it in a timely reminder to the audience that the concert did not have an interval. Meanwhile, the flautist moved to the front of the stage and did a 360º turn, for no obvious reason.

At about 40 minutes, the bass flute and bass clarinet made their brief first appearance, a variety of mechanically and aurally produced sounds adding to the texture, along with percussive twangs from the cello and repeated notes from the piano. An angular piano interlude led to the next extra-instrumental sound world as all four players scrunched blue plastic bags, producing a sound akin to gently persistent rain. A brief bit of Debussy from the piano, a return of the bass instruments, some gentle taps on a seated gong, a return of the little high-pitched piano flourishes, and a jazz-like riff led to the aural decline towards the gentle ending and the inevitable long, awkward pause until the musicians signalled that the piece was over.

Thierry Pécou writes that “Throughout Outre-mémoire, I wanted the inconceivable to resonate, but in the greatest concentration, without effects or drama, as a silent tocsin” (a ‘tocsin’ being a translation of an old French word for a warning bell). It is described as “A pause for memory, a ceremony of a quiet contemplation, a suspension of the mind which lends itself to feeling and reflection” and “an overwhelming musical experience that invokes a state of meditative contemplation”, and is apparently “often compared to the Messiaen’s Quatuor du Fin du Temps”.

Those who had done their homework before the concert would have learnt that there was a strong back story to the composition. I wonder if those who just took it as it was, without knowledge of the basis of the composition, would have been surprised to learn that the whole piece was, in fact, a commemoration of the impact of the slave trade. The extensive programme notes gave lengthy descriptions of the background to the composition, part of which I append below. But, unfortunately for those that were trying to follow the theme, they did not describe much about the music itself, or what specific parts of the piece related to which aspect of the slave trade. It would have been helpful to have at least had English translations of the titles of the 12 sections of the piece (listed below), not least because the first title, the word Gunga, has at least seven different possible translations.

You can view a complete performance of Outre-mémoire, with the same personnel here.  The 12 sections (with my own attempted translations) and approximate timings are shown below. The fact that sections range from 43 seconds to nearly 20 minutes long, which explains why it was difficult to follow which section we were in.

(i)    Gunga.  (ii)   Attachement aux quatre coins.  (iii)  Mambú 1: La decharge.  (iv)  Dialogue gestuel 1: Mulonga. (v)   Effacement 1: Traces-memoires. 7:10 (Trace memories)
(vi)  Dialogue gestuel 2: Mulonga.  3:13
(vii) Mambu 2: Kalunga – Effacement 2: Traces-memoires.  19:13  (Erasure) 
(viii) Dialogue gestuel 3: Mulonga.   1:52
(ix)   Effacement 3: Traces-memoires.  3:04
(x)    Mambu 3: Grands-fonds.  7:29  (Grand foundations)
(xi)   Effacement 4: Traces-memoires.  0:43
(xii)  Mambu 4: Corps.  5:28

The performers were Anne Cartel flutes, David Louwerse cello, Carjez Gerretsen clarinets, Thierry Pécou piano. The performance demands on all were immense, as was their power of concentration, something shared by the small, but attentive audience. The evening started with the tiny hors d’oeuvres of Villa-Lobos’s Le Cygne noir, played by cellist David Louwerse with Thierry Pécou, piano.

The following is the introduction to Thierry Pécou’s extensive programme notes:

“If you are living in a city, you see people of different colours all around you. Do you realise that this is mainly caused by centuries of colonisation and slave trade? Look at the news, the riots in American cities, discrimination: even though colonies and slavery no longer exist, our societies are still facing the consequences. And are you aware that our current R&B music probably would be non-existent without the slave trade?

When Thierry Pécou was asked to create a work around the slave trade he realised it might be tricky. With his roots in the Caribbean, he was aware this could become personal, quickly turning into an accusation, a lamentation, or become over-dramatic.Instead he chose a more distant perspective, though with a very personal touch indeed: that of a painter who travelled around the world, visited the countries of origin and the final destinations of the slaves and made paintings along the way. And when exhibited together, the impressions form the story of 300 years of the slave trade.

Although musically complex and unmistakably contemporary, this magnum opus by Thierry Pécou (for flute, cello, clarinet and piano) – often compared to Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps – remains harmonious and hypnotising like a ritual, alternating dark harmonies with violent rhythms.

The piano has the central role; and when the other instruments join in, it is like listening to long lost relatives from all over the world, finally meeting, catching up and exchanging stories, adding their sounds and colours to the family tree.

We hear sounds from Africa: nature sounds, animals, African rhythms. An interlude with water, a South-American jungle and a tropical shower. The audience gets impressions from the emotions of those very slaves: melancholy, anger, bitterness, sadness. One can imagine them being homesick, feeling trapped. The violence. But then comes the joy of music and dance, accompanied by the strange new rituals that are a mix from elements from back home, far away memories from generations ago, and the religion their ‘owners’ had.

And let us not forget all those remote quotes from music that would never have existed otherwise: Caribbean, South-American, jazz. In fact, we hear everything that somehow formed and inspired the man, traveller and composer Thierry Pécou is today.

Outre-mémoire is truly beyond memory: it touches every aspect, every consequence of the slave trade, past and present.”

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