June 28, 2022

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The musical otherworlds of Claude Vivier

7 min read



A performance of Claude Vivier’s Musik für das ende (1971) at London’s Southbank Centre, May 2022. Photo: Claire Harvie.

Minor ELSE COMPARES to the tunes of Québécois composer Claude Vivier. His function delivers, in the words of composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, “great brilliance, good severity, excellent archaism, fantastic emotions”: glimpses of other worlds firmly rooted in our individual. Although he was admired by primary composers this kind of as György Ligeti, Gérard Grisey, and Louis Andriessen, Vivier, who was murdered in 1983 at the age of thirty-four, continues to be regrettably obscure. A 3-working day Vivier pageant at London’s Southbank Centre earlier this thirty day period provided a welcome option to redress the harmony.

For the opening concert, new tunes winner 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, will take its title from an archaic title for Japan. The operate opens with massed violins actively playing a single 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 the moment entire of drama still totally static, it appears to hover in the air.

Vivier was obsessed with the idea of sonic “purity.” But he forces us to hear purity differently, as the overtones, sum tones, and variation tones produced from juxtaposing notes against each individual other open up up enormous, microtonal worlds from the smallest dimension. Along with glistening substantial strings, alternate bowing methods generate scratchy, groaning creaks—the sound of substances beneath tension. Nonetheless the new music as a entire stays oblivious to any disturbance, ending specifically as it began.

The second of the two pieces led by Volkov, Lonely Boy or girl, is most likely Vivier’s finest-recognised operate. It is an prolonged lullaby, location Vivier’s possess fairy-tale text, partly in French and partly in the “langue inventée” that suffuses lots of of his vocal will work. Here are magical worlds of wizards, palaces, acrobats, and fairies, destinations the place “the stars make prodigious leaps in area, time, dimensions.” A jewellike high vocal line—here exquisitely sent by soprano Claire Booth—merges with ceremonious punctuation from tuned percussion and what Vivier named “great beams of shade!” in the orchestra. Vivier conceived the piece as a “long song of solitude.” Nonetheless disappointment, loneliness, and failure are included into the songs, without the need of destroying its serenity. Writing on the feminine operatic voice, Wayne Koestenbaum observes that, “listening, we are the excellent mom . . . attending to the baby’s cries, notify to its pulling inscriptions, and we are the baby listening to the mom for signs of affection and interest, for reciprocity, for earth.” Like Blake’s “infinity in the palm of your hand,” Vivier’s piece, an entire get the job done created from a single melody, appears to achieve the limitless adore it seeks, if only for a instant.

The earlier items presented by Canadian ensemble Soundstreams on the next night time ended up extra subject matter to theatrical disruption. Small and lyrically turbulent, the Novalis placing Hymnen an die Nacht (1975) strategies the territory of Alban Berg and Viennese Expressionism, when the piano piece Shiraz (1977), inspired by Vivier’s experience with two blind singers in an Iranian marketplace, was commissioned as a intentionally virtuosic review, the pianist’s palms leaping at furious velocity from the high and small ends of the piano through to the middle and again yet again. More regular have been the Cinq Chansons (1980) in which a solo percussionist approximates songs, like that of Balinese gamelan ensembles, supposed for many individuals. As in Lonely Kid, fantasy and dazzling creation compensate for solitude. The last operate of the evening, Like Songs (1979), sales opportunities, as Vivier at the time joked, “from the Bible to the brothel.” Exploring different types of love by a panoply of vocal effects—whistling, talking, hand-about-mouth tremolos—the names of famous fans these types of as Tristan and Juliet sit together with nursery rhymes and nonsense syllables as interactions come together and apart in a form of celebratory musical nonmonogamy minimize as a result of with times of wrenching loneliness.


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

The festival’s remaining night was framed all-around Vivier’s tragic death at the fingers of a gentleman he’d picked up at a Parisian gay bar. In what was in essence a 1-hour theatrical exhibit with audio, instead than a live performance per se, Zack Russell’s opening monologue narrated the composer’s very last evening amid flickering neon, clouds of smoke, ominous rumbles, and a basic environment of nocturnal menace segueing into the effectiveness of Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul)?, whose unfinished score was observed on Vivier’s desk right after his loss of life. In the very first 50 %, overlapping, rhythmically jagged traces for a smaller choir threaten to overwhelm an achingly austere appreciate tune sung by a tenor. In the 2nd, a speaker recites into a vocoder an eerily prescient dream narrative in which a stranger stabs them to loss of life on the metro. At the same time sung and spoken lines continue being resolutely unbiased whispers, trills, and clouds of seem from the choir, percussion, and synthesizers refuse to resolve. Glaubst du is a strong get the job done, a single that implies new instructions minimize woefully small. Still the staging, while significantly effective, risked dealing with the piece as a type of extraordinary prop relatively than a operate in its have correct. Supplied this, it should be emphasized that Vivier’s murder was not in some way the inescapable conclusion of his existence or perform, but a terrible coincidence. The piece is an interrogation of the problems that produce the abyss, fairly than an embrace of it.

The night concluded with a performance of Musik für das ende (1971), Vivier’s “grand funeral ceremony” for his good friend, actor and playwright Yves Sauvageau, who died by suicide at age 20-4. As a established of light-weight bulbs descended from the ceiling, the vocalists walked about the phase: singing, chanting, talking, coming collectively and breaking apart. Vivier explained the singers as “beings no lengthier in everyday living but in death.” Below they came throughout as mourners, grieving jointly and by itself, their songs a ritual of consolation, protection, and reflection. Toward the stop, a stranger enters the concert corridor and joins the performers on phase, firing off a series of unanswered thoughts: “Where do I appear from? Who am I? Wherever am I going?” The section was taken by a younger actor: the “lonely child” remaining on your own as the choir exits and the lights go out, leaving only silence and darkness.

Nevertheless this ending was, after all over again, dramatically efficient, it was also, as soon as yet again, problematic. It’s too uncomplicated to body Vivier’s existence and do the job amongst the twin poles of the “lonely child” in search of affection and the recklessly promiscuous adult in search of risk. More than effortless, it is pernicious, fitting into the basic stereotype—at the moment glamorous and moralizing—of the outsider whose tragic finish is all but unavoidable, the queer sufferer who performs with fireplace. Vivier himself firmly rejected these kinds of narratives. In 1981, he penned a short piece for the journal Trafics placing out his visions for the upcoming of music—a upcoming he noticed as inseparable from the foreseeable future of modern society as a total. “Earthly terminology getting alas by now categorized the 3 results of despair as submission, suicide, and the imaginary (creation),” Vivier writes, “I suggest the fourth resolution: revolution.” At the time of his death, he was arranging 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 dying with the 1st entire world war and “its sequels, Hiroshima and Vietnam.”

For Vivier, it was crucial that artists break out of these harming clichés. Any concept that his is a music of martyrdom, victimhood, or some variety of loss of life would like before long dissipates on the sheer, sensuous influence of its otherworldy textures, its disarming theatricality. The third movement of the Cinq Chansons is, Vivier notes, “an exuberant hymn to the sunshine, which continuously repeats and never stops.” It’s at this ecstatic peak, not the trope of ending, loss of life, and decline, that we need to remember his accomplishment. Vivier’s function embodies new methods of conceiving tunes and sexuality alike a new purchase of sounds, timbres, hues a different planet.



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