[Review] Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life by Bob Gilmore

I once again find myself in Victoria for the foreseeable future. As a way to ensure that I continue writing regularly while I’m between degrees, I have decided to start a series where I write about books (mostly on music) that I feel are worth sharing. There will be three rough categories:

  1. New books, which I will write informal reviews of (hopefully prior to being able to have a formal review published somewhere)
  2. Classics which I feel could use some further explanation or encouragement for potential readers (e.g.  Formalized Music)
  3. Obscure books which I feel more people should know about (e.g. The Modern Composer and His World which I mentioned some time ago)

Obviously there will be some overlap in the latter two categories depending on one’s perspective. However, this first article is very clearly in the first one.

UPDATE: This review has been published in the November 2015 edition of Musiktexte in a German translation by Monika Lichtenfeld as “Mythen und Widersprüche. Bob Gilmores Claude-Vivier-Biographie”.

Bob Gilmore
Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life
Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2014
295pp. $34.95

In Claude Vivier’s brief life (1948-1983) he composed a substantial output of varied and compelling pieces for both vocal and instrumental forces, and his final works from Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra (1980) until his death constitute one of the strongest series of pieces written by a single composer in such a short time-span. His work is marked by a strong emphasis on the unknown in a very general sense: he fixates on such aspects as distant locales (including imaginary ones), death and love. A large portion of his output is vocal, much of which sets passages in a language or languages of his own creation, and much of it has strong autobiographical resonances. Born to “unknown parents” (an oft-repeated phrase found in almost all descriptions of his life) in Montreal and killed in Paris at the age of 35, his life’s details often threaten to overwhelm both appraisal of his music and his place in the Canadian musical pantheon.

Gilmore’s somewhat workmanlike biography attempts to cut through the various layers of mythology surrounding Vivier. Through a great many primary sources and reams of interviews with Vivier’s family, friends and colleagues (including a huge number of prominent musicians in Canada and Europe), Gilmore sketches out what can be definitively known about Vivier’s life. His work on these sections includes large extracts from sources and sometimes prosaic summaries. These can be quite effective: through them Gilmore manages to effectively unmask Vivier’s mythological status as a “great composer-traveler” in connection with Asia. Contrary to what some believe, Vivier did not spend years travelling through Asia (a myth repeated by his Wikipedia article), but only a total of five months in 1976-77, of which three were spent in Bali and the remainder in Japan, Thailand, Iran and Egypt. Even the much-vaunted Asian influence on his music is in fact mostly restricted to its instrumentation and his vague impressions of the places he visited. Pulau Dewata for open instrumentation (1977) is a perfect example of a piece that was supposedly inspired by Gamelan but actually bears very little resemblance to its inspiration. Other passages of the book prove more problematic but also more intriguing. Gilmore admits that writing a biography of someone who hailed from the era of the telephone proved to be quite difficult since the contents of most of Vivier’s interactions were ephemeral and the memory of those who knew him fallible. In order to fill these gaps, Gilmore relies on anecdotes by Vivier’s friends, which are usually vague but often quite entertaining, as well as speculation, which is usually well-justified. Speculation on some of these matters can be seen as appropriate, in fact, since Vivier himself cultivated many personal mythologies which complicate attempts to narrate his life. Vivier often imagined his birth parents to be Eastern European (or even Jewish), something that proved very influential on his autobiographical pieces, furthering his fixation on loneliness and personal mythology.

Finally, other aspects of Vivier’s life defy definitive interpretation or any sort of clear speculation, and the contradictions and myths must be presented as-is. For instance, his sexuality was somewhat complex: it is well-known that he was gay, but Gilmore brings up the oft-forgotten fact that Vivier engaged in at least sexual relationships with women throughout his entire life. When Vivier’s friend Rober Racine brought up the possibility of writing a book on Vivier, his would-be subject told him “You have to say I love women!” (p. 187). And of course his death is particularly divisive: a myth has arisen that he was stabbed in the Paris subway, but this is in fact an event from the story of his final work (Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele for voices and ensemble); in reality he was killed in his apartment by a lover, though contemporary sources and the recollection of his friends do not always agree on whether he was stabbed or strangled or both. At least one source claims that his death was in fact an erotic accident and not murder (though this is not given much credence by Gilmore). Gilmore also raises doubt as to whether Vivier’s last composition was unfinished at the time of his death (as most sources state): “it is hard to imagine what could have come after the chilling ending.” (p. 279) The most controversial of Gilmore’s assertions is that Vivier’s lifelong preoccupation with mortality and his fascination with eroticized violence in his later years did not ultimately lead to his death. The fact that Vivier was stabbed with a pair of scissors and robbed by an opportunistic man posing as a one night stand only weeks before his death led may of his friends to the conclusion that he must have been seeking out the kind of dangerous situation that ultimately killed him. Gilmore writes that these trends are counterbalanced by Vivier’s equally strong fixation on love and redemption, which should preclude suicide, though he ultimately states that this is merely his opinion and the decision ultimately rests with the reader.

Gilmore makes it quite clear that this book is both a biography and a companion to Vivier’s compositions. He provides concise and effective analyses of many of Vivier’s works, presented in such a way as to be relatively understandable to the layperson. He clearly explains such aspects as the influence of Stockhausen’s works from the 1960s and early 70s (such as Mantra) on many of Vivier’s pieces from the 1970s, especially Learning for four violins and percussion and Siddhartha for orchestra (both 1976), which are constructed from long melodies, and the nascent Spectralist movement’s influence on his late works, particularly in his use of ring modulation in Lonely Child. The one area where any analysis fails is in the text of many of Vivier’s vocal works: though some of it can be written off as mere exoticism (the quasi-Asiatic text in Bouchara for soprano and ensemble), much of Vivier’s use of invented language is still nearly impenetrable despite Gilmore’s elucidations. The opera Kopernikus, Vivier’s largest-scale completed work, in which the historical Copernicus plays only a small part among a cast of various historical and fictional characters (including Mozart, with the lead character being Agni, the Hindu god of fire), proves to be so idiosyncratic as to be almost entirely inscrutable. Gilmore does an admirable job connecting it to such precursors as the works of Lewis Carroll and The Magic Flute, but ultimately its intended meaning may be unknowable to any but Vivier.

Given these analytical gaps and the non-specialist level of the analyses of Vivier’s works, there is still plenty of work to be done in order to understand Vivier’s oeuvre. That being said, it is hard to imagine an English-language biography that could be more definitive than Gilmore’s book. In tandem with Vivier’s collected writings, which are published in the journal Circuit (and will hopefully be translated into English at some point), it makes a fine starting point for the student of Vivier’s life and work, which had seen a paucity of English-language scholarly attention until now.