The Composer of Space

by André Forget

The letter came on a Tuesday morning in late February. The winter issue had been mailed out three weeks earlier, and it was a slow time in the office. I arrived late, as I rarely did in that first winter, and clammy from the precipitous change in temperature between the close heat of the subway and the sharp wind funnelled between the downtown skyscrapers. It was sitting in the cracked plastic inbox that hung outside the three basement rooms that served as the headquarters of Modern Classical magazine. It was addressed to me.  

Even in those days, I didn’t get a lot of friendly mail at Modern Classical. Supporters of the publication sent their cheques and congratulations to Henry Zimmermann, the editor. Envelopes that showed up on my desk generally contained dear-sir harangues and point-by-point rebuttals. During my short time at the magazine, I had adopted a connoisseur’s attitude toward these complaints: my detractors shared a basic disgust at the quality of my prose (“a self-satisfied rat’s nest of pointless clauses”) and knowledge of music (“the opinions of a philistine, seemingly cribbed directly from Wikipedia”), but subtle differences could be discerned in the individual flourishes and unique forms of abuse. The prose of the aging, bitchy musician had a certain edifying vivacity; the pedantry of ideologues, a blunt moral force.  

I was not in particularly good shape that morning. I was still sweating out the previous night’s vodka and feeling the particular kind of lowness that comes after spending the weekend jumping from West End bar to West End bar then deciding to hit the town Monday night as well. I slipped the envelope into the breast pocket of my jacket and put on a pot of coffee. The envelope was large, and thick, and stuck uncomfortably into my neck when I bent over to fetch the filters from the cupboard below the sink. 

As the water gurgled and hissed through the percolator, I turned the envelope over in my hands. It was a dull manila 8.5x11, folded over and awkwardly bundled in scotch tape. The sender had clearly wanted to save a bit of money on postage without slimming the package itself down. I slit the top open with my finger and emptied it onto my desk. There was a stack of foolscap covered in tight cursive, four detailed blueprints for a building of some kind, and a wad of conceptual drawings (some of which appeared to have been done on napkins). The drawings were rather fanciful, and consisted of depictions of things like mechanical flowers and synthetic lungs, but the blueprints were professional enough. I turned my attention to the foolscap. The first page was dated to the previous Tuesday, and began as follows:

Dear Aleksandr Otkazov,

I read your essay on Rebecca Schumacher’s “Chebucto” in the most recent issue of Modern Classical magazine with great interest. While I am no lover of Schumacher’s work (and found your characterization of it to be somewhat fatuous), your piece nevertheless convinced me that you understand more about music than you let on, which is why I have, against my own better judgement, written to you.

Over the years I have had some exposure to the world of music journalism, and so am acquainted with the narrow requirements of the celebrity profile—you were admonished, I am sure, to choose your words carefully when writing about a superstar hydroörganist whose project has received massive government funding. But did I detect a hint of irony in your portrayal of her as a “genius of location-specific composition”? I believe I did. And despite the more risible aspects of your portrayal of Schumacher, who I personally know to be a mere pseudo-intellectual and tightener of bolts, there was within your profile a blinkered appreciation for the metaphysical rarely found in this damp little country.

As I am sure you have noticed, I am not writing simply to complain about the exceedingly gentle handling the mountebank Schumacher has received in the pages of your magazine. I am instead writing to point you toward a much more interesting story, one that actually embodies the avant-garde theories and technical sublimity that Schumacher and Saito merely gestured toward.

Before you go further into my little package, however, please note that the documents I have sent represent decades of work, and are merely the outward manifestations of an emotional and intellectual journey I embarked on while still a boy. As with any great work of art, there is much about it that is idiosyncratic; but I believe it also contains the pulse of the universal. For this reason, I have provided you with a brief account of my life that will, I hope, offer a useful orientation to the materials contained within this package, and shed a measure of light on the project itself.

I placed the sheet of foolscap back on the pile of papers. It was not unusual for readers to open their letters with arch derision and wrap them up coyly suggesting I dedicate more time to covering their own pet projects, but I had not yet encountered anything quite so shameless. I checked the envelope for a name or return address. It was from a Philip Lefebvre of Montreal, who appeared to live just past Papineau, near Parc La Fontaine.

This was surprising: I had spent enough time in Montreal to know most of the Anglophones active in its classical music scene, but I’d never heard of a Philip Lefebvre. The last name indicated a Quebecois, but the first was spelled in the English fashion. He was commenting on an essay written for an English publication, and was clearly fluent in the language himself. If he had come from a Francophone family, he was sufficiently engaged in the Anglo world that our paths should have crossed at some point or another. And if he was truly the ambitious musical experimentalist he made himself out to be, I would certainly have heard of him, at least in passing.

I picked the page up again and looked more closely at the handwriting. The cursive was pleasingly legible, written in an energetic and even boisterous hand. The crosslines of the t’s had a dashed and rakish quality. The l’s and j’s contained healthy big loops. I assumed this meant that Philip Lefebvre was old indeed; my own handwriting, and the handwriting of everyone I knew, had long since come to resemble an unhealthy electrocardiogram, all spikes and murmurs. Perhaps Philip Lefebvre was simply whiling away the hours of his dotage.  

The clock on my phone told me it was not yet ten thirty. Zimmermann was meeting a donor this morning, and would not be in until noon. Days when Zimmermann met with donors were never good days. He was aware, in an abstract way, that the magazine’s solvency and both our livelihoods depended on the ongoing goodwill of a handful of aging WASPs. But he believed the value of his work as an editor to be so self-evident, and disliked the role of supplicant so vehemently, and found the WASPs themselves so repellently barbarous, that it was only with great difficulty he was able to formulate a coherent and respectful ask. Three hours with a donor took such a terrible emotional toll that he returned to the office vengeful and splenetic, demanding cups of Lemon Zinger and story pitches before he’d had a chance to shake the sleet from his umbrella. In these moments of dudgeon, Zimmermann became extremely uncharitable about any perceived sloth on my part, and was quick to blame the beleaguered fortunes of the magazine on the lifeless, phoned-in quality of its content.

I had more than enough reason to be sceptical about Lefebvre, but it was always possible that there was a story here. And the prospect of trying to cobble together a pitch that could deflect the wrath of Zimmermann was particularly unappealing on a morning such as this. I picked up the next page and continued to read.

My passion for music began as a problem. In 1950, when I was seven years old, my parents took me to hear my first concert, a symphony at the old auditorium in Winnipeg. The orchestra was performing Mahler’s glorious 5th. I had never heard so many instruments, so many notes played all at once—the music was boundless, extramundane. Each successive movement crested over the silent audience and broke in an ecstatic climax of sound. I was pinned to my seat by its sheer volume. As the minutes passed and the Trauermarsch grew into the Scherzo, and the Scherzo morphed into the Adagietto, and the Adagietto found its fulfilment in the life-affirming vitality of the Rondo, I realized I was hearing the course of human life play out on the stage in front of me. And then suddenly, just at the moment of its greatest triumph, it stopped. But it shouldn’t have stopped! I felt this very strongly. The music, surely, was meant to continue, taking on new forms, transmogrifying, soaring ever upward into oblivion.

It took me years to articulate the conviction that came upon me in that moment: that the music had been on the cusp of mutating into a new, higher mode of expression that would not resolve but distil the emotional force of the symphony in space as well as time. I knew, then, that this kind of composition was the highest task to which an artist could be called. And it was only after I had spent years trying to compose this kind of transcendent music that I realized the paradox at the heart of my greatest ambition: the problem of the finite work of art in the infinite universe. All songs must end, and so all songs fall short of the enduring, eternal music that is the life of the soul and essence of the universe.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before you can understand my sublime project, my shape-shifting concert hall, whose infinitely morphing architecture will create an infinite variation and, one day, give birth to an infinite music, I must explain how I came to understand this paradox of finitude in the first place. Which is why I must tell you about the revelation that came to me in the Scottish fog.

My early years had been unremarkable. Aside from the feverish passion for music that began in that concert hall, I had an ordinary upbringing. My parents found my fascination with Mahler charming. Both had a broad appreciation for the French folk music of their childhoods, and the tradition of Western art music that they, as new members of the middle class, had come to appreciate. So they happily agreed to pay for music lessons, and I gravitated toward the piano, an instrument in which I became proficient enough to eventually land a place at the conservatory in Toronto.

Like most students of classical music my college years were not a time of pleasant dissolution. Literary scholars or painters or philosophers could give Bacchus his due; university was, for me, a tedium only occasionally punctuated by a very pure kind of joy. My days were endless practice, a heavy and almost military discipline. Even so I was forced to recognize, by the end of my second year, that I would never be able to compete with the true virtuosos. My talent, such as it was, lay in composition, where I was able to nurture the fantasy—still very close to my heart in those days—that hard work would be enough to grant me entry to the sunlit halls where Bach played eternal.

I redoubled my efforts in my final year, studying the bombastic irony of Shostokovich’s symphonies, Copland’s rude sentimentality, the austere symmetry of Schoenberg and Webern and Berg. I applied myself, also, to learning the trumpet, clarinet, and violin, so I could better compose for strings, woodwinds, and brass. When I crossed the stage and received my degree on a wet spring day, exhausted and hollow and only just beginning to understand the true dimensions of my inadequacy, I had already been accepted to study at the Royal College of Music in London. Had I known more about the world, I would perhaps have gone to Germany or New York instead, to chase the dreams of Pierre Schaeffer, the GRMC, and the New York School. But I was still ignorant, then, of the vital undercurrents of musique concrete and elektronische Musik that were already shaping the future of the art, and in London I thought I would find a real city, and a community of composers.

Other people can tell you about the glamour and excitement of London in the mid-sixties. I spent those years in a cold-water flat in Lambeth, writing music no one wanted to listen to. My classical training had instilled in me a belief that the tradition in which I was being formed was ageless, an unbroken chain of genius. When I arrived in England as a graduate student, I was still under the impression that diligence would earn me a place in it. You can imagine my shock when I realized that the most respected composers in my program seemed to believe the tradition was doornail dead, and the only task left to us was cannibalizing it in interesting ways.   

I have always been a quick learner. It did not take me long to grasp the central conviction of the time, that the future would be nothing like the past, and that the past was a thing best forgotten. Nor did it take me long to realize that no one quite knew what this meant. Whether the iconoclasm of the age was cause for euphoria or ennui came down to personal temperament, and for myself, the new orthodoxy was just as useful as the old one. I was adept at mimicking my classmates and professors, which insured I received excellent grades and warm reviews. I wrote several small pieces for strings, and a concerto that I was, at the time, proud of for its slavish and derivative use of serialism. All the while, I believed myself to be laying the groundwork for my own contribution to new music. Despite the aesthetic theories that were then coming into vogue (and the somewhat puerile version of left politics that came with it) the musical program I was committed to was still essentially a conservative one: the work of art as a work of synthesis that would dissolve the distinction between folk music and art music, minor and major, comedy and tragedy, time and space. Like many in that now-distant decade, I was hungry for transcendence, and pursued it with the fervour of one who believes his experience to be completely novel. What I found was the same thing every generation before mine had found: that a sequence of notes, no matter how elegant, is still only a sequence of notes. But I am getting ahead of myself.  

In 1966, the year I graduated, I had minor success with a partially atonal piece called “Fugue in Darkness,” and was feverishly trying to make good on it. The fugue was part of a longer suite of pieces for chamber orchestra ultimately performed as part of a classical music revue at a church in Knightsbridge, and the single review it garnered offered cautious praise. On the strength of this review—and, I admit, due to insistent and even shameless self-promotion on my part—I was been commissioned to write a full symphony for a new music orchestra that had close ties to one of my more indulgent professors.

I don’t know if someone of your generation can understand what this meant. A career in classical music was an opportunity to transcend my colonial, bourgeois origins; even a short symphony was a chance to prove I belonged in London’s unctuous, backbiting musical community. In order to earn this commission, I had pitched an ambitious vision that would supposedly blend the simple pentatonic sensibilities of the folk music I had grown up with the modern experimentation of the Second Viennese School. Naturally, when it came time to actually write it, the task proved impossible.

I won’t bore you with the details of that horrible winter of sixty-seven. All I remember are the long hours of afternoon, the grey light filtering in between the flats, the blackened kettle on the stove, the hands of the clock always at quarter past three. Mozart, I am told, wrote the overture to Don Giovanni in the grey dawn hours before the premiere, after a night of heavy drinking; I couldn’t have written my symphony if I’d had two years of uninterrupted work. Every note, once set down on the page, became hideous and unrecognizable. Music lost definition and collapsed into a bland sameness, an unrelieved wasteland of tones. I could no longer tell Paganini from the screeching of trolley cars.

My time in London had been both lonely, and also, in a way, claustrophobic. I went regularly to recitals and faculty performances, and was given complementary tickets to the symphony and opera. After the music, I drank away the evenings with my fellow-students, most of whom were my peers in the composition program—a circle of grotesques, all puffy eyes and sallow faces. They had became obsequious and patronizing after I received the commission, hedging their bets on my success while hoping for my failure. Obviously, they could offer no comfort at all.

Small as this world was, however, it did contain a handful of people removed by class or temperament from the grubby, competitive world to which I was consigned by my status as a middle-class colonial. Lucy was one of them. I never got the full story on the imposing string of hyphenated surnames following the simple iamb of her Christian one, but the general idleness she lived in, and her careless attitude toward Balenciaga dresses and bottles of Moët spoke to a certain inbred comfort with fine things. Perhaps because of this, Lucy was kind enough to overlook the fact that I had no money at all. We played together often, working our way through Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances with Lucy on the violin and I on the piano, and when we were finished we walked together through Hampstead and up to the Heath.   

Like many dilettantes, Lucy was too inconsistent to be brilliant. But she played well, and had an obnoxious vivacity that went some way toward making up for her lack of discipline. We had been introduced by her instructor at the college, a hollow-faced man who asked if I would serve as her accompanist for a recital. I had more patience for her fitful devotion to music than others did, and she found my Canadian manners quaint and charming. Lucy’s true gifts were not so much musical as intellectual: she was the first person I met who truly understood the ideas that so many of us in the younger generation were paying lip service to. Music, I later came to realize, was only ever a way for her to work through more serious thoughts about phenomenology. Not really being an artist herself, she took no pleasure in my creative drought, and this made me believe I could confide in her. When I finally admitted on an afternoon of perpetual rain, that I had barely written a thing, she approached the problem pragmatically. Surely I was just burned out from years of work and needed a change of scenery? Her family had an old country house up in Scotland. A stay could be arranged, if I was interested. If you have ever received this kind of invitation before, you will know that it is never really a question. We left for the Firth of Clyde in mid-March.

As our train made its way through Britain’s endless pale countryside, I felt myself for the first time in months. Lucy had brought a book about perception by a Frenchman with a long name, but I was far more taken with her ideas about technology and music—a topic of serious discussion in the art music world in those days, as it still is. Lucy believed my blockage was phenomenological; long years of interacting with music-as-text had inured me to the pre-cognitive sensory experience of music as raw sound. The success of my project, she suggested, would hinge on my ability to reconnect with sound as something organic and unreliable. I should spend my time in Scotland walking through the landscape with a tape recorder, exposing myself to and getting inside the raw patterns and textures of ambient noise, learning how to produce for the concert hall a sonic landscape that was both avant-garde and pre-modern.

We arrived in Glasgow late that night, and it was later still when our hired car pulled up outside the manor. The house loomed above us, a solid mass of stone against the indigo sky. Beyond it we could see faint starlight reflected from the black waves of the loch. We removed our bags from the cab, and as its taillights disappeared into the night, I felt Lucy’s cold, tentative hand slip into mine. She led me through the whispering oak door and into a soft, welcoming darkness, and a silence the like of which I have not experienced before or since.    

In the days that followed, we settled into a comfortable routine. We rose early, ate breakfast together, and spent the morning working on our respective projects: Lucy taking notes on the Frenchman’s book, and I painfully revising my manuscript. After lunch, Lucy practiced violin while I walked along the coast with my tape recorder, trying to find inspiration in the white noise of the landscape. When I returned we prepared a simple dinner, sat long at the table, and drank whiskeys in the drawing room until it was time to go to bed. An unadorned life, but its novelty was conducive to creation.   

The work was still slow. But it was not as hopeless as it had been in London, and I had fixed on a few simple melodies from French folk songs my mother had been fond of when I was a child. Instead of setting the melodies against the usual sort of complementary orchestration, I started weaving rhythmically unpredictable and sometimes dissonant lines of counterpoint around them, burying the melodies in a dense thicket of sound. The results were unremarkable, but an improvement on what I’d written before. The Firth of Clyde, on whose shores the country house stood, was a study in subtle hues and sudden transformations. The low sweep of the coastline was mottled in browns and greens, and under low hills the land on the far side sloped gently down to the firth, flattening out as if sculpted with a giant spatula. On my afternoon walks, I trained my ear to hear the noise around me as a kind of music. The waves on the shore, the gravel beneath my feet, the calls of the cormorants and seals brought in snatches on the endless wind created an endlessly shifting tapestry of sound.   

On the fourth day, an event took place that completely upended this idyll. Lucy and I had stayed up late the night before, hostage to a particularly charged discussion, and she did not emerge from her room that morning. She was still abed when I started out on my usual walk. A few wisps of cloud were just crowning the tops of the hills on the far side of the firth when I left the house, but by the time I was on my way back the fog that had rolled in across the water was so thick I could barely see the path in front of me. I thought at first that it would be a simple enough thing to keep going through the gloom until I reached the road that would take me back to the house, but after some time spent trudging in silence it dawned on me that I must have become misdirected. The road was at most a half-mile from the path, and I had walked at least twice that distance.

By the time I realized I was heading in the wrong direction, I was as lost as a man can be. I continued on my way, convinced I would find a landmark I recognized. But the path that should have returned me to the road brought me instead to a rocky outcrop, and I fell tumbling onto the shingle beach. It was there I heard the music that has haunted me now for fifty years.

It started softly at first, not even really a melody so much as a susurration, a rhythmic lisping of wind that was neither natural nor mechanical. I had gathered myself up after the fall and was trying to find a way back up from the water’s edge when I first became aware of it, but I believe now that it had been going on for some time already. The waves of sound grew louder and more distinct, and I began to sense a modulation in tone—it wouldn’t even be right to call it a melody—coming from just beyond the point at which the shore disappeared into the fog. As I walked toward it, the sound clarified into a high, pure note, quavering as if held in the throat of a singer whose lungs could swallow the world. Slowly, at first, and then with gathering speed, it began to dance and thicken, echoing off the rocks and the shore, a warm, coppery sound in the silver fog.

Only after I’d been following the sound for some time, drawn deeper into the fog by its endless permutations, its strange echoes of voice and pitch, did I realized that I had Lucy’s tape recorder with me. I pressed the red button and sat down on a clammy stretch of shingle, letting the music I had so inexplicably stumbled upon flow around me.  

I did not, at the time, know how long I sat transfixed on the shingle. I have since been able to ascertain that I listened for no less than fifteen minutes and eighteen seconds before the sounds started to falter, and I was seized with terror that it would end before I found its source. I pursued it to the end of the beach and followed a narrow footpath up the shoreline, moving closer, I was sure, to its point of origin. But the closer I came to what seemed to be the source of the music, the more subdued and indistinct it grew, until it dissolved altogether in one last echoing chord, and I was left alone and desolate in the swirling fog.

When I returned to the house I found a note from Lucy. She said she had left for London, but that I could stay in the house for another week. Distant relatives would be arriving in a fortnight, and it would be best if I were gone by then. I couldn’t spare much of a thought for Lucy, however; I was gripped by a frenzied need to replay the tape, to hear the music again.

You can imagine my dismay when the sound the emerged was repetitive and vague, indistinct in the most maddening way. How could I have imagined this music to be sublime? After listening and re-listening to it long into the night, I became convinced it was not my own experience that was insufficient, but the recording itself. The tape did not show that my epiphany on the beach had been empty: my epiphany on the beach unmasked the inadequacy of any recording technology in the face of the numinous. Had I been able to copy down in exact detail every note, had I the skill to build a synthesizer that could faithfully recreate every sound, I would still only have had a dull record, a faint shadow of what I had witnessed.

During those lonely days in Scotland, I became aware, for the first time, of the truly complex relationship between space, sound, and time. I had always assumed space was something to be managed and controlled, a variable that could enhance or detract from a performance by the degree to which it interfered with what I had been trained to think of as the purity of the music. Even experiments I had become aware of as a student that played with space/sound/time—Varèse’s Poème électronique, for example—were simply new versions of the same impulse that had built the concert halls I had grown up playing in. Their architects had assumed music was something fragile, easily lost amidst the ordinary noises of the world. But as I sat at the piano, reams of staff paper piled about me and my electronic recorder looping sound over sound, I started to notice the rain beating against the windows, the electronic hum of the refrigerator switching on and off, the wind rising and falling like a great wave around the house. In place of the mathematical certainty I had been pursuing so assiduously, the chaotic music of the world began to creep in.

And I let it—at first. But the more I tried to incorporate ambient sounds into my music, the more it began to seem essentially banal. What composer hasn’t been inspired by rain, or thunder, or the sound of a wave? I thought of Sibelius and his mosquitoes in Finlandia, and realized that no amount of clever imitation would satisfy my desire, because my desire was not for any particular sound. What obsessed me was the way these ambient sounds inserted themselves into the music by chance as I played it. It was this very randomness (which seemed impossible to reproduced through any mathematical model) that made the music come alive.

I was unable to write myself out of this quandary. By the time I left the Firth of Clyde behind me and caught an early morning train down to London, I had a finished manuscript. But it felt like nothing more than a series of gestures, a sketch, the transcription of an idea. I spent the last weeks of spring trying desperately to fill in the gaps, to re-create on paper what I had experienced. But all I had been left with was the wind and the rain, the ocean gnawing at the stone of the firth, the vast shifting grey of the fog, a melody that remained thin and tenuous and uninspired no matter how I scored it.

I shyly suggested to the artistic director that we find a way of including ambient sounds in the performance. He seemed torn between the desire to do something exciting—even experimental—and his perhaps understandable concerns about how this would actually go over with an audience. He needn’t have worried; among the velvet drapes and upholstered seats of the concert hall, the effect of the natural sounds interwoven with the live orchestra was completely anodyne, a gimmick. I knew I had failed long before the piece premiered. The music was nothing more than an artless catalogue of my influences, and the electronic noise served only to give it a cheap modern gloss, a plastic shine. Without any serious hope that she would come, I had invited Lucy. In the end I was relieved when she didn’t.

Curiously, the lacklustre response to the performance of my first symphony did not crush me, as I had feared it would. Perhaps because I had myself given up on the music long before anyone had a chance to hear it, I was able to observe the orchestra’s passionless, mechanical performance with a degree of scientific detachment. The problem, as I came to see it over the course of the rehearsals, was the space of the concert hall itself. A texture of sounds that had been completely organic along the rugged coast of the Clyde was, in the West End, a mere facsimile that brought to mind the idea of rain, not the visceral feeling of dampness and confusion, or even the comfort of hearing rain on the window. Instead of being revelatory, it was merely cute, a stylistic touch that neither added anything to the music nor covered its obvious deficiencies.

As the money slowly drained from my bank account that summer, I spent my days wandered the city, paying renewed attention to the multitude of music halls, churches, and opera houses that sought to contain and give life to the city’s music. I had always been too focused on the process of composition itself to pay much attention to the venues in which it was performed. My walks began as a restless search for novelty, and slowly became a disciplined survey of London’s musical architecture. What I discovered left me increasingly perplexed.

I found surprisingly little variance when it came to spaces that were built explicitly for music. Music was performed on a stage, in a pit in front of the stage, or in a choir loft. None of the many alternative possibilities (the orchestra in the centre of the room, say, or on a stage suspended from the ceiling) were frequently explored, and even in the case of opera, which one would think might come with a number of exciting alternatives that could make the experience more immediate, the distance between music and audience was absolute. Nowhere was there even the remote possibility for the kind of mystery and uncertainty that had attended my revelation on the beach. Indeed, every dimension seemed designed precisely to make this uncertainty impossible. It would not have been difficult for me to stay in England, had I wanted to. But over the course of that summer the city lost its allure, and when my visa expired, I booked a flight back to Canada. I brought very little with me: my tape recorder, my notes, and the collection of essays by the French philosopher Lucy had brought to the house by the Clyde. I left behind my textbooks, my record player, and my youth. 

In Winnipeg I stayed at the apartments of old friends, and in dirty Main Street hotels. Everyone was sympathetic. From the perspective of the people I had grown up with, my return was a sign of failure, but this did not trouble me. I had already started to lay the theoretical groundwork for my grand project, the execution of which I already knew would take up all the energy I had. My former schoolmates smiled gently at me as I crawled off their couches early in the morning, but I had a spring in my step when I walked up Portage Street toward the Carnegie Library. Most of my days were spent trying to learn as much as I could about the world’s great concert halls, gothic cathedrals, and the latest developments in experimental architecture. Sidney’s now-famous opera house was still under construction, and Winnipeg itself was only just starting to undergo the architectural renaissance that would make it a strange masterpiece of Canadian modernism. But I already knew that my own ideas were far more radical.

The vision I was slowly realizing was nothing less than a complete inversion of traditional forms. Where generations of European architects had sought to domesticate sound, to enclose it within an envelope of scientifically perfect silence, I wanted a concert hall that would contain the entire world, a concert hall so unpredictable, so completely pervious to its environment, that no single piece of music could ever be performed the same way twice. If the crowning achievement of the first part of the century had been to reduce music to its starkest mathematical forms, the only possible way forward was an embrace of an even deeper order, the order that lies behind chance and manifests itself in the forms of clouds and the rhythm of seas.

I realized that my calling was not to create a piece of music that could rival Mahler’s 5th Symphony, but to build a concert hall that could re-create the rapturous chaos of the music I had heard along the Firth of Clyde. I was going to be a composer of space; space worthy of music, space that would not only create the conditions for what I had experienced in the Scottish fog, but that could renew all music. I would build—I would compose—a shape-shifting concert hall, a hall whose infinite mutations would provide a space for music to reach the infinite. This hall would adapt to the music being played within it and incorporate the surrounding environment. Fog, ocean waves, thunder, wind, noise from the streets would be woven into the music itself. Music of the past would be regenerated, and music of the future would transcend the narrow limitations of the Western tradition.

Two practical problems confronted me: my own lack of theoretical knowledge about architecture, acoustics, and recording technology, and a lack of funds that would allow me to continue my studies, let alone embark on a building programme. To this end, I enrolled in McGill’s school of architecture, where I developed the skills I would need to make the concert hall a reality. I found a place at a small architectural firm near Mile End after graduating, a job that allowed me the freedom to explore my grand project on my own time while staying up-to-date with the latest advances in technology.

Ensconced in my apartment, surrounded by books, records, and building plans, I set myself to work on the creation of this concert hall, and I have been working ever since. The fruit of my forty years’ labour lies in the documents sitting before you.

At the end of the letter, Philip Lefebvre had signed his name. He had a clear signature, in which every letter is clearly delineated, and I wondered if this meant something. Are megalomaniacs more likely to have clear signatures or sloppy ones? My mouth was sour from old coffee, and the air in my office was dry and stifling. It was not yet noon. I had a glass of water in the break room next to the toilets. It slopped over the rim of the glass, running down the smooth skin of my cheeks and beading along the front of my sweater.

I walked up to the street and had a cigarette in the alley behind our office. Between the old brick warehouses, the downtown office towers loomed over Toronto like vast glass stalagmites. The author of a novel inspired by one of the city’s greatest libraries once wrote that architecture is the art that most boldly reproduces the order of the cosmos. But what does it mean for a thing created by human hands to mirror the cosmos? In order for a mirror to be held up to the world, this author had written, the world must have a form. How can an artist at once reflect the form of the world, and our inability to ever truly fathom it?

In the salt-pale gutter, a trickle of water ran. The wind had died down to a whisper, and large wet flakes of snow were falling. My cigarette had burned down to its filter. When I got back to the office, Zimmermann was shrugging his coat off and cursing the transit commission, the Royal Bank of Canada, the baristas at Terroni, and Toronto’s fetish for the Baroque. When he turned his simmering black eyes on me, it was a relief to have something to distract him with.

            “I’ve never heard of this Lefebvre guy,” Zimmermann said, when I’d explained the gist of the letter and put on a pot of tea. “He sounds like a crank.”

            “He sure could be. But if he isn’t, this could be a fresh angle, right? A series on concert halls. ‘Can the Canadian concert hall meet the needs of modern music?’ ‘did concert halls kill the avant-garde in Canada?’ Something of that nature.”

            “Those are dogshit titles. But yeah, look the guy up and find out if he’s done anything we should care about. Could be a curiosity item, even if we can’t pad it out into an article.”

            Zimmermann disappeared into his office, and I sank into my chair and turned my face to the comforting glow of my laptop.

Philip Lefebvre, as it turned out, was easy to find. He was listed as an associate at Tremblay et Lavoie Architectes, a small company with an office near the Marché Jean Talon. When I called the number on their website, I was told he was out of the office for the week but could be reached via email. I sent off a short, respectful message with a healthy smattering of exclamation points and settled into some googling to try and figure out what kind of a digital footprint he had.

Most of what I turned up was unremarkable for a professional of his sort. There were smiling shots of him at work sites, mentions in newsletters, a few shout-outs on Tremblay et Lavoie’s social media accounts. It was when I tried to narrow the search to find out what musical connections he had, that things became more difficult. In classical music news, he was little more than a ghost; mentioned in passing in a few bulletins and the occasional long-expired event page. There was no mention of a mystic concert hall that would explode the boundaries of Western music.

At four o’clock, Zimmermann invited me into his office to go over some of the circulation numbers with him. Strictly speaking, circulation wasn’t really part of my job, but Zimmermann was only able to confront the magazine’s grimly predictable decline in financial viability when he had someone to process it with. The meeting with the donor had not gone well. He was trying to convince himself (by convincing me) that between regular subscriptions and newsstand sales we didn’t need the old bastard’s money. I nodded along and made positive noises when he paused for more than a couple of seconds. He finally talked himself into a good mood, convincing himself we could get by just fine by continuing to do whatever it was we were doing, and poured us both a shot of Grant’s. At five he magnanimously decided we should both call it a day.   

It wasn’t until I was back at my apartment that I got a response from Lefebvre. I was listening to Reich’s The Desert Music and washing cold pasta down with a bottle of Douro when my phone pinged and a message popped up on my screen: “Glad to hear you received my package. Call me eleven tomorrow a.m.” He left a number that was different from the one I had called earlier in the day. I confirmed the arrangement and sat back in my chair, thoroughly bewildered.

It was clear that interviewing Lefebvre was not going to be like interviewing most music people with big ideas. It wasn’t even going to be like interviewing Schumacher, who had been able to make up for her taciturnity by letting me witness the project she had poured her life into. Lefebvre, if he was to be believed, had kept very quiet about something that was of central importance to his life for decades, only to send a detailed autobiography and several copies of his work to a journalist he’d never met, simply because he’d read an article by a journalist he’d not completely hated. These were not the actions of a particularly normal man.

I’d dropped Lefebvre’s envelope into my bag while Zimmermann was closing up at the end of the day. Things had a way of getting shuffled about in the office, and I wanted to be able to consider the material in a more contemplative space. But the blueprints didn’t make much more sense when spread out on my desk, and the conceptual drawings seemed, if anything, stupider. In his letter, Lefebvre had described a “shape-shifting concert hall” that would respond to the music played within it, and to the natural environment outside. In concrete terms, this was represented as a kind of geodesic half-dome supported by four semi-domes atop a square foundation—not all that dissimilar from an Ottoman mosque. The concert hall had entrances facing the four cardinal directions, and the main dome contained several layers of false ceilings that could fold out of the building’s base to drastically change the size and shape of the chamber within. Each of the individual geodesic panels could also be opened to the outdoors. A note in Lefebvre’s handwriting explained that the openings would, on a windy day, create specific pitches and harmonies, making the hall itself into a kind of instrument.

The acoustic properties of the hall were explained in a number of dense mathematical formulae that were quite beyond my ability to comprehend, but Lefebvre had added another note explaining that the inside of the chamber would be clad in small panels made of carbon fibre and micro-perforated silk metal that could be rotated and rearrange automatically to give the hall wildly different acoustic properties. The seating was governed by a number of complex mechanisms that made a variety of configurations possible. There seemed to be at least a dozen ways to organize staging. The hall had no default seating plan, and projectors recessed into the walls and foundation could turn the entire space into a vast and colourful screen. According to the accompanying illustrations, a concert could move seamlessly from dark, intimate cabaret to an awe-inspiring spectacle of light and sound in mid-performance. It was a concert hall that almost seemed designed to overpower, rather than augment, the music being played.

I opened a window and lit a cigarette. Streetcar bells chimed softly and a gentle hum of chatter and activity rose up from the bars and restaurants below. Clouds had blown in as evening came on, and the air was warmer than it had been during the day. Below my window, an elderly Portuguese man who worked at the fishmonger’s next door was arguing with my downstairs neighbour, the proprietor of a complicated post-modern boutique that sold things made exclusively from hammered copper and feathers. I couldn’t tell who was winning.

One of the things I liked about living on Dundas Street was that it never really got quiet. Even at three o’clock in the morning, someone would be out walking their Doberman pinscher in a bowler hat and spats, singing “Tangled Up in Blue.” There were street festivals, of course, and the occasional busker, and everyone in the apartment across the street seemed to play a banjo, a guitar, or a Theremin. Some of the most remarkable combinations of sound I’d ever heard, I had heard sitting right there in front of my window. I couldn’t say that Lefebvre’s ideas were utterly ridiculous. And yet there was something a shade inhuman in his theory. The things most people love best about music—its origin in the physical body of the performer, its inability to exist outside of time, the animal pleasure of its familiar patterns—seemed to horrify him. Where had this obsession with chaos and primal order come from, and why was it, for him, so inextricably linked to a single and in some ways rather silly event? I flicked my exhausted cigarette in the street and watched its long cherry arc of fire spin off into the night. The Desert Music was coming to its hypnotic, relentless conclusion, the Douro was almost finished, and the tiredness I had been feeling since morning crashed upon me like a wave. I closed the window and went to bed. 

The next morning, I arrived at the office early and spent the first hours of the day preparing my questions and pouring over Lefebvre’s letter. Was there something in his story that might explain the true, metaphysical meaning of this shape-shifting concert hall? Was Lefebvre, in some sense, playing a game with me? Zimmermann was in a less choleric mood, and tried to give me a hand by filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge of elektronische Musik. But it quickly became clear that Zimmermann harboured an irrational hatred for Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gottfried Michael Koenig, and the whole Studio for Electronic Music crew, and his potted history of the period quickly devolved into a series of veiled, sinister suggestions and attacks of a flatly personal nature. By eleven, I was glad to have an excuse to end the conversation.

Lefebvre answered on the second ring, and spoke before I had a chance to. 

            “Mr. Otkazov?”


            “Good. Okay. Good. Thank you for calling. I trust you’ve had a chance to look through the documents?”

            “I’ve been digesting them since the package came in yesterday morning. Quite a lot in there.”

            “It’s my life’s work.”

            “I gathered.”

            “No one else has seen any of this.”


            “Absolutely no one. So you understand that I’m really counting on you to help me out with this.”

            “Well as you know, I’m a journalist, and this does sound like it could be a story, so I just wanted to—”

            “Naturally. But it’s important that you understand just what I’ve given you. This is a whole new way of understanding music: a new approach to the great musicological questions of our time. This isn’t about a bunch of amateur musicians mucking about in expensive diving suits. Whatever the Schumacher and the rest of the hydroörganonologists believe they have found in the polluted silt of the world’s great harbours, it cannot compare to the genuinely avant-garde project I outlined in my letter.”

            “I’m sure that’s true. I did have one or two questions of clarification, though, if you’ll humour me.”

            “But of course! What I sent you was simply the skeleton of the project. You must have many details you’d like filled in. Where shall I start?”

            “Well, if you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to start by asking why your concert hall hasn’t been built yet, given how long you’ve been working on the plans.”

There was a rather long silence on the other end of the line.

            “It’s a complicated question, as I’m sure you can understand,” Lefebvre said, somewhat less warmly. “The answer comes in two parts. I’ll start with the most straightforward one: unlike Saito, I do not have access to mysterious financiers who are willing to bankroll my project to the tune of several millions. Since the early seventies, I have been working as a humble architect at a small firm in Montreal, and while this has allowed me to put aside some money, my experiments in acoustics and sound design have not been inexpensive. I have reached out discretely to several well-known philanthropists and entered my designs in numerous contests, but have fallen victim to the inherent conservatism and snobbishness of the classical music world. No one wants to hear about what art music could be; they just want to hear Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and Mahler played over and over again, season after season. And when it comes to concert halls, of course they want something so bare in its functionality, so empty of purpose and meaning that it can host repetitive performances of Buxtehude and repetitive performances of Reich and whatever bizarre tonal scribblings your own generation is busying itself with. The agnostic uniformity of contemporary performance hall architecture—which I think we can both agree is driven in equal parts by the grey-suited armies of capitalism and the bourgeois cult of tradition—is interrupted only by the vain, the truly feeble-minded erections of celebrity architects who believe that a bit of non-Euclidean geometry or a stretch of raw concrete makes for a bold statement.”

            “So it would be fair to say there have been some obstacles to overcome in terms of generating support for the project.”

            “Sure. You could put it that way. The way I’d put it is by saying that the classical music world would willingly embrace obsolescence rather than my revolutionary theory of—”

            “Right, right, but is there was another part to this, beyond just the conservatism of the industry?”

“I was just getting to that, Mr. Otkazov. The second dimension of the problem is more complicated, more philosophical. The task I set myself, remember, was no less than the creation of a completely organic and responsive concert hall that could capture within a performance the full chaos and unpredictability of the natural order. As a Canadian I was aware from early on of the practical problems inherent in this idea. There is a reason we don’t simply hold our concerts in the open air. We need a concert hall that contains the chaos of the world around us in a way that facilitates our own engagement with it. Such a concert hall would become a vessel in which we encounter anew the barbaric harmony of the world itself, in its impermanence and mutability. Such a thing has, of course, never been attempted.

“When I first set out, the models to which I looked were Medieval. The gothic cathedral was more than just a building, after all. I was a microcosm of the universe, a place where the human and the divine could meet. It re-created the sacred order of the cosmos. In the cathedral, worshippers encountered and participated in the whole human story, from Adam’s fall to the Apocalypse. The cavernous, echoing chambers of cathedrals made possible a completely new kind of music, songs and hymns that moved between heaven and earth, making eternity present in their resounding notes.

“The Protestants rejected all of this, of course. They wanted bare, mortal spaces that underscored the absoluteness of the distance between earth and heaven, spaces that made all people equal before an absolutely transcendent God. These churches created a different kind of music, a music that could be sung by the congregation. And it is from these bare protestant halls—already brought dangerously close to secular reason through their disenchantment of the physical world—that grew the concert halls that now play secularized Bach and god-neutered Handel.

“I had no desire to return to the cathedrals of the past. God is, after all, dead; and I seek no part in resurrecting Him. But they are still a reminder that great music arises out of great spaces. As I delved further into my studies in the history of architecture and music, I became convinced that the solution to the problems the great twentieth century composers had posed lay not in ever-more ingenious and mathematically complex experiments in written music (or in the opposite direction—chaos, chance, non-composed music), but in the buildings where music is encountered. Over the years, I watched my boyish enthusiasm for Cage, Reich, Glass, and Pärt wane as they struggled with and failed to find answers to the great problems of our era. Glass, I think, came closest, but what is Einstein on the Beach if it is simply being performed on an ordinary stage in the same domestic way operas have always been performed? I won’t lie to you, Mr. Otkazov: my own plans for a concert hall that would allow for the creation of a completely new music is the product of a lifetime of disillusionment.”  

“When did you actually start work on the project, then? You said in your letter that your research began as soon as you returned to Canada in, what was it, 1967? Not to be rude, but that was long before—”

“Yes, yes, of course. My letter may have taken certain liberties with the timeline. Did I start drawing up plans in 1967? Not in any serious way, no. It was a complicated process, and I knew I had much to learn. I went back to school to study architecture in my late twenties. I didn’t establish myself at a firm until my mid-thirties. And once I was established…I mean, surely you understand how rapid the rate of technological change has been? Every time I settled upon a definitive design, I came across a new development that opened up even more profound possibilities. I travelled the world in search of new technologies that might help my designs become ever more subtle; I learned to program computers, create three-dimensional models, print sounds and create aural representations of shapes. I studied artificial intelligence, mapped perceptions of music in the brain, learned the secrets of Roman concrete, recorded the song of a thousand azans in the streets of Istanbul and Isfahan and Abu Dhabi. I experimented with mind-altering drugs and sensory deprivation. I explored how sound is perceived underwater, and how it is distorted by vast open spaces. Everything I learned, I incorporated into my designs.”

“I have those designs in front of me—or at least the elements you have sent me—and I must say that there are aspects of it I don’t quite understand. The visual flourishes, for example. You said this concert hall would give birth to a new kind of music, and also reinvigorate the old music. What do inflatable lungs and mechanical plants have to do with that?”

“I can see you do not truly grasp the subtle interplay between the ontological and the metaphysical that is essential to my design. The concert hall, like the cloud that swept over the Clyde so many years ago, should de-familiarize the audience member, force him into a radical new relationship to music, time, and space, a relationship that is all the more bewildering and haunting for being tantalizingly recognizable. Instead of a perfect, silent void that music can fill completely, my concert hall, when it is built, will be as shifting and evanescent and opaque as a cloud. What you call mechanical plants are actually suggestive emanations that will conjure up vague associations in the mind of the audience member.” 

A peevishness had crept into Philip Lefebvre’s voice, but there was a hypnotic quality to it as well, something rhythmic and very old. He was a man who had been observing the development of Western music when my father was still a child playing on the streets of Samara, and had focussed on his task with a single-mindedness that was no less admirable for being so preposterous. The more time he spent plotting out every detail of his concert hall, the more real it became for him, and the more impossible its actual realization became.

“Thank you for sharing this with me,” I said. “This has gone a long way toward… clarifying a number of the questions I had. But there’s one other thing I’d like to ask—”

“And that is?”

“What happened to Lucy.”

“Pardon me?”

“Well, I read your letter, and right after you talk about your experience in the fog Lucy drops out of your narrative. You wrote that you came back to an empty house and that Lucy was gone back to London. Why did she leave? Did you ever tell her about this revelation?”

“Aside from the fact that I was staying at her family’s house when the events involving the Scottish fog occurred, Lucy isn’t really an important part of this story.”

“I just ask because it seemed, you know, the way you wrote the story, that she was fairly instrumental in preparing you for your breakthrough. She introduced you to a new way of composing, yes? Even if she wasn’t much a part of your life while you developed these ideas?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as that! I suppose if she hadn’t gotten me started on the recording, I would never have ended up getting lost in the fog, but she was a very marginal player in my life, even then. And after the incident in the fog, I was so taken up with my attempts to transcribe and recreate my experience that I didn’t really have time or energy to try to mollify her once I was back in London. She was basically a dilettante, as I believe I mentioned. A wonderful person, but tragically unserious when it came to music.”

“What was the nature of your relationship?”

“We were friends. As I said in my letter, I was her accompanist.”

“Were you lovers?”

“A ridiculous question.”

“Is that a yes?”

“If you’ll pardon my saying so, that is a truly asinine assumption. Though Lucy would probably see something comic in it. I see that I have made a major error in trusting you with this material. I believed—foolishly, as it turns out—that I sensed a refinement, an elevated sensibility in your writing. But this is exactly the kind of cheap psychologizing I should have expected from a hack journalist at a second-rate industry magazine. As I have taken pains to explain, both in my letter and in this conversation, there is only one relationship that matters in my life: my relationship with music, with the tradition. But this is not interesting to you. You need a story that has characters, a story where an obsession with music needs to be a manifestation of some psychosexual malady. It can’t simply be motivated by a love of the art. Perhaps this is because you yourself don’t understand the first thing about art. It’s all just therapy for you, isn’t it? A nice little purge, a tightening and a release, the emotional equivalent of voiding your bowels. Whereas I have purified myself, forgone the distractions of carnal love, and consequently understand music in a way you never can.

“Music does not reflect experiences, it precedes them. The alchemists understood this: music is the structure of the cosmos. I have learned more about love and desire, philosophy and reason, anger and pain from music than I ever could have living a normal domestic life. You, of course, don’t want to know about any of that. You want to know salacious details about rutting bodies. But I won’t give you the satisfaction! The only thing that matters is the truth that was revealed to me in the fog. It is a truth to which I have dedicated my life. It is a truth that, frankly, I had thought you would take seriously. But it seems you are a fundamentally unserious man. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours, Mr. Otkazov.”

            After Philip Lefebvre hung up, I sat at my desk listening to the dial tone. On the digital display of my recording device, seconds turned to minutes. I returned my phone to its cradle with an empty plastic click and arranged Philip Lefebvre’s papers into an orderly pile. I smoothed the creases of the envelope on my desk, and slid the pages back inside. For some reason, I found something unbelievably sad about the fold line scoring the creamy manila. Zimmermann poked his head out of his office.

            “Anything to the story?” he asked.

            “Nothing worth printing,” I said, tucking the envelope into my bag.   


André Forget is a writer and critic. His work has appeared in The Walrus, The Literary Review of Canada, and Canadian Notes and Queries. He is managing editor at The Puritan, a Toronto-based literary magazine.

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