Discourses in Music: Volume 2 Number 2 (Winter 2000-2001)

A response to Janette Tilley's Eternal Recurrence: Aspects of Melody in the Orchestral Music of Claude Vivier

By Ross Braes

Janette Tilley's article on aspects of melody in Claude Vivier's orchestral music is very welcome. Too little is written about this eclectic Montréal composer who is currently far more popular in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, than in Canada. My own work is primarily concerned with his harmonic language, but melody is certainly a key factor in Vivier's orchestral music.

Tilley establishes two sources of Vivier's melodic style: Stockhausen, and Vivier's interest in Asian music (notably that of Bali). Discussing Vivier's years studying with Stockhausen in Cologne, she emphasises the latter's interest in melody and its greater ramifications on large-scale structures. Arguably, Stockhausen's Mantra (1971) was a major influence on Vivier, which Tilley demonstrates with analyses of Vivier's immediate post-Cologne work, Lettura di Dante for soprano and mixed septet (1974) and his first full orchestral work, Siddhartha (1976). Specifically, she focuses on the impact of the Stockhausen formula of a multi-motive melody (i.e. "limbs") and its subsequent repetitions that are subject to variations. Tilley's concluding appraisal of Vivier's variations with Stockhausen's is succinct, stating they are "over-simplified" and result in "immediate audibility" of the basic theme, as opposed to Stockhausen's "esoteric and indiscernible" manifestations.

However, I am yet to be convinced about aspects of Tilley's analysis of Orion (1979), especially her claim that "Vivier transforms the melody in various ways much like Stockhausen's Mantra." This comparison demands more analysis than Tilley presents in her brief discussion of a comparable transformational aspect of repetition of melodic pitches. As well, the "simple ratio of 1:2:3" in Orion is not fully explained: what constitutes this ratio? Her supposition about intervallic expansion and contraction in Orion's final section (which Vivier terms "the melody on two intervals") is more persuasive, although again lacking in detail.

Turning to the second major influence, Balinese music, Tilley briefly describes the implementation of certain scale patterns, then focusses on kotekan (i.e. interlocking melodies), what Vivier considers as complementary melodies. I especially agree with her point that a two-part canon, as based on the first "limb" of the melody in the second section of Orion, is a good example of kotekan. As well, Tilley lucidly outlines Vivier's predilection for simultaneous development of melodies and complementary melodies, particularly when the latter often originate from the opening melody, as demonstrated in her musical examples of Pulau Dewata (1977). The simultaneous statement of up to three motivic "limbs" is another example of kotekan, elegantly analysed through one passage of Orion at rehearsal number five.

While such passages in Orion incorporate a number of superimposed transpositions of each "limb" to create an even denser texture, I cannot agree that these are the result of expansion. Rather, I believe such textures utilise what I call "chord colours," a series of predetermined harmonies, with each chord based on each of the melodic notes. This is Vivier's interpretation of Klangfarbenmelodie, or what he terms jeux de timbres in his orchestral pieces. Furthermore, the basic untransposed motives are still present, and this helps to retain their individual melodic shapes. The simultaneous statement of various motivic "limbs" is nonetheless an important kotekan feature for Vivier, and Tilley's reference and analysis is indeed insightful.

Tilley closes with general remarks about Vivier's melody, aptly describing its aesthetic qualities as "non-teleological and non-dialectical," its similarity to Indian ragas in their gradually unfolding process from a single pitch, and its strong affinity to his "Catholic heritage and fascination with plainchant." As well, she shrewdly observes that Vivier's interest in Balinese music "seems to confirm Stockhausen's [melodic] techniques" rather than form a "wholly new inspiration," and that "the element of ritual is stronger" in Vivier's repetition of melody than in Stockhausen's Mantra "due largely to his willingness to simplify and make audible his compositional procedures." Tilley's final summation could have been extended much further to recognise that Vivier's use of melody was not just a "reconciliation" of Stockhausen's and Balinese music. It was part of Vivier's new musical language that developed beyond these sources.

Ross Braes is a doctoral candidate in Music Theory at the University of British Columbia. The working title of his dissertation is "Jeux de timbres: the formative compositional element of Claude Vivier's transition period 1979-80." It will include detailed analyses to Orion, Lonely Child, Zipangu, and possibly also Cinq chansons pour percussion. Expected completion date: fall 2001.