A Reversed Witness

A Reversed Witness

Eric Antoni

English translation : Ann Losq, Paris


I often attend contemporary music concerts with some second thought and, even, some fear. There is this concern that, for the umpteenth time, the mix of styles and genres I will have to listen to will not hold future promises nor open doors to the present because of a lack of awareness of appropriation or filiation. As you can tell, I felt slightly perplexed when I went to the Ars Nova concert presented by the group’s new conductor Jean-Michaël Lavoie at the new Canadian cultural center in Paris, in collaboration with the music department of the Université de Montréal. This was October 12, 2018, only a few days after their inaugural concert in Poitiers. I was, therefore, perplexed, but I was also, as one might later come to understand, ready to be surprised…

Several spaces and works were offered to us by way of an itinerary. On the ground floor, Suspended time (2004) was a first piece by Jean-François Laporte “for a recorded tape and live analog feedback”. The composer activated the feedback directly on a strange electro-acoustic console adorned with a few springs (BOING BOING), the latter of which punctuated and accompanied a recording of trains and various noises in a train station in Montreal. I remember discovering Spirou comic albums as a child with the same curiosity… So: was this just another (electro)-acoustic piece, as anecdotal as many other works? An introductory text by the composer made me realize that the banality of the sounds implied a completely different positioning on the listener’s part: “It consists of an experience; of experiences that are simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary… To abolish our control on the world in order to commune with it fully…”.

I am therefore this very listener-witness for whom most of the given experience isn’t lodged in what is heard and left to judge, but rather in an overseeing position suggested by a procession of noises and sounds, an “ordinary” procession. Its course is indifferent to any objectivization effort and to any subjective implication. Objectively, indeed, any attempt to explore or to measure the content of what reaches me – such as frequencies, decibels, timbres, rhythms – is immediately set aside. Subjectively, also, the listener-operator that I am knows that he will never be a passenger in these departing trains, he will never stand on the platforms that fill up and empty out; the hope and nostalgia that have perhaps met there will never be his. He knows, above all, through the tacit agreement linking him to the composer in action, right in front of him, that what he is hearing doesn’t promise such a path. Jean-François Laporte’s introductory text had, in fact, pre-disposed me: Suspended Time means that time will be suspended in me and through me, never through the myriad noises, sounds, tintinnabulating effects and feelings that come to me. If I have understood both the composer’s text and the internal movement of my conscience correctly, the impersonal and yet fully-fleshed and memory-laden subject that I am can become the operator of such suspension only if he manages to cross the train tracks with the trains rustling by – Orpheus’s hell-road – to another side which is another dimension, a depth from which the here AND the there, the past AND the future no longer appear as being divided and opposed but gleam instead in their synchronicity. Only then and under this condition will the entirety of sounds, their relations and their trajectories, manage to be (extraordinary experience), WHAT IS, for the engaged AND immobile witness that I have become.

This experience is never lived in isolation, even if it is lived alone. It is utterly objectivating precisely because it is essentially intersubjective: if it can actualize in me, it means that it can also virtually bloom in all of my neighbors, these alter-ego listener-witnesses of the same concert, these suspended train workers, operators without whom nothing extraordinary could occur, managers of a place that is neither in the trains nor in a station, neither in Montreal nor anywhere else but currently in me and maybe in others, and potentially in all of us. This might be said by the hypothetical and never-ending theology of the Verb-Sound that becomes flesh in each of us. It is indeed a strange genesis, a curious communial voyage in a world that is constantly new with instantaneous interconnections, a return with no initial departure, a return which is an ultimate REVERSAL: THIS IS – I AM.

This first orientation was confirmed by the two other works by Jean-François Laporte heard that evening. Confidence came first, a single amplified violin for which the “symbolic” writing led the performer (Catherine Jacquet) to become its imaginative co-creator. Under her guidance, the piece explored layers of consciousness ever so deep, going below the mental threshold and towards other layers of vigilance. The pianissimo sliding and rubbing effects were at the limits of silence and reminded the listener, kept alert by the violinist, of Scelsi’s Réveil Profond. The piece was performed in the underground exhibition hall which largely opened onto the ground floor gallery and from where most of the listeners were seated. This gave the impression of contemplating the sonorous stream flow from a… suspended… bridge.

Rituel, was so very playful and funny. We had been forewarned by the composer’s text: “astonishment… which comes from the singularity of the acoustic experience felt both by the performer and by the spectator”. The composer was standing on seats in the middle of the auditorium, and, with robust circular arm movements, made an empty soda can rotate around his head with the help of a rodeo rope only twenty or so centimeters above our heads. Whistling, whirring, howling, di-tri-quadri-phonics transformed us into the immobile pilots of a strange flying symphony. Scelsi comes to mind again, as does the “spherical sound” he said we could swim in. In both cases, the most important aspect was the immediate experience, as it registered in our bodies and in the deep memory zones that have been with us since our gestation. Hurrah for hissing cans above our heads, hurrah for this kind of organology!

Niente… for an amplified string quartet and an audio-visual mechanism, was composed by Pierre Michaud and commissioned by Ars Nova. The piece had been created in Poitiers in October, 2018. Tonight, it was performed right before Rituel in the same auditorium. The four instrumentalists first placed themselves at the four corners of the room, as images and videos were projected on a screen at the back of the stage. Waves of chords were played at regular intervals and, in between them, silences which, from one sequence to the next, gradually freed themselves from the unresolved tensions of the chords. Some strident notes seemed to want to escape from their hold, but finally agreed to let themselves be absorbed by their movement (I thought of the third movement in Bartok’s fourth quartet, and of Ligeti, and Scelsi). The instrumentalists then sat on the stage; a light, which they stared at with their eyes wide open, projected their shadows on the screen behind them, where images and videos continued to stream. Flat and deserted expanses, vacant lots and building carcasses enlisted my gaze and may have made me more sensitive to the sonorous waves that seemed to recede, sinking in a faraway and unattainable past, surrendering in order to better invade me… Niente … with so little as nothing, managed to form a whole and create a piece of art. In the program, the composer wrote “from silence, to silence between the two… the melancholic observation that everything is impermanence”. However, the in-between was devoid of melancholy for me, as vigil and deep sleep intertwined, superimposed, fused and, finally, melted into each other, each one being the other’s foundation. It therefore placed itself, trend-settingly, under the acute eye of a permanent, illuminated-illuminating consciousness.

I may be touching upon the limit of any commentary and of any critique: whether we like it or not, we pull the experience offered by the artist towards ourselves, towards our personal issue, by way of a reflex movement of projection instead of thoughtful conduct. I obviously diverted the piece from its original intent – “the melancholic observation that everything is impermanence” – an intent which probably was the engine that led to the reversal, a form of eclosion of the tonal sun of our classic era, which is always at the heart of my lived experience when it comes to music, tending towards the blossoming of a sovereign consciousness on which time and its alterations don’t have a hold. An ‘awareness of the present moment’ is an expression we use more readily today. The mirror game has therefore transformed – or has perhaps been fulfilled – as an inversion movement to which any artwork exposes its creator and its audience. The characteristic of any artwork is that its meaning and mystery can be accessed through multiple pathways. That is also what it teaches.

The two Canadian composers on the program, Jean-François Laporte and Pierre Michaud are well-known to more attentive and persevering audiences but were completely unknown to me. Their music finally convinced me that the period of ideological stances, esthetic speculations and future trans-human strategies had passed in the field of music and for some composers of what is known as “contemporary music”. Instead, the emphasis is placed on experiences that occur as close as possible to the consciousness we have of ourselves, of others, of a constantly evolving world, of a universal Soul with which we engage as justly as we can, by speaking its language.

I have an inkling that a door can gradually open in our consciousness and that ars nova can emerge from it. As an ending, I will cite an excerpt from the short biography of Ars Nova included in the evening’s program: “Jean-Michaël Lavoie is now viewed as one of the strongest advocates of esthetic pluralism in contemporary musical creation… In 2018, Ars Nova has created a breathing space, a comma in time, to give new impetus to musical creation”. After this concert, we take its word for it.

Paris-Poitiers, November 2018

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