Listening to “La Passion de Simone”
Confession: As a music lover, one of my least favorite things to do is actually go to a live performance. Not because of the performance itself, but for the hell-is-other-people experience of being in an audience and the unspoken sense of competition that seems to come through in the concert hall. One evening, as a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, given by the Berlin Philharmonic and staged by Peter Sellars, drew to its intimate conclusion, the final punctuation of silence was castrated by a man a few rows over issuing a performative “Huh.” Its effect wasn’t a thoughtful reflection of what we had just collectively experienced, rather a display of superior understanding.
Often the experience of concert-going becomes less about the art itself, and more about how we see the art as it applies to our perceived vision of ourselves. Borrowing from Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the concert becomes an opportunity for “deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”
All of this is to say that my first experience with Kaija Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone” took place, not with the work’s lauded U.S. premiere at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2008 (also staged by Sellars), but 10 years later, through headphones, while lying on my living room floor. This wasn’t an intentional time delay, but given the context, it felt fitting.
Kaija Saariaho, “La Passion de Simone”; Dawn Upshaw (Soprano), Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor), Tapiola Chamber Choir, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Echoing Trungpa Rinpoche, philosopher and activist Simone Weil—the eponymous subject of Saariaho’s oratorio—once wrote: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” And so, on a Sunday morning, I’m having my own moment of contemplation, of exploring the mystery of faith via Weil, Saariaho, and librettist Amin Maalouf.
Knowing Weil’s biography before going into this endeavor (she was born to agnostic parents of Jewish heritage and developed a love for Christian mysticism) and having an affinity for her as a spiritual mutt, I immediately began to worry that I’d chosen the wrong piece for a deliberate and deep first listen. Would I enjoy the work simply because it speaks to my fascination with an uncompromising martyr—whose own ideals killed her in England at age 34 (a direct result of restricting her diet to that of her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France)? Was I using this piece to explore Saariaho, or further my admiration for Weil?
As a divinity school student raised Episcopalian, converted to Judaism, and studying Tibetan Buddhism, music has been one of my main entry points to understanding any faith. Sound is a key means of understanding, in full resonance, that moment of fall-on-your-knees awe inherent with most religions. To ride Weil’s coattails, I don’t want sacred music to affirm the mighty fortress that is a particular faith’s god; I want it to make me question what mightiness is. I want an experience with faith that asks more questions and offers fewer answers.
Fortunately, Saariaho knows how to ask questions. Framing her soprano soloist as Simone’s imaginary sister (Literal? Metaphorical? Does it matter?), the narrative arc becomes a struggle to understand the dichotomy of Simone. Wrapped in this dramatic mystery, Saariaho’s musical textures, haunting and moribund, create a meditative state. To go back to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, if that work, written for his time, serves to reinforce the (then-revolutionary) system of the Protestant church, then “La Passion de Simone,” written for our time, questions the mystery of faith to reinforce the inexplicable experience of being human.
Questions smoke incense-like around the 15 movements—structured in homage to the Stations of the Cross, and the work begins to take on an element of collage. There are the dramatic textures of spoken word directly quoting Weil’s writings (many of which were published posthumously) overlapping with the lines for soprano and chorus. Within the orchestra, chimes, strings, and wind instruments layer on top of one another in distinct harmonic riffs and melodic lines. It’s easy to be left with more questions than answers in this sonic cocoon: the whole is there, but it is independent from the sum of its parts.
At times, I feel like I’m given a break when the music turns overtly dramatic. In a libretto driven by duality, the score responds at times by oscillating between extremes to illustrate the poles between lightness and gravity, annihilation and resurrection, deceit and innocence. But more often than not, the sonic bell curve is much more nuanced and granular. Instead of careening between the polar opposites of A to Z, I’m drawn inward to feel the vacillation between X and Y.
And, in attuning to these subtleties more acutely, I start to recognize the subtle tensions held within my own body, moving from some long-buried core to the skin’s surface. Like the thick textures of Saariaho’s score which layer on top of some sense of musical truth, I can’t name this tension. But I can at least claim it. The act of listening therefore becomes a litmus test: how we conduct the rest of our life can be determined by how we listen.
For composer Pauline Oliveros, whose practice of Deep Listening lends its name to this series, the act of listening is an active process that goes below the surface, focusing while keeping a sense of porousness when it comes to your surroundings. I’m struck by this notion as Saariaho’s narrator sings that Weil longed to “melt into what she gazed upon,” and later notes: “When your people were starving, you starved yourself. When your people were crucified, you crucified yourself. But you were never able to say: ‘We are suffering!’ You were never able to say ‘we.’”
Even listening to a recording on headphones while splayed on my living room floor, I’m aware of the active and reciprocal relationship I’ve entered into with this work. There is a dialogue, in this case happening across time and WiFi, that reminds me of the interdependent nature of art, of music, of sound. I wonder what it would have been like to hear this in a concert hall, and how that experience of collective awareness (however varied it may be) would shape the porousness of this music. In life, Weil wasn’t able to say “we.” In music, Saariaho is.
Simone Weil led an extreme life. But these extremes, detailed in Maalouf’s texts and represented through the thick fog of Saariaho’s score, don’t cancel one another out. Full of mist and mysticism, Saariaho’s sonic lines strive to illustrate and illuminate these bifurcations, revealing them to be the capacity for paradox that we all possess as humans. The final notes of “La Passion de Simone” disappear hauntingly, slipping away into silence. In the gloaming of the music, I’m left with a sense of unease that feels almost primordial, tapping into the questions and uncertainty that have been in lockstep with humanity.
As constant as human uncertainty and suffering are, we are in 2018 occupying a particularly heightened moment of social, political, and philosophical extremes. Reflecting on Saariaho’s love for Weil means recognizing that we’re all being called in this moment to examine, like the narrator of “La Passion,” the merits and drawbacks of Weil-ian ideals and ideas. Rather than immediately come up with an answer in the silence following the notes, we are beseeched to ask ourselves in turn: How are we going to show up in this world? What are we called upon to do in this moment? How will we strive for an equilibrium among extremes?
Emphasis on “We.” ¶