All Dressed

Permanent Waves: in conversation with Keiko Devaux

“The aesthetic theme throughout this opera is noise,” says Keiko Devaux over the crackling airwaves of a cellular telephone.

The Montreal-based composer and award winner, most recently, of the Juno for classical composition for her 2022 piece, Arras, is telling me about her latest production, a major new operatic work entitled L’Écoute du perdu, to be premiered across three performances at the Darling Foundry in February.

“It starts with the idea of turning a radio on. You’re lost in noise — the noise of space, the noise of silence — looking for a signal, and you tune into this signal.”

Devaux’s opera, co-presented with Group Le Vivier and Musique 3 Femmes, is something of a supergroup, too, a veritable who’s who of Quebec’s best and brightest talents, with mise-en-scène by the celebrated contemporary theatre director Marie Brassard; the Paramirabo Ensemble performing Devaux’s score under the conductor Jennifer Szeto’s direction; texts commissioned from the authors Daniel Canty, Michaël Trahan, and Kaie Kellough; sung by soprano soloists Sarah Albu, Frédérika Petit-Homme, and baritone Raphaël Laden-Guindon; Lucie Bazzo on lighting conception; scenography by Antonin Sorel; and with the legendary filmmaker and Godspeed You! Black Emperor member Karl Lemieux providing video imagery.

L’Écoute du perdu draws together a star-studded company and wrangling them is itself an impressive task.

“It’s my first big, ambitious, and really high-concept work,” says Devaux. “And being surrounded by such amazing artistic collaborators — I really mean it, sincerely. I was like, wouldn’t it be great if we could get these people? And then we got them.”

Devaux initially conceived of L’Écoute du perdu on the concept of wireless telecommunication, the rhythms of memory, and memory’s distortion via repetition.

“My whole doctoral thesis is about memory and its artistic and actual applications,” says Devaux, “so this is a theme that’s been running through quite a few of my pieces. My music, aesthetically, is very immersive. I knew immediately that I didn’t want a story, a linear story. I didn’t want a narrative. I wanted it to be based around different treatments of the voice, and because it was going to be based on memory, I didn’t want it to be one individual’s memory; I wanted it to have more of a universal appeal, a more fantastical appeal.”

L’Écoute du perdu is inspired in part by Devaux’s fascination with the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s most famous innovation: radio. “I’m kind of an amateur science geek,” Devaux admits. “I read about brains and different phenomena in nature and stuff, and it’s very evocative for me, musically. And I’d come across the story of Marconi, who believed that sound waves never die, and perhaps one day we’ll invent a machine that can tap into these sound waves. It was such an evocative idea and I thought, this needs to be a large-scale work.”

A delightful incongruity exists, though, between Marconi’s wireless radio waves, which are ephemeral, and our understanding of memory, a more permanent, enduring repository for the entirety of human experience. L’Écoute du perdu’s experimental form and structure emphasize this tension with at times bilingual and at times non-lingual passages repeated, looped, stretched, and their corresponding musical movements varied through reiteration and distortion.

“When I was reading about memory, I came across the idea of episodic memories, or ‘flashbulb’ memories, as they’re often called in pop culture,” Devaux elaborates. “Memories have strong emotional links to them. We play them back a lot because they help develop a sense of self. And the more you play back a memory, the more you distort it. And I thought, that’s so beautiful — and sad — this idea that the things that are most emotionally important to us and self-identifying to us are the things that become most distorted. I mean, we remember them vividly. We remember the smell of something, or how something felt. But then you forget what colour something was, or how many people were in the room.”

Yet Devaux’s work is memorable, indeed, and a packed house on opening night concurs. L’Écoute du perdu is a world-class compositional achievement adroitly weaving acoustic and amplified strands and sonic and visual elements together into striking aesthetic unity.  

“It’s not like an ‘oh, you killed my father’ kind of opera,” Devaux explains. “It’s a more subtle thing we’re working with. You are connecting to a sound that’s invisible in the air. You’re remembering something. It’s evocative. I didn’t really want coherence in a traditional way. I didn’t want to serve an audience a story. I wanted it to evoke a really clear emotional arc or narrative, and for there to be a tension between the audience and the piece in terms of understanding. I wanted for it to be really focussed on sensation and emotion, but not in an overly acted way. Just in the way the words and the music are treated. And I wanted it to have a high visual impact. It’s taken on all these different dimensions as all these different people come on and dialogue about it and add their artistic expertise. So, voilà!”

In spite of her magic touch, Devaux is gracious and seems especially indebted when discussing the collaborations and meaningful connections she has cultivated.

“There’s a difference,” says Devaux, “between people just doing a gig, doing it well and professionally, and people really being invested in the piece. And there’s this real feeling that everyone’s really invested. There was a lot of thought put into our conversations right away — talking a lot about the concept with the singers. Voice is so personal. I don’t know about you, but I can tell, even if someone’s amazing when they’re singing on a piece that they don’t really love, or that they don’t even really get. These three singers get it.”

That unmistakable sense of being tuned into another wavelength is at the heart of Devaux’s work. “Heightened emotion brings this sort of distortion,” she says, “and yet it brings at the same time this really intense sensorial vividness.”

Devaux takes a beat, laughing. “And I thought, oh, this is kind of how I feel about my music.”◼︎

Cover photo credit: Robin P. Gould