People ask me from time to time where I got my interest in music, in musical objects and records, and why I refer to them so much in my visual art. In a way, this is a question about the origin and meaning of things, of existence itself, an “unanswered question” in the words of Charles Ives.
Nevertheless, I can point to a few things that offer, if not answers, at least a few clues, hints … My grandfather Arthur Gervais, for example, was an amateur violinist and a chorister at the Saint-Vincent Ferrier Church in Montreal. And my grandmother Rita Renaud played the piano on occasion (“The Last Rose of Summer” and other favorites of the era). At family get-togethers everyone sang. Uncle Adrien performed M’appari by Martha (B’lotow) with Aunt Jeanne accompanying him. I also remember a mysterious clarinet tucked away in a box in a glass cabinet. It belonged to my Uncle Guy who bought it from a stranger on the street, for almost nothing. Nobody could play it. It remained there silent on a shelf, like a decoration: a trinket in sections, in a little black box. Around the age of five I went to visit my grandparents for two or three weeks on rue Henri-Julien. I remember asking my grandmother if I could touch the clarinet behind the glass wall. She took out the precious instrument and I touched it, awkwardly pressing the keys, turning over the sections one by one in my hands. And then she put it back in its case and its home on the shelf. I never heard anyone play the instrument. In my memory it is mute, asleep in its felt box, silently smiling at me.
My father, although he had no musical training, had a passion for classical singers, for “beautiful voices.” His record collection included 78s by Raoul Jobin, Enrico Caruso, and Jan Peerce (his favourite tenor), which he played on Sundays (the official record-playing day at our house on rue Saint-Gerard). On weekends we would listen to a radio show featuring Jewish cantors, hoping to hear Peerce or Richard Tucker. At the same time we discovered other cantors who, although not opera singers, still had magnificent voices and sang with the same overpowering emotion (Joseff Rosenblatt, for example, or Gershon Sirota, the “Caruso of cantors”).
My own record collection began around 1959-60, with opera singers at first (John McCormack, Jussi Bjoerling, Alexander Kipnis). My memories of opera thus originate from both records and radio. On Saturdays, the radio would be on all afternoon for the live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. No one really sat down to listen to the whole opera from start to finish. But the music, with all its passion, joy, suffering, excesses, madness, swept through the house on a torrent of emotions that nothing could stop. And yet only a button had to be pushed (which sometimes happened, the opera not always being to everyone’s taste). All of us went about our business in the midst of these ornate, lofty, extravagant voices. Even today, I associate Saturday with these vocal sonorities which filled the entire house, and which everyone took more or less for granted.
My maternal grandfather, Onesime Lachapelle, was a member of a Marconi Club in Montreal, and my father also had a passion for the radio. He built them and repaired them for anyone who asked. And he was fascinated by those remote stations that could be picked up on short-wave, by those voices and music from faraway lands that he listened to through earphones. He installed antennae on the roof to improve the reception, higher and higher, more and more sophisticated. Often at night, after dinner, he would set up his radios on the kitchen table and work away ’til the wee hours. From our bedroom across from the kitchen we could hear, from these instruments under repair, fragments of voices, music and static in a kind of inadvertent “electroacoustic symphony” that now conjures up John Cage.
At that time we were living in the house of my grandmother, Malvina Pilon, on rue Saint-Gerard. We were on the second floor and my grandmother on the ground floor. In the basement were the remains of a darkroom set up by my Uncle Henri. There was also a piano in each apartment. My mother studied the instrument from age ten to seventeen, and she sometimes played duets with her mother. My Uncle Romeo played too, and my Uncle Georges played boogie-woogies. With seven children, though, my mother didn’t really have time to play or practice with any regularity. But from time to time I would hear her play, enough to gain a few vague memories. When an acoustic instrument resonates in a room (and not a speaker), the experience is a tactile one, epidermal, and it leaves an impression on the memory.
Be that as it may, my mother adored Chopin, above all other composers. She recalled that when she was taking piano lessons, Debussy and Ravel were still considered avant-garde. The music of Alfred Cortot was then the standard. My mother had a favorite anecdote that has stayed with me: that continues to fascinate me. It concerns a pianist that my grandmother and mother, then a young girl, went to see perform in Montreal around 1930-31. The artist was scheduled to play Franz Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto (Verdi). Cortot, among others, had recorded a version of this piece that often played on the radio. In any case, the pianist in question (whose name my mother couldn’t remember) arrived on stage, greeted the audience, sat down, and began to play. Then, in the middle of a passage, he made a mistake, missed a section, hesitated, began again, and made another mistake before losing his way entirely. He suddenly stopped altogether, rose from his chair, waved in an atmosphere of frosty silence, leaving the audience with a silent, abandoned piano. My mother’s reaction was a feeling of overwhelming sadness, well aware of the psychological anguish the artist would feel. Like all piano students faced with technical difficulties and stage fright, she must have identified in some ways with this unfortunate musician. Like a character out of Samuel Beckett (who himself was a pianist), this artist experienced failure. He failed in full view of everyone attending this inglorious performance. Which is all part of the game, of course, one of the unavoidable risks in performing, and he is surely not the only one to have suffered this kind of humiliation. In my imagination, however, he has become a symbol of the human condition, subject to the constant risks of failure, the fear of not being up to the task, of being humiliated, rejected. What does success or failure mean in the life of a human being? The very fact of dying – can this not be seen as a kind of failure? (The inability to understand death, in this world, in one’s lifetime.) Even if we were able to resolve all the world’s material problems (harmonizing the realms of economy, science, spirituality, politics, environment, and so on), the problem of death would still remain. A problem, it would seem, that is impossible to resolve, that everyone must face, and that prevails over all the others. Beyond life’s veils and screens, this is the only real question, I think, and artists continually ask it in their works. What happens when we die? Does the universe die with us? What becomes of us? Do we fuse with the cosmos, eliminating once and for all the question of national, religious and cultural identities? Who really knows? The pianist who failed to play Liszt, is he not the precarious double of all human beings who fail to answer these questions? His score becomes a kind of “paraphrase” of Charles Ives’s “unanswered question,” or a variation on Beckett’s Godot, which can only be completed in the realm of the incomplete, while waiting for a “truth” that will never come. …
Shortly after this incident, my mother obtained the score of Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto (Verdi). She wanted to see if she could play it, she explained, but it was much too difficult, too virtuosic for her technical level. But she found another transcription (not by Liszt), a much simpler one, based on the melodies, which she enjoyed playing (without ever forgetting the tragic concert). And in her memory, as in mine, this pianist will continue to fail to the end of time. He stands up, gestures towards the audience, leaves the stage and disappears like those who die every day, who leave earth’s stage forever, discreetly, to a place where no one can reach them, talk to them, question them, listen to them; like my maternal and paternal grandparents; like my old friend Brian Barley, whose saxophone became silent in a rooming house in Toronto in 1971, where he died alone, sick, penniless; like my philosopher friend Jean Papineau, who left this world too soon after spending his life listening to every type of music on the planet; like my old school-friend Michel Decarie, who died suddenly last January, after thirty-five years of uninterrupted dialogue with records. Those we knew and loved never die. They live inside us forever until we die in turn, until we join them in death, in the enigmatic and unknowable beyond.
In many ways we live with the dead every day in this world. Claude Debussy seems very much alive, as do Samuel Beckett, Marina Tsvetaeva, Guglielmo Marconi, Richard Wagner, Charlie Christian, Man Ray… We can hear their music, voices, words on the radio and on records, see their images, forms, ideas in museums and galleries. The dead are very much alive and they still speak to us, touch us, overwhelm us, challenge us. The invisible is visible, the absent present, just as silence resonates and our gaze speaks. Music is invisible and yet we hear it. It is an impalpable material which “touches” us like the wind or air. (And there is no music without air, no art either, or life; air and time are the indispensable ingredients of art.) But in order to reach us, must the “visible in music” be silent?
I would like to end these thoughts with a recurrent childhood memory. Although it emerges sporadically, in a bit of a haze, it is very much a part of me. I am four or five years old, outside, in an alleyway. I have a small brush which I dip into a jar of water. I am painting the fence with water. I am applying this “almost nothing,” this transparent liquid to the wood. The water leaves a dark wet trace which the wind and hot sun almost immediately evaporate. I continue this little game and feel intense pleasure. Although my “water paint” disappears without a trace, I continue my simple game. The material and the immaterial enter a dialogue in real time. And I wonder whether there is a link between my work on sound, silence, wind, and the imagination and this childhood memory that will not fade, that persists in evoking a lost realm of time. I see myself painting the immaterial, the void, in the wind. And there are no sounds accompanying this memory. Only a feeling of contentment, of being outside, in the sun and the wind. A kind of distant, unrepeatable happiness, which nonetheless has escaped the ravages of time and lives within me, remote, in silence. As in an inverted mirror, the child I was looks at the adult I am. He speaks to him beyond space and time, asking, “Where did you get your interest in music, in musical objects and records?”
This text was originally published as “Raymond Gervais: Le Regard musicien,” catalogue, Musée d’art de Joliette, 1999 (Chantal Boulanger, curator and publication director, Colette Tougas, editor. Translated from French by Jeffrey Moore.) Momus wishes to thank Chantal Pontbriand for its republication.