Sat. Dec 10th, 2022

LITTLE ELSE COMPARES to the music of Québécois composer Claude Vivier. His work offers, in the words of composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, “great brilliance, great severity, great archaism, great emotions”: glimpses of other worlds firmly rooted in our own. Though he was admired by leading composers such as György Ligeti, Gérard Grisey, and Louis Andriessen, Vivier, who was murdered in 1983 at the age of thirty-four, remains regrettably obscure. A three-day Vivier festival at London’s Southbank Centre earlier this month offered a welcome opportunity to redress the balance.

For the opening concert, new music champion Ilan Volkov led the London Sinfonietta in performances of two pieces from 1980 taken from an unfinished “opéra fleuve” about the composer Marco Polo. Zipangu, for string ensemble, takes its title from an archaic name for Japan. The work opens with massed violins playing one of Vivier’s characteristic melodies in unison over an implacable bass drone. This is classic Vivier: austere, gamelan-like melodies, homophonic masses of sound. A music at once full of drama yet entirely static, it seems to hover in the air.

Vivier was obsessed with the notion of sonic “purity.” But he forces us to hear purity differently, as the overtones, sum tones, and difference tones created from juxtaposing notes against each other open up enormous, microtonal worlds from the smallest dimension. Along with glistening high strings, alternate bowing techniques produce scratchy, groaning creaks—the sound of substances under pressure. Yet the music as a whole remains oblivious to any disturbance, ending exactly as it began.

The second of the two pieces led by Volkov, Lonely Child, is probably Vivier’s best-known work. It’s an extended lullaby, setting Vivier’s own fairy-tale text, partly in French and partly in the “langue inventée” that suffuses many of his vocal works. Here are magical worlds of wizards, palaces, acrobats, and fairies, places where “the stars make prodigious leaps in space, time, dimensions.” A jewellike high vocal line—here exquisitely delivered by soprano Claire Booth—merges with ceremonious punctuation from tuned percussion and what Vivier called “great beams of color!” in the orchestra. Vivier conceived the piece as a “long song of solitude.” Yet disappointment, loneliness, and failure are incorporated into the music, without destroying its serenity. Writing on the female operatic voice, Wayne Koestenbaum observes that, “listening, we are the ideal mother . . . attending to the baby’s cries, alert to its pulling inscriptions, and we are the baby listening to the mother for signs of affection and attention, for reciprocity, for world.” Like Blake’s “infinity in the palm of your hand,” Vivier’s piece, an entire work generated from a single melody, seems to attain the endless love it seeks, if only for a moment.

The earlier pieces presented by Canadian ensemble Soundstreams on the second night were more subject to theatrical disruption. Short and lyrically turbulent, the Novalis setting Hymnen an die Nacht (1975) approaches the territory of Alban Berg and Viennese Expressionism, while the piano piece Shiraz (1977), inspired by Vivier’s encounter with two blind singers in an Iranian marketplace, was commissioned as a deliberately virtuosic study, the pianist’s hands leaping at furious speed from the high and low ends of the piano through to the middle and back again. More typical were the Cinq Chansons (1980) in which a solo percussionist approximates music, like that of Balinese gamelan ensembles, intended for multiple participants. As in Lonely Child, fantasy and dazzling invention compensate for solitude. The final work of the night, Love Songs (1979), leads, as Vivier once joked, “from the Bible to the brothel.” Exploring various kinds of love through a panoply of vocal effects—whistling, speaking, hand-over-mouth tremolos—the names of legendary lovers such as Tristan and Juliet sit alongside nursery rhymes and nonsense syllables as relationships come together and apart in a kind of celebratory musical nonmonogamy cut through with moments of wrenching loneliness.


A view from Southbank Centre’s three-night program “The Music of Claude Vivier.” Photo: Claire Harvie.

The festival’s final night was framed around Vivier’s tragic death at the hands of a man he’d picked up at a Parisian gay bar. In what was essentially a one-hour theatrical show with music, rather than a concert per se, Zack Russell’s opening monologue narrated the composer’s last evening amid flickering neon, clouds of smoke, ominous rumbles, and a general atmosphere of nocturnal menace segueing into the performance of Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul)?, whose unfinished score was found on Vivier’s desk after his death. In the first half, overlapping, rhythmically jagged lines for a small choir threaten to overwhelm an achingly austere love song sung by a tenor. In the second, a speaker recites into a vocoder an eerily prescient dream narrative in which a stranger stabs them to death on the metro. Simultaneously sung and spoken lines remain resolutely independent; whispers, trills, and clouds of sound from the choir, percussion, and synthesizers refuse to resolve. Glaubst du is a powerful work, one that suggests new directions cut woefully short. Yet the staging, while dramatically effective, risked treating the piece as a kind of dramatic prop rather than a work in its own right. Given this, it must be emphasized that Vivier’s murder was not somehow the inevitable end of his life or work, but a terrible coincidence. The piece is an interrogation of the conditions that produce the abyss, rather than an embrace of it.

The evening concluded with a performance of Musik für das ende (1971), Vivier’s “grand funeral ceremony” for his friend, actor and playwright Yves Sauvageau, who died by suicide at age twenty-four. As a set of light bulbs descended from the ceiling, the vocalists walked about the stage: singing, chanting, talking, coming together and breaking apart. Vivier described the singers as “beings no longer in life but in death.” Here they came across as mourners, grieving together and alone, their music a ritual of consolation, protection, and reflection. Toward the end, a stranger enters the concert hall and joins the performers on stage, firing off a series of unanswered questions: “Where do I come from? Who am I? Where am I going?” The part was taken by a young actor: the “lonely child” left alone as the choir exits and the lights go out, leaving only silence and darkness.

Though this ending was, once again, dramatically effective, it was also, once again, problematic. It’s too easy to frame Vivier’s life and work between the twin poles of the “lonely child” seeking affection and the recklessly promiscuous adult seeking danger. More than easy, it’s pernicious, fitting into the classic stereotype—at once glamorous and moralizing—of the outsider whose tragic end is all but inevitable, the queer victim who plays with fire. Vivier himself firmly rejected such narratives. In 1981, he penned a short piece for the journal Trafics setting out his visions for the future of music—a future he saw as inseparable from the future of society as a whole. “Earthly terminology having alas already classified the three results of despair as submission, suicide, and the imaginary (creation),” Vivier writes, “I propose the fourth solution: revolution.” At the time of his death, he was planning an opera-cum-requiem which took Tchaikovsky’s suicide as the basis for a broader interrogation of the archetype of the queer and feminized martyr, from Saint Sebastian to Joan of Arc to Pasolini, ending by connecting the “law of power” that condemns Tchaikovsky to death with the first world war and “its sequels, Hiroshima and Vietnam.”

For Vivier, it was imperative that artists break out of these damaging clichés. Any idea that his is a music of martyrdom, victimhood, or some kind of death wish soon dissipates on the sheer, sensuous impact of its otherworldy textures, its disarming theatricality. The third movement of the Cinq Chansons is, Vivier notes, “an exuberant hymn to the sun, which continually repeats and never stops.” It’s at this ecstatic peak, not the trope of ending, death, and loss, that we should remember his achievement. Vivier’s work embodies new ways of conceiving music and sexuality alike; a new order of sounds, timbres, colors; another world.

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