In the latest event in the 70th anniversary season of Monday Evening Concerts, a cultural rarity occurred: A challenging contemporary music program drew a sold-out house to Zipper Concert Hall, in contrast to the typically sparse audiences at the series’ old haunt, the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Monday’s head count said something about the growing interest in new music in L.A. as well as the growing reputation of the late French composer in the spotlight of the concert, dubbed “Gerard Grisey’s Acoustic Spaces.”
Grisey, who died at age 52 in 1998, is generally seen as a dominant figure in the “spectralism” movement, in which traditional ideas of musical structure and note-based language are eschewed in favor of a microscopic focus on the minutiae of harmonic spectra and overtones.
But as portrayed in Monday’s program -- two Los Angeles premieres of works from the 1970s -- Grisey was less beholden to a strict “ism” than inclined to burrow, almost obsessively, into issues of sound and time. He explored ideas common in electronic and computer music but using live acoustic instruments. Call him an unplugged sound experimentalist.
Parameters of sound and time were front and center at Zipper, beginning with the fascinating 1979 percussion piece “Tempus ex Machina,” sensitively performed by the ensemble known as red fish blue fish. Six percussionists performing in waves of minimal, carefully designed sound rather than set rhythmic patterns created a spatial experience from perches onstage and on the hall’s upper level around the audience.
“Les Espaces Acoustiques (Part 1)” -- the concert’s centerpiece, circa the mid-'70s -- is a component of a larger series that Grisey worked on until 1985. Part 1 began with violist Stephanie Griffin laying out a deceptively simple, evolving melodic line, working toward high squealing sounds and scratchy, overtone-dense smears.
The players of the Argento Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Michel Galante, ingratiated themselves into the mix in the “Periodes” and “Partiels” sections, swirling and swerving around static pitch areas punctuated by sharp rhythmic assertions.
After all the intellectuality and sound-parsing of the piece, the players pulled back the curtain of seriousness, noisily fussing with instrument cases, crinkling cellophane and generally ending with a disarming blast of absurd humor.
Heard in this carefully wrought performance, 30-plus years after its creation, this music sounded fresh and at most gently radical in its particular way and with its hyper-particular language.
It also contains surprising layers of sensuality, best served warm and live, preferably before an appreciative SRO audience.