Becoming Immersed in “Water”

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I listen to a lot of music on the train. I listen to music while I fold laundry and wash the dishes. It’s usually not hard for me to multi-task while I have headphones on. But I get far too immersed in some albums; the only way I can experience them is to turn the lights off, lay in bed, put on my best pair of over-ear headphones and close my eyes. Multitasking is impossible; I become completely submerged in the music.

Helene Grimaud’s “Water” is one of these albums. The French pianist recorded the album at a live performance in 2014 at the Park Avenue Armory. The Scottish artist Douglas Gordon and the electronic-music composer Nitin Sawhney joined Grimaud to make the entire performance a three-way, cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Inside the Armory, Grimaud sat at her piano in the middle of a 28,000-square-foot reflective lake designed by Gordon. She played the entire program start to finish without any breaks for applause. Sawhney composed music that played through the arena’s sound system and filled the gaps between each piece, resulting in one of the most unique and fully immersive artistic experiences I’ve ever heard of.

Douglas Gordon's set from "tears become... streams become..." at the Park Avenue Armory.

You might wonder: why go through all the trouble of connecting the separate pieces on Grimaud’s program into one seamless mass of sound? To me, the continuity represents the fundamental theme of the program: water.

The oceans have no seams, a river’s flow does not cease, and the cycle of water from evaporation to rain knows no end. As humans, we can only ever feel fully physically submerged in water. We can only truly sink or be truly inundated by water. How can this translate to a concert performance? No breaks, no applause – fill in the transitions from piece to piece with sound, just like water fills in every nook and cranny of a sinking ship.

Artists have been fascinated by water since the beginning of time. For good reason too; it’s full of contradictions. Life on this planet exists because of water, but at the same time, water destroys more life than any other substance on earth. Too little water and we die of thirst, too much and we drown. Few other things can compare to water’s vital role in the human experience.

This ubiquitous substance inspires every work on Grimaud’s program, which features an incredibly diverse group of composers from different time periods. It proves that water’s place as a theme in art is both not new and not going away anytime soon. Artists will continue to try to understand this omnipresent and mysterious force of nature through their art.

Honestly, I wish more classical music programs looked like this:

Luciano Berio – 6 Encores: 3. Wasserklavier

Toru Takemitsu – Rain Tree Sketch II

Gabriel Faure – Barcarolle No. 5 in F Sharp Minor, Op. 66

Maurice Ravel – Jeux d’eau

Isaac Albeniz – Iberia / Book 2: 5. Almeria

Franz Liszt – Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este

Leos Janacek – In the Mists: 1. Andante

Claude Debussy – La cathedral engloutie

These pieces were selected based on their deep thematic similarities and not based on the fact that they’re all by the same dead German guy or from the same time period. Grimaud’s “Water” serves not as a history lesson, but instead an artistic experience with a universal human experience as its core thematic thread. How else would you be able to put a Romantic era composer like Liszt and a 20th Century avant-garde madman like Takemitsu on the same program?

I’ll keep waiting for the rest of the classical world to catch on to Grimaud’s ideas about performing and programming - but for now I’ll be here, with the lights out and my headphones on, letting Grimaud fully submerge me into “Water.”

 

Justin Kelly