By Alex Pauk
I first became aware of Claude Vivier a decade before he became my friend. We met at a university composers’ forum in Montreal held at McGill’s Redpath Hall in the early 70s. There, Harry Somers, a more senior composer who also later became my friend, had been invited to give an address.
In the middle of Harry’s stately, measured presentation, Claude leapt onto the stage behind Harry and began bashing at the drums, cymbals and gongs. He then began wailing, howling, chanting, in some strange unknown language in an unnervingly, yet endearingly humorous, protest. Vivier pressed Somers not to be boring—to generate some action, excitement, controversy—to stimulate and propel us into something new and adventurous. Toronto’s Rosedale (refined, poised, Edwardian) was confronted by Montreal East (brash, outrageous, rough-edged). I can’t even remember what Harry’s overshadowed lecture topic was.
As I got to know Claude years later, such extroverted, explosive episodes became something to expect without warning. Claude’s loud, outrageous, recognizable laugh in any crowd, including in concert halls, and his bold opinions (which were made known to anyone within earshot) became legend. Such expressions of character seemed better suited to “The Pit,” a beerhall dive in Montreal where we often met and where he was even more uninhibited.
Giving you unabashed, spontaneous performances or demonstrations of whatever he was working on at an upright piano in his apartment—at his insistence, like it or not—was one of his favourite things to do. On phone calls he would frequently put the receiver on the piano and play this stuff for whoever he was talking to. He also wasn’t afraid to give you his point-blank, straight-shooting commentary (i.e. criticism) of what you may have been writing or performing at that time.
In the late 70s and into the early 80s it was obvious that travelling the world was becoming more important for him—getting away from what increasingly seemed to him to be a parochial scene in Montreal. He also began asking, “Where’s the money?” meaning “How’s one to be a composer and live in this country without greater support?” He was disillusioned and disappointed in the struggle he endured, as he was sure that he was super-talented and should be appropriately rewarded. Now that he is dead, the riches pile up. Music history repeats itself!
The first time I got to spend considerable time with him and really got to know him was one summer in Quebec City in the mid-70s. He had been commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra (NYO) to write Siddhartha, a work for large orchestra. I had been hired by the NYO as a contemporary music animateur, programming and conducting new music ensembles. For a variety of reasons, Siddhartha did not get premiered that summer. In the turmoil of this disappointing situation, Claude constantly escaped by making the rounds, romping around Quebec City’s dark underground social scene. I began to see what a dangerous life he was leading outside the world of music—a lifestyle that eventually got him murdered.
Ironically, it was not until after his death in 1983 that I conducted so many of his works—works that he wrote during those last tumultuous years when I was getting to know him. The year of his death is also the year that I founded Esprit Orchestra and became able to program Claude’s orchestral and large ensemble works—the first being Zipangu (also written in 1983).
Now it is natural for me to think of programming Claude’s pieces, and so many others in the world think the same way. Ligeti, who Claude studied with, commented that he thought Vivier was the most talented, original, and individualistic composer of his age. It seems that he was right. The period after his passing was when others in the music world also came to understand and appreciate his unique gifts.
On the grand scale, it feels like my friendship with Claude was fleeting and that working with his music after his death has provided a more profound, lasting connection with him. There is a completeness in my friendship with Claude when I perform his music because I know the character that generated those scores. I know how my friend would have wanted them to be interpreted.