Critic’s Notebook: A Canadian Composer’s Obsession With Death and Search for Connection

It says much about Vivier and his music’s preoccupations that such a tragic coincidence has been assumed to have been more than an accident — that it was somehow preordained or even asked for, a kind of suicide. When Bob Gilmore, the conscientious author of a 2014 biography of the composer, presented at a 2008 conference the opinion that Vivier was “a wholly unwilling victim who did not in any way actively seek his own death,” it was met with resistance from even some of the composer’s friends.

Claude Vivier (1948-83) – Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? Video by PsapphaEnsemble

The intimate, in-the-round Soundstreams production — which pairs “Do You Believe,” Vivier’s final pages, with “Music for the End,” some of his first — doesn’t suggest his complicity in his own murder. But it leans heavily on the foreboding that was undoubtedly an element of his final days: A little over a month before he died, soon after writing the “Do You Believe” text, Vivier was assaulted and robbed by another man he’d brought home.

This is the attack described in the prelude that the playwright Zack Russell and the director Chris Abraham had affixed to the production (whose music director is John Hess), a monologue featuring the actor Alex Ivanovici as Vivier, complete with hyena laugh, wire-rimmed glasses and a perpetually stinking sheepskin coat.

Mr. Russell’s words give a sense of the composer’s anxiety in the wake of the January assault, coupled with his struggle to finish “Do You Believe,” which may have been connected to an opera he was mulling about the death of Tchaikovsky.

“How do you end an ending about the end?” this Vivier asks, over and over. The lights flicker; the sound system rumbles.

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The actor Alex Ivanovici as Vivier, complete with hyena laugh and wire-rimmed glasses. Credit Claire Harvie

It is a charged, not to say apocalyptic, introduction to “Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul,” with its eerily hovering electronic and choral drone. The performers here wear ashen-tone black, gray and brown, like the anonymous denizens on the outskirts of our lives. The work’s impassioned central tenor, who performs a kind of stylized love song with a vocalizing soprano, recedes for a final spoken narration.

Here, as at the end of “Music for the End” — when the score indicates that someone enters the space, asking repeatedly, at increasing volume, “where am I, who am I, where am I going” — the speaker in the Soundstreams staging is Mr. Ivanovici’s Vivier. While Vivier’s works do often seem to be his mouthpieces (the narrator at the end of “Do You Believe” even states his name is Claude), this is a bit of a blunt solution, erasing what seems to have been intentional ambiguity between his avatars and Vivier himself.

But it’s dramatically potent, as is this premiere staging of “Music for the End,” a shadowy, otherworldly rite, almost medieval in its soberly overlapping incantations, with drone layered on slow babble. A haze of stage smoke is broken by filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Ten live performers sing and play percussion instruments, also hanging.

Their deliberate, enigmatic movements around the space physicalize Vivier’s complex notation of the musical relationship between the singers, who sometimes come together — in pitch, syllable and rhythm — sometimes separate and sometimes remain solitary. The performers tie the hanging bulbs together, swing them and gather around them — treating them both as playthings and as sources of energy.

At points Vivier indicates that the performers should sing and speak material from their own memories, “evoking the most beautiful moments in their past.” Another small chorus — recorded, here in Toronto — sings a fragmentary bit of a Requiem mass. The seating in the round brought some of the performers startlingly close by; this wasn’t the unified statement available on a recording, but a piece visibly and audibly constructed simultaneously by individuals and the group they form together.

Claude Vivier: Lonely Child (1980) Video by Wellesz Theatre.

After Mr. Ivanovici’s Vivier shouted his climactic existential questions and screamed, the group slowly proceeded out of the space. A little girl was left onstage singing on her own, perhaps a symbol of the isolated youngster who Vivier — who was adopted at 3 years old and never knew his birth parents — always felt he was, and for whom he composed. (The lustrous, longing “Lonely Child,” from 1980, is one of his finest works.)

“I have to refine everything,” he wrote to a friend a few months before he died, “find the voice of the lonely child who wants to embrace the world with his naïve love — the voice we all hear and want to inhabit together.”

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