50 Years of Collective Creation and Experimentation

Interview with Lucia Peralta and Grégoire Lorieux, co-directors of L’Itinéraire by Jérémie Szpirglas

Grégoire Lorieux and Lucia Peralta © Ircam-Centre Pompidou

First and foremost, let's go back 50 years: could you describe the context in which L'Itinéraire was born, and why?

Grégoire Lorieux: In the early 1970s, a group of young composers, most of them having studied with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, saw the dissolution of the Domaine Musical. These composers saw the opportunity to create an environment conducive to the creation of their own music, and to the development of their aesthetic, which focused not only on the phenomenon of sound itself, but also on new modes of listening and the new sounds produced by electricity and electronics.

The core of this small group was made up of Roger Tessier, Michaël Levinas, and Tristan Murail. Alain Louvier met Murail and Levinas at the Villa Medici in Rome, and had visited Giacinto Scelsi in his apartment, a defining event for these young musicians. It was on their return from Rome that they founded L'Itinéraire.

Lucia Peralta: Gérard Grisey came later, as did Hugues Dufourt, who insisted on the importance of giving a name to this new trend and proposed the term "spectral".

G.L.: L'Itinéraire is first and foremost a story of people and relationships, but it's also an adventure that reflects the spirit of the times, with a strong emphasis on sonic experimentation - instrumental, computerized and electronic - led by musicians trained under Messiaen, concerned with writing and formalization. I find this balance between an attitude of sound experimentation and an attraction to the "prestige of systems" very rich.

L.P.: In fact, Murail, Levinas and others were the first to sign up for the course offered to composers by IRCAM in 1980 - which later became the Cursus.

Once the initial excitement had died down, how did the ensemble carry on?

G.L. : For the first decade, the Itinéraire grew in stature, with numerous premieres. When the Itinéraire composers presented their work at the Darmstadt seminars in 1982, they received international recognition acknowledging the importance of the influence of the new spectral aesthetics: it could be said that the Itinéraire had become part of music history, and the musical grammar, developed from "an awareness of acoustic laws and a consideration of technology and thus of progress", as Michael Levinas puts it, had become "the principal form of writing conceived since serialism", according to Pierre Gervasoni.[1].

L.P.: It was then that Tristan Murail, keen to devote himself entirely to composition, left L'Itinéraire, and Michael Levinas took over artistic direction in 1985, ushering in a very important period, thanks in particular to his wife Danielle Cohen-Levinas, who developed the whole musicological aspect around L'Itinéraire, and produced numerous theoretical writings on the subject.

Picture : L'Itinéraire Ensemble © Aurèle Guyot

G.L.: In the 1990s, Jack Lang's large-scale grant campaigns came to fruition, and L'Itinéraire accompanied the gradual formalization of culture in France. Michael Levinas built a team around him. Drawing a parallel with the world of publishing, his vision of L'Itinéraire is modelled on that of Les Éditions de Minuit: a prestigious publishing house, without being institutional, yet a key player in the creative microcosm. In particular, he launched the "Répliques" series, mixing early music, non-European music and contemporary music, and developed a policy of commissioning the younger generation of composers... The late Mark Foster is our principal guest conductor, and works with the musicians on one of the composers at the heart of our repertoire: Giacinto Scelsi.

G.L.: Then came a time when Michael, in turn, wanted to devote more time to creation. He left the ensemble's artistic direction in 2003. Jean-Loup Graton took up the torch up to 2011, with a fresh artistic approach.

How did you become artistic director of L'Itinéraire?

L.P.: Jean-Loup Graton's departure led to a leadership crisis. We started looking for an artistic director, as though we were looking for a "providential" man! Then we realized that there was no such thing as a providential man, and that we had to take our future into our own hands.

I threw myself into this venture with a great deal of enthusiasm: there was so much to rebuild, so much to revive, starting with the desire to play, to get together. And I'm very proud to have succeeded in preserving that passion.

However, it was important to maintain the original impetus and involve the composers. This is how, as we came across him, we came to think of Grégoire, whose pieces we had already played.

G.L.: It was Alain Louvier who called me to arrange a meeting: we talked freely about the ensemble's prospects, and quickly realized that the essential thing was not to perform concerts at all cost, but to instill a vision.

What have you set out to do since becoming head of the ensemble?

G.L.: One of the first aspects we wanted to rethink was the format of the concerts: the sequence of pieces, but also the context in which they take place, notably by shifting times and locations (with concerts in unusual places, such as a forest). In this way, we can appeal to an audience unaccustomed to creative music. Audiences don't really come to attend a contemporary music concert, but first and foremost to live the experience we're proposing: this, I believe, answers the essential question of how to make our music accessible.

These experiences also help us to rethink more classical concerts; indoors and with seated audiences. The classical concert, with its hall, its string of written pieces and its bows, becomes a special case of context.

L.P.:  We were also eager to investigate gender equality - long before it became fashionable.

G.L.:  It's not a project in itself, but a necessity. That said, even though we're very attentive to it, the day we gave an almost 100% all-female concert was almost by chance!

L.P.:  Last but not least, we wanted to emphasize distance learning - and we'll be doing so as early as 2018, long before it becomes widespread with confinement! with the creation of OpusOne, an introductory composition academy.

Does the ensemble's history influence your programming decisions and commissioning policy?

L.P.:  Of course. Programming always means putting things into perspective. Playing a piece, even a three-minute one, as part of a concert, means finding a place for it in a vast tableau.

G.L.:  We program for L'Itinéraire. I imagine the whole thing like a family home: you inherit it, you embellish it, you live in it, you make it your own, but then you pass it on.

Let's talk about the program for this concert: why did you choose these artists and these works?

L.P.: It's the result of a long process of reflection, lasting almost four years! First of all, we identified a number of areas for reflection. The first was creation: it was obvious that this anniversary had to be celebrated with commissions. The second axis was the founders, all of whom are still with us with the exception of Grisey, and the place given to the founders was a complex one to tackle, as we didn't want a concert in the form of a memorial. However, they are all represented, in one way or another. Thirdly, the repertoire, with a series of pieces written for and premiered by L'Itinéraire - by three composers who have sadly passed away: the Colombian Luis-Fernando Rizo-Salom, the Italian Fausto Romitelli, and the British Jonathan Harvey.

For the first concert, three commissions were given: to Finnish composer Maija Hynninen and the Italian composers Oscar Bianchi and Eric Maestri. What Maija and Oscar have in common is that they illustrate the ties of filiation that bind the composers played by the ensemble: Oscar was a pupil of Murail and was introduced to L'Itinéraire by Fausto Romitelli. Maija was a pupil of Carmine-Emanuele Cella, whom we've been following for a long time and who was researcher and composer-in-residence at IRCAM. As for Eric, his piece is the one that most explores the question of the ensemble, its anniversary and its individual members. It also brings Tristan Murail to the fore, both through the presence of the ondes Martenot, which are his instrument, and through the fact that part of the sound material used was recorded during an ensemble rehearsal on a piece by Tristan!

G.L.: "Sound" 's electronics are also based on Grisey's Prologue. Prologue is performed in duo with Lucia, highlighting the links between L'Itinéraire and IRCAM, and paying tribute to Éric Daubresse, who created the electronics for Prologue based on the version with acoustic resonators, and who was at one time involved in the Itinéraire adventure.

The second concert revolves around the idea of light, stretched between two creations: those of Natasha Barrett and Núria Giménez Comas. I first met Natasha in 2010, when she was working on her Hidden Values for Espro's ambisonic installation. Shimmering Cities is both a sound installation, with an absolute and spectacular mastery of spatialization and an acute sensitivity to sound space, and a beautiful and iridescent instrumental writing.

In counterpoint, Llum i matèria by Núria also works with spatialization, but on a more intimate level. Her piece opens the concert with a sound installation that resembles a long, processual transition to the instrumental piece, with the musicians penetrating the sound material. As the title suggests, Núria has been very interested in light. This piece, a tribute to Kaija Saariaho, is accompanied by a lighting design by Christophe Forey, who had already worked with us on Murail's Portulanas part of last year's Présences Festival.

L.P.: Between the two, Les Désinences is emblematic of Michael Levinas's research into melody, in conjunction with his fascination with the suppression of piano resonance. This involves cantillation, and his obsession with polyphony based on microtonal scales...

G.L.: Hugues Dufourt's La cité des saules is another of L'Itinéraire's "historical" works, a reconstruction: the piece was first performed in 1997 by Claude Pavy, but at the time he was working with guitar pedals that sometimes no longer exist today. Aurelio Edler-Copes has developed a computerized version in close collaboration with Hugues - which, incidentally, will make the score easier to play again in the future.

L.P. : Last but not least, Harvey's radiant Valley of Aosta responds to the Dufourt's sober, even somber, light.

Ensemble L'Itinéraire - Festival Messiaen, 2023

Interview by Jérémie Szpirglas

[1] Le Monde, March 10 1998 “Musique spectrale à l’échelle européenne avec l’ensemble Itinéraire”