April 24, 2018
Outre-mémoire is thus a work that is intensely personal and yet universal for invoking fundamental and still timely questions about wealth and poverty, exploitation and oppression.
Ensemble Variances review – Pécou's intricate reflections on the slave trade resonates
Victoria Rooms, Bristol
Thierry Pécou’s thoughtful and dramatic Outre-mémoire – conceived as a commemoration of the slave trade – asks still timely questions about exploitation and oppression
Thierry Pécou’s quartet Outre-mémoire (Beyond Memory) was written in 2003, conceived as a commemoration of the slave trade. Bristol new music festival’s decision to programme the piece in a city whose very prosperity was based on its historic connection with slave trading was canny.
Pécou’s conscious pursuit of this idea was also an exploration of his own DNA: having trodden the conventional compositional path through the Paris Conservatoire, he became increasingly aware that his family roots in Martinique set him apart in terms of cultural heritage. Outre-mémoire is thus a work that is intensely personal and yet universal for invoking fundamental and still timely questions about wealth and poverty, exploitation and oppression.
Scored for piano, flute/alto flute, clarinet/bass clarinet and cello, its 12 movements span 75 minutes, and the ambition to create a work with a global perspective is reflected in its moments of theatricality: the opening has each musician playing tiny constellations of bells, standing in each corner of the hall, representing the four points of the compass. As pianist, Pécou is the first to move to the keyboard and, musically, his is the centre of gravity to which the other instruments are constantly drawn. The pianism is both gently evocative – often betraying French tradition in this respect – and fierce: the turbulent virtuoso toccata that emerges from relative calm seems to embody anger and total bewilderment. Brutal whipcracks make one flinch.
Such ferocity is countered by aural meditations on the worlds from which the slaves were torn, notably rainforest and its wildlife, and the sea over which they were transported is present, too. Air between the notes becomes symbolic. Occasional visual cameos focus the ear: at one point, Pécou’s fingers play in a bowl of water, the rippling sounds slightly amplified, as too is the rustling of plastic, spelling quiet rain. A sense of ritual enactment adds to the aura of the performance: slow, deliberate, and sometimes shocking.
Outre-mémoire has become a signature piece for Ensemble Variances and Pécou, and a necessary reflection.