Staging Salut für Caudwell
(Preliminary Notes and Retrospective Questions)
Xavier Le Roy shared some notes from the journal he kept in preparation for the performance of Mouvements für Lachenmann ¹ with us. He was also kind enough to answer some questions about the performance in retrospect, concentrating on the part (Salut für Caudwell) performed during the Agora 2006 Festival. We are therefore doubly grateful for his contributions.
June 26, 2004
When Peter Rundel offered me the opportunity of working with him on a new musical theater production based on Helmut Lachenmann's work, he talked to me about ...zwei Gefühle..., Musik mit Leonardo, and Salut für Caudwell as pieces suitable for this type of project. I don't know a lot about contemporary music, but I had already heard Pression and Gran Torso by Lachenmann once a long time ago.
June 30, 2004
After listening and reading some of Helmut Lachenmann's pieces: I get the feeling that H.L.'s music, at least Salut für Caudwell, was written as much to be seen as it was to be heard. Listening to his music coming out of my stereo speakers I had the necessity to listen several other times in order to get the music out of some clichés of what make an auditor say: "that is serious modern music". At the same time I thought that the CD is not at all adapted for H.L.'s project. It is like a paradoxe and I couldn't help myself from wondering what the musicians were actually doing with their instruments. This music is composed as much to be seen as to be heard.
As I was listening, I could hear the sounds that are so distinctive of H.L.'s work. However, during this encounter the listening experience was altered. It was as if the sound in itself was no longer sufficient as an esthetic element. By manipulating the sound-producing object, in this case a guitar [...], the connection between movement and sound is manipulated ("Beim Komponieren, oder genauer: beim Entwerfen und Präzisieren der Klang - und Bewegungszusammenhänge...", H. L.). This music is composed as much to be seen as to be heard. There is also an obvious desire to alter the traditional concert situation. In Zwei Gefühle... for example, when a musician is supposed to get up and play with the grand piano's lid to make a certain sound, it's not just about making that specific sound, there is also a theatrical element added to the habitual stasis of the instruments and the musicians that play them. This kind of connection makes the boundaries within which H.L. works stronger, by breaking them up or exploring beyond them, questioning our ways of perceiving [...].
In order to take the composer's ideas and bring them on stage for a theatrical production we may have to make things more visual for them to be heard (differently); or maybe have only a visual element and not hear anything. Breaking down the sound-movement association to emphasize the importance of these strategies and the way in which they enter into play with the conventional connections between the visible and the audible. The "un-alienated" sounds are still connected with the instrument. So what if we take the instrument away and imagine the sound? This is probably a bit simplistic, but I would like to see what this experiment could produce.
By removing the function of gesture, only an illustration remains (pretending that an instrument is there). This gesture would be uninteresting if it produces a puppet show and we should stay away from any sort of parody. We should try to stay as close as possible to the movements made by the composition - the movement would create the desired sound if the instrument, an extension of the musician's body, were there. Underlining the choreographic aspects: maybe this is the way to transform music into theater, into choreography? [...]
- Mouvements für Lachenmann, performance by Xavier Le Roy (in collaboration with Bojana Cvejic and Berno Odo Polzer) world premiere in Vienna, November 2005 (Festival Wien Modern). Production: Salut für Caudwell (Gunter Schneider & Barbara Romen, Tom Pauwels & Günther Lebbing, guitars) ; Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung) (Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin, conductor: Peter Rundel) ; Schattentanz by Ein Kinderspiel (Marino Formenti, piano).
In the movie about Zwei Gefühle... H.L. talks about "Wahrnehmung Spektakel" (lit: Perception Show). He also says that contemporary music is a question of perception. When we talk about Brahms or Beethoven we don't talk about perception, we talk about hearing.
October 6, 2004
Now we have to look into H.L.'s opus to see what piece would be the best choice to perfect the concept. Maybe the quartets, maybe Pression. In any case, everyone seems to agree that it would be good to end in silence, meaning with the piece played without any instruments at all. It seems obvious to me that Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung) would be the piece the best suited for this, because of its name and because it ends using few movements. The evening will finish with an orchestral piece with a larger number of performers and a smaller sound effect [...]. The most urgent thing now is to choose the pieces so that the musicians will be ready to play these pieces without their instruments...
November 10, 2004
Being the outsider can be a huge advantage when putting in place or putting forward a novel idea. But this does not guarantee success: far too often, you come with ideas that have, in fact, been thoroughly explored in the past. Is that my case? I am sure that my thoughts on Lachenmann's music and my project are almost certainly naïve and of relatively little interest compared to the domains of contemporary music and musical theater. Before embarking on an elaborate project in this domain, I needed to test my ideas. In the recent past I've met several different "experts" from the world of contemporary music and I have talked to them about my personal reflections, my doubts, my idea for an evening with the music of Lachenmann – a performance that starts like a concert with three pieces on the program, but where the theatrical and choreographic elements would slowly build up. These discussions induced a lot of interest from these "experts" and friends. Their excitement for my ideas made the project viable. We should do it.
Besides Mouvement..., Salut für Caudwell seems particularly suited for this type of experimentation [...].
September 27, 2005
[...] Since January, Bojana Cvejic and Berno Odo Polzer have joined me and have come with a lot of new ideas. Their musical knowledge is a huge help. We have decided which pieces to use for the performance. [...] We were surprised by how much such a simple idea - the idea of musicians playing a piece without their instruments - could spark off. During the first rehearsals of Salut... with Tom Pauwels and Günther Lebbing we witnessed the making of a mesmerizing dance of hands and arms, a choreography created by the score that structured the space.
The first rehearsal of Mouvement... with the Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin turned the piece into a composition made up of breaths, grimaces and tics. It was obvious that the instrument isn't just an extension of the musician, but also a support, a kind of crutch. I watched Peter Rundel with admiration as he corrected the musicians that were playing without any instruments. For each musician/instrument, there are specific steps necessary to convert the directions given to make sounds into directions for creating movement. However, the excitement of this kind of experimentation is difficult to share with an audience. The evening shouldn't be just an experiment, but also a performance [...].
The major problems that we now have to get through are the following: How much does this new rule given to the musician alter the score? Does it involve additional steps beyond those that have already been defined? Is this type of performance a mere commentary, or is it a possible extension of the score? [...] Should we include all the sounds? Will the construction of the score remain audible? [...] We will only know the answers to these questions when the piece is performed in front of an audience.
January - February 2006
Nicolas Donin: Your notes on the Lachenmann project illustrate a transition from a private and individual listening situation to the creation of a collective and public concert situation. Beginning with a system that intentionally leaves you in want of more (you are listening to recordings of Lachenmann's work on a stereo system, but you cannot see the tension between movement and sound which you immediately feel forms one of the essential motives of the composition), you end with a system that actually programs this sentiment of wanting more (in Mouvements für Lachenmann, we cannot see the musicians making the sounds we hear).
In drawing attention towards the possibilities of the gestures made in Salut für Caudwell, this system aims to emancipate the vocabulary, made up of gestures, from its network of musical causalities; but doesn't it also provoke a sort of short circuit between two distinct listening styles - listening to a concert and listening to a recording - both of which have proved to be "deficient"?
Xavier Le Roy: I like the comment that you make about an "emancipation of the vocabulary, made up of gestures [...]". I think that it is very much what the piece produces. But I don't think that it "illustrates the transition from a private listening situation to the creation of a public concert situation", or at least that wasn't the guiding factor behind the piece's research and creative process. More precisely, when I listen to a CD of Zwei Gefühle... (or any CD in general), I don't expect to see the musicians' movements, and I don't want anything more then to hear the music. But, when later I have the possibility of seeing musicians playing Lachenmann's music on video, and later live, I do hear the music differently. Which is quite a banal, and I assume quite a normal, observation.
But the question is why, what, and how is this difference specific? Is this specificity an element of Lachenmann's work? Why is this feeling stronger when I carry out the experiment with Salut für Caudwell, and Gran Torso than if I carry it out the same experiment with a Mozart string quartet?
(Although here a comment made by Lachenmann himself following a performance of Mouvements für Lachenmann in Vienna comes to mind. In his enthusiasm about the project he told me that we should try the same with a string quartet from Webern. Apparently, this question needs further exploration).
Well anyway, it is more an observation of passing from one media to another, or maybe I should say the inter-mediality - passing from a recording and playing device to a live concert - that focused my attention on the modes of perception that they both trigger. These remarks lie halfway between the possibility of extending what is inherent to the Lachenmann's composition, and a potential choreography. But this piece doesn't aim to represent this process or that desire "to want more". I would say that the strategy for the piece is to take away elements in order to discover other aspects of the listening experience (perception, in Lachenmann's terminology), therefore listening or hearing differently rather than more.
Nicolas Donin: In a text that looks at the "political figures" found in Salut für Caudwell and other pieces by Lachenmann, the musicologist Martin Kaltenecker underlines the critical dimension of Lachenmann's writing in these terms: "to make audible the concrete energy of the sound production, conceived as a piece of information on a hidden work, meaning stripping away everything that is obvious, a series of aesthetic and social assumptions."
At one point in your notes, you define your piece as the continuation of the Lachenmannian process via other means, "the strategies of deconstruction and reconstruction for the composition can be used and applied to elements that make up the concert event."
Would you say that you are personally recapturing, with regard to the concert event, the critical deveiling typical of Lachenmann's aesthetic? Does this apply to other conventions beyond those found in the concert situation?
Xavier Le Roy: Certain ideas that make up the guiding principles for the production of this piece result, as you said, in the critical dimension of the processes used by Lachenmann. Our goal is to extend the means that you have brought to the body and to movements to the situations and objects, the audience and the actors that are involved in the concert situation. But the most important element of that can already be found in Lachenmann's opus.
The commission I received from the Wien Modern Festival and the Tanzquartier Wien was supposed to have been dedicated to the creation of a musical theater performance that included pieces by Lachenmann. After reading and listening to some of his work, I thought that it would be quite a tricky job: these pieces don't leave much room for maneuvering, they are extremely dense and were written to be played in a very precise way. So, rather than illustrating, commentating, or adding narrative forms to the music (it would be difficult to address the latter in any way other than to contest it, which would have been meaningless), I concentrated on the theatrical element found in Lachnmann’s work and in concert situations in general. I started to think about this during the performances of the Bernhard Lang opera Das Theater der Wiederholungen.
The concert standards were defined in such a way that the performance remained a theatrical event, a performance that can be seen like a play. For the audience, or for the listeners rather, these standards are invisible and imperceptible as they create the very conditions necessary for a musical piece. It was only when I saw certain odd actions that the musicians have to carry out in order to make the necessary sounds called for in Zwei Gefühle... that I started to understand these events as theatrical actions as choreographic elements. From that point, my goal was not to reveal what was hidden, but to create something from those specific concert standards, to develop those "theatrical events" without trying to make visible something that isn't. This way, the audience can play with the relationship between hearing and seeing in a way that questions their perception, like in Lachenmann's work.
Nicolas Donin: We could have fun describing Mouvements für Lachenmann as an application of contemporary music, or as a distraction on an orchestral scale, or as an application of the well-known practice in popular music known as air guitar (see www.airguitarworldchampionships) which consists of performing solos in play-back without a real instrument but which requires real technique and virtuosity.
The two guitarists without guitars that you put on stage, as well as the two that are really performing behind screens, had to change their relationship with the score of Salut für Caudwell. Was this change an important part of the project? Don't we risk loosing sight of the tension between writing and instrumental thought maintained by Lachenmann (knowing that different types of notation overlap in his scores, specifying certain movements to be made and also musical notations that conventionally symbolize desired sounds)?
Xavier Le Roy: Maybe that tension is lost. I'm an authority able to verify that. I better ask the musicians the question in order to give you an answer. But it seems to me that they couldn't play the piece at all if the tension between instrument and writing was nonexistent in our system. Our approach to the production of the piece brought about a modification of the musicians' relationship with the score by an accumulation and a multiplication of the tasks to be accomplished; we cannot say that something was lost in order to gain something else. Barbara, Gunter, Günther, and Tom did an incredible job because they were able to understand and perform the instructions given for the stage production and the choreography in addition to those already found in the original score. Obviously, distortions, spacing, intervals appeared between what one looks at, what one listens to, what one hears that is written, what one sees and that is not written... These additional tensions immerse the audience in the music in another way; it is undoubtedly the reason the audience smiles, tenses, sighs with deception or relief, expresses surprise, laughs and has all the other reactions seen on the faces of audience members during this performance.
Could music shown this way become as popular as air guitar competitions are? The comparison often comes to mind and makes us smile, that is how distant this performance seems from the world of so-called serious contemporary music. I like that idea a lot, even if that wasn't the goal or the inspiration for this piece. I hadn't even thought about it before the first rehearsals, but as soon as I saw the first tests with Tom and Günther the possibility of making a reference to air guitar was apparent. Getting back to the question of modifying the musicians' habits - our project's main goal was not to alter the instrumentalists' habits and it seems that the procedures used for our presentation of Salut für Caudwell changed the piece in the way every new interpretation does.