Vortex 1

In a recent comment thread from the main page about the Alarm Will Sound concert, I expressed my skepticism concerning the value of visuals in enhancing the concert experience.

To briefly reiterate, this skepticism arises from my personal experiences with the biological principal which states that when when one sense is turned off the others, to compensate, become heightened. This is why Evelyn Glennie, although deaf, is such an amazing percussionist and is also why I usually like to close my eyes at concerts.

However, despite attending some concerts where the visuals have proved, as Alex Ross eloquently said, “confining” I have also been to some concerts where the visuals have enhanced the depth that the music affected me. One of the best examples of the latter that comes to mind was a recent concert by the Ensemble KORE where Moiya Callahan coordinated visuals to her composition “you see me.” In this instance, the singer sang permutations of the titles’ three words and, during a particularly hypnotic moment, the sung word “you” was juxtaposed against a projected visual which just contained the word “me.”

Given the complexity of this issue, I was anxious to see what I would think of a concert titled Vortex 1 featuring Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum performed by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne and a new ballet accompaniment by Isabelle Vaan Grimde.

Vortex Temporum (for flute [doubling piccolo and alto flute], clarinet [doubling bass clarinet], violin, viola, cello, and piano) is one strongest pieces in the post-spectral canon. A primary feature of the work are four notes of the piano that are detuned by a quarter-tone and comprise a diminished seventh chord. This feature provides a symmetrical axis that the work’s harmonic/spectral content pivots on. In addition, the work is almost entirely based on an unfolding figure which was drawn from a key figure in Ravel’s ballet Daphnis & Chloé. The work begins with this figure hypnotically knotting and unfolding and, as time progresses, this figure gradually weaves over itself at various rates to represent the poetic “Vortex Temporum” of the title.

In my opinion, the music’s gestural language wonderfully invokes the imagination and my hope was that the ballet would provide an inspiring visual counterpoint – which, thankfully, it did.

The concert was presented in an intimate environment at the Agora de la Danse studio: about a hundred seats, placed two rows high, were placed around the square dance floor. As the audience seated itself, an ambient electro-acoustic work titled “Le prélude à Vortex 1” by Thom Gossage obscured the beginning of the concert. During this piece, the dancers gradually emerged from the audience and began performing the rotating gestures which would constitute the primary movements for Vortex Temporum. When the audience was seated the five dancers slowly began to ebb and flow more clearly until the prelude died down and only two dancers were present behind the conductor.

Without an interruption, Vortex Temporum began and the dancers began to spin, unfold, and accumulate. As the music began to thin in texture, the dancing became quicker and more complex. Although the sound of footsteps was constantly present during this thinning, I was not distracted from the music. In fact, I found this sound highlighted a moving intensity that I had never heard before in the first movement. During the piano cadenza, which ends the first movement, the five dancers gradually liquidated to one. This last dancer finally slowed to a stop when the the piano ended. At this moment, her audible respiration seemed to reflect a shadow of the first movement’s intensity.

The second movement is remarkably static and fatalistic. To contrast the first movement, the dancers moved slowly and were almost completely silent.

The final movement of Vortex Temporum is the most complex movement and, when listening to it, it is almost impossible to pinpoint when and how the changes occur. The dancing provided a perfect counterpoint to this gestural unfolding and helped me to discover textures I had never heard before. When work the finally died down to its conclusion I felt that I had just came in contact with an artistic organism which continues to linger in my mind as I write this.

One of the best things about this performance was the virtuosity and confidence that all of the performers presented. This is probably because, by the time I had seen it, the work had already been performed over half a dozen times. In addition, it was a real treat to share this intimate experience with a sold-out crowd. My only hope is that the many people who came primarily to see the dance component of the work got as much out of the collaborative musical experience as I did.

* * *

On another note, tomorrow the biannual week-long contemporary music festival MusiMars starts here in Montréal. This year the festival focuses on the music of Scandinavian composers such as Lasse Thoresen, Anders Hillborg, Per Nørgärd, and Bent Sørensen.

Since the festival occurs at McGill, and I have to work some for it as an assistant for the McGill Digital Composition Studio, I will be attending almost every event. In the upcoming week, I’ll try to keep you all posted on the highlights.

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