Chan’s musical Memoir is as powerful as anything he did 20 years ago.

Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Sydney
July 18, 2014

It’s fair to say that emotions were running high in the ABC’s Goossens Hall on Friday night. The shooting down of flight MH17 over the Ukraine was still fresh in the minds of the audience as details had emerged over the course of the day. The concert was dedicated to the almost one hundred attendees of the International AIDS Conference that were killed on that flight. This tragic context also reminded everyone present that, while AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was during Lyle Chan’s time as an activist in the 90’s, the need for ongoing discussion and innovation has not lessened. This most recent loss is a huge blow to AIDS research, with some suggesting that the potential future cure to HIV/AIDS may have been lost on that plane. It is a loss every bit as tragic as the deaths caused by AIDS that Chan focuses his story upon.

Lyle Chan stopped composing at some point in the 90’s yet throughout the period he continued to sketch musical ideas as they came to him, inevitably shaped by his life as an activist. These sketches were made performable some twenty years later and have only now been released as a double disk set on his label Vexations 840. The Acacia Quartet, who premiered the work earlier in the month, have a wonderful sound. Goossens Hall is a large space to fill for a string quartet, and while earlier movements of the work felt a little lost in the space, the quartet adapted quickly.

It’s a strange feeling being asked to review a work as deeply personal as Chan’s String Quartet: An AIDS Activist’s Memoir in Music. The intensely personal nature of the project was amplified by the composer providing narration before each movement in the program. Chan’s introductions set the scene, reminiscing on the important characters and events in his life, and ultimately how these events shaped the music. While this stop-start approach was necessary, it also provided a unique dual perspective on the events in question. Chan’s narration was tinged with hindsight, revision, contemplation. His account of the events that took place comes from the perspective of a man who knows our existence for the frail object it is and sees the delicate beauty in that. Chan’s music comes from a much rawer place. The injustices feel fresh and the moments of delicate reflection are limited by experience, save for the bittersweet opener In September The Light Changes – an undeniable highlight of the suite – and the self-aware closer Fairy Tale Ending.

Chan’s story is a compelling one, and on stage his narration set the mood beautifully, each slight vocal infliction, or legally ambiguous act quickly rushed over, provoking further questions. If anything it was too much to take in over the course of the two hour performance. It’s rare that I feel that an interval would have been a significant advantage to a performance, but in this case after an hour and a bit — it was sometime shortly after Chan described, in heart-wrenchingly, matter-of-fact detail, being present as his good friend took a suicide pill — I sorely wanted to take a ten-minute breather to come to grips with everything I’d heard thus far.

The work as a whole is comprised of mostly short movements, with only a handful running over five minutes. Each movement is self contained, rarely developing beyond the limits of the given musical parameters. This limited evolution actually works pretty well in the context. Journals don’t have to make sense; they’re not crafted stories, they’re not pieces of literature. Sure, sometimes the music is a bit obvious (the police whistles in Act Up Part 1 surprised me by their obviousness) and sometimes the music is a bit dry and academic (Dextran Man Part 2 tells the story of one of Chan’s drug contacts attempting to get out of riot stricken LA in 1992, and for the life of me I couldn’t make that connection).

But a journal is an immediate record. It’s personal and often preoccupied with a single thought or idea per entry. That’s what we’re listening too here, and this is where the music’s occasional imperfections or rudimentary designs actually become a strength. Ultimately, the music is more interesting, more compelling because of them because you never feel distanced from the composer.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure this work even requires criticism. It is what it is, it says what it has to say and makes no attempt to deviate from it’s purpose. It’s a lot like Chan’s activism in that sense. During the performance, Chan reflected that one of his fellow activists had the saying “If we offended you, you needed it”. There is nothing so bold or aggressive at work here – nothing that could cause offense – but the attitude remains: the steadfast determination of a seasoned activist, infused with an optimism that things can and will change for the better. This attitude infects every aspect of the music, which makes Lyle Chan’s An AIDS Activist’s Memoir in Music as strong a statement as anything he did 20 years ago.