[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.

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Incarnadine for Clarinet Trio, or, My Week With Chaya

I had originally intended to write this post several weeks ago, before the Vancouver Clarinet Trio (Shawn Earle, Kate Frobeen and my good friend Liam Hockley) premiered my latest piece, Incarnadine, on October 19 at the CMC in Vancouver.  Life got in the way, so I’m writing about it now.  The exciting part about this piece is that is was technically my first commission, as well as the first performance of a piece of mine to be fairly widely publicized, including in the Georgia Straight.  After the performance, Liam said that he’s “sure the piece will become a staple of the repertoire before long.”

I wrote Incarnadine over this past summer by request of the VCT, but the ideas in it stemmed primarily from Chaya Czernowin’s visit to Victoria this spring.  The UVic Orchestra, along with Ensemble Nikel, performed the North American premiere of Czernowin’s Zohar Iver (Blind Radiance) and she gave a public lecture, a masterclass and lessons with composers (including me).  In her lecture on February 29, she revealed that she shares many of my artistic concerns, especially those of fundamental dialectics inherent in the structure of music.  She sees musical material as being on a continuum of phenomenology to psychology (what I would call ontology).  This is most typified by her piece Anea Crystal for two string quartets, which is made up of two pieces, or “seeds”, which can be played simultaneously. Seed I comprises the psychological ” simple human voice, swimming in time,”  whereas Seed II is a phenomenological “view of stretched rubber bands.”  Czernowin also postulates a similar dialectic at play in composition, namely that Experimentation can be broken down into Innovation and Discovery.  To her, Innovation is an “extended area of action, an expansion into different areas” that seeks to “plant a new flag in the Arctic of the mind.”  This strikes me as very much the Wesleyan Experimental Music department typified in the post-Cageian, Lucier-inpired school of conceptual music (and thus the American avant-garde as a whole).  Czernowin emphasizes that the risk of this branch of Experimentation is one of posturing and excessive ego.  On the other hand, Discovery is marked by a more organic approach: “listening to what the new material wants to do, discovering what is immanent in the material.”  The risks inherent in this approach are developing a semi-religious, mystical personality.  Discovery seems to me to be a more European (especially Russian) approach, and it’s what I seem to tend towards more frequently.  Czernowin notes, however, that the compositional ideal is a balance of both aspects of Experimentation.

Czernowin also had a great deal to say about the composition more generally and what end up being the upper levels of Schnittke’s picture of the artistic process.  She stated that pitch material (and the other constituent parts of a piece) is not an end in itself; it must serve the fundamental concept/inquiry of the piece, and that the composer must invent a new technical device for each piece to fit its concept.  This something I’ve suspected for several years now: that one doesn’t really ever know how to compose, that one must relearn/construct a new method with each piece.  Czernowin also said: “something must be at stake in a piece, you must work towards something and be aware of it,” which I think is highly typified by my inability to start anything until I have an extremely clear idea of the concept and structure of what I’m going to write.  As for more traditional elements of music, she said: “[letting pitch material into my music] is like when a little doggie is allowed in the theatre. Everybody just looks at the doggie.” The dominance of genre markers such as clear harmonic and rhythmic material when they are introduced into a piece is pretty inescapable, which is why I only use them in my pieces when I am playing with those sorts of associations (and practically never in improvisation, but that’s another issue).  I am working, however, on ways of disassociating familiar material (especially harmonic material) from its traditional contexts and functions, inspired especially by late Schnittke, using, for instance, a minor triad as a neutral sound object that has no role besides occurring between what comes before and what comes after.  My idea is to create structure from the manipulation of juxtaposed elements for purely psychological effect.  This comes into play in Incarnadine, but mostly as a textural device, because of the nature of the material (as I will show below).  I will definitely be writing more about this nascent compositional philosophy in the future.

My lesson with Chaya on February 28 was also fantastic.  She is one of the most perceptive teachers I’ve ever met, noticing basically all of the problem I’ve had over the past five years while only looking at the first movement of my grad piece.  She correctly pointed out (within less than five minutes of seeing it) that the beginning was considerably more detailed (and therefore better), since I spent two months on the first minute and then another two months on the next 18 minutes.  I told her that I thought there was too much material and too many ideas in it, and that I should break it up into several pieces, to which she replied that it wasn’t necessarily true: it wasn’t that there was too much, just that the multifarious elements didn’t have enough depth in and of themselves to make the piece good enough, unlike, say, Berio’s Sinfonia.   She recommended that I try to write a longish piece (10-20 minutes) using only two ideas, exploring them fully in the manner of Scelsi or Feldman, as well as exploring all their possible interrelationships.  Several months later, I stumbled onto Rzewski’s structural scheme (discussed in my previous post), and the rest is history.

Incarnadine is based on two pieces of preexisting material: a quiet, high, clear, smooth idea that originally came from an exercise I wrote for viola and trombone for MUS562 at UVic in around November of 2009 and a loud, low, obscure, rough one that came from Fun Fat Meat Bullet for trumpet and tuba for The Workshop from April of this year, a 12 hour day of composition when we started writing pieces at 9AM, performers arrived at 2PM and we gave a concert at 8PM.  The first piece of material consists of a high C# (my favourite note on the clarinet since I was about 14) repeated in clarinet 2 while clarinet 1 alternates between repeating a smooth cell of pitch material (Eb – D – B – G – F#) and a repeated high E.  The second piece of material is mostly fluttertongued clusters at the bottom of the clarinet’s range separated by rests, but also has some multiphonics, of the harmonic, artificial and vocal varieties and timbral trills.  Ok, I confess that Incarnadine is basically in sonata form with two thematic groups, but they’re not used as such, the development is much more abstract and the recapitulation is highly irregular (as I will explain below).

I won’t give an exhaustive analysis, since there isn’t much to say about the piece on a micro-level.  Most of the pitches are either clusters or iterations of the cell from the first bit of material and any rhythmic and textural ideas are basically just juxtaposition of extremes.  Structurally, the piece is divided into 120 four-second segments, which are grouped into 18 irregular sections.  These sections employ the six relationships codified by Rzewski, with each type occurring three times.  For the “exposition” (three sections), the two “themes” are stated in Rzewski Type I, separated by a transition of Type II.  There then follows a “development” (14 sections) that gradually fragments the material and brings the two ideas closer together, cycling through all of the Rzewski types.  Most of the material in this section is long notes separated by rests, but the techniques involved make the texture continuously variable, giving a sound much more complex than the notation would suggest.  Finally, in the “recapitulation” (one section of Type VI) the two ideas are combined: the harmonics of the notes in the second theme in effect become the high notes from the first theme.  The very ending is this transformation in miniature, all three performers play fast figures at the bottom of their ranges while changing their embouchures/throat positions to gradually move up through Xenakis’ régions to VI (teeth on the reed), where the notes being fingered become only slightly differentiated squeaks.  After this climax, clarinet 1 plays a very long tone with copious amounts of saliva in the reed, creating a sort of “radio static” effect that contains snippets of harmonics, low fuzz, pops, whistles, etc., in effect containing the entire seed of the piece in one gesture.

Due to technical issues, there was no recording made of Incarnadine‘s debut, but the VCT has assured me that they will be making a studio recording sometime in the near future, which I will hopefully be able to post for your enjoyment, and they will be performing it in Victoria sometime in the new year.

VISI ASL 2012 Days 1 & 2 (With Prefatory Update)

I sit here posting from the lair of my friend Morgan somewhere near East Hastings in Vancouver. Before I give a recap of my first two days at the VISI Art Song Lab, I should give some very important general updates.

On March 2, I was accepted to the MA program in composition and experimental music at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, home of Anthony Braxton and (until recently) Alvin Lucier.  I’m still working on details relating to my visa, but I will be moving in just over two months. I also placed 1st in the Via Choralis Call for Scores in late April. Additionally I’ve received my first commission (grants allowing) from the Vancouver Clarinet Trio (Shawn Earle, Kate Frobeen and Liam Hockley) for a piece that I will finish this summer.

I arrived in Vancouver Friday night, and ASL started in earnest with a meet and greet Saturday afternoon.  One of the other composers is Ryan Noakes, whom I’ve known for about 10 years from Kamloops and Victoria.  Everyone else was new to me, and though many of them are from Vancouver, some are from Toronto and one is from as far as Cincinnati.  I’ll be posting about some of them and their works before the week is through.

Today we had our first rehearsals in the morning. I’m extremely lucky to have Michael Robert-Broder and Corey Hamm performing the song on which Shannon and I collaborated. We spent 40 minutes going over both broad technical and interpretive issues, made a few changes and discussed strategy for the rest of the week. In the afternoon, we all attended a Composer-Poet Forum, with seven BC composers, a poet and CMC BC Regional Director Bob Baker, who discussed the issues inherent in the collaborative process involved in writing art song, as well as some of the possible directions art song may take in the future.

I was most impressed by what composer Leslie Uyeda said, something to the effect of: “I can only set heightened language. I can’t work with language that can be described as journalistic.” This is also true of me.  All the texts I find myself drawn to set are generally emotionally heightened, but fairly abstract. I find most unemotional texts too boring to set, while direct expression embarrasses me.

Needless to say, the next few days will bring a great deal of collaborative ideas and creative energy, and I hope to post more highlights tomorrow night.