© Photo : Guillaume Ballet
His piano studies led him first into the world of classical music, later onto the jazz scene. Early on, Fabien Lévy acquired the feeling for instruments and the sense of timbre that are two main characteristics of his musical personality. A mathematics and economics graduate, he embarked on a scientific career which he interrupted in 1994 to dedicate himself to his first love: composition (he started composing at age 7). At the Paris Conservatoire Supérieur, he studied music analysis with Michaël Levinas, orchestration with Marc-André Dalbavie and composition with Gérard Grisey whose influence proved decisive. He also attended Gilles Léothaud’s lectures on ethnomusicology. Fabien Lévy acknowledges every influence without being subservient to any of them. A part-time lecturer at the Sorbonne, he was also artistic director of the IRCAM Studio On Line project before being appointed pedagogical adviser in that same institute. A laureate of Fondation Singer-Polignac, he spent a year in residence in Berlin (DAAD’s Berliner Künstlerprogramm, 2001), and another year at the Villa Medicis in Rome (2003). His music is nurtured on a mature theoretical reflection which, far from being constraining, acts as a liberating catharsis. He was awarded the 2004 Ernst von Siemens Foundation Prize, one of the major German awards for young composers.
In many ways, Fabien Lévy’s art perfectly illustrates the concept of music as an object of thought caught in the midst of the powerful contradiction between expression and non-conceptualization. Using paradox as a variable of music is one of his strong points. Yet the point of that game of esthetics is to constantly elude that which imposes itself to the listener on a sonic and formal level. The piece conceals the means it thrives on as it goes along and imposes itself to the listener quite independently from any reference to its underlying technical and theoretical parameters.
Fabien Lévy calls on the various modalities of instrumental playing. Each piece is a new imaginative poetic play on timbre. Sound is a compositional means and so is the paradoxical concern about the relation between global perspective and details. As with any music moved by the sole necessity of transfigurating its object, Fabien Lévy’s makes us face the evidence: the “musical discourse” can only be a transitory semantics between the fickle transience inherent to sound and the resounding depth of words. Free of all illustrative context and literary reference, this music expresses nothing but itself, and it would be vain to try and explain the ‘meaning’ of a piece except through analogies of a perceptive order.
When asked to characterize certain sonic aspects of Hérédo-Ribotes, one of his most ambitious pieces for viola and 51 solo musicians, Fabien Lévy uses the word ‘roughcast’ to describe a rough, tinted, coating substance. No longer subjected to a “discourse” in the usual sense of the word, the listener is rather shown the way towards his own imagination and options. He is free to decide whether he’d rather pay attention to details or to the whole, free to wander through the piece as he pleases, following musical events as they happen, when and where they happen, as the unforeseeable results of subtle calculations.
Chance is part of the compositional approach, but chance is above all a phenomenon of perception. Lévy’s die-hard ultra-deterministic attitude makes chance a matter of receptiveness, not a result of production. Each composition is an answer to a new sound problematic, using original instrumental combinations that often elude the dangers of complexity through sheer economy.
One of the composer’s favourite instruments is the saxophone which offers great flexibility of timbre and a vast array of sonorities. He has written various pieces for the instrument: Où niche l’hibou, seven student/teacher pieces for saxophone alto, remarkable for their playful imaginative character (there also exists a flute version); L’air d’ailleurs - Bicinium, for saxophone alto and electronic apparatus; Durch, in memoriam G. Grisey for saxophone quartet - the title refers to the three different meanings of the word ‘durch’ : a) local : ‘through’ b) instrumental : ‘by means of’, c) temporal : ‘during’. The very pronunciation of the word ‘durch’ - from the hard dental ‘du’ to the soft exhalation ‘rch’ - is yet another means of recalling Grisey’s death. According to the composer, the piece is “a quivering mosaic” : each saxophone becomes a set of virtual elementary instruments, each single one being played by several saxophones merging together in order to create that vibrating mosaic.
Les deux ampoules d’un sablier peu à peu se comprennent mirrors yet another aspect of his personal sound poetics. Indeed, the piece (for amplified solo harp) uses a cross-configuration of musical inflections. Like a set of glittering minute bells, the harp turns into many virtual elementary instruments (each corresponding to a string, more or less), the merging of which generates such inflections. The listener senses that something is going on without being able to analyze the process.
Risâla fî-l-hob wa fî ‘ilm al-handasa (Small tratise of love and geometry), for flute, clarinet, euphonium, violin and cello plays on a totally different register. It draws its inspiration from the fine polyphonic texture of the muquarnas, (which is also, incidentally, the title of the first movement). The word designates the grotto-like ceilings at the Alhambra (Grenada, Spain). The Arabic title of the second movement: Murassa, refers to something that is “enameled, set, inlaid, sequined, etc.” Both metaphorical titles reflect the composer’s dual approach to music. As in several other pieces, Fabien Lévy brings in the notion of timbre diffraction and applies it as much as possible to sound and structure.
Fabien Lévy’s intensely inventive music has an immediate positive impact on the listener and also takes an original esthetic stand. Contrary to the continuum of spectral music, it favours a fine chiseling technique, ceaselessly eluding the snares of formalism.
Joël-Maris FAUQET,Musicology research director, CNRS
Fabien Lévy’s works
Consult Fabien Lévy web site[ www.fabienlevy.net ]
Composer catalogue of Fabien Lévy[ pdf - 140 Kb ]