Les espaces sémantiques

A clock whose destiny lies on a wall yet to be built sits on a small pile of old books across the room from me as I write. It has ticked away the weekend there, rocking uneven but firm, and I have done my best to give it silence for a canvas as I read modernist Japanese poets on the couch.

Spending long, consecutive hours on this task with a constant pulse in my ears has given me a new appreciation for the "new prose poetry movement" championed (I gather) by HARUYAMA Yukio 春山行夫's magazine Shi to shiron 詩と詩論 in the early Showa years.

A few months ago, I stumbled across a sizable cache of Grisey and Murail in a second-hand CD shop's tiny "Classical/Contemporary" section, and spent the next few days listening to nothing else. It might just be because I'm still reeling from Les espaces acoustiques and Gondwana, but I feel like you could draw some interesting parallels between the whole spectralism thing and the prose poems included in TSURUOKA Yoshihisa 鶴岡善久's modernist anthology, a book I will soon have worn down to a handful of rags.

It's hard to explain what I'm talking about without embarking on a huge, time-consuming translation-and-critisicm project, but take a look at this 1930 poem by SENDA Hikaru 千田光 entitled 赤氷, "Red Ice". (This is arguably a regular poem with very long lines rather than a prose poem, but it's a manageable size and uses a lot of the same techniques.)

From the ravine the ice's fracturing sound the river's throat to open begins and it is an ice-flow. All at once surging it is red ice.
By the new border wall pulverized it is red ice. From red ice grown a palm-shaped flower.
For the ravine a few years blockage, but still like fat-marbled muscle it is a stalk. But, to the new border wall as if to let nothing bloom it is less than a single drop of ice.
O red ice the new border wall pierce, you are on the sun's back another newer sun's combustion. You are combustion.

Obviously this poem does not convey an image-of-a-thing in full and clear. On the other hand, neither is it built on surrealist non sequitur. Borrowing ideas from spectralism gives you a new way to think about what it is: a gradually evolving timbre synthesized from image-unit harmonics. Focusing on just a few of those harmonics will get you a skeleton of the poem something like this:

ravine(from) / ice / fracture / ice-flow / red ice
new border wall(by) / pulverize / red ice / red ice / flower
ravine(for) / stalk / new border wall(to) / bloom / ice-drop
red ice / new border wall(obj.) / pierce / sun / sun / combust / combust

Some of the concepts, like "ravine" and "new border wall", reappear rhythmically in different roles. "Ice" first appears in its simplest form and then reappears in variations, including the title formulation. The idea of destruction is a constant but evolving thread: fracture, pulverize, pierce, combust; the last is an unexpected offshoot enabled by the appearance of the sun, which was in turn allowed through (perhaps literally) by the piercing. The syntax of the work is disjointed and hostile to sustained sculptures of meaning. Instead, we have shuffled clusters of semantic harmony (almost like a supercompressed Mallarméic Symbolism?) looming in and out of view in a rise-and-fall rhythm.

(This is also why my poem is less elegant than I'd like: I wanted first and foremost to retain structure and order for the purposes of this blog post.)

In terms of complexity, of course, it doesn't begin to approach the huge orchestrations characteristic of the big "spectralist" works. Then again, Webern apparently managed to work up a chamber-orchestra arrangement of his extremely timbre-reliant Sechs Stücke für grosses Orchester. Resourceful creators can make do with less.

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Leonardo Boiko:

Damn you, stop linking to interesting things.


Oh, man, seriously, if you haven't heard some of Grisey or Murail's "big" pieces, you need to.

JPS Sharp:

Thanks for this post -- I am a huge Messiaen fan and was excited to find quite a few of the 'spectralist' composers studied under him. Fab stuff. Now all I need are some real speakers.


Awesome post.

I do not own any Grisey or Murail, but now want some. (Aside: My favorite French composers for years were the brats in Les Six, but lately I have started to *really* appreciate the flavors of Messaien, so Varese, Grisey, and Murail shouldn't be too much of a leap from there.)

I like your deconstruction of the poem, but I'm still a bit agnostic about the concept of "semantic harmony".


The older I get, the more I like Messiaen. Just like wine. A lot of his overtone-based stuff was apparently a big inspiration on Murail, too.

As for Les Six, the only one whose work I'm really familiar with is Poulenc (via the flute sonata, initially). Any recommendations for the other five?


I remember listening to records of Honegger orchestral works and liking the chord clusters.

However, Poulenc was always my favorite. His chamber works are great, but his solo piano works are to me the most underappreciated of his compositions.

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