Rodin museum inspires a composer

The Rodin Museum commissioned contemporary French composer Philippe Hurel to create three pieces for its summer concert series. Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Rodin Museum commissioned contemporary French composer Philippe Hurel to create three pieces for its summer concert series. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Posted: July 27, 2012

AUGUST RODIN is generally considered the father of modern sculpture, though his works reference the classical sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome. That balance of old and new is reflected in the just-reopened Rodin Museum on the Parkway.

As part of its summer concert series, the museum commissioned contemporary French composer Philippe Hurel to create three pieces, called "Spectral Impressions," that will be performed Saturday in the museum's sculpture garden by the Argento Chamber Ensemble.

Hurel is not your typical composer. While many composers write on a simple blank score, Hurel turns to computers. Using mathematical elements, such as algorithms, Hurel creates pieces designed to make sure each instrument and soloist fits perfectly within the larger orchestra.

"The ensemble [of pieces for the museum concert] is written from several saxophone multiphonics, which I have analyzed by computer," Hurel said.

Multiphonics is a difficult musical technique in which an instrument that generally produces just one note at a time, such as a saxophone, is made to produce more than one note, like a violin or piano. Woodwind and brass musicians accomplish this by humming into their instruments while playing a different note.

Hurel's first piece for the Rodin commission, "Phasis," plays with the multiphonics technique. "The main idea was to create a kind of concerto where the soloist is playing with and into the ensemble, in phase, or completely outside [the ensemble], out of phase," Hurel said.

He also created à mesure, which he described as being composed "step by step, where we can see my interest in repetition and looping." He said the piece has a ghostlike quality that fits well with the spectral theme. "This piece is very rhythmical and a little bit influenced by my first musical experiences."

Hurel called the final piece in the trio a Figures libres and described it as more delicate and less dense than à mesure.

Hurel is a good fit for a museum celebrating Rodin, and not just because both are from France. Hurel, who started composing in 1980, is influenced by both modern musical techniques and classical French composition.  

After his studies at various institutions, including the Conservatory of Paris, he worked at IRCAM, a research center founded by French composer Pierre Boulez that takes a scientific and mathematical approach to music to create unique sounds.

Hurel thinks this allows him to create music more traditional composers can't. "The composer can imagine sounds and processes which would be impossible by hand," he said. "Imagine a long process where the melodic profile of the lines is changing step by step and, at the same time, the rhythmical patterns are more and more compressed. It would be almost impossible to plan that by hand if the process is long."

The theme of "Spectral Impressions" complements a French style of composition that is organized around harmony, but it also nods to contemporary French classical.

"The spectrums are a new definition of harmony," Hurel said. "And, now, in the new noisy French movements, the noise is an extension of the harmonic notion."

"Spectral Impressions: The Music of Philippe Hurel," 5:30 p.m. Saturday, $25, Rodin Museum Garden, 2154 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. 215-763-8100,

Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

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