Hugues Dufourt

L'Asie d'après Tiepolo  (2008-2009)  #25’

In concert
Couleurs passées - sons futurs - 03.29 8:


Between 1752 and 1753, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted the immense vaulted ceiling and the stair- case of honour of the palace known as the Resi- denz [Residence] in Würzburg, which was built by Balthasar Neumann, the architect and engineer of the Schönborn Family. Following the Peace of Utrecht, Count Johann Philipp Franz von Schön- born initiated one of his era’s largest construction projects, that of the palace in Würzburg, and he awarded Neumann the commission to build it in 1719. Neumann’s originality was based on a geo- metric mode of thinking which is particularly well- suited to creating and combining units of volume, as well as to the exploitation of surfaces and depth effects. Neumann had been trained as an artillerist and military engineer, and whenever he was not busy doing designs for a “great European” archi- tecture, he also showed considerable interest in the reawakening of Lorraine as a cultural entity. As one of the last disciples of Guarini, he sur- passed his German architectural contemporaries in the innovative handling of structures and in his resolution of spatial problems with what art his- torians refer to as “syncopated interpenetration”. Neumann was devoted to the creation of large, en- veloping spaces rather than picturesque pomp. In Würzburg, he aimed to erect a grandiose structure of universal significance.

The year 1752 saw Prince Bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau charge Tiepolo with the creation of a monumental ceiling fresco above the elliptical staircase (30x18m), upon which the painter was to depict Olympus and the Four Continents. Tiepolo executed this commission within two hundred eighteen working days. The fresco, whose crea- tion also involved Giandomenico Tiepolo, Georg Anton Urlaub and possibly Lorenzo Tiepolo, was signed with a date of 1753 just above the cornice moulding and beneath the figure of Asia. The en- tire ceiling fresco, its perspective distorted toward the edges, is oriented on the triumphant figure of Apollo, the god of light, who hovers in the clear heavens. This, then, is a mythological portrayal of the sunrise. The vision of Olympus evokes the irresistible and dizzying impression of airy tur- bulence rising out of the depths. Atop the upper moulding, Tiepolo depicted the four continents of the world: the allegory of Africa looks inward, to- ward the east, and that of Asia looks west from the long side facing the court of honour. The western wall contains three windows that afford a view of a sweeping, uncluttered horizon.

Africa, located on the vault’s side, receives the most direct and complex light through the imme- diately opposite west window and the north win- dow to the left.

On the picture, one can make out groups of traders and smokers, a camel, pearl merchants and an immense blue-and-white striped tent, then the allegorical figure of L’Afrique along with an al- legory of the Nile. Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall wrote that “the flow of light is portrayed as a puff of wind. The wares float along on the wa- ter, the clouds race by overhead, lances bend and figures bow.” Space alternately swells up and nar- rows, expanding or breaking apart.

L’Afrique, who is already in the clutches of the European thieves, is illuminated by a dull light. In the midst of these pale clouds, one no longer recognizes the sunny, shimmering paradises of ru- ral culture. The sky seems oppressive. My music evokes the pale sun of Tiepolo’s L’Afrique and its thick, sulphurous clouds. It lives from the use of colour. The sound’s substance has its own dynam- ic which polarizes and rhythmizes the space even before it becomes the object of the composition. Composing consists in suggesting dynamic im- pressions with movements without actually shift- ing them. The new dimensions are depth, transpar- ency, the liquid state and radiant brightness.

L’Afrique d’après Tiepolo marks a return to the intuition of time and to the concrete perception of change. Here, that which lingers on delivers a reality that is deeper than the apparent disconti- nuity of the phenomena. Nothing suggests space better than

colour, which therefore becomes the composer’s actual medium. In this music, the col- ours depend on—and form the highly integrated result of—complex methods of writing. One and the same chord can seem homogenous on the surface and heterogeneous deeper down: at first lively and lucid, and then raw and dark in its con- volutions, reflecting a tension that is just begin- ning to arise. Music is an art of retouching.

L’Asie d’après Tiepolo

The allegory of Asia—as an emblem of science and monarchy—appears in full raiment, riding side-saddle on an elephant and covered with magnificent jewels. It is a complex figure which is in the midst of executing a turning motion. The frieze depicting Asia remains a riddle, however, with the symbolism of the various figures arranged around the obelisk, for example, not having been completely determined. Here, various historical worlds coexist side-by-side or engage in con- flict: one can make out Golgotha, hieroglyphics in stone, the snake of Asclepius, an obelisk, a pyra- mid and Egyptian princess, a tiger and its prey, the parrot symbolizing the animal kingdom and in the foreground, above all, the crowd of tied- up slaves, prisoners lying on—or subordinates throwing themselves to—the ground. This con- fusing aspect of the frescos has attracted the at- tention of commentators. Their being escorted by soldiers is surely a reference to the military signifi- cance of the Asian continent, but it is also obvious that, here, the theme of captivity is being treated together with that of voluntary servitude.

A new spirit wafts through this last frieze—dra- matic and pale figures, bitterly realistic situations, the consumption of contorted and anonymous bodies. An immaterial wind seems to bend every- thing and draw it towards itself, in the manner of an urgent necessity. Asia is reminiscent of Rem- brandts engravings and harkens back to the style of Tiepolo’s own hallucinatory engravings on steel (the twenty four Scherzi di fantasia [1739–1757]) while also foreshadowing Goya’s Capricchos. The capriccio seems to be the true formal principle of this monumental fresco: a bizarre collection of discordant elements, a curious combination of submerged worlds, a morbid depiction of prison- like spaces.

I regard Tiepolo’s Asie as a sort of premature manifesto of the music of our times: a world with- out colours, wandering into brown and grey tones but at the same time dominated by a form of ac- celerated expressivity. Here, Tiepolo wrote some- thing like an Ars poetica of the music of the future. One discovers an entire range of tempi, a phantom of tempi, of turbulences, teetering spaces, over- hanging structures, interwoven axes and loops. Flowing, turning, expansive pressure, extension, projection and graduated distances are the new categories of these poetics. The main idea is that one should first take care of the fundamental ges- tures, which take priority over the always second- ary consideration of their possible variations.

My own L’Asie d’après Tiepolo was commis- sioned by the WDR and ensemble recherche, with support from the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation. It is the sequel to L’Afrique, which was premièred within the same context at Witten in 2005. In L’Asie, I have used a rich palette of new percussion instruments (chromatically tuned sets of Philippine gongs, cowbells and Japanese rin gongs). I once again have made use of the tech- nique of paradox times from Saturne, which con- sists in applying a common metre and a common metronomic time to completely different speeds of articulation, types of development and forms. The first part of the piece makes systematic use of the winds’ multiphonics as a sort of electronic continuum. The conclusion, written in a much calmer vein, is based on a duet for contrabass clarinet and marimbaphone, with the melody be- ing produced using a set of different bows. The piano is given the main role from the beginning to the end, exhibiting an acoustic vehemence which never really manages to arrive at an authentically personal formulation. The strings are treated like a trio, with dense and truncated textures.

Hugues Dufourt
traduit du Français par Christopher Roth