“Riopelle Symphonique” captures the spirit and power of a Canadian art trailblazer

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      When Blair Thomson sat down to compose the music for Riopelle Symphonique, finding a source of inspiration wasn’t difficult. The multimedia concert production was conceived as a tribute to boundary-exploding, Montreal-raised artist Jean Paul Riopelle, whose abstract paintings and sculptures made him an international giant in the middle of last century.

      Looking back on his writing experience, Thomson realizes that, in some ways, he tapped into the essence of how the famously prolific artist worked.

      “I wrote the music very quickly—in about two and a half months,” Thomson says, on the line from his adopted home of Montreal. “For about 75 minutes of orchestral music, that’s really, really, really unheard of. I was in a state of a kind of mono-maniacal intensity, and that’s how Riopelle actually painted and sculpted. I learned that he would have downtime, and then when he went into the studio it was nonstop.”

      Riopelle Symphonique has dozens of Riopelle’s works displayed on three massive custom-built LCD screens, those images set to a live orchestral performance of the music created by Thomson, who collaborated with iconic Quebec singer-songwriter Serge Fiori during the writing process.

      In Vancouver the show is at the Orpheum, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Vancouver Bach Choir providing accompaniment. Conducting the VSO will be Adam Johnson, with Thomson sitting in on piano and harpsichord.

      After leaving Montreal for Paris at the end of the ’40s, Riopelle developed an abstract expressionist style. He eventually abandoned his brushes and began to apply paint to canvas with a palette knife and trowel in an almost sculptural way. Over the course of his lifetime, he created more than 6,000 works, including actual sculptures—which can still be found in Quebec. This year marks Riopelle’s centenary.

      Already familiar with Riopelle’s work, Thomson started digging deep after being approached about scoring the project.

      “I learned pretty quickly that we both have the same birthday,” the composer says with a laugh. “Many, many things converged—afterwards, when I was finished everything, I was like, ‘This is a very poetic thing that’s happened.’ I was deeply affected emotionally while I was writing it—like I somehow connected to Riopelle’s sense of self and being.”

      "He was a complicated guy,” Thomson continues. “A very intense person—so one of the things that I tried to convey was the extreme psychological state of intensity and fragility that I sensed he had. Because of the time constraint that I had, I felt like I was inhabiting him. In some ways it was like transcribing a dream, which sounds pretentious. It was his spirit tapping into his inimitable aesthetic.”

      Riopelle Symphonique started with an idea from the Riopelle Foundation and Montreal’s GSI Musique: putting visual images of the late artist’s work to music, the project acting as a celebration of his art while also shedding light on his life. GSI Musique CEO Nicolas Lemieux brought Thomson together with Fiori, a former singer of Quebec prog legends Harmonium. Fiori’s songbook would provide a leaping-off point for Thomson in the composing room.

      “Serge is this mythical figure in Quebec,” Thomson says. “He was the leader of Harmonium, and then he disappeared—he came back in 2014 with this solo album that was completely acclaimed. His favourite artist is Jean Paul Riopelle, so I was asked to work with Serge. He gave me seven songs, and then said, ‘Do what you want with them.’”

      Fiori’s songbook would anchor the five movements that make up the score for Riopelle Symphonique.

      “It contributed to the uniqueness and intricacies of this project,” Thomson notes. “What I did was take a fragment of a song for the beginning of the five movements—each corresponding with a part of Riopelle’s life chronologically. It could be a few notes, could be a chord, could be a rhythm. Each movement is about 12 to 15 minutes, and as the work unfolds, eventually we recognize this Fiori song. And the degree to which we recognize that song parallels the degree of abstraction in Riopelle’s art.”

      The first movement in Riopelle Symphonique focuses on the artist before he moved from Quebec to Paris in 1949.

      “That’s when we have a young Riopelle searching for himself, and it’s the only time you’ll hear a few lyrics sung by the choir,” Thomas says. “In the second movement, I abandon language altogether and we just sing sanskrit syllables, much as Riopelle abandoned the brush. So the second and third movements are much more abstract, even though Riopelle didn’t like that word. In the fourth and fifth movements, we recognize Serge more as Riopelle’s art became more figurative. So in a sense, the listener is a participant in a kind of audio sculpture.”

      While Riopelle was famously involved in a tumultuous quarter-century relationship with Joni Mitchell, he was almost singularly focused on his art during that time; Thomson notes that he rarely talked about music. The techniques employed in his work, however, provided ample inspiration during the composition process.

      “His famous pieces from the ’50s were huge, huge murals—very abstract,” Thomson says. “It’s all about frenetic movement—very fast and jumpy, and that’s where the amplified harpsichord I use comes in. I used a lot of superpositions of rhythm—a lot of two, three, four, five, and sixes and sevens simultaneously. If you look at his work, a lot of his stunning, indescribable power—his art really affects me viscerally because it was physically tactile—is layers. So that was one technique I thought I could transfer from a visual medium into a temporal medium.”

      Since making its debut last year, Riopelle Symphonique has been hailed as a triumphant tribute to one of Canada’s most legendary artists, the music meshing perfectly with the visuals—telling the story of not only his art, but his life.

      “The whole thing was a kind of empathic journey from my end,” Thomson says. “I wanted to convey, as much as music can, the beauty of his work and why it is so powerful. It was: ‘To what extent can I inhabit his creative spirit?’ So when I say I was emotional, I really was. I don’t cry a lot, except maybe at cheesy movies. But for whatever reason, during the two months I was writing this, I was as fragile as the feeling was powerful.”

      Riopelle Symphonique, featuring the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra Vancouver Bach Choir, is at the Orpheum on Saturday (April 20). Get tickets here.