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April 2002

Techno Music

Münchner Biennale-- tinkering with operatic perfection.

If you think that all opera has to offer is extravagant sets and corpulent sopranos engaging in emotional hyperbole with robust male counterparts, then it’s time you visit the Münchner Biennale (April 27 to May 11) and discover a brave new operatic world in which virtual reality, sensor gloves, databases, PCs and laptops, Ethernet cards, splitters and broadband access solutions have become the new protagonists.

While such an irreverent approach may irritate traditionalists, it is not the new technology itself that should engage our critical attention but whether it has been creatively and imaginatively applied. In discovering that Axel Nitz, André Werner, Manfred Stahnke, Gerhard Winkler and the 48 nord group have created works that fully exploit the ability of computers to process and manipulate immediate sounds or movements, or to network disparate elements in order to create original works of art (both visual and acoustic), seems like a step in the right direction. Typical is Nitz’s opening installation, which has no title and is described as a “walk-in score,” a do-it-yourself performance that does away with the barriers between audience and performers by simply making them one.

Far from grabbing the spotlight, the new media has simply changed the parameters. It is the performers who actually create the stage, the action and the soundtrack. In Gerhard E. Winkler’s Heptameron, actors play out the the love, longing and luridness described by Margaret of Navarre (1492–1549) in her tales about the interaction of the sexes in her day. The action, which takes place within the frame of video projections, is electronically processed and sent to the back of the stage as a score to be interpreted spontaneously by musicians and singers.

The two modules of Stahnke’s Orpheus Crystal go a technological step further by involving four musicians around the globe joined via Internet to the stage. The “opera’s” Website is open to all, even now: Stahnke casts Orpheus in his classic role of master of musical ceremonies. What he sings is processed as notation and sent to the musicians. They improvise a counterpoint in return, and that score is integrated via computer into key parts of the performance, creating a musical circle.

Speaking in Tongues (Zungenreden) by 48 nord epitomizes spontaneous creativity. This project will, by its very nature, be new at every performance, so that what the audience sees and hears is unique and unreproducible. It also takes the sound material, translations of a text by the Bulgarian-born essayist Elias Canetti, and processes it according to physical movements picked up by sensors. A server is used to archive the new sound material, which can then be used in future performances.

Somewhat more classical in its general approach is André Werner’s Marlowe: The Jew of Malta. Machiavelli, the protagonist, is depicted as the master puppeteer, whose actions determine many of the video-projected stage settings. All other performers have their roles and voices imposed upon them from the outside. This somewhat depressing state of affairs gradually shifts as the musical score on stage takes control. Not so Jörg Widmann’s Monologues for Two, in which a violin engages in a fruitless combat with an enhanced tape, an at once dark and comical comment modern communication.

While the stage performances certainly form the focus of the eighth Biennale, a number of concerts and other events will also be held to delight fans of contemporary classical music and those who wish to expand their range of music appreciation. On April 29, Siegfried Mauser will perform piano pieces with tapes by Olga Neuwirth, Benedict Mason, Wilhelm Killmayer and Luigi Nono. Hans Werner Henze will appear at the Haus der Kunst to read from his libretto L’Upupa and the Triumph of a Son’s Love. The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra will also be giving a series of concerts exploring the non-stage music of Jörg Widmann, plus works by Christoph Staude.

Perhaps the best way to understand the new muses, however, is to engage the composers themselves at one of the fora held throughout the Biennale. Indeed, new music tends to be an irritant, mainly because it seems haphazard and arbitrary. Hearing more about the mechanisms and principals behind these works often facilitates appreciation. There’s more there than just technique, however. In combining technology and art with such abandon, composers are exhibiting the kind of voluble, open, slightly iconoclastic minds of truly original artists. These daring acts are likely to pack the halls with an audience eager to see and hear all facets of their own lives becoming manifest on stage.

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