MONTREAL – Computer technology vaults irrevocably forward. Does concert music pay any heed?
There are sporadic attempts to link the two, among which we can now count (and probably discount) Les Planètes, an audio-visual experiment in a downtown planetarium-like space called the Satosphère, where Louise Bessette, a notable interpreter of contemporary music, played on a Disklavier while various abstract forms burst forth, swirled around, bumped into each other, rained down from above, and otherwise strove with only moderate success to illuminate the music. I attended the performance of Feb. 28.
The title score was not by Holst but rather Walter Boudreau, artistic director of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), the province’s most venerable new-music collective. Far from a premiere, Les Planètes was written mostly in the 1980s and 1990s, and partly with the aid of a computer of the period. On this occasion, the 33-minute suite was fed into a program that generated visuals accordingly, with one exception noted below.
Barring a few intersections with the orbit of Messiaen, Boudreau’s music is toughly and brilliantly atonal. The struggle to keep track of the 13 movements (Earth, the sun, and the formerly uncontested Pluto were included, along with revisits to Mercury and the Sun) was difficult and the images offered little aid. At one point we saw the vivid rings of Saturn, but the relevance to this planet of the heavy clusters Bessette created with her left forearm was unclear. Possibly a sequence of cylinders shooting off like ballistic missiles had something to do with Mars. Possibly.
In the case of Earth there was, appropriately, direct human agency, as Yan Breuleux, the video producer of the performance (programmer Rémi Lapierre also received a credit), used a hand-held unit to create spaghetti-like forms that might be evocative of cellular life. Elsewhere we saw spheres colliding in a manner that suggested nuclear fission in slow motion. Or beams of light. Or just old-fashioned fireworks.
What these colorful images, many remarkable in their own right, had in common was a capacity to distract attention from the music. This was true also in the classical opening selections, the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata illustrated with a conventional image of rippling water and a landscape illuminated by a full moon (very much along the lines of what Ludwig Rellstab, inventor of the “Moonlight” nickname, had in mind). Petals and blossoms started to fall, in the spirit of Impressionism, during Debussy’s Clair de lune. In both cases, I reflected on how much richer the music is than any effort to embellish it.
Bessette played with great technical panache in the challenging Boudreau suite and with steady grace in the classical numbers. The amplified piano sound was best suited to Boudreau. As for the Satosphère, operated by the interdisciplinary Société des arts technologiques, it is a dome of 2011 vintage that is already, even to my Luddite eyes, starting to show its age. The technology of the moment will lose its currency and relevance. Music has staying power.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.