Brussels Philharmonic | Child of Light

Child of Light

programme notes

written by Jasper Croonen
concert: 13.01.2023 DE BIJLOKE
concert: 18.03.2023 FLAGEY


see more: all programme notes

And God said,
“Let there be light,”
and there was light.

– Gen 1:3

Light and sound – aesthetics beyond physics

‘Light’ as something supernatural, almost sacred, angelic. And at the same time as pure physics, with its genuine scientific interface with music. Optics and acoustics; the study of waves but each in its own way – from that germ emerged a new co-production between Brussels Philharmonic and Ictus that goes beyond physics in search of the immaculacy in ear and in eye.

Although music is the primary medium for both, for once composers are not central to this story. It is lighting artist Caspar Langhoff who determines the discourse during this programme. He chooses who and what is – literally – put when in the spotlight. His career and that of Ictus have been meandering together since 2015. Trained in Brussels, at the Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle, he has the reputation of being a jazzman of the light: someone who, through dialogue with the artists, creates worlds with rays, but who likes nothing better than to improvise with his switches right up to and during the premiere.

For Child of Light, this dialogue led to a concept based on an artificial sun and moon. Langhoff creates the celestial bodies on stage with large steel discs that he decorates with light sources: sometimes blinding, sometimes diffuse. Burning like sunlight or reflecting like moonlight. The fact that both objects can move and slide in front of each other independently also gives Langhoff the opportunity to imitate an eclipse – an image that has long been associated with death, and that in its morbidity can contrast sharply with the intended purity. At the same time, the possible eclipse creates a contradiction between light and darkness, because when Langhoff’s sun shines at full intensity, the stage is shrouded in a scorching white.

From these images, a visual narrative emerges that constantly encompasses all the works on the programme. There are no ruptures. By inserting short auditory intermezzi between the programmed compositions, the performance can continue uninterrupted. Even the necessary stage changes take place during these sound affixes, which are also staged by Langhoff. In this way, he manages to maintain the tension from start to finish, and forges the diverse musical material into a whole.

A confluence of sound and light

But even though the musical program may fit nicely together thanks to the guiding hand of the lighting designer, Caspar Langhoff still fades into the background within his own narrative. In Kristine Tjøgersen’s work Bioluminescence he does have to dim the light, and it is the musicians on stage who continue the light story. After all, her work begins by necessity in total darkness. In the pitch black she creates a picture of fireflies in the concert hall. Based on research by entomologist James E. Lloyd, the composer transcribed the light given off by these insects – which follows a unique pattern for each type of firefly. Not only do these patterns form the basis of the rhythmic and melodic material of the composition, they are also a visual part of the work and are written out on the staves. As such, the musicians have to perform these motifs with the help of LED lights. Only gradually does the brightness of the scene increase, like a criticism of the increasing light pollution that threatens the survival of these animals.

Bioluminescence may therefore be the premise that dictates Langhoff’s work, but the other pieces on the programme grant him unbridled artistic freedom to develop his vision. They bubbled up from the original concept and have been arranged in a give-and-take between orchestra, conductor Ilan Volkov, and lighting artist. They are works that, each in their own way, contain the specified purity.

In Lonely Child by the Canadian Claude Vivier, for example, this idea is translated into his childhood, a period that takes on an almost mythical role in his oeuvre. The militant queer personality broke away from his mother at an early age, and as a result of that trauma would from then on constantly go in quest of her impossible recognition. His tragic end, brutally murdered in an act of homophobic violence, contrasts sharply with his pursuit of integrity. As a composer, Vivier dived for the most part into the depths of the timbre. At the instigation of his teacher Karlheinz Stockhausen, he abandoned the harmonic meaning of the music. Sounds were only useful because of the sonority he could generate with them. This makes Vivier one of the most important founders of the later spectralism, in which these ideas about timbre would be further elaborated.

Vortex Temporum gives Langhoff carte blanche for another reason. Since Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s 2013 choreography of the same name, Gérard Grisey’s work has been part of Ictus’s core repertoire. It is a composition they comfortably know inside out and can therefore perform in complete darkness as well as in dazzling white light. The purity of this work lies in the way in which the composer deals very sparingly with musical material. With rising and falling arpeggios he produces sinusoidal and other (synthetic) sound waves with an almost visual tone. And so, here too, physics is never far off.

In this way, Child of Light becomes a total conceptual story in which sound and light waves merge in an almost synesthetic way. Sometimes in a shamelessly spiritual way, but above all with extreme aestheticism, music ends up in the hands of a lighting artist, and musicians play with light.

with thanks to Jean-Luc Plouvier