PARIS — The first time I sang, it was by ear. I imagine that is often the case. Toddlers join their favorite Disney movie characters or echo their parents with mumbled renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” When children begin to sing in school, they usually learn not from sheet music, but from memorized lyrics through repetition.
Then things change. The melodies become notated. Some people become disciplined singers and instrumentalists; others give up musical study altogether. What about the latter category, those for whom singing is simply something to enjoy, whether they can carry a tune in the car or at karaoke?
These types of performances – those just for fun – are generally considered unsuitable for sacred spaces of musical expression. But “The Mutes”, Lina Lapelyte’s moving, melancholy and immersive installation at Lafayette Anticipations here elevates this amateur naivety to the rank of great art.
“The Mutes,” hosted by Elsa Coustou, is set in an airy environment designed to subvert expectations at every turn, and takes place on an approximately 50-minute loop for six hours a day, five days a week until the 24 July. The setup is reminiscent of “Sun & Sea,” Lapelyte’s well-attended opera created with fellow Lithuanian artists Vaiva Grainyte and Rugile Barzdziukaite, which won top prize at the Venice Biennale in 2019.
This work and the “Good day!” of the Team (2013), a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the inner lives of cashiers, was far-reaching. ‘Sun & Sea’, one of this century’s most effective and indelible operas, hides a sickening portrait of climate inaction in catchy, sedating melodies sung from an artificial beach – a setting that could one day serve as a natural history exhibit of the Leisure and Sloth of the Anthropocene.
Here, Lapelyte works alone and, in comparison, “The Mutes” is much smaller. Yet the intimate scale is also more relevant and more heartbreaking. With a libretto assembled from Sean Ashton’s novel “Living in a Land”, it only expresses the things its characters haven’t done. It is music of regret, of incapacity, music that can underline the feeling that “we live in time and not in place”.
The small ensemble of performers auditioned with something like anti-musicality in mind; people who had been explicitly told they were bad singers were the most ideal candidates. On Wednesday, they delivered the English lines of the libretto with heavy French accents and imprecise intonation. Some were more outgoing than others. A man forgot a line halfway.
“I’ve never had mumps,” coldly sings the first performer who walks through the installation. Other never-I-never follow: I had a correspondent, learned a language, ate tapas, cried at the cinema, bought and sold at the right time, or at any time. “It’s unlikely, is it, that I will ever be given the keys to the city,” a member of the ensemble says into the microphone. Someone else offers, “It’s unlikely, is it, that I’ll ever be invited back to my old school, to show what I’ve done with my life, what I’ve made of myself.”
All these lines are accompanied by simple melodies, ones that can easily be learned by ear. More complicated are the choral passages, especially the antiphonal passages, a challenge for untrained performers but a compelling study for building harmony. These moments have the appearance of a community choir rehearsal – perhaps the most widespread form musical creation takes, if it exists outside of what is traditionally considered traditional performance.
The spirit of this deliberate contradiction – of a formal space given over to a seemingly informal performance and a perceived disorder giving way to balance – pervades the installation. Nettles, medicinally beneficial but hated as prickly weeds, are clustered in an earthy landscape indoors. The inclined stones form a precarious ramp; the same goes for sculptural shoes with uneven soles. But with complementary shapes, together they create a flat surface to stand on with stability.
Visitors can explore the environment at will – although they cannot try on the shoes – before the artists enter, and continue to do so as the music plays. The singers move around as if unaware of the audience members, who may follow each of them and are responsible for staying away.
This opening line, on mumps, is joined by mentions of other diseases: measles, chickenpox, syphilis. And beneath the vocal writing is a typical minimalist Lapelyte score, ostinatos performed with electronics and built from an ascending pattern of two or three notes, or a single tone at a steady beat. But where that formula had an almost sleepy effect in “Sun & Sea,” here it is complicated by additional layers of improvisational playing by Lapelyte and Angharad Davies on violin, as well as John Butcher on saxophone and Rhodri Davies on harp.
Their instrumental contributions, pre-recorded and played through meticulously spatially designed speakers, betray the emotions behind the outspoken vocals. Jazzy riffs and percussive string techniques add an element of restlessness and unstable disquiet. Realizing, too late, that you have never “canoed” or “grown a vegetable garden” can be both sad and infuriating.
But most of the time these statements are sad, as life inevitably is, because of the people who pass them on. Their unrefined sound and labored rendition, these singers were compelling in a way the professionals could not. Everything about them – their feelings, their features, their appearances – was familiar. They reminded me of so many friends and relatives, and for that were more touching than, say, the protagonist of a Schubert song cycle or a Verdi tragedy.
I wonder if it was harder for them to sing together as adults than as children. When you are young, you approach choral music without a critical spirit, as if by instinct; later, more careful and careful listening is needed to achieve harmony. It’s as if, by learning everything else, we forget exactly what we always have to remember.
Until July 24 at Lafayette Anticipations, Paris; lafayetteanticipations.com.