The Curtain Rises (EN)
The four strings of the viola buzz with the stirring ambient air: the virulence of a viola, a far cry from the complicities of a sedate beauty. The instrument frets, grates, crackles, screeches. It's thanks to the carpenter bee, or wood piercer, or Xylocopa, a large insect, violet in color, and hymenopterous, as they say – with membranous wings – in fact two pairs. He digs galleries in wood to lay his eggs in.
But why lend the viola the voice of this humble creature, far as it apparently is from angelic intercourse – an insect which has its uses nonetheless, but which occupies the lowest rung, or very nearly, of the ladder of beings? Yet it is also the case that bees in their swarm enjoy the highest honor in Dante's Paradiso, since they are none other than a manifestation of the heavenly host, an outpouring of the choir of angels, bestowing divine light upon the blessed and, "plunging into the unfathomable depth of heaven", then returning to dispense the peace and plenitude they have gathered there. Image of the ineffable, the swarm of bees exemplifies the crepitation of divine sparks within the light of eternal glory.
The long interior monologue of the violet carpenter bee – for viola and live electronic accompaniment – to which Lucia Ronchetti invites us, is not exactly akin to a beatitude. In this composer's eyes, the dolce still nuovo does not seem naturally disposed to express the principal propensities of human nature. Xylocopa is more like a pleasing but bitter fable, a philosophical tale that combines a suggestion of the supernatural, a satirical utopia and a lover's plaint. The tone that issues from the violet carpenter bee reflects a certain harshness of manners, but also expresses a sense of fatality, the intimate alliance between the wonderful and the monstrous. The clamor of the world, with harmonious strains in the palm of its hand, seems to flow endlessly onto the quotidian shore. The insect's insistent buzzing recapitulates an entire epoch, is, in fact, its background noise. Is it the din of distant wars or what Mandeville calls the "babbling congregation of rogues turned respectable"? Dante cast the cheats, the defrauders and the forgers into the eighth circle of hell, the circle of metamorphoses. Thus thieves are doomed to shed their skins like a reptile, a symbol of cold indifference towards one's own self-respect. Nowadays, though, the hum of business dissolves with impunity in the buzz. But Xylocopa's angry rustling persists, tenacious as the mark of the branding iron in troubled times, accusatory as the oracle of the Sibyl. Of old, the viola was the instrument of an unassuming disposition and amiable manners. But, from now on, it is prey to impatience, rumbling with the resentment of an embittered, frustrated, duped and defenseless race.
Lucia understands, like no one else, how to portray the pall, clammy and stifling, of a Sunday afternoon, that tedious, stagnant day, lulled by drowsy grumbling. But breaking away all at once from the torpor and abruptly tearing its bonds asunder, the viola soars and steals away to the realm of dreams. A shipwreck, an abduction, and lo! an enchantment for all one's senses. Soon some singing, boundless and evolving, transports the listener to the most remote regions of memory, in a quest for worlds gone by, to meet figures of the past who could be – one just doesn't know – Eros disguised or the landmarks of a grand tour in the world of the dead. The violet Xylocopa rediscovers the tone of the most ancient apocalyptic literature, with its wanderings in the hereafter, the Descent to the Underworld or the Heavenward Voyage.
Lucia has recognized the restlessness of limbo in the muffled and hoarse tone of the viola. This instrument still resounds with the somber innocence of underworld feasts. Wild and charming, perfectly capable of primitive outbursts, the viola demands of those who approach it a passionate devotion reminiscent of religious fanaticism and the ardent mysticism of the worshipers of Dionysus. Husky and shy at first, Xylocopa's voice becomes clearer and stronger little by little, finding at last its tone of impetuous banter and the feverish sharpness used to express the expectation of danger. The obsessive nature of formulas, a constant feeling of urgency and internal necessity, leave little space for conciliatory mediation. Besides, Xylocopa's carping eloquence grows keener, with flashes of acute raillery which, in this music, expand into sublime sallies.
The music of Xylocopa seems sustained by a principle of incessant transformation, by metamorphosis, in short. Through its succession of notes it relates the vicissitudes of instinct just as accurately as it describes the soul's advance. The listener is cast into a universe of opulence and fantasy, a multiplying medley, as if he had been induced to inspect a book of droll engravings of the Curiosities of Nature – prodigies, hybrid forms born of the interbreeding of species, freaks and chimeras. Yet, whatever the impressions of one's first hearing, Lucia Ronchetti's art cultivates neither anomaly, error nor aimless wandering. Her music disdains the cloak of artifice and secrecy, and if she makes reference to the great baroque theme of life turned upside down, it may well be just to free us from easy fascination. Reading the score reveals a dense, powerful, concise work, the result of constant paring down, with ideal combinations of lines and volumes. Unquestionably, Barbara Maurer made a significant contribution to the extreme precision of the instrumental writing, which is based on an intuitive understanding of how the instrument functions and exactly how it performs.
The piece seems haunted by the question of the symbolic transmission of emotion. It reveals the irony of the life of passion, in its powerlessness, its inconstancy and its extreme anguish. The reference to French classicism is quite explicit, and indeed the geometrical foundation of the composition might make one think of Charles Le Brun's Conférence sur l'expression des différents caractères des passions (Method to Learn to Draw the Passions). All the same, this music, 'written with a scalpel', does not destroy one's illusion, which, as Leopardi said, is necessary – even essential – to human nature. Lucia's music preserves us from the nightmare of enshrined Reason and the ravings of lucidity.
As Thomas Mann said, one doesn't try to speak to the Devil about liberal theology, which is just another way of saying that music at this point seems increasingly dedicated to the untransfigured expression of human suffering.