Saturday, February 3, 2018


Olivier Greif

Amongst the many pleasures of re-exploring old diaries are the reminders of some of the great moments, and great people, who get forgotten, simply because one moves on, and nothing in the daily world causes them to become remembered. So, looking up my July 2001 visit to Albi in south-west France 
for a piece in my "Book of Days" - Albi was the locus of the Albigensian Crusade, another of the many "heresies" wiped out by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages -  I was reminded of the wonderful Olivier Greif, who I first discovered at a concert of his music in Albi at that time, a tribute concert following his death the previous year. 

Now, seventeen years later, a simple click on a YouTube search button took me to his extraordinary "Sonate de Guerre", one of the most desolately (and desolatingly) angry pieces of music ever written, performed here with splendid exuberance by one Aline Piboule - yes, but was all that sneezing, coughing, chair sliding and general noise also scored, deliberately to load an extra tier of fury onto the nerves of the unquietened listener, or was it just mal-chance that the audience was packed with ignorami on the night Mlle Piboule performed? In a moment, nearly a hundred other pieces in which what takes place in the auditorium is fundamental to the act of composition; but first, because that diary entry ended with a question that I never got around to answering, and I don't like leaving things unfinished: why was it that Olivier died so young?

Or maybe he didn't die. The Olivier Greif (I keep mis-typing that as Grief; I almost can't help myself) Ensemble has a website, whose home-page (it may have been updated since my writing this) notes:

MAY 2017

For the 17th anniversary of Olivier Greif's disappearance (13 May) we celebrated by releasing the video of the world premiere of his Danse des Araucans op.89 for two pianos and percussion; result of another pretty fruitful collaboration with Andrew Levine, our sound engineer!!

Disappearance? In America, where I lived for many years, no one ever dies, they merely enter into a state of permanent euphemism - they "pass", they "move on to the afterlife", they become "late" (and hopefully, if they have left deep enough tracks in the sand to merit the remembering, with the accompanying epitaph "better late than never"), but I have never come across "disappear" in any context beyond the political opponents of certain South American regimes. So what happened? And for most of the human universe - who was he?

Greif was born in Paris on January 3rd 1950, his father a Polish Jew whose previous address was a barrack-bunk in Auschwitz; but complicatedly so, because he left Poland before the Holocaust, emigrating to France to study medicine, becoming senior neurologist at the Marie Curie Institute, then senior doctor in the FTP-MOI network of the Maquis, the French Resistance, before being arrested in January 1944, and deported back, surviving a full year until liberation. The experience would taint his son for life, and the inherited trauma drive his music.

Greif re had also been a musical child prodigy, but chose medicine while encouraging his son to fulfil his abandoned talent vicariously. So he too became a prodigiously gifted pianist, but also a prolific composer, his first piece, "Nausicaa", performed when he was just nine years old. His talents in both spheres were so highly regarded, he was offered a place at the Paris Conservatory somewhat earlier than was customary.

Greif was never conventional in his playing, or in his composing either, ignoring the fashionable to pursue the personal, writing his soul between the staves, and then expressing it between the black and white notes. "Nausicaa" is lost, sadly, as are several others from his late childhood; the first to survive from his adolescence, and therefore the official Opus 1, are "Five children's songs", for voice and piano, settings of his own poems, composed at around the time that he might otherwise have been preparing for Bar Mitzvah. Or perhaps he was! Bar Mitzvah is the point at which a child becomes a man.

In 1964 he produced two Sonatas for piano, then paused to complete his academic education. In 1967 he wrote his first pieces for a different instrument, the Sonatas for Violin and Piano N° 1 and N° 2, good enough to win the composition prize at the Conservatoire. Just to completely spoil matters for the older students, he also won first prize for chamber music that year, and may have become an object of considerable jealousy, or hopefully respect, when it became known that Nadia Boulanger was treating him as something like her protégé, though she never actually taught him, just recognised his gifts.

In 1968 Greif moved to London, less for the glorious weather or the country's renowned Francophilia than for the need to learn English ahead of his move to New York, where he had been invited to attend the Juilliard. 1969 was an interesting time to be living in the big apple, given the number of big cheeses who were also making culture there, many of them at the Chelsea Hotel. Among Greif's distinguished company at that time, the still only nineteen year old counted Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali, the latter becoming something of a friend.

The Piano Sonatas N°s 5 to 9 date from this period, though accounts of him suggest that he was already doing much more improvisation than fixed composition. One lengthy impro session found itself bootlegged under the title "In Paradisum", probably an allusion to his Piano Sonata N° 9, which is sub-titled "Paradisiac Memories".

In 1970 he found himself appointed assistant to that most avand-garde composer Luciano Berio at the Santa Fé Opera, tasked to help his former Juiliiard teacher bring several of his works together for a single performance - the final product including pieces that the two would write in partnership. Then, because chance and coincidence are key to all artistic and scientific endeavour, he went on a holiday to San Francisco, stayed with his distant cousin Gerta Wingerd because it was convenient, and browsing though her bookshelves one afternoon saw a book of poems with a dedication by the poet. Yes, she told him, I knew him as a child in Chernovitsky. He and my brother were classmates. He is the most important Jewish poet you will ever read. Greif had never heard of him. But read. Her prediction proved correct. The door had finally opened into his past, into Poland, into what happened to his father, into what would drive him, into what he now realised had always been driving him, in music, in life. The name of that poet was Paul Celan.

Still composing in more or less the conventional manner, which is to say creating a score before the performance rather than during it, in 1973 he completed his "Wiener Konzert", a cycle of five songs "about", rather more than "based on" poems by Heinrich Heine, for the National Society of Music. In 1977, at Carnegie Hall, and again at the Abbey of Royaumont in 1978, his fifteenth piano sonato, entitled "War" though he originally named it as the somewhat lesser "Battle". The inherited trauma not yet confronted, but the curtain on the window in the door was open. It would take another twenty years to break the lock.

And in the meanwhile, because confronting these things directly can cause great emotional and psychological and spiritual distress, which also needs an outlet, Greif went where many were going at that time, souls for whom western culture and values had not survived their pounding into nihilism in the first three-quarters of the century. The yogi that he chose was the Sri Lankan, Sri Chinmoy, who made him change his name to Haridas, "Servant of God", though it was probably not the same God that his parents had brought him up to disbelieve in; and for the next twenty years Chinmoy taught Haridas to mediate, while Haridas arranged various Chinmoy texts for choirs of disciples, the first a piece eventually given the title "The Sri Chinmoy Song Waves".

As hinted above, what really makes Greif stand out among contemporary composers is his commitment to live composition - that wasn't what he called it, but it seems to me that this is what it was. The Bob Dylans and Pink Floyds of the world do it all the time, writing their song in its original form, setting it in a fixed form by recording it for an album in the studio, then taking it on tour but, where most performers rehearse to perfection and stick to the script, they then give themselves the freedom - easier if it's one man and a guitar than a band or an orchestra - to let the mood of the performance take you where it will, so that the version on the "Live album" may sound nothing like the studio version, or indeed the previous or next "Live version". And in Dylan's case, you may even be half-way through hearing a completely new song, words and music totally unfamiliar, when you suddenly realise it isn't; he's doing something from the early '60s, but it ain't this babe, so to say. Multiple stages of creation - of the same piece, of which the live is the most daring, because you do it on a tightrope, and you may lose balance. Creative cover versions of your own work! Why not? Why not, indeed, in rock and folk and pop music? But in classical? Gabriela Montera will show off her technical skills with rehearsed improvisations that shift from Bach to jazz to Rachmaninoff to Grieg to flamenco - but she is making anagrams out of existing works that happen to share keys. Greif took it to another level. What happened on stage was seeded beforehand, outlined beforehand, partially pre-rehearsed, but mostly composed in the act of performance. Extraordinary!

The trial run was the the Heine opera with Nell Froger; now there was "Bomben auf Engelland", again for the National Society of Music, again with Nell Froger as vocalist, this time with Ryo Noda on saxophone as well. Then there was a small chamber cantata rendition of "The Lord is my Shepherd", for female voice and two pianos, commissioned by Radio Suisse Romande and put together in Lausanne, the collaborators on this occasion Evelyn Brunner and Henri Barda. So there was the Sonata for Violin and Piano N° 3, sub-titled "The Meeting of the Waters", created in Paris first with Gaëtane Prouvost, later (1993) recreated in Warsaw with Gottfried Schneider. So there was the Piano Sonata N° 19, "Three Poems by Li T'ai Po", premiered in Hong Kong by Siao Ping Fan (or Fan Xiaopin, as I understand he is written today). So there were the variations on Peter Philips' "Galiarda Dolorosa" for violin and piano, created with Gaëtane Prouvost and Michel Dalberto for the Mediterranean Festival of Young Performers. So there were three more poems by Sri Chinmoy, for voice and piano, created in 1979 in Paris with Nell Froger, recreated in the same location the following year (but very differently, by such few accounts as I can find) with Meredith Parsons. So there was "Veni Creator" (a Mahlerian allusion? Mahler was a big influence, though not so much as Britten or Shostakovich), for cello and piano, created in Barcelona with Daniel Raclot, the second time in Annecy with Frédéric Lodeon, while Greif was teaching composition at the Annecy Easter Festival; and then a third time, again with Lodeon, that summer, at the Festival des Arcs.

There were more conventional performances as well - perhaps because he needed to earn money and avant-garderie does not always pay well - though Greif rarely programmed strictly to the approved canon. Between 1975 and 1980 he gave dozens of concerts as an interpreter of other people's music, including radio and television appearances in France, Switzerland, Spain, America and Japan. One of these, at Royaumont Abbey on May 20th 1977, would be the last concert attended by his mother, who died within the month. That evening he performed his "Sonata de Guerre", alongside standard pieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann (Richard, not Clara). Eighteen months later, again working with Lodeon, he created a "Requiem Sonata", for cello and piano, in his mother's honour, describing it as an account of "the journey of the soul after death".

So there was "The Pilgrim's Book", for women's voices and seven instruments, based on William Blake's poem "The Tyger", alongside extracts from the Psalms; again for the National Society of Music, again with Nell Froger, and this time Raphaël Oleg and Quintette Nielsen; "The Tyger" re-appears, somewhat altered, as the opening melody of "Songs of the Soul". So, in 1981, there was "Noh", a chamber opera, based on a libretto written in collaboration with Marc Cholodenko, created at the Center Pompidou at the behest of the Paris Opera. And then...

Exactly what took place that evening is unclear, and what I can discern is simply my attempt to unravel the paucity of information on the Internet. For certain, the critics found the booklet for the event bewildering: the piece is entitled "Noh", which suggests the ancient and traditional Japanese theatre, but what exactly this piece has to do with the Noh is far from obvious, other than obscure four lines from a Noh play quoted at the end of the booklet. Two of Greif's admirers, the composers Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, were in the audience, and the expressions on their faces may explain why photography is not encouraged during a performance. What the critics found bewildering even before the performance, they described rather more candidly negatively in their reviews the following morning. To call it "scathing" may be litotes.

Other than arrangements of Sri Chinmoy's melodies for the disciples' choruses (the "Oi Akashe", for violoncello and piano, the "Premaloker", for mixed double choir, twelve men's voices and instrumental ensemble), and small pieces for piano for his friends, Greif gave up composing that night. When Leduc, his publisher, announced their intention to publish the "Noh" and sent him the drafts for proof-reading, he didn't even bother to look at them, let alone them correct them or return them. The epoch of live creation was over. For the moment.

Not that Greif took himself apart from the world. Between 1983 and 1986 he was co-artistic director of the Academy-Festival des Arcs, where he had been teaching for some years, and would continue. He also gave lectures on meditation, and ran a bookstore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, a retail outlet for Sri Chinmoy's drawings and books, meditation cushions, incense and other merchandisable karma jewjaws. And he was still performing conventional piano pieces in live performance.

But during those next ten years the "spiritual search" replaced the inherited trauma completely - Leonard Cohen would do exactly the same, with his Yogi, Roshi, on Los Angeles' Mount Baldy, at about the same time. Greif's metaphorical mountain was rather more Sinai than Baldy, and rather more Penuel than Sinai, hirsute with noble truths. When he emerged from under the bodhi tree in 1991, it was as if he had awoken cathartically from a long dream on the psychiatric couch. He talked, and composed, about his childhood, about the war, about his father's stay in Auschwitz, about the disappearance of a large part of his family in the camps. He quoted Paul Celan and started setting his words to music.

That same year the conventional composer also resurfaced (I have chosen this word even more deliberately than my customary care; the reason will become clear in just a moment) with the setting of a number of poems by Hölderlin, fixed score, no instruction on the page to improvise. After which, a final, a definitive and futurely unmodifiable version of the "Requiem Sonata", though this was created live, but also recorded for posterity, at the Kuhmo Festival in Finland. And then a twentieth Piano Sonata - "The Dream of the World", created with Christoph Henkel in Warsaw in 1993, followed by "Letters from Westerbork", for female voices and two violins, based on texts by Etty Hillesum and extracts from the Psalms, commissioned by Radio-France and created with Doris Lamprecht in Paris. Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch Jew whose letters describe the transit camp through which she was passing, the Dutch equivalent of Drancy, which was the transit camp used by the Vichy government for Jews being sent to Poland. Unlike Greif's father, Etty and her family did not survive.

But the epoch of live creation did, born again, reincarnated. So, in the latter years, there were "Am Grabe Franz Liszts", for piano, literally created live in the France-Musique radio studio during a program - "Words and Notes" - dedicated to Liszt. And other pieces unconnected with the spiritual or psychological sources, composed because it was pleasing to compose them: two melodies on poems by Paul Bowles in 1994, created at the Roundabout Theater with Jo-Ann Pickens and Howard Haskin and the author; "The Tailor of Gloucester", for English horn, horn, violin, harp, celesta and synthesizer, a commission by that city for the inauguration of a municipal clock; the Piano Sonata N° 21, "Codex Domini".

So, in 1995: "Speculative Hymns", for voice, clarinet, horn, cello and piano, on extracts of the Vedas translated into English by Sri Aurobindo. And a Sonata for two cellos, "The Battle of Agincourt", created at the musical meetings of La Prée with Anne Savouret and Valentin Scharff. So, in 1996: "Songs of the Soul", for voice and piano, based on poems by William Blake, John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Carew, Henry Vaughn and Henry King, created at the Salle Gaveau with Jennifer Smith, created again, and very differently, by the same performers, during the Rencontres Musicales de La Prée in 1996. So the Quintet "A Tale of the World", premiered at the Kuhmo Festival by Jean-François Heisser and the Sibelius Quartet. So the "Quartet N° 2", with voice, on three sonnets of Shakespeare, created in 1998 at the Musical Springtime of the Priory of Saint-Cosme by Elsa Vacquin and the Danel Quartet. Note "by" and not "with", for several of these pieces. Fixed compositions with permission to extemporise. And Greif not always present - gut-wrenched by some sort of an intestinal obstruction, he had been rushed to the St. Louis Hospital, near his home on rue Saint-Maur in Paris' Marais district, one night in 1994; the same intestinal obstruction that had tried to kill his mother and his grandmother at the same age, and which would render him too a survivor from the jowls of death. Colon cancer. The operation gave him several more years, and his determination to use each one of them with maximum creativity bequested to the world an output even more prolific than till now.

So "The Sidewalks of Paris", for soprano, tenor and piano, based on a text by Yves Petit de Voize, created at the Conservatory of Dramatic Art by Catherine Dubosc, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Greif - Greif, not Haridas, for the first time in more than a decade his own name his original name was back in usgae, his relationship with Sri Chinmoy breaking. And at this time, also, the Chartier Prize from the Académie des Beaux-Arts, alongside France-Musique's dedication of a week to him as part of the program "Musique Pluriel" by David Herschel, and then another acclamation, RCF (Radio Chrétiennes de France) devoting five half-hour programs to him. Greif had simultaneously returned, and arrived.

So, in 1997: his first Symphony, for voice and orchestra, and at last the poems of Paul Celan had found their agonised and agonizing voice, premièred at Salle Gaveau on February 1st 1998 by Jacques Loiseleur des Longchamps and the Orchestre de La Prée under the direction of Jérémie Rhorer (Greif had become artist in residence at the Abbey de La Prée, in Berry).

So "The book of Irish Saints", for voice and piano, created at the Deauville Easter Festival by Stefan Genz and the author on April 11th 1998.

So "Office des Naufragés", for soprano, quartet, clarinet and piano, created at the Schauspielhaus in Berlin by the Vogler Quartet, with clarinetist Eduard Brunner, and then its French premiere, at La Prée, on June 3rd, 2000 by the Danel Quartet, with Françoise Kubler, Armand Angster and Michèle Renoul. The original intention was a piece comprised exclusively of poetry by women, but the voice of Paul Celan was unrelenting, and he could not refuse it.

So the "Trio" for piano, violin and cello, created by Jérôme Ducros, Renaud Capuçon and Henri Demarquette in the church of Verquin on the occasion of Rencontres Musicales en Artois, with a second performance at La Prée by Bruno Rigutto, Renaud Capuçon and Dominique de Williencourt.

So the "Quartet N° 3" with voice, entitled "Todesfuge", created in Strasbourg by Stephan Genz and the Sine Nomine Quartet; one of Celan's masterpieces, and this time it defeated Greif. In the end he kept the title, but used a Dylan Thomas poem in its place, a tribute to his father who was dying at the age of ninety-three.

So the "Quadruple concerto" known as "The Dance of the Dead", for piano, violin, viola, cello and orchestra, premiered at the Festival de Cordes by the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Jérémie Rhorer, with Jérôme Ducros, Nicolas Dautricourt, Florent Brémond and Christophe Morin.

So the Sonata for piano N° 22, "Les Plaisirs de Chérence", created at the Rencontres de La Prée.

So, in 1999, the Concerto for cello, "Durch Adams Fall", created at Notre-Dame de Paris by Henri Demarquette and the Musicians of La Prée directed by Jérémie Rhorer, with a second performance on November 26th 2000 Salle Pleyel by Henri Demarquette and the Chamber Philharmonic conducted by Marc Minkowski.

So "Portraits and Appearances", for piano, created in May, at the Kiron space, by Greif alone, the last concert attended by his father. A second performance, again creating live from the bare bones of a musical idea, took place in March 2000 at La Prée.

So the "Three apocryphal songs", created with Marie Devellereau at the Rencontres musicales de La Prée, with a further performance by Marie Devellereau and Alexandre Tharaud on June 3rd at the Auditorium du Louvre, filmed by the Muzzik channel and recorded by France Musique.

So the preliminary composition of a Requiem for a double choir a cappella, commissioned by the Vocal Plus Association for the International Choral Academy in the Thouet Valley, uncreated until after his death.

So, in 2000, "Ich ruf zu dir", a sextet for piano, clarinet and string quartet, commissioned by the Festival Présences de Radio-France, created by Alice Ader and his ensemble on February 13th 2000 at the Maison de Radio-France, and including anagrams of two of his father's favourite pieces, the eighth prelude of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and the largo of the seventh sonata of Beethoven. His father had died in November 1999.

So the Quartet N° 4 "Ulysses", premiered on April 23rd 2000 at Le Prée by the Syntonia Quartet.

So the three settings, for voice and piano, of a poem by Alfred de Musset, partially created at the Bibliothèque Nationale on May 9th 2000 by Françoise Destembert (vocals) and Jean-Louis Haguenauer, fully created on May 31st at La Prée by Françoise Destembert and Isabelle Aubert. The partial creation because Greif was unwell. The full as a tribute concert, after his "disappearance".

Yes, disappearance, the website got it dead right. Jews heading for Auschwitz disappear, and in Greif's world, where there is no afterlife beyond the work you leave behind, any human catching the metaphorical cattle-truck to the eternal graveyard will likewise disappear, from visibility in the short term, from memory too 
in most cases, within three generations. Because disappearance is the opposite of ubiquity, just as oblivion is the opposite of immortality.

On the home page of the website dedicated to him personally ( there is a quotation:

"Un jour viendra - je ne serai plus de ce monde - ou ma musique vous submergera de son evidence."

The word "ou" is written there without an accent, as tends to be the case with French titles, so it could mean "or", and it could mean "where"; the difference nuances very subtly. I am assuming there should be an accent, and translating literally, even though it doesn't really work in English:

"A day will come - I will no longer be of this world - where my music will submerge you with its evidence."

Tracks in the sand. Tracks, not footprints. Every human being leaves a few footprints in the sand, but most of them get blown away in the first sandstorm. If you want to do something significant, you have to leave tracks, deep tracks, with the power to endure even the hurricanes. You have to "submerger". 

And if I have gone into so much detail about each composition, each act of creation, each source, it is because, with every new piece of information that I discover about him, it seems to me that I am reading my own life-story, translated into French and composed rather than written in prose and poetry, but still my life, the Polish origins, the Holocaust centrality, Mahler, Heine, Celan, Tai Po, the obsessive outpouring from a tap that refused to be turned off... and even that phrase about submergence, which I have explained in terms borrowed from my long-ago started memoir, "Tracks In The Sand", named as it is after visiting my paternal grandfather's grave for the first time, and finding the sad cliché "footprints in the sand" engraved upon his stone.

Greif died very quickly, though by no means suddenly given the pace at which colon cancers grow, on May 13th 2000, and is buried in the cemetery at Montparnasse.

The risk that he will also disappear from memory as an extraordinary creative artist remains alive beyond his physical disappearance, though there are CDs, and access through the Internet. I hope this personal Requiem will help.

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