'The Mutes' gives voice to musical outsiders

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'The Mutes' gives voice to musical outsiders
The ensemble of singers in Lina Lapelyte’s “The Mutes,” at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris. The moving and wistful performance installation by Lapelyte gathers untrained singers for reflections on regret and inability. Marc Domage via The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

PARIS.- The first time I sang, it was by ear. I imagine that’s often the case. Toddlers join their favorite characters in Disney movies or echo their parents with mumbled renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” When children begin to sing in school, they usually learn not from scores but from lyrics memorized through repetition.

Then things change. The melodies become notated. Some people develop into disciplined singers and instrumentalists; others abandon musical study altogether. What of that last category, those for whom singing is simply something to be enjoyed, regardless of whether they can carry a tune in the car or at karaoke?

Those types of performances — the ones just for pleasure — are typically treated as unfit for the hallowed spaces of musical expression. But “The Mutes,” Lina Lapelyte’s moving, wistful and immersive installation at Lafayette Anticipations here, elevates that amateur naïveté to high art.

“The Mutes,” organized by Elsa Coustou, takes place in an airy environment designed to subvert expectations at every turn, and unfolds on a roughly 50-minute loop for six hours a day, five days a week until July 24. The durational performance setup is reminiscent of “Sun & Sea,” Lapelyte’s much-traveled opera created with her fellow Lithuanian artists Vaiva Grainyte and Rugile Barzdziukaite, which won the top prize at the Venice Biennale in 2019.

That work and the team’s “Have a Good Day!” (2013), a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the inner lives of cashiers, were expansive in scope. “Sun & Sea,” one of the most effective and indelible operas of this century, hides a sickening portrait of climate inaction in catchy, sedative melodies sung from an artificial beach — a set that could one day serve as a natural history exhibition of the Anthropocene’s leisure and laziness.

Here, Lapelyte is working on her own, and “The Mutes” is much smaller. Yet the intimate scale is also more relatable, and more heartbreaking. With a libretto assembled from Sean Ashton’s novel “Living in a Land,” it expresses only the things its characters haven’t done. This is music of regret, of inability, music that can underscore the feeling that “we live in time, not place.”

The small ensemble of performers was auditioned with something like anti-musicality in mind; people who had been told explicitly that they were bad singers were the most ideal candidates. Wednesday, they delivered the libretto’s English lines with heavy French accents and imprecise intonation. Some were more extroverted than others. One man forgot a line halfway through.

“I’ve never had mumps,” the first performer, walking through the installation, sings coolly. More never-have-I-evers follow: had a pen pal, learned a language, ate tapas, cried in the cinema, bought and sold at the right time, or at any time.

“It is unlikely, is it not, that I shall ever be given the keys to the city,” an ensemble member declares into a microphone.

Someone else offers, “It is unlikely, is it not, that I shall ever be invited back to my old school, to show what I have done with my life, what I have made of myself.”

All these lines are given simple melodies, the kind you could learn easily by ear. More complicated are choral passages, especially antiphonal ones, a challenge for untrained performers but a compelling study in building harmony. These moments have the appearance of a community choir rehearsal — perhaps the most widespread form that music-making takes, if one that exists outside what is traditionally thought of as mainstream performance.

The spirit of that deliberate contradiction — of a formal space given over to seemingly informal performance, and of perceived disorder giving way to balance — pervades the installation. Nettles, medicinally beneficial but disliked as prickly weeds, are clustered throughout an earthy landscape indoors. Slanted stones form a precarious ramp; so do sculptural shoes with uneven soles. But with complementary shapes, they together create a flat surface to stand on with stability.

Visitors can explore the environment at will — though they can’t try on the shoes — before any performers enter, and continue to do so as the music unfolds. The singers move as if unaware of the audience members, who can follow any and all of them, and are responsible for staying out of the way.

That opening line, about mumps, is joined by mentions of other diseases: measles, chickenpox, syphilis. And beneath vocal writing is a minimalist score typical of Lapelyte, ostinatos executed with electronics and built from a rising two- or three-note motif, or a single tone at a steady beat. But where that formula had an almost somnolent effect in “Sun & Sea,” here it is complicated by added layers of improvisatory playing by Lapelyte and Angharad Davies on violin, along with John Butcher on saxophone, and Rhodri Davies on harp.

Their instrumental contributions, prerecorded and played through speakers with meticulous spatial design, betray the emotions behind the straightforward singing.

Jazzy riffs and percussive string techniques add an element of unsettled agitation and worry. Realizing, too late, that you’ve never “been canoeing” or “cultivated a vegetable garden” can be both sad and exasperating.

But mostly these statements are sad, as life inevitably is, because of the people conveying them. Their sound unrefined and their performance effortful, these singers were compelling in a way professionals couldn’t be. Everything about them — their feelings, characteristics, appearances — was familiar. They reminded me of so many friends and relatives, and for that were more touching than, say, the protagonist of a Schubert song cycle or a Verdi tragedy.

I wonder whether it was more difficult for them to sing together as adults than as children. When we’re young, we take up choral music uncritically, as if by instinct; later, a closer, more attentive kind of listening is required to achieve harmony. It’s as though, in learning everything else, we forget exactly the thing we should always remember.

‘The Mutes’

Through July 24 at Lafayette Anticipations, Paris; lafayetteanticipations.com.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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