On the evening of 7 March 1983, the French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier went for a drink in a bar in the Belleville area of Paris. He picked up a young man there and took him back to his apartment to have sex. They met again several times afterwards. Later the man would stab Vivier. If, before he made his escape, the murderer had taken a glance at the composition Vivier was currently working on Glaubst Du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (“Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul”), he would have been able to read the text that is inaudibly woven into the score, which ends with the words: «I couldn’t take my eyes off the young man: it felt like I had been sitting opposite him for an eternity, and then he spoke to me: ‘Pretty boring this metro, isn’t it?’ I didn’t know what I should reply and, rather confused that he had returned my glances, said, ‘Yes, pretty much’, at which point the young man sat down next to me and said: ‘My name’s Harry’. I replied, ‘My name’s Claude.’ Then he pulled a knife out of his black waistcoat and stabbed me right in the heart.». That is the ending. Vivier had completed the first six minutes of Glaubst Du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele before meeting the man. The final section of the work was written during their relationship. Vivier was 34 years old when the police broke into his apartment and found his body.
But does that actually play any part in how we experience the music? Is it at all relevant to immersing oneself in Giacinto Scelsi’s sound world that he would spend the night in hotel wardrobes rather than the bed and did not want to be photographed? Does it make a difference to know that Grisey unexpectedly died of a ruptured aneurysm and, unlike us, was never able to hear his final work Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (“Four Songs to Cross the Threshold”) performed?
For some years now, I have conducted experiments on how non-professionals listen to new music. These are done by students interviewing friends and members of their family. They then listen to a piece of new music together and afterwards have a conversation which is recorded and subsequently analysed in class. From what we have learned we then devise listening situations for an audience that is unfamiliar with new music. The people answering the questions are children, teenagers, younger and older adults with a range of different educational backgrounds – all without any previous experience of new music. The only other criterion for selecting someone as an interviewee is that they must have a relationship of trust with the person who is asking the questions. The presence and support of another person are key elements in beginning a process of listening to new music. That presence helps the person who is unfamiliar with new music not to distance themselves automatically from sounds which – as is the case in most other people with no previous experience – elicit flight responses.
The subject of the experiment receives no information about the music before listening to it, only instructions about how to listen: settling down in a quiet place, closing your eyes while listening to the music, and not communicating. The effect of the music on listeners who are (un)prepared in this way are almost without exception the same: they are gripped by an unknown world, shocked by their encounter with a universe they have never set foot in and rocked by emotion. It gets under their skin. Many of them describe images that draw on the repertoire of the film industry. The use of unresolved dissonant intervals, of dangerously static sounds, or sharp notes that break in suddenly, deep rumbles that swell threateningly, shrill trilling, loud breathing noises and unexpected twists are familiar to them from film scenes that feature existential emotions of fear, being abandoned, gloom, darkness, persecution and flight. Professionals know how to resist such associations.
Gérard Grisey also provides his work Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil with words. But these words form part of the music: they open the space, they define the stage for what happens in the sounds: 1. La mort de l'ange (Death of the Angel), 2. La mort de la civilisation (Death of Civilisation), 3. La mort de la voix (Death of the Voice) and 4. La mort de l'humanité (Death of Humanity).
That is enough, no more is required. The words that are sung and called out during the music are also intended to be heard and not read in parallel. And if they are not directly understood, this is all part of really understanding the whole. Gérard Grisey pushes our heads below the line that separates the water and the sky, the conscious and unconscious, hearing and thinking, experience and analysis.
Presenters, musicologists, fellow composers, instrumentalists and music teachers all make an effort to spare the public the power of a work of new music. If someone knows in advance what awaits them, they have been warned and are less likely to be overwhelmed. This is why new music is often accompanied by many words: it is described very precisely, it is analysed, it is discussed, its architecture is explained in broad terms and in detail along with its texts, its quotations, its allusions, how it connects to the life of the composer and how it relates to the work of other composers. Experts and experienced professionals are asked to give lectures on it. These are able to de-construct a com-position, to isolate its constituent parts from the whole until the music lies there, neatly and tidily taken apart on the dissecting table before it is then finally transferred to the concert hall as a kind of corpse.
Consequently, as listeners, we know what is coming. We are already ahead of the structure of the music. We are safe from its power because we know something, because we know a lot, because we know everything already. We even know what the murdered composer was singing about in the language he invented himself. We know what he wanted to hide from precisely this kind of knowledge.