As I sat in the intriguing darkness of Koerner Hall, Marielle Labèque carefully placed the opening notes of Le fils des étoiles by Erik Satie. They hung in the air like little crystals. This was a simple beginning, yet deceptively so, that would build towards something larger. In turn, these notes would unfold in a continuous stream of build-ups and decays. As the concert progressed, the hall itself became a soundscape, with sounds of approval, confusion, and even disapproval regarding what was happening on stage. The darkness enwrapped the full house, as the audience witnessed this unique moment. Though we may have shared the present, each one of us took a personal journey to their own past and future. This was a night not to be rushed, but revelled in.

Katia and Marielle Labèque © Umberto Nicoletti
Katia and Marielle Labèque
© Umberto Nicoletti

The Minimalist Dream House Project was presented by sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival 2013, “Paris La Belle Époque”. The festival, now in its eighth year, treats thousands to classical music, performed by talented Canadian and international artists. The French piano duo was joined by David Chalmin on electric guitar and vocals; Nicola Tescari on keyboard; Alexandre Maillard on bass guitar; and Raphaël Séguiner on percussion. Together, these six fearless musicians explored the unforgettable style of rhythmic pattering developed by Philip Glass, John Cage and other, contemporary composers, which influenced many rock bands today. Underlying commonalities were continuous form, interlocking texture, simple harmony, short melody, and, centrally, repetitive rhythm, together forming a decadent treat.

Both sisters were incredibly immersed in the performance, affecting the listeners greatly. Marielle appeared more reserved, but her superb technique and carefully planned details spoke volumes. She made the silence between the notes ring. She fully commanded everyone’s attention and one could have heard a pin drop during her playing. Katia, on the other hand, moved freely at the piano and later became even more uninhibited with the electronics. Both sisters’ faces were the only ones in the hall being spotlit, and their expressions told it all. Their sincere passion for this music leaped out from within as eagerly as the precise notes of the pieces. Their rendition of Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos was a bright culmination of Part 1, as they explored the whole range of the two grand pianos and conveyed the endless possible emotions of the work.

Katia and Marielle were not the only ones with an incredible connection between them. The other four players joined the sister duo for the second half. Suddenly, this already unusual classical concert became even more so. The six musicians blasted Terry Riley’s In C like an anthem to the minimalist movement. It started to feel like a summer rock festival, complete with purple and golden lighting. It was such a joy to see musicians being so at ease and comfortable in their skin in this concert hall setting. These individuals created one organic whole. They also performed works of their own that were as engaging as the popular songs by Radiohead and Sonic Youth also included in the program. Raphael Séguiner’s Free to X was especially memorable, with its fixed waves of falling rolls on percussion.

Following the exploding conclusion of Part 2, Katia Labèque humbly thanked the audience for enduring for this long and suggested that we all go home and “have a nice cup of tea”. Some of the crowd did just that. However, those who decided to stay for more minimal music were not disappointed. Marielle appeared once more, presenting excerpts from Howard Skempton’s serene Images. These five short pieces were full of such delicate nuances in their seeming sameness that beauty could be heard even in the reverberation of the very last note. Then, Séguiner comfortably took over the spotlight. He took his time with James Tenney’s Postal Piece no. 10: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, and with Philip Glass’ One Plus One, which he performed on the closed lid of the grand piano, appearing both nonchalant and collected at the same time.

Perhaps, Part 3 was too experimental, resulting in the whole concert lasting almost four hours. We encountered a series of building climaxes in the presented minimal pieces, which then rapidly died. This was not teleological music, but rather about unpredictable process. We as the audience had only one option: to surrender completely and utterly to this present moment. And so I did. The notes became suspended in time and space. Most of these pieces lasted mere minutes, yet they felt infinite. This was a night never to be replicated. This was minimalism at its best.