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Recordings

Tacet
23 Sep 2020

Requiem pour les temps futurs: An AI requiem for a post-modern society

Collapsology. Or, perhaps we should use the French word ‘Collapsologie’ because this is a transdisciplinary idea pretty much advocated by a series of French theorists - and apparently, mostly French theorists. It in essence focuses on the imminent collapse of modern society and all its layers - a series of escalating crises on a global scale: environmental, economic, geopolitical, governmental; the list is extensive.

Requiem pour les temps futurs

Julien Chirol: directeur musical - Pierre-Eric Sutter: directeur musical - Jeanne Crousaud: soprano - Kaëlig Boché: ténor - Yann Toussaint: baryton - Uma N Rao: chant classique de l'Inde - Armée des douze sages -: choeur et orchestre - Rémi Aguirre Zubiri: chef de choeur - Manuel Poletti & Département Analyse et Synthèse de l'IRCAM: voix de synthèse.

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The one thing I cannot find Collapsologie specifically mentions is pandemic, unlike civilizational collapse which does (the Black Death, for example). What Julien Chirol’s and Pierre-Eric Sutter’s Requiem pour les temps futur is, however, is a reinvention of the requiem after this apocalypse.

Although Chirol and Sutter use a conventional requiem, the inspiration behind the libretto is an influential book by Pablo Servigne published in 2015, Comment tout peut s’effondrer along with his more recent work, N’ayez pas peur du collapse allied with the traditional Latin mass. It could almost be a manifesto for Extinction Rebellion and today’s ecological or climate emergency but Chirol and Sutter have already advanced beyond the theory into what they now imagine the future reality is at least from a compositional viewpoint. There is no attempt here to hide the textualizing of a liturgical work by using a philosophical concept as Henze might have done; nevertheless, the contrast between its two entities - music and text - remain striking.

The premise behind Requiem pour les temps futur, as described by the composers, is that in a world where humanity has been decimated who will sing and from where will the beauty of the human voice come? Their answer is Artificial Intelligence. That isn’t exactly what we get here because it seems to be a hybrid form of fresh and raw human voices and synthetic generated ones, though often they are fused together into a blended form but as art it is close enough.

Clearly Requiem pour les temps futur upends what we think a requiem is though we have been here before: Bussotti’s Rara Requiem (itself part of a larger work, Lorenzaccio) with its phonemes and frenzy of sound, Zimmermann’sRequiem für einen jungen Dichter, or Nono’s Y entonces comprendio, for example. But though Chirol and Sutter are subversive, the slogan “No Future” which blazes across the booklet doesn’t perhaps in the end warrant the anarchic or punk credentials of a work that doesn’t radicalise what it is proposing.

Relying on Manuel Poletti’s IRCAM for help in synthesizing the voices of the splendidly named l’Armée des Douze Sages - a slightly shadowy, predominantly male chorus whose only information is given in their Christian names - it is undeniably difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is not. There may be advantages to having a libretto in Latin - even if that language itself is rooted in a collapsed past rather than a new future. The astonishing clarity and precision of the phrasing seems to have been heightened by synthesis, certainly more so than one would experience in either a live performance or a normal studio recording, but I think this is what you would expect of electronic interventionism. What is also particularly noticeable are the spatial dimensions but are these any different from music composed in this form in the late 1950s by Stockhausen, or by Musique concrète which can trace its origins even further back to the 1920s and 1930s and to Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s? It’s entirely probable that what AI in music is isn’t a paradigm shift but an inevitable modification of the past.

The music of this requiem - and it is played by a classical orchestra, even if it is acoustically processed - is both occidental and oriental. Although there is some spectral, even ethereal writing, I’m not sure AI always does this well; or, perhaps Requiem pour les temps futur is simply meant to sound as tense and dramatic through its seventy minutes as it does. That collapsed past, of music which sounds so archaeologically distant, seems almost cinematic at the opening of the ‘Introitus’ - the Latin ‘requiem’ an eerie mirror to the Arabic intonations of the collapsed past you hear in the excavation scene from The Exorcist. Western harps and strings and traditional Hindustani and eastern instruments unite two cultures throughout the work, geometrically laid out on a musical axis that embraces the classical and the artificial.

Is it spiritual? Essentially not, but there are many requiems which are not. AI by definition is synthetic, and we have robotic choristers, three soloists (a soprano, tenor and baritone) but that doesn’t mean this performance is tone deaf or drained of colour. Much is implied in the orchestration and there is a rotating balance in the choral writing either in l’Armèe des douze sages between genders, despite the mystery of the chorus, or elsewhere. There are parts of this work that have huge power - the close of the ‘Dies Irae’ with its shattering climax, the close of the ‘Libera me’ or the organ opening of the ‘Confutatis’. But a work that looks forward cannot ignore the history of the past so echoes of Verdi and Berlioz vibrate like seismic waves through this requiem just as you’ll hear idiomatic pressure points of French music that has been a cornerstone of IRCAM’s past.

Requiem pour les temps futur looks forward, if it also looks backwards, to one musical art form. Both Sutter and Chirol and l’Armèes des douze sages from their writings on the work possibly over-romanticise and overstate the musical shift in the work. Indeed, what may even have been the original concept behind its creation - a requiem that talks about the finitude of existence and collapsology in a thermo-industrial society while answering questions about death - may now be more relevant to a society on the brink of collapse through a pandemic. The irony of the pandemic is that it might escalate AI which is probably not quite what Requiem pour les temps futur envisioned.

This is unquestionably a genre-bending work, an experiment in re-invented classical sonority, that is perhaps uncomfortably closer to the present than the future it looks towards.

Marc Bridle

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