September 28, 2017 . St- Eustache – Old Church, Cutting Edge Music, New Awareness.
One of the pleasures of coming to Paris in the autumn is to be able to catch a couple of events in the Paris Autumn Festival. This annual festival (2017 is its 15th year) brings together young international stars in a wide range of artistic expressions, using an equally wide range of Paris venues – famous, public venues all over the greater Paris region. The festival represents a three -fold opportunity for new discoveries – new and cutting edge artistic expressions, a challenge to find parts of Paris we have not experienced before, and a taste of the meaning of “Europe” as a single culture.
Last night’s concert was a unique performance of a new music piece by a rising international composer, Rebecca Saunders, an Englishwoman who lives In Berlin and who is one of the music masters defining the contemporary music idiom across Europe. Her stated challenge for tonight’s performance was to create a four dimensional piece that would work equally well in the Renaissance and classical Gothic church of St. Eustache in a central part of Paris, and in Berlin in the modernistic building from the 1960s that serves as home to the Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra.
The piece, according to the program, featured a structure of 20 modules, although the boundaries of the modules were indistinguishable to the audience. What we experienced was an ensemble of “19 soloists and a soprano,” led by a director. The church space was a star participant in the musical experience more actively than is usually true, as the musicians at different times played from different stations both on a central podium and on all sides of the audience, including above, in alcoves built amid the organ pipes.
Both Nancy and I enjoyed the performance very much, and were both sitting there thinking – “So what is music, then?”
There were no discernible keys, measures, modes, movements, sections, melody or harmony. Although there were a variety of instruments, including reed, brass, percussion, string, and vocal, none of the instruments was played according to usual concepts of sounds to expect from those instruments.
I asked Nancy, my companion, who, among many other skills, was a symphony oboist at one time, what some of the instruments were. For instance, I had never seen a bass flute, which was used throughout this performance. But the flautist was not blowing into the flute – she was doing raspberries into the mouthpiece, which created a really unique sound. I had never seen a tuba mute, but was really impressed with that enormous, bulbous brass wedding cake-like form! The young, pretty blond soprano alternated between reading a whole chapter from James Joyce’s Ulysses in a tone so muted that most of what was audible to us in the audience was the urgent rhythm of spoken sibilants, alternating with occasional exclamations of vocal surprise or horror complete with contortional facial and bodily movements. At moments throughout the hour and twenty minute piece, we were reminded of, among many other auditory stimuli, vehicle sounds, baby and cat cries, beastly roars, thunderous outbursts, pelting rain, a running brook, and rustling leaves. A huge shiny black 128 button accordion was carried solemnly in procession down the center aisle in the dark by a black- bearded man dressed all in black, but we were hard pressed to distinguish which tones coming from the rear were emanating from the accordion. The musicians had scores on music stands in the different stations, and the music stands were lighted by small focused reading lights, but the church was dark throughout the performance, which did facilitate keeping our attention on the auditory environment without being distracted visually.
So what IS music, then?
After reflecting on Rebecca Saunders’ piece entitled “Yes,” I think music is an auditory analogy for the life we each compose of elements we encounter randomly. Every experience, every perception, every understanding is a component we can include in our composition however we choose.
Experiencing Saunders’ work made me realize the numerous musical elements with which everyday life is saturated. Since leaving the church, I’ve taken moments to simply listen around me, and I’ve been impressed by the layers of sound that I normally just filter out as “static.” On the street, I hear the juxtaposition of languages and emotional tones as people communicate orally. Overlaid there may be a young child’s whiny voice or a baby’s sharp cry. Or the overlay may be a homeless person muttering along the curb or a tall African in full costume yelling loudly into a cell phone as he strides past. Punctuating these vocal components are the sounds of motors, of the ding ding of a city bus telling someone to get out of the way, sirens in the distance, their doppler effect before and after they pass us by always fascinating, or the tinkling of utensils against ceramic dishes at a sidewalk café.
A city moment is a symphony of incidental music. Why haven’t I heard and appreciated it as such?
The human agency, the composition, the form – I’m the one who imposes that sense of order for myself, as every other individual also does individually.
This is an equally valid statement about the events of my life in other dimensions than the auditory. The emotional ups and downs, the way I interpret the physical signals from my body – its fatigue or freshness, for instance, or the many sensory impressions I take in – these are raw components for my composed experience, as I weave present moments together into my larger consciousness.
I think I tend to discount physical impressions in favor of larger spiritual meanings. Yet, the physical strands are what I am here to experience and to transform into deeper meaning. The concert was a wonderful reminder to not just filter out the physical aspects of present moments. It invited me instead to savor the richness that such details add to my perceptions, if I let them.
We left St. Eustache, after spending the time before and during the concert in its soaring nave whose vaults were built as 1500s Renaissance Paris was fading into an age of reason, and whose height even exceeds the inspiring loftiness of Notre Dame de Paris. We had heard our challenge to listen anew in the same space where King Louis XVI, the sun king, had made his royal first communion as a child, and where kings and princes had attended Mass on Sunday and conspired at other times to achieve and maintain absolute gilded power.
Outside, a brand new neighborhood with bright lights and broad promenades surrounded us – the replacement for the central food market that had been called the “Belly of Paris,” whose bloody and redolent all-night and early morning busyness I’d read about as a college student, and had returned to Paris too late to experience for myself. Instead of the thundering Belly of Paris, here we were in a vast, brightly lit 21st century pedestrian shopping mall filled with over 150 internationally branded stores and American fast food emporiums, with huge late night cafes full of patrons , while athletic youths swooped around and past us on roller blades, skate boards, and Solowheels, and dusk slowly blended into deepest night.
It had been a rich and enlightening evening of discovering more than we ever expected about the music of Life.