Premiere of the new music theater Water

An interview with Arnulf Herrmann

The Ensemble Modern has collaborated closely with Arnulf Herrmann for several years. He composed ›Anklang‹ for the Ensemble Modern as a participant in the fi rst International Composition Seminar in 2004. This was followed by premieres and performances of commissioned works including ›Terzenseele‹, ›Monströses Lied‹, ›Fiktive Tänze‹ and ›ROOR‹, for example in the Konzerthaus Berlin, at the Witten Days for New Chamber Music and Donaueschingen Music Days. Last year a portrait CD of the composer together with the Ensemble Modern was published by WERGO. And now, on the initiative of the Ensemble Modern, Arnulf Herrmann has written his first piece of music theatre entitled ›Water‹. The coproduction of the Ensemble Modern, the Munich Biennale and Frankfurt Opera will be premiered in May 2012 in the Muffathalle in Munich and can then be seen in the Frankfurt LAB. The Ensemble Modern (EM) spoke to Arnulf Herrmann (AH) about how he tackled the project, the genesis of the work and the cooperation with the lyric poet Nico Bleutge, the director Florentine Klepper and the stage designer Adriane Westerbarkey. Arnulf Herrmann ›Wasser‹,

EM: The plan for a joint stage piece hovered in the air for quite some time. How did you approach this challenge and what were your first considerations?

AH: I think it was in spring 2007 that we first talked about the idea. This early start gave me the great advantage that the »music theatre« project could just tag along in the background over a long period of time – while still composing other pieces. Quite apart from the questions of the subject, musicians, cast etc., my initial thoughts were about the form my work on the composition of a stage piece would take. I wrote down my thoughts in a kind of draft which I constantly revised, added to and changed. This was a long process in which my thoughts gradually became clear.

EM: Could one say that you have an affinity with music theatre?

AH: The connection between music and stage has always interested me. In the end it was just a question of time before I first started grappling with opera or music theatre. In addition, the compositional questions keep changing every time you decide on instrumentation, from a piece for a soloist through to a big orchestra.
I make it a point to seek out these changes since they enrich my work and, of course, in the case of a stage piece this is especially true.

EM: Where do you see the differences between working on a stage work and on instrumental music?

AH: Well, on the one hand simply as a result of the dimensions. What we are trying to do after all is to produce a musical form for a much longer period of time. The big difference though is, of course, the integration of text or rather voice and scene. This was the great challenge for me, especially because it was important for me not just to dissect the text but to have it really sung. I had to find a way to do that.

EM: How should we imagine this process? And how did you go about finding a subject?

AH: As I already said, to begin with I simply collected for a long time. In the final event it was like various different sides coming together. I did not have one single subject that I had always wanted to put to music. I started out rather with a pool of ideas. All of these ideas were planned from the outset so that their musical and stage elements were closely intertwined. One example of this is the tenor song in which the singer is accompanied by the Ensemble and an off-centre wobbly record. Content, stage and music become an inseparable entity at this point. On the other hand, general compositional questions arose such as on the form of the opera or the treatment of the singing voices. Taking all these different angles, I developed a sequence of scenes which basically covered the most important elements of the story.
After this stage I started composing at the point that I knew most about. This created a very fertile area of tension: on the one hand general considerations and on the other a very concrete scene set to music. The piece developed gradually in the interplay between these two poles, the bird’s eye view and the close-up. But of course, at one point I no longer worked alone but in close dialogue with Nico Bleutge who wrote or rather is writing the libretto for the opera. The libretto was always developed in relation to the musical form of each individual scene. This meant that during the course of work, very different types of melody emerged which dovetailed the compositional technique, the libretto and the content of the scene as closely as possible.

EM: How did this work on the libretto and the composition proceed? What emerged out of what and what reacted to what?

AH: Nico and I initially met on a number of occasions without actually working on the libretto. We just tried to sound out how we wanted to shape our working process. I, for example, never wanted to be put in a position where I just had to set a text to music. What I really wanted to do was to develop the libretto and music in parallel. This may mean that the libretto in some cases had to be developed to fit in with the music. Nico also had certain ideas concerning his artistic scope. We gradually moved closer together on these points, which became easier the further along we were in the working process. Nico is an extremely precise and scrupulous author. It was interesting to see how exactly he reacted to the provocations emerging from the music and then how he adapted his own variations to fit or set them against the music.

EM: And how does the actual staging process work – the teamwork with the director Florentine Klepper and the stage designer Adriane Westerbarkey? How does it all fit together?

AH: This teamwork is actually only just beginning. Since the piece – at the time of this interview – is still evolving, our cooperation at the moment is focussed on developing a framework in which the whole thing can finally happen. Of course, this means we constantly talk about everything from general questions about the story right through to very specific questions about how the stage is to be subdivided. These discussions are very open and work very well. I will most probably take part in these talks in the future, but not with the intention of interfering in questions of staging. On the one hand it is important for me to see that my intentions and my interpretation are realised at least in part, but on the other hand I do not assume to be able to take on the role of a director or stage designer. That is simply not my task. This sounds more like a traditional division of labour than it really is, since we are actually always ex-changing ideas. But in the end everyone is responsible for their own part.
EM: We have heard a lot about the origin of the idea, how you work etc. but we haven’t talked about the story at all. What is ›Water‹ about?

AH: The basic story is very easy: A man wakes up in a hotel room, completely disoriented and cannot remember a thing. He enters the hotel lobby where a party is going on that evening. Everything here is strangely dislodged, too. He has the feeling he should know the people (they seem to know him at any rate), but he simply can’t remember. At the centre of the story is a woman with whom he is obviously connected in some way. But everything that seems to be within his grasp for a short while literally melts away in his hands until in the end the entire stage sinks or rather dissolves.
Beyond this story Nico and I have defined different »ways of reading« as we call it. There are, for example, psychological ways of interpreting it, which were important for us when we were developing the various characters – from the obvious traumati-sation of the protagonist through to his loss of ego. On the other hand mythological background slides also play a role, like the Orpheus myth which is implanted in us in the very nature of our man-woman constellation and which describes an irretrievable loss, or the myth of the nymph Echo who, with her loss of speech, loses all grasp of reality. Ideally then, in the foreground we have a very simple story and in the background
a kaleidoscope of meanings which are pointed at but not necessarily played out.

EM: There are also some so called »dream scenes« in ›Water‹. How are these designed from a compositional point of view?

AH: First of all I have to say a few general words about the structure: ›Water‹ is made up of 13 scenes which flow seamlessly into each other. To put it simply there are two different types of scene: those which are repeated – but in very different ways – and those which only occur once. All the scenes have their own special characteristics, the dream scenes, too (actually: »nightmare« scenes), which are among the recurring scenes. In the foreground, the dream scenes are always accompanied by a very striking live electronic sound which is made by the Contra Forte. But that is only the surface. The special characteristics are ultimately to be found in all compositional areas such as harmony, duration, register of sounds etc. – and of course in the libretto.

EM: And how is that then put on stage?

AH: I have initially given only a few specific instructions here. A key factor for me is that the special elements of a scene or type of scene are not just reflected in the title of the scene but that I can find a form, an expression for a certain situation on all the levels available to me as a composer. In this case for a particular form of nightmare. If I can succeed at that, then I think that is the best offer a composer can make to a director. I can only indirectly influence how a director reacts to it. But, of course, I absolutely demand that the director takes the score or rather these thoughts into account in his production.

EM: You mentioned the use of live electronics. How is this used? How many players do you need altogether?

AH: Let’s start with the players. There are 20 musicians, that’s virtually the entire EM plus a doubling up in woodwind and strings. The voices in the main roles are a soprano and a baritone but I also have a fourpart male choir which appears in a number of different functions, as well as a boy’s voice in playback. The live electronics are always quite clearly linked to specific situations or dramatic actions. The need always arises from the scene. Alongside the Contra Forte in the dream scenes, which I already mentioned, there are also special (live) plucked string sounds and an offcentre wobbly record. I have been very fortunate in being able to develop the live electronics jointly with Josh Martin from the electronic studio of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. He has been an invaluable aid to me in my work.

EM: You also talked a lot to the musicians from the Ensemble Modern during the compositional process. Did this have an impact on your work?

AH: Yes, especially as we were so close. It is a real gift if you are able to talk to the musicians directly when any questions arise during the compositional process. We play the parts over the phone, recordings are sent back and forth or we meet personally. That’s fantastic of course. In addition, since I share a common history with the Ensemble in a way, there is a real feeling of mutual trust which makes cooperation much easier.

EM: Thank you very much for the interview!