Listening Log – [Pt. IV]- Tristan Murail- La Barque Mystique (1993).


Tristan Murail- La Barque Mystique (1993).

Listening Log – [Pt. IV]- Tristan Murail- La Barque Mystique (1993). Throughout March- April 2020 Listened /watched (streaming) to youtube video: For copyright info and credits see information under video clip.

I thought I should to listen to a contemporary French composer and compare current trends in French Western Art Music to Debussy’s time. I picked Tristan Murail’s ‘La Barque Mystique’ because of it’s title. It reminds me of an Impressionistic title… La Barque Mystique starts very mysteriously indeed with a trilling flute, long held clarinet and cello notes creating a very atmospheric sound ‘bed’. A short flurry of flute notes plays a descending demi semi quaver figure and then returns to trilling. This creates little abrupt bursts of sound, like splashes of colour. The same technique is used again after the next ‘held’ section, here a cluster of piano notes come in, only to quickly disappear. Eventually there are slightly longer rising and falling semiquaver runs on both flute and piano whilst the strings tremolo. After about a minute the violin and the cello play some melodic figures whilst the flute trills and piano punctuate with occasional notes and chords. At around 2 min there is a very ‘low’ section with all the instruments playing in a very low register. The piano is really rumbling, several leger lines beneath the bass clef. Violin and cello play long held droning notes. Around the 4-minute mark we get an acceleration simultaneously as all the instruments start playing busier figures and move up the octaves creating much brighter sonorities. I struggle to distinguish any clear rhythmical patterns, apart from hearing a lot of triplets and quintuplets. I am also unsure of what the tonal centre of the piece is or how it is structurally hanging together. That is not to say that I don’t like it. In fact, I find it quite beautiful, atmospheric and certainly impressionistic. However, it does give me a random impression. Random in the sense that nature can appear random because we cannot easily perceive the building blocks with the naked eye.

Out of curiosity about how Tristan Murail derived this piece of music and what method of construction underlies I decided to read up on Tristan Murail and on the piece itself on Murail’s own website. It appears that Murail arrived at his compositions through spectral Fournier analysis of the frequencies involved. The organisation of the pitches and his choices hence stem from their frequencies. They are in fact not random, but acoustic.

Once I read Murail’s own description of this composition it appears he took the title from the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon. In this sense the work is in fact somewhat Impressionistic whilst also being Spectral.

Here is Murail’s quote from his website:

La Barque mystique (The Mystical Boat) takes its title from a series of pastels by Odilon Redon. Apart from anecdotal reasons linked to the circumstances surrounding the composition of this piece, the reference to this “symbolist” artist is not fortuitous. The relations between colours are both complex and obvious, since the matched colours are a priori incompatible. The rhythms of the forms include unfocused areas and hazy colours contrasting with incisive features and vividly coloured tints that find their equivalent in the structures and the music’s harmonic palette.
As they found sensual delight in lacerations and delectable gloominess, painters and poets of the end of the 19th century knew how to sublimate their crises and uncertainties into eternal artistic values. That is without doubt a lesson for us: the pure transposition of the world’s sorrows into the aggressiveness of material or the “complexity” of forms does not suffice to create a work of art.
In spite of its limited instrumentation, La Barque mystique is truly “orchestrated”. It is a miniaturized orchestration that functions like clockwork. The instruments continually change roles and the groupings vary unceasingly. The totality contributes to the edification of global forms. The final effect, as in all clock-like movement, depends upon extreme precision in the execution of the microtonal pitches, the rhythms with their fluctuating tempi, and the timbres.

Tristan Murail
(Translation by Mary Dibbern)
Tristan Murail – La Barque Mystique (w/ score) (for five instruments) (1993).
Performer/Artist: Antoine Ladrette
Licensed to YouTube by UMG (on behalf of Universal Music); SODRAC