A review by Richard Miles Jackman
The title of this collection of works is appropriate. A hermit has the opportunity, not only to withdraw from society in a physical sense, but also to become detached from the ideas, rules and world-view of other individuals and society at large. He may then discover within himself that silent realm from where true creativity unfolds.
Éric Pénicaud’s music is indeed born of that silence. Reciprocally, it is not surprising that his music demands of its listener complete meditative and undivided attention. Not only has the composer become a hermit—at least during the time dedicated to his work—but the listener must temporarily become a hermit also if he is to appreciate, enjoy, and be positively moved by the music. It is well worth making that effort. Éric Pénicaud’s compositions exhibit refreshing originality, free of familiar chord progressions and melodic structures, yet it is evident that they are invariably making complete harmonic and melodic sense. One has the feeling that Pénicaud always knows exactly what he is doing and what he wants to express.
Jusqu'en notre exil tu murmures begins with a slow, peaceful and exquisite progression of chords, threaded together by long, sustained notes on the cello, and the humming of individual voices. With the introduction of the lyrics, we are suddenly hit by two intense, homophonic phrases, which instill a feeling of striving, struggling and beseeching—a “dark night of the soul”. For the rest of the piece, similar passages are interspersed with quasi-canonical vocals, humming, and purely instrumental material. Most phrases are allowed to fade into a prolonged and remarkable interval of perfect silence. The intermittent embellishments added by the two guitars—either harp-like or reminiscent of raindrops—make one constantly aware of the spaciousness of the surrounding ambiance.
Interestingly, in the final instrumental passage towards the end of the piece, the cello is confined to its open strings.
Improvisation sur la sarabande: The sarabande in question was written for guitar by the famous French composer Francis Poulenc. Pénicaud has added (or discovered) additional layers of depth to this charming yet unspectacular piece. Right from the beginning, in the initial thematic statement, he asks for the first of several instances of extreme note bending, as if already rejecting the comparatively superficial nature of the original and attempting to ply his way into hidden realms. What follows is a sublime rendition full of intricate embellishments and rich, unexpected harmonies—and the repeated use of the G# harmonic towards the end of the piece is pure genius.
Guitarists, by the way, will find it interesting and instructive to try playing Poulenc’s version synchronously with the present recording.
Vertige de la Siguiriya is polytonal, rhythmical and minimalistic, with the repetition of a single, simple motive giving the piece its coherence. The motive, or “mantra”, is introduced softly by a single guitar; then one by one the four remaining guitars are added, each playing the motive in its own unique key. A gradual crescendo reaches its pinnacle near the end of the piece, by which time the repeated mantra has become all-encompassing, That, along with the deep bass notes and rhythmical clapping of the percussion instruments, has literally created a sense of vertigo in the listener. After this point a gradual decrescendo is employed while the instruments are, one by one, withdrawn.
In many aspects (form, tempo, dynamics) this piece is similar to Mussorgsky’s Bydlo from Pictures at an Exhibition.
Improvisation XVII-XXI is described by the composer as “a back and forth between the XVIIth and XXIst century, between the baroque and today's music”. The work is essentially an atonal “stream of consciousness”, although we do find some passages repeated. At times discernible blues elements can be heard, as with the occasional parallel fourths played on the first two strings.
We can imagine the composer sitting with his guitar and simply experimenting.
Les Quatre Saisons d'un musicien ermite: Hiver, with its pristine, crystalline harmonies, immediately evokes an image of icicles in an untouched Winter garden. The piece is simply structured—two groups of four measures, with an additional four identical measures at the end combined with a decrescendo. The loud rasgueado chords in the fourth group remind us of the harshness of Winter. In addition, all measures are rhythmically identical, contributing greatly to the meditative quality of this piece.
Les Quatre Saisons d'un musicien ermite: Printemps is comprised of eight extended phrases, seven of which begin with an open fifth interval—D-A—with an added E in some cases. Five of the phrases are initiated by descending pizzicati using notes of a whole tone scale—a truly fascinating effect, and one that gives this piece its unique character.
The guitar part, with its note-bending, is at times reminiscent of Japanese koto music, while the long drawn-out notes of the violin contribute to an atmosphere of mystery.
Les Quatre Saisons d'un musicien ermite: Été: Played on a solo violin, this piece has a clearly defined A/B/A/Coda structure and is recitative in nature. The A-section contains polymodal phrases that begin slowly, with the use of double stops, and finish with an acceleration to the higher registers. The B-section, on the other hand, is based firmly on the root-note provided by the open G-string. The sparse coda ends with an ethereal series of high harmonics.
Les Quatre Saisons d'un musicien ermite: Automne provides a degree of resolution to the previous seasons. It expresses melancholia but also fruitfulness. Its simple structure is easy to comprehend and requires no explanation. For the first time, we hear long passages with familiar rich and delightful jazz harmonies on the guitar. Simultaneously the high-pitch lament of the violin meanders in a distant tonality. What a wonderful piece!
Parabole créole comprises two contrasting movements. The first of these is set in E-Major—a favorite key for the guitar, mainly due to the E-tuning of the lowest string. It thus comes as a surprise that the composer requires the performer to tune this string down a major third to C. The reason for this soon becomes evident. First a well-structured cascade of motives over several measures solidly establishes the E-Major key. Then, unexpectedly and without any actual change of key, deep bass notes foreign to E-major, are employed. This very effective compositional technique gives the first movement—which is otherwise reminiscent of works by Chick Corea and Baden Powell—its unique character.
The second movement is liberal in its treatment of tempo, with passages ranging from virtuoso and agitated, to slow and peaceful. As in the first movement, elements of jazz are apparent. The piece ends with a fade-out of a rapidly repeated motive.
Le nuage d'inconnaissance, named after The Cloud of Unknowing—a treatise by an anonymous 14th century mystic—is profoundly meditative. It starts with a rushing sound—perhaps an allusion to the faint white cosmic background noise that anyone can detect when they are silent and are listening for it. Next the guitar and cello introduce the tonality of B♭, after which there is a series of slow mysterious, arpeggiated chords on guitar. Twice, a long B♭ major chord on the bowed instruments reaffirms unmistakably the tonality, as if gently yet uncompromisingly forcing the meditator back on track after his mind has wandered. The same can be said of the following—almost passionate—falling sequence of intervals on the violin—D, D♭, C♭, B♭—over a B♭ fundamental. In the meantime, frequent glissandi—especially on the cello—create a visceral sense of churning.
In the second half of the piece, there is a build-up of tension, as the harmonies become increasingly dissonant to the point of being cluster-like. Two isolated, penetrating chords mark the culmination, followed by a decrescendo and a sense of relief as elements from earlier on are recalled. Finally we are left with only the soft rushing sound we heard at the beginning.
Puis le Rayon vert is a fitting conclusion to this collection of works. Right from the beginning, the clear transparent tone of the guitar imbues us with a feeling of resolution. After a short simple introduction and a following ascending chain of motives, we arrive at possibly the most beautiful musical phrase ever heard—peaceful, wondrous, passionate, and somehow full of meaning. It is as though this is what we have been waiting for and working towards all this time. But as is the case with all such perfect moments, it is short-lived. The phrase repeats once and then bursts into an exuberant celebration of its discovery. Soon its traces are lost, though the newly established tonal center of E will be referred to throughout the remaining piece. We now find ourselves on a journey through a kind of wilderness, perhaps in search of what has been lost. After a while we recognize the return of the ascending chain of motives. And sure enough, there it is—that magical perfect phrase followed again by an outbreak of joy. Once again it becomes just a memory, but as the end of the piece draws near, the remnants of that one phrase are repeated again and again until they fade from our perception.