Pitch can be likened to shadow. Shadows exist along a gradient, varying in darkness and density with the position of the viewer, the relative constancy of the light source, and the interposition of objects. Like shadow, pitch is something that exists in gradations rather than in discrete units that are precisely defined one against the other, the equal temperament tuning system notwithstanding. Much of the music of Jérôme Combier’s Gone, a set of five compositions for chamber ensembles of various sizes, takes pitch as a shadowy phenomenon with blurred boundaries.
Terra d’ombra (2012-2015), a work for partly-prepared piano, harp and cello, evokes the analogy of sound to shadow in its title. Combier’s allusion is to umber, a dark brown color named for a clay originally from Umbria, but the term translates literally as “earth of shadow.” This archaeological meaning comes out in the piece itself. The composition is based on gestures producing muted sounds—most dramatically, percussive strikes on the instruments’ bodies and partly-damped strings—which blend into well-defined pitched sounds on piano. There is no hard-and-fast boundary between the two classes of sounds, and pitch itself, particularly as it’s played on the cello or the prepared strings of the piano, is often treated as a continuum or fuzzy aggregate. Gone (2010), for clarinet, piano, string trio and electronics takes the conception of pitch as a continuum even further. Playing alone or in combination, the instruments create clouds of sound through glissandi, harmonics and extended techniques; pitches slide into and through each other and disappear into pure timbre. A similar effect is had in the swooping, wobbling microtonality of 2015’s Dawnlight for flute, piano, violin, cello and electronics.
The taut and at times jagged Dog Eat Dog (2014) for cello and acoustic guitar relies less on a dilution of pitch and more on a simplicity of structure. The three-movement work is organized to feature one or a limited number of gestures per movement; although the performers are restricted in the types of sounds or techniques they are to play, they manage to draw timbres from every part of their instruments. The string trio Noir Gris (2007) is somewhat more conventional in sound but it, too, is built up out of deliberately limited elements, in this case melodic fragments meant to parallel the rhythms and durations of speech.
The Ensemble Cairn, a group founded by Combier and made up of alumni of the Conservatoire National Supérieur of Paris, bring these pieces to life with vividness and a refined sense of color.