Robert Hasegawa

Schulich School of Music, McGill University

Rhythm and repetition in Gérard Grisey’s Vortex temporum

This paper focuses on the rhythmic structure of the opening section of Gérard Grisey’s 1996 sextet Vortex temporum, drawing on Grisey’s theories of temporal perception as well as Christopher Hasty’s concept of rhythmic projection. Both Grisey and Hasty are driven by a Bergsonian desire to describe time as actually experienced, not just the simplified image of time conveyed by spatial/symbolic representations like timelines or musical notation.
For Grisey, periodicity is the norm in the temporal domain, just as the harmonic spectrum represents a cognitive norm for frequency structure. Our expectation of periodicity conditions our experience of more complex rhythmic phenomena, acting as a norm against which distortions are felt. The experience of musical time is not merely the passive consumption of sounds—rather, the passing of time includes a proliferation of anticipations and predictions, some confirmed and some denied by new events. Grisey’s article “Tempus ex machina” (1987) describes how deviations from exact periodicity such as accelerations and decelerations can make the evolution of sounds “dynamic and charged with directed meaning.”
Acceleration, he writes, propels the listener “towards something which he does not yet know.” Deceleration, on the other hand, “induces a sort of expectancy in the void of the present.” The listener is “pulled backwards,” left in a “state of temporal suspension.” Hasty’s theory of projection, described in Meter as Rhythm (1997), overlaps considerably with Grisey’s ideas, particularly in its description of the variety of perceptual effects caused by “early” and “late” attacks.
These theories provide an intriguing perspective on the experience of time in the first section of the first movement of Vortex temporum. Following Hasty’s model, I argue that each heard duration creates a projection: an expectation for a continuation of equal length. Grisey’s carefully controlled pattern of shortening durations sets up specific and quantifiable expectations, which the heard music sometimes satisfies and sometimes denies. The result is a wide range of perceptual effects, ranging from surprise and suspense to fulfillment and closure.
So far, we have looked only at the pattern of durations (what Grisey calls the “skeleton of time”) without considering the effect of the musical contents of each time span (Grisey’s “flesh of time”). A thorough consideration of the “flesh of time” could engage any or all aspects of the music, but my presentation concentrates on just one feature: the periodicity and shape of the repeated arpeggio figures, which change considerably over the course of the piece. The addition of these periodic patterns to the “skeleton of time” has substantial effects on the perception of each timespan.
By taking the experience of time seriously, the theories of Hasty and Grisey help us to develop a phenomenological description of temporal effects. Perception is notoriously difficult to describe, and “what it is like” to hear a passage of music may ultimately be impossible to convey to another individual. This does not, however, mean that we must give up on intersubjectivity entirely, particularly when there are such rich experiences to share.

Keywords: auditory perception and cognition; rhythm and meter; spectral music; music analysis


Music theorist and composer ROBERT HASEGAWA joined the faculty of the Schulich School of Music of McGill University in 2012. His research interests include spectral music, microtonality, psychoacoustics, and the history of music theory. Recent projects include studies of music by Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, an article on atonal theory for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a chapter on extended just intonation for the volume Théories de la composition musicale au XXe siècle, and applications of transformational theory to the analysis of microtonal music by Hans Zender and Georg Friedrich Haas.