It’s not surprising to see that a biography of the Canadian composer Claude Vivier has finally appeared. What is surprising, perhaps, is that it was written by an Irish musicologist based in England, the late Bob Gilmore (who sadly passed away in January) – and that it was brought out by an American publisher, the University of Rochester Press.
Gilmore’s clearly-written book is a biography that recounts Vivier’s life, from its mysterious beginning to its mysterious end. Because Vivier was adopted, his birth parents remain unknown; similarly, many unanswered questions surround his murder in Paris, at the age of just 34.
Gilmore’s extensive research materials include newspaper articles, and Vivier’s own letters and other writings. As well, the author interviewed many people who knew Vivier. And it’s from these testimonials that the composer’s complex personality vividly emerges.
For example, according to the composer Walter Boudreau, who was a colleague of Vivier’s, “There’s so much pain in his music, it’s terrible. Yet Claude was a clown, in life, with people. How could he disguise his terrible insecurity? By being an asshole. And by being so loud.”
Similarly, the Canadian composer Barry Truax recalls, “He was very ‘bohemian,’ usually wearing boots and a big fleece-lined coat (always quite smelly) and sometimes with a boyfriend in tow as well. We were good friends, but the more emotional and mystical he became as a Francophone, the more Anglo I seemed to become.”
In the early chapters of the book, we learn of a sensitive young man, growing up in Montreal in the 1960s, who aspired to the priesthood but who was also attracted to the new freedoms and opportunities that Quebec’s “Silent Revolution” made possible. His musical education was rather haphazard – he never really mastered any instrument – but his interest soon became sharply focused on composing, under the tutelage of Gilles Tremblay at Montreal’s Conservatoire de Musique. It’s impossible to know what would have become of a misfit like Vivier if he didn’t make a go of composition.
Vivier went to Europe in the early 1970s. He studied in Cologne and Utrecht, and attended the famous new-music festivals at Darmstadt and Donaueschingen. By the end of the decade, he was steeped in European modernism, and was especially impressed with the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. But it was his further travels, in the late 1970s, that “completed” Vivier. Armed with a fascination for the exotic and a desire to step outside the Judeo-Christian world, he went to Egypt, Iran, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan. Gilmore writes, “There is no doubt that Vivier’s Asian journey marked him and his music profoundly.”
Through his education, travels, and life experiences, Vivier merged the technical aspects of the European avant-garde with the musical traditions and mysticism of Asia, to forge a unique compositional ethos poised between modernism and postmodernism. He wrote, “I want art to be a sacred act, the revelation of forces, the communication with these forces. The musician must organize no longer just the music, but sessions of revelation, sessions of the incantation of forces of nature, forces that existed, exist and will exist, forces that are the truth.”
For the rest of his short life, Vivier spent most of his time in Montreal, with a few more trips to Europe. Gilmore recounts Vivier’s artistic successes in Canada, and also his financial challenges, as he tried to earn a living from his compositional work. (It is, of course, almost impossible to survive as a “professional composer” in Canada without a position at a university or conservatory – and Vivier did not like teaching.)
Gilmore also intertwines the chronological events of Vivier’s life with detailed discussions of his compositions. He does this, he says in the preface, for two reasons. He believes that “practically everything Vivier wrote was motivated by artistic impulses that are essentially autobiographical.” And he also argues that “one cannot claim to understand Vivier’s life without at least some understanding of his music.”
For these reasons, Vivier’s personal connections to his own works are often underscored. In his opera Kopernikus, Gilmore points out that “Vivier made it quite clear that he identified strongly with the central character of the opera.” And as for Vivier’s concert-aria Lonely Child, Gilmore rhetorically asks, “Is Vivier himself, as the author of the text, speaking to his mother, the mother he never knew, hearing words he so desperately wanted to hear?” Other recurring themes in Vivier’s music are discussed in the pages of A Composer’s Life, including his fascination with death, with imaginary realms, and with the invented “languages” he used in his texts.
Gilmore’s discussion of Vivier’s compositions often veers towards the technical – although this book is certainly no doctoral dissertation in music theory, and any musically literate person should be able to understand it. There’s even a succinct explanation of Vivier’s use of “spectral” compositional technique.
Vivier’s death is the subject of the twelfth and final chapter in the book. The facts are plainly laid out: while on a trip to Paris in 1983, he invited a man back to his apartment, and this man – later identified as twenty-year-old criminal named Pascal Dolzan – stabbed him to death. Inevitably, people close to Vivier attempted to “interpret” this horrific event “as inevitable, as a type of suicide, or as a meaningless accident.” Gilmore concludes, “It is, finally, an area where no real ‘explanation’ is possible.”
Only a few final pages of this book are devoted to the musical world’s growing interest in Vivier’s music, following his death. The subject would be worthy of at least another chapter. But this research will have to be done by another writer.
© Colin Eatock 2015