I’m late coming to the party, seeing something near the end of its run.
After seeing Musik für das Ende tonight at the beautiful Guloien Theatre, one of the spaces at Streetcar Crowsnest, Crow’s Theatre’s new facility, I had a series of intense conversations. Please understand, while I’m a social butterfly, I wasn’t seeking them out, I was just minding my own business, furiously making notes on my phone, as I tried to capture a few thoughts after the show.
But people seemed to want to talk. Clearly they had been moved.
I wondered if they wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to rain on their parade, by insulting or disparaging their precious work that they loved so much. Please understand, I’m reporting this because that’s meaningful, that people had such a powerful response to this piece that you could see and feel it afterwards. Part of this is due to the intimate space seating 220 in the round and all that it implies and conditions. We sat facing one another in a performance that at times was like a ritual, making all of us into witnesses or even participants in a rite.
I am aiming to unpack the experience as much as possible from first principles, in order to honour both the text and the performances, each of which contribute to the experience. I’m mindful of a phrase from Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama that is stuck in my head tonight as a phrase that rings false, that “the composer is the dramatist”.
That may be so in the time of Verdi or Wagner, but not in earlier times when so much of the creation lay in the choices made by virtuosi, the singers realizing the possibilities of a score. And so, if we go back in time to centuries when the performance was less determined and more improvised, we need to balance the composer’s credit with that of the singers.
And so too in more recent times with compositions leaving so much open to the performers. For Vivier’s work, he co-created with those who realize work such as Musik für das Ende.
Tonight and this past week, we’ve been seeing the outcome of a collaboration between Soundstreams & Crow’s Theatre, “conceived by Chris Abraham and Zack Russell” in the words of the program, employing two compositions of Claude Vivier (Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (1983) and Musik für das Ende(1971) ) preceded by Il faisait nuit, a text written by Zack Russell. The program would suggest that Russell’s words are part 1, and that each of the two Vivier compositions are parts 2 & 3, but it’s not quite as distinct as that.
Alex Ivanovici portrays Claude Vivier. Is this the eternal aspect of the composer: who was murdered in Paris before his 35th birthday? Perhaps. We begin in the dark, where we all begin. It’s mythic and universal in the extreme, even if Ivanovici plays a very grave & adult Vivier to my eye, without the famous laugh; but then again I recall so many people telling me how much they detested Mozart’s laugh in Amadeus, so perhaps this was a canny choice, opting for gravitas and universality. When I mentioned that to a friend afterwards, I was admonished that they didn’t expect verisimilitude. Nor did I. But this is a tonal choice. It’s a small quibble, and perhaps I am simply wrong, that the piece wouldn’t work if one opted to bring out a more vulnerable youthful side to Vivier.
I am grateful I had the chance to chat with cast-member Bud Roach. He confirmed what I thought I was experiencing, as I stumbled upon a word that the cast was apparently using namely “mantra”. The big final piece on the program, which is done with Vivier incarnated onstage for the latter part of the performance—meaning Ivanovici, and also a younger aspect of the character onstage at the end (perhaps to balance out the seriousness? To inject a bit of vulnerability?) –is a curious ritual. The procedures as far as I could tell alternated between groups of performers repeating or roughly imitating certain key phrases, syllables that I didn’t understand (and that I don’t need to understand), and individual segments using music brought from life. I heard a bit of “you are my sunshine” and “ombra mai fu” and “vittoria vittoria mio core”, among others and assorted words and phrases in several languages; I particularly observed some Hungarian (from Margaret Bárdos) because it always grabs my ear (as a Magyar) but there were others as well, that I didn’t understand. I don’t think the particulars of what’s said or sung matters, so much as that we observe this back and forth between solitary expression and the tendency to coalesce into groups and repeated chants.
While I don’t pretend to understand the procedures Vivier specified –and I did hear a bit about it on social media—the important thing is what they achieved in this back and forth vacillation, between the solos and clusters / constellations of singers, that were a reminder that we are not entirely alone, but never fully lost in the group. It was a kind of enactment of culture & society, of the dynamics of a person relating to a larger group, pulled at times to conform, at other times free to fly away in their own thoughts / songs / words.
My first impression –as I watched the excitement in the space and tried to get my ego out of the way of the complex procedures I was watching –was to be reminded of my first experience of Philip Glass, of seeing something that seemed to defy my understanding. The trick then (with a concert of music from Einstein on the Beach in the 1970s, and later, Satyagraha in 1981), was to stop expecting the music to do what other musics usually did. Instead of stipulating –as some critics did– that music must do x or y, that there must be development, the real trick is to be in the here and now (haha I accidentally typed “hear and now” which might be even more accurate), of the phenomenon itself. Stipulations are for your real estate agent (i need 4 bathrooms!) not concerts or operas. Once I let Glass have his way with my ear and viscera, and indeed, once I surrendered to Vivier and this production, it made a whole lot more sense. Don’t worry about what those syllables mean (they’re in Sanskrit, Bud tells me).
I don’t speak Sanskrit. Do you?
I found myself wondering how Vivier imagined the work. For this occasion with the collaboration between Crow’s Theatre & Soundstreams, the procedure was enacted right in front of us, in the round where we couldn’t miss what was going on. Vivier might have expected the work to be done by singers in tuxedos on a concert hall stage, not in a maelstrom of bodies on a half-lit stage, surrounded by observers. His score was as much an occasion for voyeurism and visuals as it was for the more typical aural listening experience, and that’s before we add in the meta-drama (or meta-music??) of the composer wandering through his own composition.
From time to time, a voice emerged from the group. We began the Glaubst du… section with Owen McCausland and then Adanya Dunn, who would make her presence felt much more in the later larger work, along with Bárdos, Vania Chan, as well as a few singers whose sound I recognized, particularly Keith Lam, Justin Welsh, and the unmistakable tenor of Bud Roach.
There’s a lot more to it than I’ve captured here, including sound design for the first part, featuring Adam Scime’s synth, as well as Ryan Scott, percussion & John Hess, synthesizer & conductor. The piece had been workshopped last year.
A pair of performances remain on Saturday November 4th. I would suggest you get there if at all possible: so you’ll know what your friends are excited about.