“In the end, you are never really able to truly merge the two sides of yourself,” says An Laurence, the Montreal-based experimental artist. “They can coexist. But to find inner unity within yourself is also a quest you’ll never be touching.”
Laurence is describing the title of her recording, Almost Touching, named for the mathematical concept called ‘asymptote’: a straight line which stretches towards a curve without ever intersecting.
It’s theoretical geometry, says Laurence, “and also very interesting in terms of the philosophy of art.” But it could just as easily refer to the literal conditions of the post-covid era, in which we might feel reluctant to resume physical contact with the world. To Laurence, it ultimately indicates our ideas of nature, the elusive character of time, the eternal now.
“I realized that all the pieces on Almost Touching are about getting closer to an answer but never really being able to grasp it,” she says. “Like being in the dark and starting to see the form of something, and as soon as you think you understand the concept or the idea, it changes. Actually, you’re never able to grasp whatever you’re searching for.”
An Laurence is equally enigmatic as an artist. At 28, she’s a graduate of the programme in Arts and Technology at Université de Montréal. There, she studied creative programming, sound art, video art, and coding. She is also a curator, an audiovisual media producer, and a classically trained guitarist. Though classical guitar may not be the instrument that immediately comes to mind in today’s experimental music world.
“My first thought,” says Laurence, “was that even if I’m the best classical guitarist in contemporary music, I will not get so much work because it’s very niche. So I thought that I should record the pieces that really impacted me in the last few years, to show what it could be.”
That dedication paid off. Laurence’s courageous 2022 double album, Almost Touching, was lauded by au courant publications Foxy Digitalis and Musicworks Magazine.
Most recently, the contemporary music centre Le Vivier granted Laurence carte blanche to program an event entitled Do You Have a Minute? which gathers together the works of five avant-classical composers. Laurence specifically chose each piece in the concert because of its connection to time. “Music,” she says, “can make our perception of time really different.”
On paper, the titular work is a percussion piece with electronic sounds. But its peculiar aesthetic elements make it more than just a conceptual work. The composer, Thais Montanari, wrote Do You Have a Minute? for a soloist “so that the performer is stuck in a clock,” as Laurence explains.
“It’s a piece for a solo performer who walks in a circle twelve times around these objects, which are time markers. So there’s a metronome, there’s electronic timers, Newton’s Cradles — something that will make percussive, repetitive sound. The idea is about how to walk in the clock. It’s also about information overload — constantly wanting to know everything, and the obsession with time. Counting every second.”
Laurence’s work encourages us to engage in multiple competing temporalities at once, hearing fast and slow. She commissioned the Montreal pianist Gabo Champagne to compose a work around the idea of moss. Entitled Bryophytes, the piece interrogates our notions of acceleration.
“I had just finished reading Gathering Moss,” says Laurence. “It’s a book about moss, and it really mixes a scientific way of storytelling with philosophy. So I was talking to Gabo about this, and how long it takes mosses to exist, and how much effort it takes to exist, and how they’ve been there so long before us. Bryophytes is a piece for piano, percussion, guitar, and voice, but there’s some theatrical elements also, some performing texts, performing actions. It’s all about mixing beauty with the absurd. We are running so much and we don’t really know why.”
Laurence is concerned with the cycles of nature and what constitutes the natural. “Everything in nature is very fascinating,” she says. “That’s where we all belong — we belong with those things that feed us and the things that allow us to live. In the city, we’re kind of far from it because everything we consume is coming from elsewhere. Especially during the pandemic, people — including me — started to want plants in our houses to feel better. But to look at those plants, I was like, they do not belong here. I knew there were lots of people going super intense on learning about the plants: what pH you needed, what kind of water, what kind of soil. And that’s all very interesting. But if you look outside, nobody cares about the actual ecosystem. The trees that we have, they are the plants that actually impact us. They’re there all the time and they impact the land we live on. All the flowers, all the weeds, all the bushes, all the mosses — everything. Those are the things we actually are a part of.”
Laurence’s creative vision borders upon the transcendental, her outlook engaged as much with philosophy as with beauty, as much with space as with time, and as much about existing in the present moment as a commitment to eternity.
“What we are is never really ours,” Laurence muses, “because everything we’re made of — like our bodies — comes from other people before. And when we’re going to die it’s going to go away. Not only our physical bodies, but also our knowledge, our thoughts, our traditions. All of this is not from us, but it’s going to pass through us. Culture is something that’s living, and something that’s living always wants to go on living. The culture that we carry wants to live and it uses bodies and beings like us to travel through time and space, to not cease to exist. If we didn’t have that heritage, would we be able to go through time?”◼︎
Do You Have a Minute? runs 19 & 20 April 2023 at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines.