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Georges APERGHIS (b. 1945)
Storm beneath a skull
A film by Catherine Maximoff [59:16]
Little Red Riding Hood
A film by Jean-Baptiste Mathieu featuring Ensemble Reflex.[61:34]
rec. Paris, 2006.
DVD all regions NTSC
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Contrary to popular myth, most composers aren’t egomaniacs in hermetically sealed garrets, writing music too pure to be adulterated by the world. Some of them are real, live human beings. What is wonderful about this Ideale Audience Juxtapositions series is that it features the whole spectrum of creativity that goes into music, from composition to reception. Art doesn’t happen in isolation. Understanding the process by which music happens can enhance the way we learn to appreciate it more fully.
The first of these two films is a documentary in which the composer, Georges Aperghis talks about the ideas which inspired him, and then how those who perform his work feel about it. It revolves around the music, so you can hear the interaction unfold. Aperghis is a “polyphonist”, says a musician, who writes “a bouquet of voices converging or not, which overlay or connect … each voice adds a little thread which requires great rhythmic precision, because if one is not totally tuned in, it unravels”. This is music that happens in “realtime” as they say, because its sheer simplicity calls for exquisitely sensitive playing. A cellist and a zarb player - it’s an African drum, beaten by hand - demonstrate. The cello has a wider grammar than the drum, yet the two are so well integrated that it’s hard, on first hearing, to remember how basic the zarb is technically. The dialogue between the two musicians is so intimate that one instrument complements and challenges the other.
Then there’s a vocal ensemble where the three voices weave in and out and around each other at a furious pace which leaves no room for sloppiness. Amazingly, the distorted call and wails still found, recognisably like speech, since the connection with expression isn’t lost. Lionel Peintre, the tenor for whom Aperghis has written so much says that the piece wasn’t a composition “but a kind of living being that lashed out at me, the wildest animal I ‘d ever had to face, and quite a nasty one, too.” Living and powerful, like a wild beast? An accurate description indeed, of a piece so visceral and instinctive. Aperghis explains that he wanted to create a piece with the spirit of the cave paintings at Lascaux, the most ancient human art of all, because they expressed a sensitivity and sophisticated understanding of the animals they portrayed, showing their powerful energy. With a few simple tools, the cave painters took advantage of the unevenness of the rocks on which they painted, using the space available to them to help shape what they created. In the darkness, a bison’s solid body, emerging from a protuberance in the rock, must have seemed magically alive. Aperghis writes music theatre and opera, so he knows what it means to integrate performance with physical surroundings.
Peintre says that a “phoniatric specialist” once came up to him after a performance and said that everything he was doing was “dangerous” from a phonetic point of view and that it defied all that was taught about vocal chords. Yet it was that very “danger” he found so exciting.
Another singer says that she’s always shocked by a new score, wondering how on earth she’ll manage it. Yet, she says, she lets it inhabit her, and couldn’t live fully without the emotional effect it has on her life. As Aperghis says, meaning may be too deep to grasp, but it’s there, somewhere. “The mind,” he says “must constantly be asking: what’s going on? and listening”.
To illustrate this approach, we’re treated to excerpts from the opera Avis de Tempête (2004). A storm unleashes the wildest forces of nature. It’s dangerous and unpredictable, torrents of rain, followed by thunder, wind and crashes of lightning. A storm, says Aperghis, symbolises “the loss of logic or construction as decided by human forces”. That’s what gives his music such powerful energy, and what inspires, almost literally, electric performances from his musicians. This is shatteringly intense music, performed with extreme commitment.
The second film recreates the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood as if it were a story within a story. ”A group of musicians climbed into a box” goes the voice-over, in order to create the story. “For all we know, they are in that box still” it adds. “If they are alive at all!” This sums up a lot of the ethos of Aperghis’s work. The composer isn’t the only auteur. It’s almost a joint effort, reborn with each performance. Thus the lines blur between those wearing red hoods and those wearing wolf masks. Sometimes the little red hat “dances” by itself. Of course it’s invisibly manipulated by someone holding a stick while hidden behind the piano, but while we watch, spellbound by the mysteries of this ancient tale, we no longer need logic or causation. As the moral of the story makes clear, how stupid can a girl be, to get into bed with a wolf and not expect to get eaten? In this pared down yet extremely vivid form, the fairy tale becomes Greek drama, or a kind of medieval mystery play. Or not. Because with Aperghis and his musicians, there’s too much inherent subversion and inventiveness to fit any formula.
Anne Ozorio


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