Portrait of Vincent Royer by Egbert Hiller
Vincent Royer – violist, improviser and composer
“The violas – nobody sees them, nobody hears them, yet the heavenly father feeds them”. Although viola jokes still do the rounds, they seem anachronistic now and bring only a weary smile to Vincent Royer’s lips; for nowadays the viola has become firmly emancipated from its little sister, the violin. That does not mean that it merely tries to equal the violin’s sound. On the contrary; it is its individual colour, on the one hand warm and elegiac, on the other hand rough and potentially bristly, that has gained an entirely new worth in the course of modernism. And when Paul Hindemith pointedly emphasises this particular aspect of the viola’s importance in his performance indication “Beauty of sound is of secondary importance” (in the fourth movement of his sonata op. 25, 1), then there is a sound ideal behind it which suggests a process of change that is still going on today.
“Beauty of sound” is the main object for Vincent Royer; what he understands by that however is not only different from the classical ideal but also sharply differs from Paul Hindemith’s beliefs. There is no hierarchy among fixed pitches, micro- intervals, sound clusters and noises in Royer’s idea of sound. They are all equal in their striving for freedom of sound, leading him on a voyage of discovery.
Royer continually searches for new sounds and playing techniques, in which the sympathetic resonance of the materials (wooden and metal parts of the instrument) and sound-analytical concepts (spectral music) together with the sheer inexhaustible potential of the harmonic series all serve as sources of inspiration. He perceives equal temperament as a traditional proportioning which excludes important tonal elements, especially those belonging to the micro-tonal area. By contrast, entire tonal relationships can be derived from the increasingly finely-differentiated harmonic series of the sound spectrum.
Given this background, it is surprising that Vincent Royer was marked by the equal-tempered piano during his early years. He grew up in a music-loving family; however it was an accomplished musician in the neighbourhood who nourished his professional ambitions. She awakened his enthusiasm for the black and white keys and offered him a solid basic training. His first contact with string instruments came at the age of 13 through a violinist almost as young as he, whose playing and charisma influenced him deeply. He ended up choosing the viola because of its rich tonal possibilities and above all its closeness to the timbre of the human voice. It was precisely the capacity of this instrument to explore the darker sounds that appealed to Vincent Royer, since one of his principal concerns is to emphasise the emotional and existential dimensions in and through music. His education in Freiburg, where contemporary music is assigned a great importance, sharpened his understanding of this decisively on both intuitive and rational levels.
“The sounding Being” plays a central role in his artistic thought, and this still comes most urgently to the fore in concert situations, in live events. In its highly-concentrated interpretative approach, the analytical penetration of the “material” is paired with a perception of the musician as medium, through whom the sounds flow and are shaped as they come into existence. This process also becomes apparent in ritual and theatrical moments which, in a concert, go hand in hand with the meticulous exploration of structural aspects. Bearing in mind that the appearance and disappearance of a sound metaphorically reflect our own coming into being and fading away, existential questions resonate directly in the “sounding Being”. Royer communicates this concept of sound, closely bound to life itself, to young musicians in his teaching, for instance as professor for chamber music (since 2009) at the Conservatoire Royal de Liège (Belgium).
His work as an interpreter of newer and the newest music is flanked by a devotion to creativity: to composition and improvisation. His own, very few pieces open up an almost magical intensity of sound which unfold in various, mostly smaller instrumental combinations. He by no means writes only for “his” instrument and with “Lumen”, for viola and electronics (2003), produced a beguiling solo piece.
Royer also demonstrates that he is on the cutting edge in his use of live electronics, nevertheless without denying tradition. Even if his compositions to date remain largely focussed on the purely musical, he does transcend the barriers to other genres and media in the field of improvisation. Royer works with painters and dancers with the aim of stimulating our awareness through the juxtaposition of visual and tonal spheres. This has more to do with the factor of movement – in real as well as imaginary space – than with a correspondence between colour and sound in the synesthetic sense. For Royer himself, the movements of playing, the physical gestures and spiritual forms of expression, the inner and outer stimuli, are an essential part of music-making through which time – and music as a temporal art – become visible. This phenomenon becomes even more evident in improvisation. Royer improvises both alone and collectively: he has discovered brilliant partners in Tiziana Bertoncini (violin), Martine Altenburge (cello) and Benoit Cancoin (double bass) of the Brac Quartet; likewise with saxophonist Frank Gratowski, the visual artist Joëlle Tuerlinckx and the architect and video artist Matthias Siegert.
Although his activities as composer and improviser are certainly not merely of secondary importance, Vincent Royer remains first and foremost a performer.
He has a wide repertoire of both solo and chamber music that he is continually broadening and enriching with unusual projects. His contact with the French-Rumanian composer Horatiu Radulescu was of great importance; they met each other in Darmstadt in 1988 and Royer developed into one of his most outstanding interpreters. He even coached the Jack Quartet in their work with Radulescu’s music and the CD “Intimate Rituals” stands out amongst Royer’s own interpretations. Music of tremendous emotional intensity but at the same time of delicacy and fragility is the result. Just as compelling are the sound collage-like “Trois Pièces pour Alto, Piano et Son mémorisé” by Luc Ferrari (with Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven) as piano partner and “The Book of Scenes” by David Shea.
Other composers that he values highly include Edgard Varèse, Gérard Grisey, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, Eric Satie, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Pascal Dusapin as well as Claude Debussy, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claudio Monteverdi, to name but a few. Simply belonging to various ensembles and orchestras, such as the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra, means that he is not limited to contemporary music, but familiar with the whole of music history. Even if French music is a focal point for a native of Strasbourg, Royer is nonetheless characterised by plurality and aesthetic openness. He considers himself as someone who crosses national borders, given his background and above all his artistic identity, mediating between (not only) French and German traditions.
He focuses particular attention on Giacinto Scelsi, whose viola pieces he brings to life congenially and whom he once characterised as his “spiritual father”. This is far from being just blind admiration however. It is more that Royer shares with Scelsi a respect for sound which also prevents him from getting lost in superficial virtuosity, despite the fact that Scelsi’s music demands an astonishing technical prowess. For Royer, sound is closely related to consciousness. The “sounding Being” is also a seeker within himself, someone who does not suppress the outer world, but rather reflects and transforms it wondrously into music.