In “A Lover’s Discourse,” French theorist Roland Barthes begins by stating the necessity of the work: “the lover’s discourse is today one of extreme solitude.” Barthes goes on to explore the happenings of love, disparaged and forsaken by so much of culture and society, and, in no small part, attempts to reclaim it. This was in 1977.
A Lover’s Discourse
Saturday at 7:00 p.m.
Kerrytown Concert House
On Saturday, at the Kerrytown Concert House, Benjamin Bourlier and Paul Friesen-Carper will continue Barthes’ examination. Aptly entitled “A Lover’s Discourse,” the concert progresses from classical works of the nineteenth century, Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” (“The Poet’s Love”) and the lieders (art songs) of Wagner-disciple Hugo Wolf, to pieces written by Bourlier himself meditating on the poems of Frank O’Hara and Sylvia Plath.
Bourlier and Freiesen-Carper first met at St. John’s Lutheran Church in the small, seaside town of New Baltimore. Bourlier is the organ accompanist, while Friesen-Carper is the husband of the church’s pastor. Friesen-Carper is also a musician at a nearby church and has training in vocals, several instruments and musical disciplines. Together, they’ve crafted a piano and vocal performance that meditates on “love” as it has developed both technically and thematically since the nineteenth century.
“Dichterliebe,” a classic in the male vocal repertoire and a favorite among pianists, starts the performance with a tale of the spurned lover. Upset by the loss, the lover buries all of their memories and associations in a coffin, hoping to be done with the feelings of the past.
“The poetic implication being that this isn’t successful,” Bourlier added.
From “Dichterliebe” and the Hugo Wolf pieces, which draw upon classical images of the positive and negative — spring, winter, rivers, sunsets, sunrises, life and death — in articulating the lover’s experience, the program proceeds to more nuanced and complicated portrayals of love.
“I feel like the best way to express a critical issue with another work of music is to write one,” Bourlier said.
The O’Hara and Plath poems, which Friesen-Carper sings alongside Bourlier’s composition in an integral chamber style performance, provide the thematic complications of love that ground the piece’s technical response.
“(The O’Hara poems) situate the lover within increasing physical distance, but throughout, the idea of internal distance, subjective distance remains,” Bourlier said.
The first poem, “When your left arm twitches” begins with the lovers in bed, one awake, one asleep, while “I kiss your cup” sees a wider physical distance with a widening emotional one. In “Nocturne” the physical, unlike in “I kiss your cup,” is permanent and for that reason alone the love reluctantly dies.
“Frank O’Hara is really the poet of all these subtle gradations of affection and nearness in relationships in a very delightful way,” Bourlier said. “He seems to value all manner of levels of nearness. He doesn’t fetishize one notion of really intense nearness. He has several layers of friendship, affection, erotic desire and all these things.”
The Plath, called “Love Letter,” concludes the performance and exemplifies in its most extreme form the solitude of love.
“All of the detail is devoted to the inner transformation,” Bourlier said. “It’s a ‘thank you’ note more than a love letter per se, a sophisticated take on ‘the best revenge is living well.’ ”
The complexity of Plath’s imagery, that of a snake among other snakes, frozen and resembling a rock, breaking free after the ice melts and turning into a god, has a corollary in Bourlier’s own composition.
“(The Plath) is more difficult for Paul and I,” Bourlier said. “The energy of the song has a lot to do with pushing the technical extremes, in the classic Beethovenian sense, where that is the content of the gesture, which is whether you can even do it or not.”
For those who may think that performances drawing on classical musical forms for expression in this day and age are outdated, “A Lover’s Discourse” has been designed as a response.
“Working in these forms I’ve learned is a political gesture because I’m doing it in opposition to prevailing norms or what’s expected, even within what you would call classical communities,” Bourlier said.
Rather than perform in the sanctuary of academia as so many classical musicians do, “A Lover’s Discourse” has traveled around the southeast Michigan area, performed in local churches and smaller spaces such as the Kerrytown Concert House, hoping to break the classical forms — sonatas, art songs, symphonies, quartets, chamber ensembles — out of their traditional, insulated spheres.
“What I would like to do is continue to make music that is challenging and complex, but share it in a way that is unqualified, just direct with whomever,” Bourlier said.
This gesture, then, also pushes against the social hierarchies of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe where many of these forms began. For the longest time, excluded from participating were many communities, disparaged and/or unable to afford a ticket of admittance. Even the musicians were affected by the culture, one example being the tuxedo requirement.
“You’re dressed like a butler would be at a dinner event,” Bourlier said. “It’s associated now with elevating your role when initially it was containing your role.”
In opposition to this, “A Lover’s Discourse,” performed in Kerrytown Concert House, creates a more intimate and inclusive space between performer and audience. The Concert House, which sits 110, has seating running right up to a stage that’s barely elevated above its audience.
“I love performing in those spaces more than any other,” Bourlier said. “You can make very intense music there, you can draw from that intimacy to say something more directly.”