I was certainly ready for the concert I attended tonight at Glenn Gould studio, to launch Eve Egoyans CD 5 . Work had drained me, and yes, i’d been listening to her CD a great deal.
I found myself thinking a lot about hearing because of the injunction on the CD, to turn the playback level low. Now of course I’ve been listening to the CD incessantly in the car, often with the windows down, which necessitates a certain volume above what might have been prescribed. Even so, I am aware of the soundscape around me. It was with such thoughts in my head that i chose a different path to the concert venue. No I didn’t walk down University Ave or Spadina from my office at the university. Nope. I walked down Huron St, enjoying the human scale of interaction, and while noticing the pets and the gardens and the friendly and gregarious people hanging out early on a Friday evening, I thought this might be a good preparation for the concert. The sounds were softer, more respectful of community and neighbours and even of self, as engines never revved, conversation never shouted. Coming into the hall, I felt the same expectant softness between the patrons in attendance.
I was reminded of something I’d observed in my studies, concerning the relationship between artists and their milieu. I’ve wondered which comes first, not unlike the proverbial chicken and egg. Does the artist create an audience for their work, or does the community feel a need that is somehow answered or filled by the artist? I think it’s a little of both. Certainly this was a sophisticated concert for a sophisticated audience.
Egoyan created a program that reminded me of something I’d read about visual artists, who in some respects refine our sense of sight, teaching us to discriminate and discern in ways that we had not been able before. The artist changes the way we see. Same with Egoyan and our hearing.
Let’s start with that injunction I spoke of, which may or may not have a feminist subtext: that we should listen to soft sounds rather than be conquered by phallic pianists (and if you hear the homonym, so much the better). Egoyan reminded me of the proverbial orator speaking softly, to force an audience to quiet down: in order to hear. And so I was part of one of the best behaved audiences I’ve ever encountered, even if we were given hyper-ears as a result. A couple of times I heard breathing or people stirring in their seats, and I was jarred as if by a massive sound when of course it was simply normal sound, heard by my new attentiveness.
How did she get us to listen?
The first part of the program was like a rondo (a rondo is a form alternating between a theme and episodes, some of which may repeat, as for example A-B-A-C-A-D). But what Egoyan had done was program three short pieces, each of the same sort, namely Nocturnes by Taylan Susam. Each Nocturne is about two minutes, soft, tranquil and meditative.
In each case I was reminded of the part of Hector in Les Troyens; Hector is a ghost who appears to Aenée, warning him of impending doom. Hector’s greatest energy is upon arrival; the ghost’s highest note is his first, while his lowest is his last, as we see him gradually run out of steam, lower and lower and lower. So too with each of the Nocturnes, arcing downwards from the top of the keyboard to the very bottom, one discreet note at a time. By the end of each of these 120 second gems, the audience were quieted and ready for the next item. It’s as if they were pieces of baguette or sips of wine between courses, to cleanse our aural palette. And then in between each of the Nocturnes, Egoyan played a different piece, wildly divergent in style, but anchored in each case by the quiet little gem.
The first episode of the rondo –aka the second item on the program—was Piers Hellawell’s Piani, Latebre, a three movement work whose virtuosic demands made a stunning contrast with the Nocturnes on either side. I need to hear the composition again, as its complexity largely went over my head; but then again I think I was just awash in the pure sensations, watching Egoyan’s hands working, the brilliant passage work, and the sonorities.
The second of the episodes –falling between the second and third Nocturnes, so “c” in my ABACAD schematic—was Claude Vivier’s Shiraz. I was fascinated to read the program note just now, which correlates curiously with what I experienced. I was struck by reminiscences of Stravinsky, particularly Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka, in its use of clusters moving up and down the keyboard and occasional echoes of Le Sacre du Printemps (thinking of the sudden moments of unprepared tranquility after something loud). The mention in the program of a marketplace wasn’t surprising given the brash sound I thought I recognized from Petrouchka. Egoyan’s playing was if anything more virtuosic, yet coming from a surprisingly still and calm player. I felt she was in a zone, very tranquil and still even when the music was frenetic. If good playing is understood as the transmission of body dynamics to the efficient and elegant creation of sound, this was like a master class, her body balletic in its smooth transfer of energy to the keys.
The third episode was what this scheme was surely designed for, namely one of the pieces from the Ann Southam CD, namely RETURNINGS II. The program says it’s seventeen minutes long. Really? I felt the way I did the first time I encountered Philip Glass, back in the 1970s: which is to say, simultaneously calm and yet inside my head, extraordinarily alert. I lost all sense of time, and couldn’t tell you whether Egoyan really played the piece as written or decided to add an extra ten minutes to it. I had no wish for it to end, but of course it’s fine that it did.
Otherwise how would I get home?
After intermission, Egoyan offered another piece that seemed to capitalize on our willingness to listen. Hm, or was that urbanity already characteristic of this audience, and only I was transformed out of my usual rudeness?
SKRYABIN in itself is a large composition by Michael Finnissy that seems to be abstracted from the composer (Skryabin that is, rather than Finnissy). I don’t pretend to understand the relationship, only that I’m inclined to invoke the word “reified”, which is a word I regularly truck out when I sense that someone is so deep inside their head that they’re not nearly as intelligible as they think. I used it not long ago to talk about Thomas Adès, and I think it applies here as well. There’s much to unpack in this composition, which again may have simply gone over my head. Whereas the Southam and the Vivier blew me away, I was –as with Hellawell—wanting another listen before I’d venture any sort of analysis. Even so there were some lovely stretches, particularly the last ten minutes.
I am now looking forward to getting into the car and listening to Egoyan again.
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