A Conversation with Markus Hechtle about his new work

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur is banned to the labyrinth erected by Daedalus so that people might be protected from the Minotaur. In his ballad ›Minotaurus‹ written in 1985, Friedrich Dürrenmatt reinterprets the antique myth. Here, the Minotaur is locked up »in order to protect humans from the creature and the creature from the humans«. Furthermore, Dürrenmatt places the Minotaur’s own perception at the centre of his ballad, which in turn forms the basis of Markus Hechtle’s new work of the same name, scheduled for its world premiere in February 2013 as part of the Festival Eclat at Stuttgart’s Theaterhaus, performed by the Ensemble Modern and the actress Nicola Gründel. It is the 30th edition of the festival and at the same time the last one with Hans-Peter Jahn as its artistic director. Together with stage director Thierry Bruehl, Markus Hechtle has developed a concept which turns Dürrenmatt’s ballad into a work of musical theatre, an encounter between music and language, sound and performer. During the midst of the creative process, the Ensemble Modern (EM) had the opportunity to speak with Markus Hechtle (MH) about his new work, gaining an insight into his workshop.

EM: We know that you have been considering an adaption of the Minotaur legend to a musical form for quite some time now. What attracted you to this well-known myth of antiquity?

MH: Anything that might be antique, dusty or obsolete about this story plays no role at all in Dürrenmatt’s ›Minotaurus‹. I have known the text for a rather long time, and at first reading, it almost jumped at me, both in its content and the way it is written: it is breathless, telling its tale in one swoop. The text almost appeared like Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth to me. And that is the way I wanted to realise it, musically.

EM: Could you describe the differences between the Minotaur legend and Dürrenmatt’s ballad more closely?

MH: There are two characteristic elements that Dürrenmatt invents anew. On the one hand, Dürrenmatt’s labyrinth is made of glass, so that the Minotaur is almost permanently confronted with a sea of mirror reflections. This leads to a process of learning and developing consciousness: at first, the Minotaur thinks his reflection is another Minotaur, before realising that it is an image of himself. On the other hand, from these mirrors, Dürrenmatt develops the idea that the image is Theseus wearing a bull’s mask, so that the Minotaur originally believes him to be one of his own kind. Thus, at the end of the story, something very similar to its beginning takes place, only inverted: the Minotaur is confronted with a Minotaur who his experience tells him is his own reflection – only to learn that this time it is not his reflection at all, but another, second Minotaur. Suddenly, the Minotaur feels something like hope for friendship, love, companionship, communality. Joyfully, he throws all his suspicion overboard, and that is the moment when Theseus stabs him.

EM: How is the idea of the mirror continued in the musical realisation?

MH: I hope that the listener will immediately understand how. We have here a typical ensemble size, 13 instruments altogether, with the piano in an important, central role – it is almost not a part of the ensemble. The piano plays a unisonous line the entire time and is closely linked with the actress: whenever the actress speaks, the piano plays, and whenever the piano plays, the actress speaks. They are chained together; they cannot dissociate. They mirror each other and are bound together, for better or worse. I searched for that image for a long time. It was clear to me early on that I wanted to weave the music closely along the text, but at first, I didn’t know how to – then I had this idea with the piano, which I’m very happy about. For the actress Nicola Gründel, it is an incredible tour de force, for she has to align her text exactly with the piano’s phrases.

EM: And the element of Ariadne’s thread?

MH: Like the mirror reflections within the labyrinth, the thread – the labyrinthine element in general – is portrayed by interlocking the piano and narrator’s voice, and in the one-voice line of the piano. It branches out over and over, it reaches points where it seems to have been earlier – but then it takes a different turn, a different path. It is never the same, but often similar, and sometimes it’s very different after all.

EM: What is the relationship with the other instruments?

MH: The other instruments have multiple possibilities; they can open or colour a background space; they can accompany the piano and the actress; they can comment, intervene, they can try to drown out the actress, almost screaming at her, working against her; and they can also be absent – sometimes, the ensemble stays silent for lengthy stretches.

EM: Can the musicians define these possibilities?

MH: No, they are defined by me; everything is composed in exact details.

EM: How would you describe the relationship between language and music?

MH: Sometimes it is redundant, almost illustrative, a descriptive narration, an imitation – and sometimes the music provides colour, sometimes it is an interruption, and sometimes it is completely autonomous. The role of the music and of the ensemble may change at any moment.

EM: So you illustrate the story, or rather the story’s background, in each scene according to your musical ideas, the way you feel it?

MH: Absolutely. The text is the model. I have not abridged the text, and have only interfered with it inasmuch as there are now repetitions. At times, the actress changes her attitude towards the text, changing her perspective on the story; sometimes she has an almost derisive distance; sometimes she loses herself in the text; sometimes she repeats things, as if she had to remind herself of the text. This is through-composed from beginning to end. The actress speaks almost the entire time – there are pauses too, but not in the sense of interludes in which only the music would matter.

EM: Is there an overarching musical dramaturgy for these scenes, or did you move from scene to scene in your process of composition?

MH: I am still in the midst of it. Of course there are passages for which I had a fixed idea from the very beginning. But basically, I develop the music along the lines of the text, following the thread, so to speak. I spun the piano voice’s thread first – so the piano and the text are now complete. Now, I work along the text and piano line, gradually putting together the entire ensemble. The ensemble is used relatively sparingly, and sometimes it doesn’t appear at all for lengthy stretches, so that any tutti passage is very meaningful. Or suddenly, there might be only one note from the bassoon, or the oboe joins the line of the piano, but does not play all the piano’s notes. There might also be short interpolations from groups within the ensemble, trying to turn an idea of the text into a veritable scene. There are plenty of possibilities.

EM: You are working with the stage director Thierry Bruehl. Can you say anything about the sets yet? Will the idea of the mirror or the labyrinth be reflected on stage?

MH: No, the labyrinth will not be on display. At the moment, our idea is approximately this: we have a rectangular space on stage, three walls open to the public and relatively large – three to four metres – and in this huge empty space, the grand piano is placed so that the player sits with his back to the audience. The ensemble is seated on top of the walls. In the end, however, all this may look quite different.

EM: If one feels drawn to a story, it is possible that one finds it attractive or disgusting, or that one feels reflected by it. Why is it Dürrenmatt’s perspective on the Minotaur that interests you particularly?

MH: Dürrenmatt’s painting ›The Debased Minotaur‹ – which, incidentally, he painted in 1958, long before he wrote the text – gives an impressive inkling of what it might be about and what I found attractive from the very beginning. A story that is profoundly human. A heavy-hitting, timeless and ancient topic. And yet, the story can be interpreted and understood in many ways.
It is significant that the Minotaur is the loser in the story. Perhaps the stories about the losers throughout history are the more important and impressive ones, after all. And the fact that history’s winners then tell the loser’s story is also a form of history’s scorn.