Olivier Greif


March 14, 2006
at the REDCAT theater
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles
8:30 pm

Ich ruf zu dir by Olivier Greif
American Premiere
Ich ruf zu dir is a suite of four movements, three of which (I, II and IV) are traversed by the presence (more or less audible) of Martin Luther's chorale, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I call on you, Lord Jesus Christ).

The first movement — "Scream" — (in which the theme of the chorale is more insinuated than actually heard) is a meditation on nothingness. I wished to give the feeling of an ocean of silence from which emerge little by little always more vehement-sonorous elements stolen from the void, as if gradually freed of its grip. What is not heard matters as much as is possible that which is.

The music tries to say what is not possible to say — that something unnamable so dear to Paul Celan — an impression of fear such that it literally loses its voice. The title of this movement is a direct allusion to the painting of Edvard Munch, The Scream.

The second movement — "Roundabout" — of which the first motif is made up of four notes extracted from Luther's chorale. What's more, the entire theme of the chorale arises bit by bit from the inexorable progression of this movement, until it appears (almost triumphantly) near its conclusion.

The third movement is a vision, a hallucination — I call it "Ghost" — citing one of the last pieces written by Mozart — the Adagio for glass harmonica — a bloodless, disincarnate music from beyond the grave.

Finally, the fourth movement — subtitled "Sambor" in reference to the name of the area in eastern Galacia where my father was born — concludes the work with a Chaconne followed by seven variations. Recognizable — as well as Luther's chorale trying to reconstitute itself and reemerge — are citations of the Eighth Prelude (in e flat minor) BWV 853 from the First Book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and from the Largo e mesto of Beethoven's Seventh Sonata, Opus 10, No. 3.

Ich ruf zu dir was composed in November 1999. It is dedicated to the memory of my father who died during its composition — and to Alice Ader and her ensemble. It was played by them for the first time during the Presences festival, February 13, 2000, in the Olivier Messiaen auditorium of the Radio France studios.

— Olivier Greif

OLIVIER GREIF was born in Paris and died there. As a student at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris he was as brilliant as he was precocious, obtaining first prize for chamber music (Jean Hubeau), composition (Tony Aubin) and orchestration (Marius Constant), and second prize for piano (Lucette Descaves). In 1969 he completed his studies in composition in New York with Luciano Berio (then a teacher at the Juilliard School), subsequently becoming his assistant. At this period he associated with a number of artists, among them Salvador Dali.

His double career as composer and pianist led him to perform in many European countries, as well as in the U.S. and in Japan.

During the 1970s, Olivier Greif taught composition, analysis and chamber music at the Académie-Festival des Arcs, which he directed from 1983 to 1986. In 1978 and 1979 he also taught at Annecy for the Pâques Musicales. At the height of this first part of his career, the Paris Opera and IRCAM commissioned the chamber opera Nô, premiered in 1981 at the Georges Pompidou Centre for the Paris Autumn Festival.

In 1976, Olivier Greif embarked on a spiritual quest which was to last more than twenty years. He attached himself to an Indian guru living in New York, making frequent trips to the United States and other parts of the world as a consequence.

In 1978 he was given the name 'Haridas' ('servant of God' in Sanskrit). This withdrawal into an inner life, in response to a profound spiritual aspiration, resulted in the suspension of his personal musical creativity for some 10 years, following the Sonate de Requiem, Le Livre du Pèlerin and the opera Nô. During these years he made numerous polyphonic arrangements of Indian devotional songs.

His musical career gradually resumed in the course of the 1990's, with commissions from Radio France and from various music festivals in France (La Prée, Deauville, Cordes-sur-Ciel) and abroad (Kuhmo, Warsaw, Berlin), etc., reaching a peak at the time of his sudden death.

Spurred on by a sense of urgency, he produced a series of magnificent works in the last months of his life. Even without those that he was unable to bring to completion (a symphony, a large-scale Vêpres and other substantial orchestral and choral works he had either been commissonned or had planned), he left a sufficient body of major compositions - from the Chants de l,Ame to the Requiem - to satisfy the most demanding and diverse criteria.

Olivier Greif wrote more than a hundred works, dating back to 1961. As well as the recordings of both composer and pianist currently available, a great many radio and other recordings of concerts and interviews bear witness to his achievements as a composer, his numerous performances as a pianist, and his profound and subtly caustic observations.

Though a French composer, he no doubt owed to his Polish and Jewish origins a broader, more fluid conception of his self and of his art. Everything about Olivier Greif was exceptional. To the end, there were still traces of the child prodigy that he had once been. Every manifestation of homo musicus was so natural to him that it verged on the supernatural. As well as being an inspired and prolific composer, he was a pianist of inexhaustible resources and an astounding sight-reader: a visionary.

Yet, for this born musician, the mystical call of silence proved, during long years, the strongest. Composing, playing, meditating, writing hundreds of pages of his private diary, apparently for him involved the same activity of the spirit. The musician, nonetheless, took the lead again, composing powerful works whose inspiration and titles are often tragic, haunted by the spectre of death. Most of them are, however, illuminated by the intuition — ecstatic, incantatory or hymn-like — of a possible sublimation; when it is not their vivid colour and humour and furious rhythms that chase away black thoughts.

Though he received his musical training in Paris, this Frenchman, whose family origins were in the more culturally mixed regions of central Europe, early on felt 'foreign' in relation to those qualities considered typically French — perfection, concision, restraint — and likewise to the prosody of his native tongue. He felt more at ease with German and English, or even with Latin, which he discovered late, when writing one of his last compositions, the Requiem.

His music combines a profusion of original ideas and allusions, religious (Hebrew or Gregorian chant, Lutheran chorales, Anglican hymns) and secular (melodies from every country and period), polyphonically intermingled. Difficult and complex, these scores demand a total commitment from their performers. The piano was at first Olivier Greif's workshop: 'My thought was not only expressed by the piano, it was conceptualized by it' (Piano magazine, 1998); but, fundamentally eloquent, his music often had recourse to words, with a preference for English.

Olivier Greif's clearest affinities lie with Mahler, Britten and Shostakovitch, but he never forgot Beethoven, the 'creator' par excellence. His extraordinary instinct, coupled with the perfect technique acquired during his youth, enabled him to feel free from any academicism, conservative or avant-garde. What he sought was a total art form, at the crossroads of the past and the future, the erudite and the popular. He aspired to an authenticity of expression, independent of every kind of aesthetic trend or fashion.


© & ℗ 2005 William E. Powell
design by Miriam Kolar