Wo Bist Du Licht! (1981)
For mezzo-soprano, ensemble, and tape
Performed by Marie-Annick Béliveau and the L’Ensemble de la SMCQ
Vivier’s last work “Crois-tu en l’immortalité de l’âme?” (“Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?”) aside, I consider “Wo Bist Du Licht!” (“Light, Where Are You!”) to be Vivier’s most disturbing work.
A few months ago a friend of mine made a good argument against this piece by saying that, unlike some of Claude Vivier’s other masterpieces like “Lonely Child,” “Wo Bist Du Licht!” lacks the clear personal expression that makes Vivier’s music so profound. I considered this argument valid, until a few days ago when I listened to “Wo Bist Du Licht!” again. It sent chills up my arms, back, neck, and head and frankly left me in a stupor for quite a while. As a result, I now think that what makes “Wo Bist Du Licht!” so achingly beautiful is that it’s not directly personal.
When contemplating aesthetics I often return to the dialogue in James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” where Stephen Dedalus argues that beauty in art requires pity ‘which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer’ and terror ‘which arrest the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant…and unites it with the secret cause.’ Although, I often think that beauty also requires direct personal expression, the seemingly objective perspective in which Claude Vivier places confused fragmented nonsense against the found text in “Wo Bist Du Licht!” invokes an almost universal personal sense of terror and pity that imbues the work with a frighteningly beautiful current that I think one rarely finds in music.
The following commentary on the textual and poetic focus of “Wo Bist Du Licht!” is taken from one by my friend, the Montréal composer, Michel Gonneville and uses large extracts of a quote by Claude Vivier.
“Hölderlin’s text “Der blinde Sänger” is superimposed on three types of texts:
1. ‘An emotional one that is extremely significant for America: Martin Luther King’s last speech and a recording in situ of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.’…
2. ‘Abstract text, with no signification’ (invented language)…
3. ‘Finally, a descriptive text about torture. This text has an enormous emotional power due, in part, to the almost neutral tone [of the two radio speakers]. Hölderlin’s text, “Der blinde Sänger,” holds the key to understanding my composition. An old blind man remembers his past, beautiful picturesque scenery; greenery, clouds, etc. The present is evoked by harsh sound images: thunder, earthquakes. He longs for light, freedom, death perhaps…’”