2020 via Rimbaud: A Composer's Diary

This blog is about a piece that spans 2020 from its conception in January to its first public performance in December. It is a vocal sextet setting words of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91), which I had the honour to write for EXAUDI, one of the world’s leading new music vocal ensembles, as part of my Masters composition course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Titled ‘A virtual tour of a virtuous place’, this piece will be premiered on 2nd December in Guildhall New Music Society’s Alternative Lessons & Carols, an online event showcasing a wide range of exciting new music and creative writing.

With EXAUDI’s angelic voices and Harry Harrison’s humorous visuals created especially for this broadcast, I invite you to join this curious investigation into the notion of ‘rented afterlife’ within London’s (in)famous property market. But the piece had not always been about London, or afterlife, as penned in the following ‘diary’ entries. That said, it remains my most important aspiration as a composer to create music that can mean wildly different things to different listeners. The same person at a different time or in a different space is a different listener. So instead of writing ‘about’ the music, I have decided to write ‘around’ the music.

14 Oct 20, Wed

Misfortunes never come singly: my granddad passed away (not of covid-19, I should add) at 04:18am in my hometown Wuxi, China, thankfully with my granny and dad by his hospital bed; and at 03:16pm I received a one-month ‘Notice to Quit Property’, sent by the estate agency I am renting my room in London from.

Rang my landlady and spoke to her about the Notice, which as expected she had no idea about and did not initiate, then arranged to talk again tomorrow with my flatmate also present. Spent the rest of the evening going through contracts and websites explaining evictions. Facetimed family (7 hours ahead) once they got up; dad was already out making funeral arrangements, so mum relayed: bought a burial ‘apartment’ for my granddad’s ashes, funeral on Friday, hosting travelling relatives in a hotel as it is local custom that no one visits the home of the deceased on an even-numbered day since their passing, and so on.

Sunk in my chair, I thought about the piece just recorded by EXAUDI last week, especially the opening phrase of its text ‘Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau’ – let me finally rent this tomb. My granddad is about to move to his new home. I may have to do the same soon. I thought about my proposal of a video performance of this piece to NMS a few days ago, which included plans to incorporate images and videos of various corners in my rented room. So which room should I, or rather, can I film in time: this one where I wrote much of the piece in lockdown, or the new one to be found? I like this one – what if the new one really feels like a tomb?

1 Mar 20, Sun

Workshop day with EXAUDI. The singers were fantastic, which helpfully exposed the weaknesses in my workshop draft: the discontinuity arising from the chain-like episodic form, the overpacking of materials resulting in perpetually dense textures, and the out-of-context sprechgesang.

My chosen text is the fifth and final poem of Enfance (trans: childhood) from Illuminations by Rimbaud. When I settled on it in late January, I had no idea that just days later Wuhan and subsequently the whole of China would be locked down to curb rising covid-19 cases. Chinese New Year was cancelled, a turning point in my perception of the situation’s seriousness. I remember reading news about the building of field hospitals in ten days in Wuhan at dinner one evening, and Rimbaud’s ‘les maisons s’implantent’ (trans: houses take root) sprang to mind. Once that connection was made, other parallels followed, and it was difficult to reverse those connections; I was compulsively following the news, for I was concerned about relatives in Wuhan.

I imagined each singer being a figure in isolation and taking turns to be the soloist to narrate their experiences, which led to all the problems on workshop day. I need to rethink my approach.

20 Apr 20, Mon

Finished reading Graham Robb’s biography of Rimbaud. Fascinating life! Realized in hindsight that my chosen text is perhaps not the most straightforward to set for a vocal ensemble because of the clear identification of a single poet-protagonist.

Nevertheless, I remain a big fan of the poem. I admire the wild and curious proposal of ‘renting a tomb’ which at first glance deals with the rather serious idea of death in a playful, child-like innocent way, taking away much of the weight and morbidness often associated with death. Why rent and not buy? Typing ‘too expensive to die’ into Google returns many recent reports on rising costs of funeral around the world. Is the ‘tomb’ an analogy for a dreadful room? Or is the ‘room’ the closest model we can base on for imagining our afterlife, like the Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors once did? Could this point to a future scientific experiment in which one can opt for a trial of ‘death’, just like how anyone, especially men, can now experience the level of pain mothers endure during childbirth, and can opt out whenever it becomes unbearable?

In his biography of Rimbaud, Graham Robb offers some insights into the tomb-room aggregate:

One of Rimbaud’s Illuminations is a hallucinatory vision of the sort of half-buried, sunless cellar that was common throughout the city, including Stamford Street – a Journey to the Centre of the Earth in a London basement. In some of his poems, he seems to have used English rhymes … to produce unexpected images. He would certainly have noticed the suggestive similarity of ‘room’ and ‘tomb’. [1]

According to Robb, Rimbaud was likely to have lived in such basement rooms, ‘with a scullery maid’s view of shoes, skirts, dogs and carriage-wheels’[2], on his visits to London in the early 1870s.

Finally decided to rewrite the piece, or rather, started rethinking my concept about the text, now that I feel sufficiently able to dissociate from the uneasiness of my first attempt. Instead of forcing myself to settle on one outlook, I jumped in between the following scenarios to help frame the text:

- Zoom viewing of a half-buried room with an estate agent, with occasional connectivity issue

-Visit to a massive ancient burial site, echoey, humid and cool; dark but sufficiently lit to showcase the murals and artefacts, which collectively give hints to what life was like once

21 Jun 20, Sun

Woke up on Thursday to the news of a conductor colleague’s untimely death, just as I was about to set Rimbaud’s fourth paragraph ‘Moins haut…’, the last section to complete before sending off the score.

Have been trying to work my head around this. I was due to perform Britten’s Piano Concerto in March with him conducting. The last time I ‘saw’ him was on Skype a few days prior to the – eventually cancelled – concert (Zoom was not a thing then). We worked through the entire concerto in three hours, despite the latency of technology which often resulted us being out of sync by one beat. It was strange, disorienting and sad to see him again three months later, this time talked about in past tense at his memorial service livestreamed from Norway.

I managed to find a passage from the second movement of Britten’s Piano Concerto and weave it into the piece as my tribute to a most warm, smiley and passionate soul as well as a talented ‘maître du silence’ (trans. lord of silence), a title that Rimbaud’s poet-protagonist gives themselves in the final paragraph.

26 Nov 20, Thur

Thanksgiving, a holiday that I personally and many in the UK do not celebrate. Yet feeling incredibly grateful today. Too many people to thank, without whom I could not have completed the piece, or imagine having a recording let alone a video performance, or still live where I have been one and a half months since the ‘Notice to Quit Property’. As this is not an Oscar Award ceremony, I will say all the names quietly in my heart, but special thanks to Rita for inviting me for an article at Listen and Write. Wherever you are, I hope there’s laughter and music.

Erchao Gu, November 2020

References [1] Graham Robb, ‘Métropolitain’ in Rimbaud (London: Picador, 2001), 237-49 (p.242). [2] Ibid.

Make sure to listen to Erchao's work on the 2nd of December at 8pm here. All information can be found here.



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