IN: Reviews

Paris Dispatch



Your far-flung correspondents write to call attention to two women composers living and working in Paris.

The first is Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, who was invited to Yale as a visiting professor in 2010. Famous among her peers for her improvisations, she supplied music for Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc in 2017. Since February 2023, Cauchefer-Choplin has succeeded the legendary organist Daniel Roth to the position of co-titular, along with Karol Mossakowski, at the no-less legendary Cavaillé-Coll organ at the church of Saint Sulpice. For her Sunday morning pre-mass recital on June 18th, she performed a deeply meaningful “Improvised Suite on some of the Gregorian themes of the day” (Suite improvisée sur plusieurs thèmes grégoriens du jour).

The Suite unfolded in four parts. It opened with bold tonic chords in relentless crescendo, filling the space with overwhelming terror and urgency. She created a gaping disproportion in scale between us and forces unleashed on us in increasing disorder, unstoppable and murderous. Was she inviting us to grapple with the many tragedies that had marked the past week? In the opening movement, deceptive moments of hushed respite added dissonant eddies of dread rather than relief. They were soon submerged again by unfurled waves of deafening anguish ending in a prolonged cadence. The second movement, like a contrasting scherzo, experimented with a sort of airy aesthetic gathered around a jaunty, resilient, youthful motif. Pizzicato shards of bright sounds flung against a steady dark sheet of background rumble created a wistful suspense, only to be contradicted by a descending motif full of foreboding. Complex syncopated rhythms then eroded the jaunty motif to suggest that any optimism on our part is just a way of whistling in the dark. The third movement was wrenchingly elegiac. A very pure flute-like voice pierced through massive low chords, evoking bird calls and fragility, then growing into a veritable requiem for the innocent lives that are lost daily to floods, drowning, fire, displacement, war. The concluding fourth movement started with a grand, declamatory overture, but then depicted in the midst of the grandeur as shipwrecked sailors adrift on a raft, calling on us to replace hollow optimism with genuine faith by joining hands to save the planet and ourselves.

Like the organ, the amplified synthesizer is an instrument for  crowds and big spaces. Marìa Kotrotsou has been attracting large audiences with original compositions of new wave music, exploiting the very crudeness of her electronic means to revitalize the listener’s expectations. On Sunday afternoon at the church of St. Merry, Kotrotsou performed “Melodies in the Universe (Mélodies dans l’univers), From Classic New Wave to Dancefloor”. Eighteen short pieces in all, with an intermission two-thirds of the way through. Kotrotsou’s style heavily featured Glass-like repetitive motifs, one hand playing a repeated short phrase, the other commenting. At other times both hands moved into rapid arpeggios, with extensive use of third-hand illusion bringing a melodic line out of the rolling repetitions. There were echoes of Bach, Chopin and Beethoven subtly woven into the works: Flying Away summoned tastes of Op. 25, No. 1, Lonely Road was a waltz-like remembrance of BWV 846, Saying Goodbye hinted at Les Adieux. With her encouragement, the audience joined in to clap out the rhythm on some of the dance numbers.

Kotrotsou’s merit is the willingness to experiment with what is basically a street idiom to see where it might lead and how it might open up new forms of listening. She is most successful when she is most daring as in the “You and Me” duet where she allowed sudden breaks and more complex rhythms to intervene. The amplified synthesizer awaits its Basquiat. Meanwhile, it’s good to know that its distinctive soundscape is being taken seriously and explored by classically trained musicians.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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