A journey through the history, mystery and music of Père Lachaise cemetery
Do you ever wonder what a concert in Père Lachaise would be like of music by musicians in Père Lachaise? I do. I like to wander around Père Lachaise listening to my Père Lachaise playlist on my iPod. But I frequently wonder how extraordinary it would be to experience the music collectively with a live concert.
Playing instruments is permitted in Parisian cemeteries by special permission, so why not a concert every June 21 for France’s annual Fête de la Musique for example? Who better to perform than Melodic Vision.
About Melodic Vision
Melodic Vision is a production company co-directed by two Boston-based artists that specialize in combining sound, imagery, and stories. Their productions include, but are not limited to, art films, museum installations, documentary shorts and a multimedia concert, entitled “Sacred Grounds, Sacred Sounds: A journey through the history, mystery, and music of Père Lachaise cemetery”.
Curious to learn more about this production, I contacted co-directors, violist, Rebecca Strauss and photographer, Susan Wilson, who kindly replied to my questions.
Q&A with co-directors Rebecca Strauss and Susan Wilson
You both have fascinating backgrounds. How did a photographer and a violist come together to co-direct Melodic Vision?
Susan specializes in photographing musicians, and Rebecca hired her to photograph a group she was playing viola with, the New England String Ensemble. Within six months of that shoot, they were collaborating on projects that paired music with projected images. “Sacred Grounds, Sacred Sounds” was the second of these projects.
“Sacred Grounds, Sacred Sounds”. What a great title.
Thanks. We thought so too!
When, and how, did the idea come about?
Susan had long been interested in the art and history of rural garden cemeteries, and had even written and illustrated a book about one in Boston.
These Boston area cemeteries had been inspired by Père Lachaise, so the two of them traveled to Paris to photograph, research, and experience the original. And Susan (and now Rebecca) is madly in love with Paris and France. Susan also speaks French and is a wonderful tour guide for Rebecca who doesn’t speak a word of French. (She speaks Spanish though.)
Could you tell me more about the multimedia aspect of the performance?
The slide show contains about 400 images, which are projected on a large screen above the musicians. They are all stills, which dissolve slowly from one to another. Most are just images, but several include explanatory captions, especially in the beginning of the program.
The order is roughly this: overview of Paris by day, with all the predictable landmarks, statues, foods, etc; enter Père Lachaise, and do a tour, learning about its history; then the section begins where we highlight brief stories, along with historic images and grave shots, of the musicians along with their music.
Lastly, the beauty of the place in general is shown, with other monuments, gardens, walkways, and a few quotes. People both laugh and cry in the course of the show. There is no narration behind the show—only the music played by the live musicians.
What musicians are featured in the performance? How did you make your selection?
The program includes music by Chopin, Rossini, Grappelli, Piaf…. Our selection was based on music that we could perform with a string quartet and flute quartet with flute. Some pieces we had to arrange and others were originally written for the combination of instruments we had.
Jim Morrison is one of the most well known musicians in Père Lachaise. Do you include music by The Doors? If yes, what song do you perform?
Yes, “Light My Fire”. We thought about including “When the Music’s Over”, but we felt we needed to represent many, many musicians and composers, so we had to eliminate it.
Who would you say are your favorites musicians in Père Lachaise?
Susan’s are Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. Rebecca’s are Lalo and Chopin. Violinist Julie McKenzie’s is Stéphane Grappelli. But we really do love them all!
What did you learn about the musicians in Père Lachaise that you didn’t know prior to this project?
So much that it’s impossible to relate it all. We were surprised to learn how many of them died so young, how many of them knew and inspired each other (especially in the 19th century), and that Maria Callas’ ashes were stolen, returned, then removed to be scattered in the sea.
Julie McKenzie on violin, Rebecca Straus on second violin, Dimitar Petkov on viola, Suzanne Polk on cello, Lisa Hennessey on flute.
“All of these people are professional musicians who play with a variety of the finest ensembles and orchestras in Boston. We chose people who were friends, were excellent players, and who were in love with the project idea.” — Melodic Visions