Strictly defined boundaries and an automatic ascription of genres, styles and profiles often distort one’s view of what, for many, is the object and nourishment of their art: anything resistant, paradoxical, intangible, unpredictable, unattainable. Barbara Eckle, head dramaturge for music theater and concert of the Ruhrtriennale 2021-23

5 a.m.: the alarm will ring – maybe in two hours. Where are we now? Nobody knows, not even us. Every night we cross a mythical border and entrust ourselves to what is uncertain, unforeseeable, uncontrollable. Every morning we cross that border again, returning back to the ordered structure of our lives. Of the two spaces we inhabit, one delights in the label reality, while the other, where we can fly like birds, live at the bottom of the sea, meet the dead, commit murder or even die ourselves, we usually forget, sometimes carrying it with us into the day as a peculiar feeling for a while before it, too, has gone.

Maurice Ravel dedicated the piano piece that he wrote when his father was already dying to the treasurer of the night – Gaspard de la nuit – who guards the threshold between these two realms. He encounters elusive mythical creatures and ominous shadows with a feverish virtuosity, as if this might be a means of avoiding the inevitable. The door to daytime had clearly been left wide open: water nymphs, places of execution and ghosts stroll calmly through Ravel’s summer days in the year 1908. If they enter the Maschinenhalle Zweckel in Gladbeck at 5 a.m., even the walls will be open. Chris Watson, the British sonic artist from Sheffield, allows exteriors both near inside the building as the sun goes up over the Ruhr and its sister region in the North of England. But the haunting doesn’t end here: this is where it begins.

While limitations may be necessary and productive for creative work in many situations, in others they can be destructive and unleash existential processes. Strictly defined boundaries and an automatic ascription of genres, styles and profiles often distort one’s view of what, for many, is the object and nourishment of their art: anything resistant, paradoxical, intangible, unpredictable, unattainable. Along with the composers of the 2021 festival, we want to pause every time we cross that mythical border and join those whose works operate in these intervening realms in retracing their paths, appreciating their perspectives and sharing their experiences.

© Patricia Alessandrini

When Patricia Alessandrini read an interview with Gerhard Richter where he said: ›Style is an act of violence and I am not violent‹, it released a creative block she had felt inside her throughout her time as a student. No matter what she produced, it was immediately pigeon-holed and labelled – a phenomenon that arose not from ill will but as an automatic response and which had a debilitating effect on her. Inwardly she was constantly wrestling to find a language that would not constantly expose her to comparison with existing styles, schools and movements. At times she was even greeted with disapproval because her music apparently did not conform to what was expected of someone of her ›type‹ – i.e. a slight, beautiful, young woman. ›How come a nice girl like you is writing music like this?‹ – a question that attempts to consign not only her music but also its author within a stereotypically categorized system.

Richter – even if he was speaking about the visual arts – gave this widespread phenomenon that drove Alessandrini into a creative dead end the drastic name violence. Exactly what he meant by this and how to get around it was revealed by his technique: Richter applied the same photo-realistic working process to every subject, regardless of what it represented. The content didn’t matter: what was important was the process, the lack of photographic focus, perception. The idea behind this technique, Alessandrini deduced, could be transposed from the visual arts to music. If she could take recordings of exiting compositions and remove the so-called ›musical material‹ – all the notes, rhythms, melodies, harmonies – a fleeting, profound and enigmatic sphere would remain: the resonances of the notes, the expression of the performance, the timbres of the instrumental sounds, the sound of the space including all the incidental noises – in short, everything that couldn’t be written down in a score. ›I don’t find musical material that important per se‹, admits the Italian-American composer, who was born in Bologna in 1970. ›What’s important to me is what I do with that material, how I filter it through myself and make a process of composition out of that. In this way I can also free my music from the codes that mean it can be pigeon-holed stylistically.‹ Instead of generating musical material herself, as composers usually do, she therefore started to gut recorded performances of the works of other composers and turn them into her own material. She analyses overtone spectra on a computer and adapts these again using electronic tools that she often develops herself.

Writing music that suited her type clearly wasn’t her thing. Not having to write music that suited her type became her thing all the more; along with the question of who – speaking of types – actually gets to decide who this person ›I‹ is. Are we obliged to accept the images that other people create of us? Should these influence our self-image? or are we ourselves the sole authority, even if no one takes us seriously? In her composition Menus morceaux par un autre moi réunis for guitar and live electronics, she puts her finger right on the sore spot. It references Claude Debussy’s Chansons des Bilitis in the version for flutes, harps and celesta – scenic music to homoerotic poems that Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs wrote in the voice of a Pamphylian courtesan called Bilitis and fictitiously claimed were ancient Greek relics that had been discovered by archaeologists – with astonishing success. The source of disconcertment: a man puts words into a woman’s mouth about her body, her desires, her emotions and alleges that these are her intimate literary testimony in order eventually to have them set to music by another man. Patricia Alessandrini loves Debussy’s music but responds in a subtly critical way to the – from a contemporary perspective – grotesque premise of his composition with Menus morceaux par un autre moi réunis (which translates as: ›fragments re-assembled by another self‹). She transposes Debussy’s Chansons to entirely different instruments, but preserves essential sound qualities and colours from the original ensemble. Within entirely different material, the metallic plucking sound of the harp, the air-filled sound structure of the harp and the glass clear tinkling of the celesta remain ghostly presences as a sonic aura of the Chansons de Bilitis in the guitar and electronics. Despite clearly distancing itself from the content and coded signifiers of the original songs, the most fragile and intimate qualities of that composition continue to live on in Menus morceaux, as if Bilitis had detached herself from the imagined experiences that Debussy and Louÿs had projected onto her and is now moving freely in a different space.

His aim is neither fusion nor explosion of styles: instead, he seeks to outwit the widespread compulsion to categorise and classify music so that his audience can experience it the way he does: as a utopian process that turns numerous small spaces into one giant one that – contrary to all survival instincts – rejects both mental and physical boundaries through transcendental virtuosity and by defying all calls for stylistic purity Barbara Eckle, head dramaturge for music theater and concert of the Ruhrtriennale 2021-23

A playful and virtuosic distance from coded signifiers is also something three artists working in entirely different artistic genres have in common: the composer Michael Wertmüller, the painter Albert Oehlen and the writer Rainald Goetz. They have little time for the widespread tendency to divide art up into disciplines, styles, genres and schools. And this is also the premise behind Wertmüller’s experimental opera space D•I•E, with texts by Rainald Goetz and charcoal drawings by Albert Oehlen, that were published in 2010 in the book D•I•E Abstract Reality. Just as the texts and drawings constantly shift between abstraction and definition, Wertmüller’s ›orchestra‹ consisting of a string quartet, an avantcore Hammond trio, a garage punk band, an electronics player and a percussionist cannot be attributed a specific musical style. While it might be bursting with style and genre cliches, these are never fully adopted and are ultimately exposed as chimaeras when all the ensembles come together in a giant body of sound.

Michael Wertmüller’s career as a percussionist and composer is equally rooted in classical music, jazz and new music. His aim is neither fusion nor explosion of styles: instead, he seeks to outwit the widespread compulsion to categorise and classify music so that his audience can experience it the way he does: as a utopian process that turns numerous small spaces into one giant one that – contrary to all survival instincts – rejects both mental and physical boundaries through transcendental virtuosity and by defying all calls for stylistic purity. What allows him to do this? His genuine love for these entirely different musical worlds that on the one hand are more to him than mere templates of a genre or style and on the other just individual parts of a much more comprehensive musical life where music becomes the means to escape for a moment from the limitations of being human.

In D•I•E this blurring of boundaries takes place in the vast space of the Kraftzentrale in Duisburg, and it happens on all levels: words overstep the banks of their meanings, stretch across the space passing through multiple bodies that repeatedly leave the human form behind them. Drawings swim in open space like bodies, moving, transforming and flowing into each other. Scenographer Thomas Stammer took spiritual inspiration for the design of the space from the legendary architect Le Corbusier who devised his Philips Pavilion for the Expo in Brussels in 1958 according to a not dissimilar vision.

© Publicity Photo

Le Corbusier’s vision for this building went beyond its physical body: sound, image, poetry and colour were equally integral components. They were all intended to dissolve into each other and the Philips Pavilion to be a place where perception would blur the boundaries between the individual senses. Iannis Xenakis was the ideal partner for this because as a composer and architect it was his natural way of working to think of space as music and music as space. He derived the outer form of the Pavilion structure, which bore a greater resemblance to a giant abstract sculpture than a building, directly from the graphic principle that underlay his score for the orchestral work Metastaseis from 1955. Here he had attempted to use orchestral glissandi to draw precisely calculated mathematical lines. The shape that these produced was then the one he used to design the shape of the pavilion.

Le Corbusier needed another partner to create the sound inside the pavilion. Edgar Varèse was not the most famous composer he could have secured for this prestigious project. His name had attained prominence recently because of Déserts, a composition for orchestra and tape, whose world premiere in Paris in 1954 went down in history as a scandal. Le Corbusier had no interest in potential scandal – but he was interested in Varèse’s research into new, synthetic means of generating sound that dated back to 1916. His vision outstripped the state of technical development by decades. When he got his hands on the then revolutionary Ampex Recorder in 1953, he was able to create Déserts, his first work using synthetic and acoustic sound generators – originally presented as an audio-visual art work. He dreamed of a music that would be made entirely independently of classical instruments. Though these might offer an enormous range of sound, they would not allow any music to be imagined that did not operate within the bounds of their physical possibilities. Varèse wanted to be able to create any sound he could think of synthetically, to be able to vary its pitch, timbre, frequency, texture and volume infinitely and thus enter entirely unknown spheres of sound. Le Corbusier was convinced that Varèse was the only composer compatible with his utopia. He commissioned him to write a purely electronic poem – the Poème électronique – for his pavilion, that would also seamlessly cross the boundaries with other media and capture space, image, colour and poetry in sounds that had never been heard before – even if it required over 300 loudspeakers that had to be installed in the pavilion for this purpose.

Once one has persuaded oneself to let go of the details, an almost supernatural auditory spectrum opens up, as if one were looking down from space on everything that is happening on earth at the same time – an aerial photograph in sound, as it were. Barbara Eckle, head dramaturge for music theater and concert of the Ruhrtriennale 2021-23

All the British composer Michael Finnissy requires for his idea of the interaction between the media of image and sound is a piano. Although any pianist playing Finnissy’s complete cycle The History of Photography in Sound is kept busy for almost six hours – and so far Ian Pace is the only one to have attempted it.

After those six hours, the enigma presented in the title is not completely resolved either. The combination of image and sound goes beyond the compositional technique that resembles film editing, and is anchored in several places, for example in Finnissy’s creation of musical perspectives that stipulate a specific point of view, or in his use and adaptation of aspects of art history in musical form. In the chapter Eadweard Muybridge - Edvard Munch he is concerned with the way that these two artists dealt in different visual media with the limitations of the image in depicting movement. With Munch, it is movement that surrounds the picture’s static central figure and is reflected in its expression. By contrast, Eadweard Muybridge, a generation older, had already created a prototype of the film camera in 1877, when the medium of photography was still new: in order to analyse the mechanics of a horse’s movement, he had a galloping horse photographed by several cameras triggered one after another – thus founding serial photography. Although it represents movement, Muybridge’s series of pictures is static. This contradiction also characterises Finnissy’s music, which is distinguished here by moments of oddly lifeless movement. In terms of content, the musical material that Finnissy uses in this chapter is, however, entirely unrelated: it places African American spirituals alongside Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony and Emmanuel Chabrier’s opera L’Etoile. The link between them is purely historical: the latter two works were both written in the aforementioned year 1877.

As a composer, Michael Finnissy, born in 1946, is counted as a member of the school of New Complexity. However, in his dense and multi-layered music he reworks a ludicrously rich and eclectic store of music by other composers, including those from the fields of entertainment and world music. In The History of Photography in Sound he is often concerned with the tension between the musical cultures of Western states and former colonies. In the chapter ›North American Spirituals‹ he confronts Western art music with various forms of African American music. Against the background of the history of slavery in America, an intended unease arises when Finnissy – without pathos and without resolution – bursts into spirituals familiar as North American church hymns like Steal Away, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen or Go Down, Moses, intercutting their hopeful melancholy with snatches of intrusively upbeat ragtime.

The surreal effect of the simultaneity of contrasting musical worlds, the wild polymetrics and thunderous clusters repeatedly hammered down on the keyboard are reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell and, of course, Finnissy’s idol Charles Ives.

Here Finnissy’s aesthetic of overload and granularity seems paradoxical: the wealth of individual detail is so expansive that one loses sight of them no matter how hard one tries. However, larger forces and movements are revealed as if looking on from the perspective of a great distance. Once one has persuaded oneself to let go of the details, an almost supernatural auditory spectrum opens up, as if one were looking down from space on everything that is happening on earth at the same time – an aerial photograph in sound, as it were. Here at the very latest, memories are awakened of the utopias of Charles Ives – and also those of Michael Wertmüller, who is at least as big a fan of Ives as Michael Finnissy.

© Harald Hoffmann

The desire to expand limited space in other media is also a key feature of Olga Neuwirth’s idea of music theatre. Since Bählamms Fest from the 1990s, the seamless transition from on-stage action to a filmic dimension plays an integral part in her work. Repeatedly breaking out from the real space is absolutely essential in her adaptation of Leonora Carrington’s drama The Feast of the Lambs. The young bride Theodora, who has no way out of her desperate situation, discovers an imaginary escape room open up on the screen that she has yet to find in reality. The screen also offers her the chance to jump over into a virtual reality when gory fighting takes place on the bare stage. And it is a window into the past, that merges discretely into the present in Bählamms Fest, just as the ghosts of the dead do with the living and animals with humans. As in the past Edgar Varèse wanted to use as yet not-existent means to surmount the limited possibilities of acoustic sound generation and enter spaces that were apparently inaccessible, by enhancing acoustic instruments with electronics Olga Neuwirth is also seeking a fluid transition to the world of things that cannot be seen, cannot be predicted and cannot be explained rationally. Using sound morphing technology that was extremely progressive by 90s , she touches on what is perhaps the most unfathomable intermediate space, that between human and animal, when she makes the voice of the countertenor who plays the wolf-man Jeremy transform seamlessly into that of a Canadian wolf. Neuwirth’s attempt to break through the limits of humanity in sonic form may be highly artificial and might not get any closer to the mystery that lies between life and death, between man and beast, between what can be felt and what can be said. But she does guide our eyes and ears towards this intermediate space, as unfathomable as it is powerful, and strengthens our suspicion that those limits of our existence that we can see and understand are more like their beginning than their end.

Barbara Eckle is head dramaturge for music theater and concert of the Ruhrtriennale 2021-23. As an author and presenter in the field of new music, she worked for ten years for Deutschlandfunk and the various programs of ARD radio.