Grisey’s Time and its Conceptual Implications

Spectralisms, IRCAM, 13 June 2019

This paper illustrates how three of Gérard Grisey’s essays—“Réflexions sur le temps,” “La Musique: le devenir des sons,” and “Tempus ex machina”—accord with Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Jacques Nattiez on the structure of perception. Instead of purporting to prove direct influence, exploring their common ground clarifies and elaborates three central issues in Grisey’s writings: (1) the differentiation of time and how it casts music as a process of becoming; (2) the identification of tone with pulse on a spectrum of contraction and dilation; and (3) how Grisey’s later three-part theory of musical perception relates to his early distinction between measured and perceived time.

First, Grisey’s definition of music as the becoming of sounds owes much to Bergson’s principle of duration and its distinction between homogeneous and heterogeneous time. Bergson takes issue with Kant’s acceptance of homogeneous space as a given, instead arguing that the “extensity” of objects is only known through lived intuition, which presents itself to consciousness as duration—a heterogeneous continuum of interpenetrating moments. For Deleuze, the subject experiences duration by actualizing past memories onto the psychological present, marking a distinction between the past as memory and the present as becoming. In this light, Grisey’s notion that “the apprehension and measure of difference” is “the true material of musical composition” means that music is a process of making time heterogeneous by engaging with listeners’ previously established expectations within the becoming of the present. The hierarchy that Grisey draws between periodic rhythms and statistical sounds constructs a musical bridge between this separation of homogeneous and heterogeneous time.

Second, by deconstructing the boundary between rhythm and sound object, Grisey grounds pulse and tone in a common ontology. His assertion that “the sound object is only a process which has been contracted” resonates with Deleuze’s idea that perception emerges from the contraction of memory into the present. When Grisey describes sound as a pulse compressed into a single Gestalt, he colorfully illustrates Deleuze’s conclusion that Bergsonian duration cannot be experienced apart from space: “What is expanded if not the contracted—and what is contracted if not the extended, the expanded?” Like perception for Deleuze, musical sounds for Grisey are vectors of heterogeneous and homogeneous temporality, “force fields given direction in time.”

Last, Nattiez’s semiotic tripartition helps reconcile Grisey’s early division of chronometric and perceptual time with his later theory of music as skin, flesh, and skeleton. Dimitris Exarchos attempts to join these two theories by problematically collapsing the skin into the flesh, while Yonatan Izhak Niv understands “flesh” to allude to a Merleau-Pontian chiasm. Really, skin accounts for what Nattiez calls music’s esthesic dimension, skeleton for the poietic, and flesh for the residue of interaction between composition and interpretation. Only this construction preserves Grisey’s distribution of agency over the binary between chronometric and perceived time: composers arrange the work’s temporal skeleton and inscribe its flesh with emotion, whereas listeners give body to its acoustic presence and perceive its skin-like surface.