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May 2004

Original Sounds

What to listen out for at this year's Münchener Biennale

A laconic remark by that stalwart defender of tradition, Dr. Johnson, neatly pigeon-holed, in the 18th century, opera as an “exotic and irrational entertainment.” Present-day composers should heed perhaps what appears at first glance an irrational necessity to entertain, whereas the audience must be ready to suspend disbelief in order to entertain the irrational. And if the undertaking is tinged with the exotic, so much the better.

For two weeks this May, Munich plays host to the 9th Biennale, the International Festival for New Music Theater founded some two decades ago by Germany’s senior composer Hans Werner Henze. The motto this year is “ die Fremde,” in English perhaps best rendered as “…into the unknown.” The notions of “differentness” or “otherness”—much bandied words in politically correct circles—are not new. In an earlier age we would simply have perhaps discussed or shunned what we find “foreign.” But language moves on apace and a single word may suddenly become tinged with negative associations, or loaded with covert meaning. And this year’s maxim points to a theme that has concerned all of us since at least the beginning of the present millennium: the fear of the outlandish. What we consider extrinsic raises in the best case doubts and leads in a worst case scenario—especially where religion, politics or ideologies are involved—to incautious actions blinded by specious presumptions.

It would be rather naive to believe that going to the theater—in this case attending performances of new operas at the Münchener Biennale—will cure mankind’s ills. We should encourage dialogue with one another; but can artists anoint with oil the troubled masses? Let us consider a largely rhetorical question by another senior composer, Brian Ferneyhough, whose first venture into opera, Shadowtime, will be premiered at the Biennale: “what is music and what is it for?” he asks in a program note to the work. He answers his own query by going on to state that art in general seems to be a basic quality of being human, adding that one might just as well ask, “why breathe?” As to what purpose art might serve, Ferneyhough suggests that it may well “keep the tenuous lines of communication open between different areas of ourselves.” Aristotle describes much the same thing in his Poetics, although his comments on catharsis may be interpreted in two ways, doubt being cast on whether the cathartic experience takes place in the members of the audience or the actors themselves. In Shadowtime, rigid constructions are shattered and the right of the individual to self-determination is questioned and evaluated against a mythical background. The starting point is the flight and suicide of author and cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin. Cast in seven scenes, the opera leads the onlooker into the inner realms of Benjamin’s philosophy, of modernity and of Western culture in general. The libretto, penned by Charles Bernstein and described by him as a “vortex of material,” is based on texts by Benjamin and writers from his circle. As the hermetic shape of time ebbs and flows, a complex simultaneity emerges, musical form and diction being compressed and extenuated. Shadowtime is an “opera of thoughts,” as the composer puts it, a work that asks us to evaluate the consequences of our actions and one in which borderline experiences are pursued and conveyed.

This year’s Biennale also welcomes for the first time the Chinese composer Qu Xiao-song, whose opera Versuchung (The Test) is based on a classical Chinese play. The text is by the composer and Wu Lan, and it will be performed by the orchestra of the Zeitgenössische Oper Berlin with the participation of traditional Chinese musicians, including, among others, Gong Dong-jian, Shi Siao-mei, Wu Bixia and Kang Jian-hai. The world premiere is on Thursday, May 13, at 8 pm in the Carl-Orff-Saal, Gasteig Kulturzentrum, with additional performances on May 15 and 16. The main character in The Test is the wise man Zhuang Zhou (369–286 BC), who is also called Zhuangzi, or Master Zhuang. He and Lao Tse, it might be helpful to note here, are considered to be the most important representatives of Tao philosophy. The events take place in a location that is completely foreign to the protagonists: the underworld. Master Zhuang loses his way and ends up in the realm of the dead. Welcomed by the king of the underworld, Zhuang is informed that his time is not up yet, that his senses are not yet pure and that he is therefore not yet ready for enlightenment. In order to convince him of his doubt in this respect, he takes part in an experiment. He is shown a young woman kneeling next to a new grave and fanning it. When Zhuang asks her what she is doing, the young woman replies that her husband told her to “go and find a new lover as soon as my grave is dry.” In order to avoid encroaching loneliness, she tries to speed up the process of drying the grave. (According to Chinese custom, after their husbands die Chinese widows should strive to obtain praise from their neighbors and respect from their community by living a life of chastity.) Perturbed by her impatience and desire to forget as quickly as possible, Zhuang decides to put his own wife, Tianshi, to the test. He stages his funeral before sending Chu Wangsung, his pupil and a handsome young man, to Tianshi that he might console her. He should talk about Zhuang’s teachings and pass on his “last words” to her. He is, furthermore, to enchant her with his charming manners, and then to simulate falling ill. The cure for his supposed ailment is, apparently, the brain of a human. It appears that he can be cured only if Zhuang’s corpse is desecrated. In the opera’s epilogue we experience how difficult it is to distinguish reality from make-believe, dreams from sentience, life from death and identity from the lack of it. Not unlike Shadowtime, the arbitrariness of borders we generally consider sharply drawn are examined.

As for Qu Xiao-song’s music, it serves to connect such extremes. It impinges on the borders of silence, wrapping itself around them like a silk scarf. It may also gather itself in order to unleash shrill, loud eruptions. Qu is familiar with the ideals of traditional Chinese music, which cultivate an intimate bond with nature, and create a feeling for time and space quite foreign to Western experience. The composer also studied contemporary Western music, during which time he realized that traditional Chinese music could be more easily combined with modern European music than with a traditional tonal language. He believes that the West could learn from ancient Chinese culture’s relationship to nature. But he draws our attention to the paradoxical situation of Western politically motivated movements protesting against the exploitation of the environment that modern China—betraying its own traditions—is currently pursuing with alarming tenacity. Qu strives for emotional directness and sincerity in his music, and he has moved beyond the confines of the avant-garde still promulgated by stubborn adherents to, say, the Donaueschingen school. The Test, like a previous opera with which he garnered great success, The Last String, starts with the traditions of storytelling by Chinese singing poets, before embroidering these poetic forms of recital with elements and techniques rooted in Western composition. His latest work of music theater establishes a musical and dramaturgical bridge between cultures that show respect for one another, but which at the same time remain politely aware of an element of “foreigness.” It is not only the composer who builds this bridge: it gradually takes form owing to the intense interaction between musicians from the two cultures. The actor who plays Zhuang, for example, was trained as a singer in the European tradition; by comparison, the performer taking on the role of Chu Wangsung was steeped in the sophisticated traditions of southern Chinese opera. Just like the musicians in the orchestra, who play both Chinese and European instruments in the one work, a piquant sense of communication prevails. The instrumentalists are integrated into the action on stage. In The Test, Qu Xiao-song strives to overcome dangerous clichés, such as a sensually pleasing exoticism, or the hasty homogenization of what might be considered foreign.

Three further works will receive their premieres at the 9th Biennale: Berenice by Johannes Staud, Cantio by Vykintas Baltakas and “...22,13...” by Mark André, operas which seemingly exhibit no more than a tenuous connection to the motto “...into the unknown.” The festival’s theme, however, fortunately does not have to act as a dramaturgical straight-jacket.

At the end of the day, there is simply no way of knowing which new works will be worth attending and which not, although the present author hopes to have helped a tad in this regard. The city of Munich will, after all, witness five premieres in just a couple of weeks. And if, like the trite saying describing the curate’s egg (parts of it were good), some productions turn out to be stronger than others, the main thing is to remain curious. Artists, like the rest of us, are, gratefully, all antic in one respect or another.

(For details of this year’s Biennale, go to

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