About this Recording
GP679 - RIOTTE, A.: Météorite et ses métamorphoses (Malengreau)
English  French 

André Riotte (1928–2011)
Météorite et ses metamorphoses


The French composer André Riotte was taught by Arthur Honegger and Andrée Vaurabourg at the École Normale de Musique in Paris, as well as attending classes on musical analysis given by Olivier Messiaen. He studied composition and orchestration with André Jolivet and, later, was greatly influenced by Jean Barraqué and Iannis Xenakis. In parallel with his musical studies, he also trained as an electronics engineer. Until 1982 he worked as both a composer and an engineer, in France, Italy and Belgium. His work as an IT specialist within the then EC (he was director of a data-processing lab at the Euratom Joint Research Centre in Ispra) inspired him to learn more about the formalization of music, in his own works and in more general research terms.

It was the young Riotte’s discovery of Debussy that saw “a taste for auditory delight come into [his] life”—it was, he said, his “absolute elsewhere”¹. Attracted by the rôle played by musical intervals as the source of all melody, Riotte sought to structure the renewal of the intervals between sounds, based on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone series. Taking as his starting-point the permutation operations present in Messiaen’s work and radicalized by Barraqué in his “proliferating series”, in 1961 he defined the notion of the “balanced cycle”—today known by the phrase coined in 1974 by Morris and Starr, “all-interval series”—a series which conforms to the dual constraint of including once and once only both the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale and the eleven intervals between them. In 1962, on the Euratom computer at Ispra, Riotte calculated that there were a total of 1,928 possible cycles. From these he established, by means of harmonic analysis and filtering, those which encompassed modal or tonal series and extracted those with their own distinctive properties.

André Riotte was involved in Xenakis’s CEMAMu, taught the mathematical formalization of musical structures at the Université de Paris 8, and at IRCAM, within the context of the Twentieth-Century Music and Musicology doctoral training programme, as well as taking part in the Institute’s Computer Composition course. Editor-in-chief of the journal Musurgia (1994–2001), he was also a member of the Société Française d’Analyse Musicale. Both individually and in collaboration with computer scientist Marcel Mesnage, Riotte wrote many scientific articles, a selection of which were published in 2006 as Formalismes et modèles musicaux (Delatour/Ircam).

While his research on the “balanced cycle” and on processes of concatenation and transformation shaped the way he thought about composing, Riotte was always open to the intuitive and the unpredictable as well, and enjoyed group improvisation. At the same time as using “modes of appreciation stemming from mathematics”, he saw formalization as “an aid to the structuring of the imagined world, a way of imposing discipline on awareness and rendering functions more explicit”. Bringing into play the concepts of meaning, randomness, periodicity, unpredictability and proliferation, he shared a taste for utopia with Jorge Luis Borges, who provided the inspiration for Riotte’s impressive work La Bibliothèque de Babel (The Library of Babel, 1985).

Over the course of his career, Riotte wrote a large number of works for varying forces, both chamber and orchestral—pieces such as Anamorphoses (1976), based on transcodings that lead from text to music; Multiple (1983), built on concatenations of balanced cycles; or Origami (2011), which provides formalization with a tangible image. Riotte’s instrument of choice was always the piano, because of “the extent of its power, the wealth of its timbres and the maximal range of its scale”. A spur to his imagination, it bore witness to the way in which his music progressed, from his early neo-modal pieces, the seventeen Inventions for piano (1988), his research diary, and the Orbitales (1970), studies in pure sound, to the work featured on this album and the twelve Études (2000–2008), which mark a rediscovery of freedom, beyond formal constraints.

Météorite et ses métamorphoses, a monumental work for solo piano, dedicated to the memory of Iannis Xenakis, was completed in 2001 and given its première by Thérèse Malengreau in Brussels in 2002, and in Paris a year later.

Over the last century, a growing interest in learning more about the cosmos has gradually fed into the musical imagination: romantic moonlight has become a subject for observation and the constellations have become formal models for musical composition, while some composers have begun to incorporate the signals emitted by astronomical bodies into their work. Riotte considered periodicity to be “one of the main foundations of music” and recognised it as one of the first models of the universe, reminding him of “the Chaldean shepherds who watched for returning stars”.

Météorite. Riotte’s choice of title signals from the start the new sense of freedom he felt when writing this piece: “Its generative kernel came to me all at once, without any conscious conception or preparation—a ‘Calme bloc ici-bas chu d’un désastre obscur’ [a tranquil block fallen to earth from some obscure disaster], to quote Stéphane Mallarmé—and I was immediately struck by its proliferative potential.” As with the Borges-inspired La Bibliothèque de Babel, Riotte saw a meteorite as a means of expressing the immense probabilities of an uncertain destiny, not to mention accidental deviations and the possibility of its properties and origins being wrongly identified.

He stated that he “preferred the term ‘metamorphoses’ to that of ‘variations’ because the reference to the original object, even if still narrow and, generally speaking, rigorous in its substance, will often be far from evident to the listener”. The metamorphoses that develop from the Météorite are inspired by the scientific analysis of a meteorite, a process that explores both geometrical properties and chemical composition. Riotte’s composition is based on a pre-structure which, although intuitive, is closely related to his “balanced cycles”, and gives the work its harmonic coherence and an identifiable but unique sound-colour. Its geometry can be discerned from the proliferation and characterization of the score’s visible structures.

Météorite et ses métamorphoses represents a peak and an end-point in the work of André Riotte, and could be seen as a milestone in the contemporary repertoire—for several reasons. It goes beyond its composer’s conscious research: “Everything unfolds as if these formalisms had become an integral part of my intuitive functioning”. It is organic in feel and has a self-evident musicality based on its exploration of the pianistic idiom. Finally, far from “returning to”, it acknowledges the tradition of keyboard music and incorporates its legacies: Bach (Metamorphosis XIII), Schumann (IV) Debussy (XXVI, Prestissimo. Fluide, Beaucoup de pédales—“Flowing, Plenty of pedal”), Bartók (XXVII, Allant, martelé—“Driving, hammered”) and Barraqué (XXIX, Énigmatique et sans espoir. Extrêmement lent—“Enigmatic and hopeless. Extremely slow”), with allusions to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations in the subtitle—Motif, 31 variations and a coda.

One of the principal structuring devices behind the metamorphoses as a whole can be seen in the way sections treated as homophonic, polyphonic or polyrhythmic blocks of constant density (Météorite treated in seven phrases of unequal length written in six real parts, metamorphoses in two, three, four and six parts) are alternated with others that adopt an almost improvised style (Metamorphoses XV and XXIV). These two poles oscillate like the stone and iron components of meteorites and their associated properties—from solidity (Météorite) and cracks (VIII) to malleability (VII) and a capacity for fusion (XV and XXI).

The work as a whole acquires permanence from its sense of phrasing and discourse but, more than this, it takes the development of the initial motif right through to the solemn coda, in which echoes of it are heard, the product of the immense transformation wrought by the thirty-one metamorphoses. The earliest of these are presented as slight musical objects which set the evolving process in motion, from linear fluidity (I) to the acceleration of two-part polyphony (III), to polyrhythms (VII), to “suspended” dispersed colours (VIII); little by little these give way to more developed sections. Metamorphosis XIII, treated like a Baroque aria, and bearing the indication Profondément calme et méditatif (“Profoundly calm and meditative”), marks a clean break in the sequence. Metamorphosis XXIII, Pas vite. En retrait, de plus en plus effacé (“Not fast. Withdrawing, increasingly subdued”), dissolves by moving from six parts to one; XXVII resounds like a final outburst; then XXIX hollows itself into an abyss before the clear and angular architecture of XXX heralds the final metamorphosis. The latter, the longest of all, is almost a work in itself with its Beethoven-style organic progression. Within the large-scale form and the dynamism which make their presence felt throughout the work as a whole, the power which grows from this final voluntary construction acts as the perfect counterpart to the delicate, transparent sonorities emanating from the free, introspective metamorphoses which appear to emerge from the unconscious mind.

Thérèse Malengreau

¹ The quotations from André Riotte included in these notes come from a selection of sources: articles published in Formalismes et modèles musicaux, typescripts of lectures and correspondence with the performer of this recording.

Close the window