Le Noir de L’Etoile

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On Friday evening, five percussionists from the Sound Icon ensemble came to the Armory to pound out the concentricity of cosmic space and music. Le Noir De L’Etoile (The Night of the Stars) is a composition by French composer Gerard Grisey. After meeting Berkeley astronomer Jo Silk in 1985, Grisey became infatuated with the pattern of electromagnetic waves emitted from a particularly radiant neutron star, Vela. This Vela pulsar formed the compositional inspiration for 58 minutes of a serious listening workout and destroyer of all attention spans. In normal circumstances I would have fidgeted out of my chair by the half-hour mark, but theses were no normal circumstances.

Unusual circumstance #1: As soon as entering the armory performance hall I unexpectedly and merrily reunited with old Boston Symphony Orchestra co-workers and friends, making me silently thankful to have returned to a city where this stuff can actually happen. After accepting a beer kindly offered out of half-pity for my inability to afford anything at the moment (the performance was free!), we made our way to our seats.

Unusual circumstance #2: The performers surrounded the audience. About 100 folding chairs were arranged somewhat crosshatched in a circle, so that no one was awkwardly staring into the eyes of other audience members. Six sets of percussive instruments encircled us; the people of the earth encircled by the drums of the stars.

Unusual circumstance #3: The performance created such a sense of encompassment and forward motion that the itch to start moving didn’t come. At this point I was glad to have that beer with me if just to peel the wrapper off, stop listening too hard, and finally ease into the “shamanic” surround-sound pulsations.

The performance itself was not as unusual as contemporary performances tend to be. As soon as the lights dimmed, the rumbling voice of Michael Caine’s closest French cousin methodically introduced the piece over a loudspeaker. I was lulled, and therefore missed most of the premise about pulsars and cosmology.  For lack of proper percussive terminology, I enjoyed the slow onset of deep rumbling drums echoing across room and audience, working off of each other as frequencies, tempo, and complexities increased. The sounds of the room slowly increased to cacophony, then suddenly retreated for a live recording of the Vela Pulsars. This introduced a distinct tempo to an otherwise fluid meter. Which was the music then, the drums, or the pulsars? Well played, Grisey.

I particularly like this phrase from the program notes, touching on a concept that I was pondering in not so many words:

“Of course, we know – or think we know – that with or without us… the Vela pulsar will continue [its] endless round and indifferent sweep across interstellar spaces with its beam of electromagnetic waves. But it is not by trapping them in a radio telescope and then integrating them into a cultural and sophisticated event – the concert – that they give more to us than their own songs?”

Whoa there. We are so sophisticated, us humans with our concerts. What more, exactly, are the stars giving us than their songs? More importantly, stars have songs? Because it seems to me that humans are making these songs as a way for us elite beings to make ourselves happy in our big, cold and scary surroundings.

Perhaps they give us hope to understand something greater than ourselves. When I look at stars I feel small and insignificant, and at the same time cannot comprehend how I have such a thing as a consciousness, or a soul (debatable), or eyes to see their brightness and register them as beautiful. The best conversations happen when stargazing, not during concerts.

At live music performances I don’t think about stars, but I do think about consciousness, the soul, and beauty. I am inwardly focused while also perceptive to other people’s experiences within my immediate proximity. With the Vela Pulsar playing a starring role (ha) in Le Noir de L’Etoile, I  think the stars were laughing at us: we call ourselves sophisticated and empirical beings, but we don’t really know very much yet, nor do we get out very much. We are child-like hermits, “trapping” starlight and using science and the arts to simulate our larger universe within a small enclosed atmosphere. Here we all are, the audience of the earth within the drums of the stars: only now trying to understand what more the stars are giving us.

There was a moment in the concert when a chain effect of drumming rotated around the audience. First once, then twice, each rotation modifying or elongating in time or intensity. I felt like the center of the universe, everything around me flowing clockwise and counterclockwise in concentric circles. Ironically, this is exactly what humans thought about our lofty existences before Copernicus strolled in. I think we all just want to be at the center of the universe.

That’s the main reason why I liked Le Noir L’Etoile. I liked the world flowing around me in primal explorations of percussive earth-stuff sounds and time measurement; stars sending rhythmic messages and inspiring moments of intense listening and simple appreciation; sitting with people and imagining their perceptions, while at the same time in awe that I have ears at all.

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