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'From life to death, to eternity,' discover Claude Vivier's music rituals

Robert Rowat

In 1983, at the age of 34, French–Canadian composer Claude Vivier was stabbed to death in his Paris apartment by a man he had picked up. When Vivier's body was discovered a few days later, another discovery was made: the manuscript on his desk was an unfinished work called Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul, which appeared to prophesy the very circumstances of Vivier's death.

"Very briefly, the protagonist in this work comes into a subway and sits down, and a stranger — a young man — joins him in this mini opera, you might say," explains Lawrence Cherney, artistic director of the Toronto contemporary music collective Soundstreams. "They have a conversation that goes on for some minutes, and in the end, the stranger pulls out a knife and stabs [the protagonist] through the heart."

The senseless end to a life and career so full of promise, compounded by the eerie coincidence outlined above, has made Vivier a source of fascination ever since.

Soundstreams will present Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul, along with the first-ever staged performance of Vivier's neglected 1971 work Musik für das Ende, in a series of concerts taking place at Toronto's Crow's Theatre from Oct. 27 to Nov. 4. Both works are scored for voices (live and pre-recorded), narrator and instruments (synthesizer and percussion) and share an element of ritual that characterizes a number of Vivier's compositions.

"He was so obsessed with the passage from life, to death, to eternity," reflects Cherney on themes common to both works. "And I think he saw that in ritualistic ways. Of course, there was pain and suffering in that kind of passage, but there was also a liberation. In some ways, his idea was that past life and death, there was an ecstatic state that he equated with eternity, and of course you find that in many spiritual beliefs all over the world, where ritual is so important."

The performance is in three seamless parts, as Cherney explains: "It opens with a monologue delivered by an actor, Alex Ivonovici. It's taken from Claude's own letters, diaries and inscriptions in scores. It's certainly not a biography of Claude, but it's an attempt to take us inside his mind. What did he think about? What preoccupied him? Of course, there will be bits of music heard during this monologue."

'A convergence and divergence of humanity'

The monologue is followed by a transition to a subway platform, for Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul. "And then there's a transition from that work to Musik für das Ende, and again, this is very much a ritual, in some ways unlike Immortality, which is fully notated, whereas Musik is certainly highly structured — a great deal of it depends upon the interraction among the 10 singers and the actor," Cherney says.

"The singers are divided into four pairs and two singles," he continues. "And the pairs are constantly exchanging pitch, language and rhythm, and again it's literally a convergence and divergence of humanity — Claude's idea that these 10 become one ... and in the last third of the piece, as Claude did so often in his works, there's a cameo appearance by an actor, and we can assume it might be Vivier himself — completing the cycle of life and death and something towards rebirth and eternity at the very end."

'Developing chemistry'

While there have been concert performances of Musik für das Ende — its world premiere happened in 2012 with the RIAS Chamber Choir — nobody has tried staging the work before.

"A lot of people looked at the score and couldn't figure out what to do with it," Cherney conjectures. "We spent a lot of time and realized that it was like a lot of scores where the language and the roadmap were the greatest difficulty. It's not a piece that you could put together if you rehearsed eight hours a day for two weeks. You couldn't do it. We've been rehearsing intermittently over many months — never, you know, three weeks at a time, but it's so much about developing chemistry. There's a lot of room for improvisation, [the singers] must memorize everything. Not that it's impossible, but it's not the kind of thing that you could do in a short, concentrated period."

And, of course, there's no precedent for the musicians to follow.

"Claude never saw or heard it during his lifetime, so we can't really compare it to anything, but of course we have the score. It's pretty clear what he had in mind, and again we hope that ours will be only the first among a number of productions, so eventually there'll be a body of productions to which we can make reference."

Musik für das Ende is part of Soundstreams' 35th season. The stage director is Chris Abraham and the music director is John Hess. Cherney tells us there are plans to tour the project to Europe and the U.S. in 2018 and 2019. For details on the 10 performances happening between Oct. 27 and Nov. 4, head over to Soundstreams' website.

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