Specter - World Premiere by Johannes Maria Staud

A Conversation with Johannes Maria Staud and Sofia Simitzis

Le Spectre du Gardenia / The Specter of the Gardenia‹ – a sculpture by surrealist Marcel Jean inspired the Austrian writer Josef Winkler to compose an idiosyncratic surrealist monologue. Together with Winkler, the composer Johannes Maria Staud developed ›Specter of the Gardenia oder der Tag wird kommen‹, an interplay between music and text to which the young director Sofi a Simitzis has added a spatial dimension. The result is an installational concert performance which Ensemble Modern premieres under Emilio Pomàrico together with Johannes Silberschneider as narrator for the opening of the festival ›steirischer herbst‹ in Graz on September 25 and 26, 2015. In April 2015, during the creative process for this staged »experiment«, Ensemble Modern (EM) had the chance to speak with Johannes Maria Staud (JMS) and Sofi a Simitzis (SoS) about their collaboration as a team and about concepts and ideas for the staging of the evening. May 2, 2016 will then see a concert performance of ›Specter of the Gardenia oder der Tag wird kommen‹ at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, the work’s German premiere. Inspired by Josef Winkler’s text and as the »centrepiece« of the staged evening, Johannes Maria Staud also composed the purely instrumental work ›Auf die Stimme der weißen Kreide (Specter I-III)‹, which will have its world premiere at the Festival Musica in Strasbourg on September 19, 2015, also by Ensemble Modern.

EM: Mr. Staud, many of your works are related to literature or other art forms. Is it fair to say that this is a special affinity of yours?

JMS: Actually, an affinity for words has always been present in my work. I have studied many different forms of literature and have often tried to write monodramas, the combination of a spoken text and music. Of course, for want of a better term, I use this one provisionally. There is the early work ›Die Ebene‹ (1997) based on a text by Hans Arp, an exploration of Charles Baudelaire in ›Le Voyage‹ (2011) and the collaboration with Durs Grünbein and Bruno Ganz in ›Der Riß durch den Tag‹ (2012). This is now my fourth work combining an actor and an ensemble.

EM: The text was written by the Austrian author Josef Winkler. How did this collaboration come about?

JMS: What brought the three of us together – Josef Winkler, Sofia Simitzis and me – was an initiative of Veronica Kaup-Hasler, director of the ›steirischer herbst‹. Josef Winkler is known in Austria as a politically exposed person who has raised his voice with great tenacity against right-wing populism and corruption. His unsparing reflection upon his own childhood in a small village in Carinthia and his precise, poetic images which oscillate between anger and tenderness have long fascinated me, and I am very happy that this collaboration has now come about.

EM: Could one say that Josef Winkler also developed his text in cooperation with you?

JMS: We met frequently and also talked among the three of us. Josef wrote his text specifically for this occasion. It was created in several stages and versions, always in close personal exchange. The central element of this text is Josef’s highly personal exploration of surrealism, whose thought processes he continues today – something that had not occurred in his oeuvre so far. In May we will all try together to fuse text and music. We will try things out again, create an abridged version, regroup elements, and Josef Winkler will fine-tune the text.

EM: Is it possible to describe the content briefly? Are there aspects that have fascinated and interested you particularly?

SoS: The working title is ›Specter of the Gardenia‹, inspired by a sculpture of the surrealist artist Marcel Jean. »Specter« means an image of horror. This sculpture is of a small black head with eyes closed by zippers and a roll of film wound round its neck. In Josef’s text, a first-person narrator stands before this sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, simultaneously seeing images of his childhood and of our current world. Both elements for which Josef Winkler is known – his political reactions to our present times and the reflection of his nightmarish childhood in Austria – can thus be found in the text. There are lyrical passages, for exam- ple »AUF die Welle des Schüttelfrosts am Fell eines Igels SCHREIB ICH DEINEN NAMEN« (»ONTO the wave of shivering on the pelt of a hedge- hog I WRITE YOUR NAME«) – in an earlier version, this was the first sentence of the text – a dramatic moment, full of despair but also full of longing. In their entirety, such lyrically dense images convey an atmosphere. Especially in the beginning, eschatological words or atmospheres arise again and again, e.g. crumbs, split, torn out, underside, sinking, last, first, depth, ice, night – poetry that cannot be spelled out, but that has an inherent power of its own! Then there are the clearly narrated passages with their pretty crazy images from his childhood, and a third text passage that we call »the world lament «, a surreal description of the world, a view of the world today, e.g. »You petroleum society, you watchmen of our tragedy!«

JMS: Josef Winkler refers to certain models of surrealist literature and their precursors, such as Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret or Lautréamont, but he has developed them further, amalgamating them in his very own, independent way.

EM: How should we imagine the collaboration between the three of you as a team – composer, author, director? When does the director’s work begin, or rather, how do you advance towards a staging?

SoS: The most exciting part is yet ahead of us, when we see how it all might fit together. The sequence is thus: Josef Winkler has sketched out his text to a pretty advanced stage, then Johannes writes his music, and I react to all that last. On the other hand we meet frequently, exchanging ideas, so that everything is more closely interconnected. At the same time, each of us works autonomously. Just as the instrumental music is inspired by the text, the visual level that my team of directors and I are planning is inspired by the text and forms a kind of complementary or analogous level.

JMS: In the same way, the music is not about »setting a text«. My working method is this: I read all of Josef Winkler’s text versions again and again, and then I put them aside, waiting for a kind of incubation period to pass. After that, I tried to write instrumental music which is highly co-inspired by these linguistic image fields, by these aphoristic and evocative elements. I actually wrote two pieces: the pure ensemble work in three movements ›Auf die Stimme der weißen Kreide (Specter I-III)‹ for Ensemble Modern and the stage work ›Specter of the Gardenia oder der Tag wird kommen‹. Again and again, I received designs for stage sets, photographs and associative images from Sofia Simitzis, noticing that she used the text as the basis of her own interpretation, and I liked that very much. Perhaps I was often not very communicative, but that is often the case for composers during intensive phases of work; however, I assimilated everything coming from Sofia. It was clear to all of us from the very beginning that the entire evening was to be much more than the sum of its parts. I would say that in cases of cooperation like ours the text is the basis, providing the fundamental theme of the evening and inspiring us all. Music comes second, making reference to the text and transporting its semantics into a different sphere. The scene, the image, Sofia’s staging then often opens unexpected possibilities of meaning, combining the parts into a wild, disparate unit, resplendent in an unknown light like a foreign mountain landscape. In any case, we are embedded into a pretty diverse field of tension.

EM: Can you tell us more about the staging?

SoS: Of course, what we decided upon long ago was the space. Just as I am inspired by the music and the text already written, I have collected images, but these are still variable. It is like a small arsenal of material from which I am able to play my cards faster when the time comes. The whole thing is an installational concert performance, and we see a »specter« in the broader sense, a machine of horrific images, a »world machine« with 1000 eyes emitting images madly in all directions. These might be videos, but also figures, objects, live actions. Of course this specter has its own dynamic of overload, all the way to images of blackness and no images; there are small fragmented and large images, solo and tutti images, lasting for the blink of an eye or the duration of a daydream. In structure and content, the images are triggered by the text. And then there is a certain lightness, humour, an absurdity in rigidity and blackness, all of which are definitely present in the text as well.

JMS: Furthermore, the text in its chronology is broken up, turned upside down. There are parts where the music will dominate everything, and there are parts where the text does the same. All three parts (the visual level, the music, the text) take centre stage occasionally, but then cede to the others again; this is comparable to a jazz combo where everyone has solos, and the solos are allowed to exceed the formal strictures. The evening is not a study in Apollonian beauty, but aims to confront the listeners with a certain element of the unexpected.

SoS: ... and with madness!

EM: Mr. Staud, I would like to revert once more to the relationship between your instrumental piece and the stage work. How is the text integrated into the music in the staged performance?

JMS: The pure ensemble work will follow its own dramaturgy, which is immanent to the music, but inspired by the text. For the staged evening, I will break open the music, adding islands, airing individual parts, and most importantly, I will compose additional chamber music and solo passages, since images, scenes and text will be added. What I don’t want is to have my ensemble piece performed en bloc, exactly as it is; that would also contradict the special spirit of this cooperation. I know Ensemble Modern very well; therefore, in the evening length staged version the door will be opened for more solo music, when the ensemble members will join the text or the actor and the effect will be more intimate. The pure ensemble music is relatively massive and complex in its texture. There are actually four states: one where text and music are equal, one of unaccompanied music, one of unaccompanied text, but also one where there is text with music in the background, like a secco recitative. Multiple perspectives are desired; that is my dream of a work of art: a work of art that one can hear and see multiple times, noticing new details every time which one missed the first time. It is a real image machine, which is slightly overwhelming because so much happens at the same time. That is exactly what I like!