mem mer mère transforms eight measures of Debussy’s La Mer into one giant slow-motion wave that begins deep in the ocean’s trenches and rises through the Abyss, the Midnight, the Twilight, and finally the Sunlight as it breaks through the brilliant sun glitter on the water’s surface. Performed by l’Artiste ordinaire with cellist Kate Dillingham, this music magnifies the formidable eight-measure cello excerpt from La Mer. As Dillingham’s cello and David Morneau’s trombone incant the sea using fragments of La Mer, Melissa Grey—like Salacia in her realm—interweaves them through layers of shimmering live sound processing that conjure the ocean.
Accompanying the music will be a projected video of the ocean’s surface that slowly fades in during the 60-minute performance, a parallel journey into light as the music swims up from the depths.
The goal of mem mer mère is to immerse fellow listeners, temporally and spatially, in Debussy’s otherwise fleeting cello moment. Written more than a hundred years ago, this section of music has inspired us to create a sonic experience that invites the audience to dive deep under the waves and emerge, blinking, into the sunlight. In the same way that Debussy evoked the ocean without relying on commonly established figurations used by other composers, this music evokes the ocean without using field recordings or simplistic imitations. It grows into a swirling mass of undulating sound until it shatters like a wave breaking on the rocky shore into brilliant sunlit spray, sparkling in midair.
Our dependence on the ocean as source and sustainer of life is woven through all human culture in our shared reverence of water. Water goddesses are associated with fertility. The fountain of youth was the impetus for exploration. Immersion in water (baptism) is a symbol of spiritual birth, a ritual metaphor for birth as the emergence from the amniotic ocean of the womb. Even our Western alphabet contains a reminder of the sea: the letter ‘m’ comes to us from the ancient Phonecian alphabet. The original glyph was drawn to associate its sound with the word mem in which it appeared. Mem was their word for water. ‘M’ is a drawing of ocean waves.
We make an annual pilgrimage to the water (the ocean, or the lake, or the river) to commune with the mysterious and powerful source of life. As we stand on the shore, our eyes are blinded by the sun glitter that dances on the water’s surface. This reflected light is deeply embedded in our human psyche: we are attracted to glittering light because it reminds us of light dancing on the ocean’s surface. Like the vivid scent of briny seaside air preceding the first swim of summer, mem mer mère incants a reminder of our origins in the ancient sea.
Tickets to the world premiere performance are available here: hdgoperahouse.org/event/lartiste-ordinaire-mem-mer-mere
Diaz, R. J., & Rosenberg, R. (2008). Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems. Science, 321(5891), 926–929. doi: 10.1126/science.1156401