Music on Main’s artistic director, David Pay, is known for his gracious concert introductions; he has a way of making listeners feel at ease and at home, even if what they’re about to hear is adventurous or even difficult. But what Pay has on tap for the first night of MoM’s annual Modulus Festival goes above and beyond a warm welcome. Walking in Beauty: a concert-ritual is many things, but at heart it’s an induction into a magical combination of text and sound, where living forms of spirituality meet ancient rites, where the Old World and the New commingle, and where cultures cross but never clash.
The brainchild of pianist and composer Thierry Pécou, whose Ensemble Variances will perform, Walking in Beauty is a kind of three-part suite. Opening with Pécou and Guillermo Diego’s relatively compact and all-instrumental Paseo de la Reforma, the program will then move into vocalist Katarina Livljanić’s incantatory Kokla Kokabula before culminating in Pécou’s own Changing Woman, Cantata of the Four Mountains, which incorporates texts by the Navajo poet Laura Tohe. Over the course of the night, the music will take us through the dark and surreal exorcism rituals of medieval Croatia, and then into the sunlit beauty of the American Southwest.
For Pécou, writing Changing Woman was an instinctual response to his own first encounter with that landscape. “I was very impressed by the specificity and the power of Navajo culture, and the way they place what we can call beauty, health, and harmony inside of their philosophy of life,” he explains in careful but accented English from a Detroit, Michigan, tour stop. “So I started searching for more about them, and eventually I went to Arizona and New Mexico, and I met Laura Tohe in person, even before reading much of her poetry. She gave me some books and we had a very open exchange, and then we decided that we would work together.”
Transiting from the green, manicured landscape of central France to the vast deserts and dramatic mountains of Arizona and New Mexico had a profound impact on the 53-year-old composer. “It was so powerful to see the beauty of the landscape—how large it is,” he says. “So in the music, I think the way I translated this is… I did it in two ways: in this sort of feeling of space that I tried to put into the music, and the way I responded to the Navajo territory, which is sort of a square territory, with four sacred mountains in the four corners of the space. So in the piece, the concert space is divided into four places, and the musicians are going from one place to the other all the time, describing a kind of circle—which also, of course, refers to the role of the circle in native culture.”
Kokla Kokabula is very different in both structure and intent, but Livljanić’s setting of ancient texts that combine aspects of both Catholic and pagan ritual also touches on the importance of the natural world in various belief systems. And this recognition of nature, Pécou says, is something he’d like to see more of in contemporary music.
“There’s also another aspect which is pushing in another direction,” he allows, alluding to artificial intelligence and notions of the transhuman. “But as a composer, as an artist, I feel a need in my own work to work with these things.”
Music on Main presents Walking in Beauty: a concert-ritual at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Friday (November 2). The Modulus Festival continues at various Vancouver locations until Tuesday (November 6).