At first, The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form was a book I wanted to read, not a book I hoped to write. I’ve been fascinated by the composer since college, when a teacher played Grisey’s Périodes in our music-analysis class. The atmosphere of that class often felt stuffy, and not just because the small room was full of post-teen boys like me. Much of the music we listened to sounded overwhelmingly dense; the analysis portion of the seminar, with its calculations and formulas, left me feeling even denser. Grisey’s music sounded sensual without pandering, rigorous without dogma, strange and somehow familiar.
I became so obsessed with Grisey that my long-suffering composition teacher gave me his gigantic copy of the score to the orchestra piece Dérives as a graduation gift. (And, possibly, as a way of reclaiming some shelf space.)
In the decade since, I found myself returning to Grisey’s music frequently. As often happens when we grow up alongside an oeuvre, I became increasingly curious about the man. I didn’t find much. Guy Lelong, who edited the invaluable Écrits, a collection of texts by the composer, decided to strike private matters from his book, instead focusing on Grisey’s reflections about his music and his artistic development. Other musicologists wrote brilliant analyses of his masterpieces, focused rigorously on the score.
For many performers and scholars, of course, that would be enough. But I’m a journalist, which is a polite way of saying I’m professionally nosy. I needed to know more.
There were many solid arguments against me writing the first biography of Gérard Grisey. Of the five languages he spoke, I can handle just about two. I already said that the calculations and formulas prominent in contemporary composition often boggle me; Grisey’s sketches are full of graphs, charts, spectra, references to mathematic and scientific phenomena. He was the kind of person who considered Robert Musil’s 2000-page The Man Without Qualities a beach read. On vacation I barely manage to flip through a magazine.
I was nine years old when Grisey died. I would never have even a fleeting sense of what it felt like to sit across a table from him.
Still, when I began contacting people who knew Grisey—maybe, I thought, for a brief magazine article—I heard irresistible stories. There was the time the composer, at the age of four or five, got a small toy accordion for Christmas, and threw it out the window because he wanted the real thing. (And got it.) The time he went for a difficult hike wearing only a pair of boxers because he mistook them for athletic shorts. That one time, at the end of his life, when he composed a piece and was genuinely, palpably satisfied with it.
So I traveled and listened and asked questions in awful French and got help from friends and family when I needed it, which was often, and at some point I realized something both terrible and liberating: that if I didn’t write this biography, there was no guarantee someone more qualified would. I kept traveling and listening. I heard about Grisey’s failures and triumphs, his flashes of selfishness and kindness, his humor, pettiness, and brilliance.
Among the many details I certainly missed, this work made obvious one essential thing: how much suffering it cost Grisey to write his music, of which there is so little, of which so much is perfect.
JEFFREY ARLO BROWN is a journalist living in Berlin, Germany. His new book, The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey, is out now in hardback and ebook.
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