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ClassicsOnline Home » ROBIN, J.-B.: Organ Music - Cercles Reflechissants / Regard vers l'Air / 3 Elements d'un Songe (J.-B. Robin)
As one might guess from their descriptive titles, Jean-Baptiste Robin’s works are evocative, poetic and colourful, abounding in strength, energy and passion. When you listen to them, the days of contemporary music devoid of expression and obsessed with structure seem long past. This is highly expressive music with something to say, full of ideas to fire our imagination. Robin, who here performs on the organs in the churches of Saint-Louis-en-l’Île and Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris, creates a world in flux, whose moving pictures and living images flow through a new fabric of sound.
By Jim Hildredth
The American Organist
By Jonathan E. Dimmock
The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians
Jean-Baptiste Robin (b. 1976)
As one might guess just from their descriptive titles, Jean-Baptiste Robin’s works are evocative, poetic and colourful, while at the same time abounding in strength, energy and passion. When you listen to his music, the days of contemporary music devoid of expression and all about structure seem long past. This is highly expressive music with something to say and full of ideas to fire our imagination: Robin creates a world in flux, whose moving pictures and living images flow through a new sound fabric.
For far from any complacent reliance on formulaic expressiveness, the key to Robin’s writing is innovation. The first element in his new music-world is his use of original harmonies: the symmetrical modes he has created, and which he calls “réfléchissants” (reflecting), form the basis of this expansive and stable universe, and bring to it a very individual and immediately recognisable musical colour.
Standing out against this harmonic background is an equally personal melodic idiom. This sometimes contemplative, sometimes vehement voice is characterised by the momentary hesitations introduced by grace notes and the impulses injected by short ascending figures.
Finally, rhythmic variety breathes life into the music, with the use of ostinati, asymmetrical phrases, driving forces associated with ostinato melodic patterns, at times giving rise to a very tightly woven micropolyphony and creating the impression of a swarming musical backdrop in a kind of elemental pantheism.
This universe, both complex and clear, perceptible and striking, is embodied—and this is but one of its many charms—in the meticulous but never affected play of ever-changing organ sonorities.
Robin opens out an immense span of time and space to his listeners’ ears and imagination, right up to the final echo of a tolling bell which seems to extend this universe into infinity.
Regard vers l’Aïr (A Look towards the Aïr, 2001) was always conceived for several different types of organ. The numerous performances I have given of this work around the world have enabled me to refine it, and I have therefore recorded two different versions for this CD. On a German Baroque instrument (the version recorded at the Église Saint-Louis-en-l’Île), the repeated knell at the opening explores the chaotic and oppressive sound of the Posaune
stop, which is what I had in mind when I first began sketching the work in 1996. On a more modern instrument (that of the Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont), that same opening gives rise to a very gradual crescendo, the tolling bell getting ever closer to the listener. The two interpretations are also complementary in that while a tempo libre is adopted in the Baroque organ version the second version is played with strict rhythmic precision. As the work unfolds, two opposing themes develop, the first getting shorter as the second lengthens. This thematic development unifies a succession of very different atmospheres: the never-ending knell of the opening, the Asiatic mode arabesques which follow it, or the two echoing melodies that bring to mind two children playing chase. The work also brings out several unusual colours on the harmonic stops (Nasard and Tierce), musical evocations of wind and ocean waves. This piece in no way seeks to portray the Aïr Mountains in Niger. The title is simply an invitation to go on a purely imaginary journey and was inspired by the imposing harmonic landscapes of the final pages.
Trois Éléments d’un Songe (Three Elements of a Dream, 2003) is based on two very simple musical ideas: three intervals and a chiaroscuro harmony which is both introductory and conclusive (the first chord of Crépusculaire). These create the set’s poetic framework, and the first two movements work as upbeats to the last. The work opens with Frontispice (Frontispiece), a recitative which introduces the thematic intervals. At the climax of the movement the theme is heard in unison on the tutti. Then steady harmonies herald the pivot notes of the second and third movements. Souffle (Breath) is a set
of colour variations on the initial thematic intervals and chords that imitate the breath of the wind. The first movement’s pivot notes continue to make themselves heard, in spite of the fact that the writing is forever moving on and renewing itself. Frontispice and Souffle prepare the way for the arrival of Crépusculaire (Crepuscular), in which the theme first uttered in Frontispice becomes contemplative and the harmonies of Souffle are transformed
into an ecstatic rocking motion, built on the movement’s first and last chords. Crépusculaire takes its name from the delicate high harmonics characteristic of the organ.
Cercles Réfléchissants (Reflecting Circles, 2007–08), commissioned by the University of Kansas, the Marcelle and Robert de Lacour Foundation for music and dance, and the Association of Friends of the Organ of Nontron (Aquitaine), is divided into seven parts. The five main pieces are dedicated to my organist friends Olivier Latry, Vincent Warnier, Michel Bourcier, Frédéric Champion and Thierry Escaich.
The work represents a milestone in my career, as it uses the twelve repetitive symmetrical modes and the 23 reflecting modes that I developed in 2005. These modes extend the character of the tempered chromatic scale and add to the scales discovered in the twentieth century (e.g. Messiaen’s seven modes of limited transpositions). They all present a symmetry within the octave: the reflecting modes have a central axis either on a real note or between two notes; the repetitive symmetrical modes are made up of a set of intervals which is repeated. These modes can be heard in earlier works Émergences, for chorus and organ
(2006), and Impulsion, for two pianos and percussion (2007). There are also three recurring elements within these seven pieces: melodic circles, a lyrical theme which includes a characteristic major sixth interval, and a refrain made up of reflecting chords.
The seven movements are symmetrically arranged, with a central piece entitled Cercles Réfléchissants whose writing is rigorous in the extreme, each note linked to another by a reflecting symmetry whose nature is either melodic (circular melodies), modal or harmonic (reflecting chords and modes). The preface to the score discusses these procedures in more detail. Cercles de Danses (Circles of Dances) and Cercles Lointains (Distant Circles) are linked by their rhythmic vivacity and their virtuosity. The set’s thematic elements gradually emerge in the first, only to fade away again in the second. Cercles de Vent
(Circles of Wind) and Cercles Harmoniques (Harmonic Circles) both feature undulations which lead to long successions of ascending harmonies in reflecting modes
(Cercles de Vent). Cercles Harmoniques also develops the wavelike evocations of the earlier Regard vers l’Aïr. The brief Trait-d’union 1 and Trait-d’union 2 (Hyphens 1 and 2) superimpose or alternate the two thematic melodies of the set as a whole (the melodic circles and the fundamental lyrical major-sixth tune).
These sometimes rather technical notes should take second place to the music itself, which has been created not to be read but to be listened to.
The Marcelle and Robert de Lacour Foundation for music and dance was established by the French harpsichordist, singer, harpist and pianist Marcelle de Lacour (1896–1997). Ever since its creation, the Foundation has supported the work of composers and performers in the fields of dance and of harpsichord, piano, harp and organ music. At the instigation of its administrator, Thierry Escaich, it now plays a particularly prominent rôle in encouraging the composition of new organ works, as demonstrated, for example, by its sponsorship of the Festival de Comminges composition competition in 2006 and 2008, and its commissioning of works by Jean-Baptiste Robin.
Translations by Susannah Howe
Specification of organs
Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris, France
Pescheur (1636) – Clicquot (1777) – Cavaillé-coll (1863, 1873) – Beuchet-Debierre (1956) – Gonzales (1975) – Dargassies (1991). IV/P 89 stops, 110 ranks.
Organ case « Monument historique » 1633. 4 manuals: 61 notes. Pedal compass: 32 notes. Unison off for each manual. Couplers: all manuals: 16, 8, 4. I/PED; II/PED 8, 4; III/PED 8, 4; IV/PED. Tremolo Récit and Écho. Crescendo. Electronic adjustable combinations
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