A World Premiere at the Concertgebouw

This afternoon at the Concertgebouw, the Ensemble intercontemporain, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado, gave a lively concert featuring, amongst a number of works, the “Lied der Waldtaube” in Schönberg’s own later arrangement (1922) and Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” in the arrangement by Eberhard Kloke, both sung by Susan Graham, the latter with passion and volume; but what proved really striking and most distinguished the program, was the world premiere of a work commissioned by the Ensemble from the young French composer Yves Chauris.

Executed by twenty-four musicians and entitled “Un Minimum de monde visible,” it was a tense composition that, with the title being taken at its word, eschewed sonic picture-making in order to introduce onomatopoeic likenesses of certain realities instead: in bursts throughout the course of it, quite convincingly, the audience was given to hear the paraphernalia of aerial warfare such as warning sirens, the strained whir of aircraft engines, the thunderous rat-a-tat-tat of tracer fire and further countermeasures – and these fiery storms did not only rain suddenly on the targets from above, but gave way to passages filled by the panicked aural chaos on the ground, which were in turn followed by the noise of the waves of bombardment as they may have sounded up on high and been registered in the ears of the pilots and the crews carrying them out, without the incidental compression of sounds which move at speeds not that much greater than those of the objects emitting them. Nor did this sequence occur once only. The whole scene, therefore, was heard and had been constructed from a number of angles, and it’s a sign of how artfully these embattled sensoria were stoked from beginning to end (although the middle part lasted perhaps slightly too long) that the attentive nervousness in the hall never flagged.

A brief excerpt, delineating something like an underground air-raid-shelter sub-sequence perhaps, is available on the Ensemble’s Soundcloud page.

There further elucidation is also provided in the form of a tripartite audio interview with the composer, while briefer remarks may be found in the printed program notes by Joep Christenhusz. One impetus behind the work was given by a set of old prints Chauris saw, during a residency some years ago in Japan, depicting the roads that once linked Tokyo and Kyoto, which, quite apart from the pathos of nostalgia informing the images, intrigued him on account of the entire topographic whole a few sequential views could extrapolate out of themselves, as it were. “Ik raakte gefascineerd door de sequensmatige ordening van die afbeeldingen,” the composer says, “door de manier waarop een aaneenschakeling van losse segmenten een overzicht van de gehele route geeft.” The lesson of this artistry was not lost on him: to judge from today’s first hearing, at least, his composition, constructed as it seems to have been from a small number of different acoustic angles, evinces a similar economy of architectonic means.

The title of the work, too, has a story behind it. Literally! In a short cautionary tale by Jorge Luis Borges whose theme is dreams and the perils of dreaming, “Las ruinas circulares” – a text which, even though it’s not one of his best works, is certainly noteworthy, not least because in effect it constitutes a variation on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the unnamed sorcerer sought to dream a man into existence, “quería soñarlo con integridad minuciosa e imponerlo a la realidad,” and then send him on his way into the world, an undertaking for which the best spot he could find was within the broken walls of a deserted temple, “porque era un mínimo de mundo visible.” Sheltered there he eventually realized his aim, or so he believed until the experiment with the force of dreams ended by engulfing the dreamer himself, and he forfeited not so much his life only as his very reality, he himself having been revealed in his own eyes as merely a figure in another dream. “Con alivio, con humillación, con terror, comprendió que él también era una apariencia, que otro estaba soñándolo.”

It is a thought-provoking conclusion in the age-old “la vida es sueño” vein, to say the least, yet the choice of a title for “Un Minimum de monde visible” probably was owing to the unsettled mood which Borges defined in so few words. This explosive triad of sentiments (alivio, humillación, terror) represents the most startling and the most modern moment of his story, after all, and of all the arts music might bring one to feel it to a much higher degree – disorientating a listener with all three at once especially when, as Chauris seems to want to do, we’re given to understand that such sounds as the work is made of may actually be dreaming of us.