An essay on the The François Vase by professor of music George Lam
“How you know it’s a tragedy: By the end, everyone dies.”
These two lines open the first movement of Gabriela Vainsencher and Daniel Fox’s The François Vase. Why do tragic stories continue to fascinate us if we already know the ending?
The prelude to this unique collaborative piece based on the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth begins with a shot of gently rippling water reflecting the sky above. As the music starts, we hear a winding melody that gradually develops into a fugue, where all four voices of the string quartet are introduced one by one and slowly combined into a tight, intertwined network. Each gnarly fragment of melody seems to pass seamlessly among the homogenous instruments of the string quartet, creating an unsettling, disorienting sonic space as we are introduced to the Minotaur and her labyrinth (“The Minotaur in the Labyrinth”). We see her struggling, disoriented, and trapped in a tight space. The music is equally claustrophobic, hints of the fugue swirl back and forth creating a dizzying effect: when you try to follow a line to see where it leads, right when you think you have figured out where the melody is heading, it overlaps with another line, it is engulfed into the larger texture, and you are lost again in the whole. As the melodic lines follow one another at closer and closer intervals, horizontal streaks of blood flow across the screen to create a striking, foreboding visual representation of the overlapping melodies.
In the paired scenes of “Ariadne’s Thread” and “Ariadne and Theseus in the Labyrinth,” the setting shifts to an empty, outdoor amphitheater – perhaps not unlike a setting where the Greeks would have staged this myth – and focuses on the couple up-close, by the water. The dancing bodies of Ariadne and Theseus give way to a dance of shadows projected onto the cold concrete. The shadow figures offer another way for us to look at light and space devoid of light. The once visually distinguishable characters are now monochromatic shadows that blend into each other. We see the these two characters, at once intimate and struggling, as the ever-present captions on the screen remind us of the futility of this exercise and the inevitability of their decisions: “Seen from above, it is perfectly clear that they are doomed.” Here the quartet plays its most dramatic music yet: all four members slowly slide into a closely clustered, jarring chord, before the music quiets to a whisper and the scene fades to black.
From the darkness, bursts of accented, repeated punches in the string quartet bring us to a new location (“The Slaying of the Minotaur”). A disembodied leg slowly becomes the Minotaur herself as the string quartet materializes out of the noise and confusion. Theseus enters the scene walking backwards into the Minotaur’s lair and quick, jabbing figures culminate in an extended chromatic line when the two characters finally meet face-to-face. Here, the sonic equivalent of walking backwards in a dark labyrinth is a contrapuntal texture in which the four voices blend together and play in a close canon. Reminiscent of the music in the first section, the string quartet plays in a tight range, and we lose who’s who in a swirl of sound. Ariadne appears, and the two heroes vanquish the unsuspecting Minotaur, leaving her to die, as blood streaks across the screen a final time.
In the next section (“The Breakup”), the film represents the music’s repetition and contrapuntal texture through the use of three simultaneous versions of the same scene. Ariadne and Theseus are seen as three different iterations of themselves, placed in the exact same pose. As they slowly start to move, one pair after another, they progress at different rates through a cycle of struggling, making-up, and struggling again. Cuts in the film mirror the fragmented sounds in this movement. The music thins out to harmonics on the violins – soft, floating, and high. The action slows as Theseus leaves the picture completely. We focus for the last time on Ariadne’s hopeless, forlorn gaze out into the sea, while the string quartet, now growing more energetic, climbs higher and higher in a crescendo towards an abrupt end.
How would you translate into music the sound of an ancient vase shattering? And, more importantly, how would it feel? The François Vase’s most serene and sublime sounds open the final movement (“The Vase Shattering”), which explores not only the exact moment of the vase’s demise, but also what it meant to the characters, the story, and indeed to the vase itself: was it all a tragedy? The exact moment of the shattering – which in real life probably only amounted to a fraction of a second – is rendered here as an extended elegy, an epilogue to both the Minotaur myth and to the artifact itself. The video mirrors the motion of the musical world. Long, shifting harmonics in the strings pass among the instruments, creating varying colors as the different instruments enter and exit. Faster tremolo figures send ripples that give way to the soft coda, concluding the work. We return to one of the opening shots, where we see the shadows of three entwined figures slowly expanding their arms, representing the vase at the moment of its destruction.
Yes, endings are inevitable. And yet, endings are also consistently full of surprises. The Minotaur didn’t see this coming. The vase certainly didn’t see it either.
Assistant Professor of Music
York College, The City University of New York