Between the sounds : Portrait of Pascale Criton

Spotlights 17.10.2022

"The desire to compose came to me from my passion for observing small differences," confides Pascale Criton, speaking to Laurent Vilarem. This disposition goes back to her childhood when, alone in front of her maternal grandfather's piano, she used to spend whole afternoons letting sounds resonate between them until their extinction, "as if they were living beings," she adds. She still remembers the little zithers that a friend of her parents brought back from Romania, where she could stretch and relax the strings with a key, and the feeling of pleasure she felt when listening to the minute variations in the tuning she obtained.

On the fringe of the academic tracks

It is not surprising that Pascale Criton (born in 1954 in Paris) sought, during her training, teachers who were sensitive to the question of the differential in sound that we call microtonality. Rather than the Sorbonne (Paris IV), she chose the University of Vincennes, which opened up broader perspectives on the musical world. Thus her meeting with the ethnomusicologist Claude Laloum whom she followed on an expedition to West Africa. This anthropological approach to music was decisive for her, as well as the notion of form as an event (the form of the living) that her professor transmitted to her through the writings of the philosopher Gilbert Simondon.

The study of micro-intervals and their theoretical deepening are concomitant, stimulated by the frequentation of music of oral tradition and the meeting of several personalities who reinforce her in this way: the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) will be a major figure in her course, whose thesis centered on the concept of "difference" and "repetition" feeds her own thought.
In 1976, after the creation of Partial1 in Paris, she met Gérard Grisey whose work on sound synthesis fuelled her interest in the components of the spectrum. He showed her the quartets of Giacinto Scelsi, another explorer of the interior of sound whose music fascinated her. Still in Vincennes, she took classes with the composer and researcher Jean-Étienne Marie. He is the founder of the CIRM in Nice (Centre International de Recherche Musicale) and inherited two Metamorfoseadores pianos (one in 1/3ᵉ tone, the other in 1/16ᵉ tone) from the Mexican Julián Carrillo (1875-1965), instruments on which the young Pascale will practice for a long time. Jean-Étienne Marie put her on the trail ofIvan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), a Russian exiled in Paris since 1920. She was overwhelmed when she heard his Prelude and Etude in 1/3 tone played by the pianist Martine Joste on France Musique, who introduced her to the composer. She was 22 years old, played the clarinet but had never composed. She found in this thinker and philosopher of sound in the twilight of his life an interlocutor attentive to her questioning: "We shared long afternoons going through the universe of pansonority2 ", says the composer who, some fifteen years later, would submit her thesis on the question of "continua" before embarking on a gigantic editorial work to gather, present and annotate all of Wyschnegradsky's writings.3

The sound continuum

The notion comes directly from the Russian master, from whom she integrates several of his principles without adopting his writing logic: "I am above all concerned with the notion of perception," she insists. Her desire is to make audible the passage from one state to another in the minute divisions of sound; to make audible acoustic states that could not be produced with the conventional semitone intervals; in a word, to free sound from the rigid framework of the note and explore its vibratory energy in the finest nuances. "Dense scales such as the 1/12th tone or the 1/16th tone have both an acoustic and a psychoacoustic signature: they operate a slowing down, a temporal dilation that places listening on the scale of microvariations "4, she adds.
Thus her first microtonal compositions explore the capabilities of Carrillo's 1/16ᵉ tone piano(Memories , which opened her catalog in 1982), which she sometimes associates with the soundtrack(Déclinaison à l'ombre des choses familières) or the classical piano(La forme incontournée).
Her work in the infinitely small extends quickly to other string instruments: the guitar first, with this emblematic work (a tribute to Gilles Deleuze), La ritournelle et le galop, for guitar in 1/16ᵉ of a tone that she composed in 1996; let us also mention the guitar quartet in 1/12ᵉ of a tone, Objectiles, in 2002 and the series of Plis, for amplified guitar, amplified cello, and two cellos and then for ensemble and captured sounds where electronics allow her to deploy sound in a plural space.

The work is carried out in collaboration with faithful performers who are familiar with the exploratory approach and with the "extended playing techniques" (rubbed and slid) used on the instruments: the guitarist Didier Aschour, the violinist Silvia Tarozzi, the cellist Deborah Walker (members of the Dedalus ensemble) and more recently (2022) the British soprano Juliet Fraser, invited to perform with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in one of the first large-scale vocal works by Pascale Criton, AlterThis work plays on the idea of otherness as much as on the alteration and transformation of sound matter.
"We leave the realm of the note in favor of the production of states of variables in transformation," explains the composer, who evolves her notation towards a gestural writing that simply indicates the movements of the arm and the hand, while maintaining a traditional rhythmic writing.

Performative" interpretation

Gestural writing and the subjective stakes of interpretation have become essential in Pascale Criton's compositional process. Circle Process for violin (2012) and Chaoscaccia for cello (2014) are reference solo pieces, conceived in close collaboration with her favorite performers, Silvia Tarozzi and Deborah Walker, who co-sign the score.
Circle Process consists of a diagram of twelve states or sound qualities (inscribed on the perimeter of a circle) that the performer will go through, moving from one to another (Pulsing, Beating, Turning, etc.) with maximum transitivity. The performance requires active listening (on the part of the performers as well as the listeners) and a subjective elaboration that engages the entire body of the performer. The exploration of the spectrum in its extreme divisionism is carried out further in Chaoscaccia as well as the work on the frames and their noisy sonority close to the electronic universe. The resulting phenomena provide a part of the unexpected that borders on the unheard of.

More recent (2018) and no less astonishing, his piece Wander Steps for two microtonal accordions is written with the duo Xamp and plays on modulations within the ¼ tone, favoring the emergence of the sought-after acoustic states, from the tenuous beat between two frequencies to the abundance of harmonics. The sound space is constructed, from one register to another, enriched with resulting sonorities and acoustic illusions stimulating the "modes proper" to the architecture of the concert hall. Thus the work reveals itself in situ, according to the configuration and the acoustics of the place that welcomes it.
I remember the creation of Wander Steps in the small church of La Salle-les-Alpes by Fanny Vicens and Jean-Étienne Sotty (duo Xamp) where the sounds emitted by the two accordions seemed to detach themselves from their source to live their own future in the generous acoustics of the place. In the same spirit, Soar for violin, cello (tuned in 1/16ᵉ of a tone), and ondes Martenot, which appears in the program of the festival riverrun, 2022, deploys a constantly evolving sound image, sustained by the reciprocity of the instruments, themselves in continuous deviation.

Composer, researcher and philosopher, Pascale Criton is always taking her research further into what she calls "microvariability," a field that embraces everything that shapes sound: instruments, playing techniques, places, material, etc. "Each situation is a study, an experimentation that elaborates its means ", she says, in phase with the injunction of her master Gilles Deleuze: "experiment, never interpret"!

Michèle Tosi

1) Partiels (1975) is the third piece in Gérard Grisey's cycle Espaces acoustiques, which is part of the spectral aesthetic.
2) Pansonorité is another way "to see the sound universe", a decisive turn towards a liberation of the musical language.
3) Libération du son Écrits 1916-1979 ; texts collected, presented and annotated by Pascale Criton. Editions Symétrie; collection Symétrie Recherche Série 20-21. 2013
4) L'art des (petites) différences; op. cit. p.24


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