The works – “lustvolle Tiefenbohrungen“ (“sensual deep drillings”)– of the Linz-born artist GEORG NUSSBAUMER are located somewhere between composition, installation art, performance and theatre. Michael Franz Woels spoke with the Vienna-based “Gesamtkunstwerker” about, among other things, the catalytic function of Orpheus for the self-understanding of European history, the Lego building blocks of Ludwig van Beethoven and a gigantic chirping symphony in the Wittgenstein Haus.
In the course of my research, I also came across the term sound artist. Is that how you would describe yourself?
Georg Nussbaumer: In all my works, the focus is less on sound than on the grammar of music. It is about the precise structuring of time, sound and space, which is why I prefer the term composer, because com-ponere in its Latin derivation describes exactly that: the putting together of things. Not only of sounds, but also of haptic processes, of thoughts that are completely immaterial. Sound as such doesn’t interest me that much. A simple example: When someone plays the violin, there is a lot of movement, warmth, sweat, vibration, abrasion of bow rosin. But all that is so sophisticated that you only perceive tones with a certain timbre, and later on, these can also be played back wonderfully by means of a CD. But everything else that is taking place, especially the spatial events, is overlooked or forgotten.
Intensive reading and analyzing usually precedes your pieces …
Georg Nussbaumer: Especially these works dealing with “Tristan und Isolde”, with the “Ring des Nibelungen” or Beethoven are my process of penetration. The direct translation of understanding or not understanding or assuming which also leads to the complete disappearance of the stories. The meaning of the story in Parsifal disappears in the process – and I am even assuming that it is not there at all, as is always claimed by dramaturges and directors. Many years ago, when I did “orpheusarchipel. eine installationsoper” about Orpheus and Eurydice, I realised that Eurydice is only a footnote in this whole Orpheus myth.
Because of the Monteverdi opera “L’Orfeo” this is seen as a pillar of European history and of society’s self-understanding. But you can’t understand that at all and can only get lost in it because it’s branching out in all directions and is so multi-faceted. But Orpheus is still the catalyst and that gives the whole thing a certain cohesion. But St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Hildegard von Bingen or Nina Hagen could also be possible catalysts.
As part of the mdw’s [note: University of Music & Performing Arts Vienna] “International Summer Academy” last year, five pieces of yours were presented under the title “BEETHOVEN OUT OF THE BOX”. These more or less performative deconstructions with Beethoven as the catalyst had titles such as “Beethoven traverses No. 2 in G major”, “Bach eats Beethoven”, “The discrete sound of Beethoven research”, “Diabelli repetitions” and “Elisenshudder”. Referring to this idiom “out of the box”, which is often used in the context of art, I would call you, casually put, a Beethoven hacker.
Georg Nussbaumer: I briefly resisted this title “out of the box”, but then accepted it. In this task of creating an evening with piano and Beethoven pieces, I imposed on myself the necessity to use existing sheet music by Beethoven. Because I would find it ridiculous to try to put myself in Beethoven’s place as a composer or to use anything biographical. I just wanted to use the material left behind by Beethoven in the sense of: Someone has built a villa out of Lego bricks and I’m building a Death Star out of the same bricks.
There are very few composers like Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven whom I can’t “stop listening to” myself. There are always undiscovered layers that come to light for me. So one thing is the material that was actually left behind in the form of sheet music. The other thing is, that when I work with musicians, I am interested in everything they carry with them and have learned and interiorized over many years. Then it’s my particular pleasure to use these skills practically for something else. Without the musicians having to practise for four years, like for a piece by Brian Ferneyhough.
So you also like to slip into the role of a director …
Georg Nussbaumer: In many works, I find myself wearing multiple hats: Composer, director, set designer. For me, one simply results from the other. In the meantime, it’s hard for me to imagine it any other way. Once I just did the music for a musical theatre play. Yet if someone comes up with a costume that logically doesn’t fit with the play, then it’s just not right for me. Quite unexpectedly, the visual aspect of my pieces can be primordial and the sound level will suddenly be missing or vice versa. And “reading” that can be a bit unusual, because, on the contrary, sitting in a concert and listening, or even watching the shoes of the orchestra, that’s easy.
IN MANY WORKS, I find myself WEARing MULTIPLE HATS: COMPOSER, DIRECTOR, SET DESIGNER
In my “Badeoper” (Bathing Opera) – where sonically or scenically nothing much was happening actually – I was surprised how responsive people were to it after all, as they were able to leave the familiar realm through the sensory level of swimming. Floating on the water, they were completely happy when a soprano scream came along every two minutes. Under water, there were mainly short loops of pop song fragments colliding with “Tristan und Isolde” and rich electronic sounds. And outside the water, in the outdoor locations, there were these very fine lines that, un-amplified, also got lost when you waited for something to be served to you. You had to go there or swim there, but then you missed all the rest at the same time. But things like that interest me, it’s a situation like in life. You look at one thing, but in the meantime you miss the other. And that is a basic insight of every human being.
How did this “Badeoper” actually come about?
Georg Nussbaumer: Well, it’s a very long story. In the 1990s I did something similar in an indoor swimming pool in Linz with only four people, it was also about “Tristan and Isolde” and I still used elements of it for this year’s performances. Then there was a huge version with three halls in an indoor swimming pool in Mannheim, where each hall was simultaneously dedicated to a separate act by Wagner, with a large cast, including synchronised swimmers.
In 2015, there was the piece “Tristan and Apnoea” as part of the rainy days festival in Luxembourg. A soprano singer and an apnoea diver faced each other. The heartbeats of the apnoea diver in his tank were also recorded and acoustically amplified. That’s quite interesting: they can reduce their heartbeat to twenty beats per minute for a few minutes. Then, before surfacing, the pulse becomes faster again. That’s how six- or seven-minute episodes were created, during which the soprano is singing her part to this guy in the water.
‘TRISTAN AND ISOLDE’ IS AN OPERA OF LIQUIDS
At some point I also came across “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, a short story from the 1960s, which was also made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster. At a pool party in an American suburb in Los Angeles, the drunk protagonist decides to swim across every pool he passes on his way home. He meets people everywhere, but when he gets back home, everything is dilapidated and abandoned and his wife and children are gone. He has practically lost his whole life because of his swimming.
I worked for a while on performing my play in Los Angeles on private property, but unfortunately that just wasn’t feasible insurance-wise. So I then decided to do it in Vienna. But we were also bothered by Corona, even having already had some private pools … We ended up with outdoor pools and the advantage that we were allowed to let in many more people. Also, preparation time was extremely short – from the moment we knew that a performance was going to be possible.
Susan Sontag described very beautifully in just a few sentences that the music of “Tristan und Isolde” is the most flowing music ever written. For “Tristan and Isolde” is an opera of fluids: the love potion, the incessant sexual intercourse, the constant sailing to and fro by the sea and, of course, the trickling blood. I wanted to paraphrase this music and physically give the audience this flowing and floating of Wagner’s opera.
You did something similar in 2013 with your installation “Ringlandschaft mit Bierstrom” (“Ring landscape with beer stream”), didn’t you?
Georg Nussbaumer: After the split-second kick of an idea, which for me is usually not the result of a long research or chains of thought, the making and implementing follows. The performance of “Ringlandschaft mit Bierstrom” lasted sixteen hours. Every hour the audience got a bottle of beer and spinach, because of “Popeye the Sailor”. Beer is, after all, the real stream of liquid that flows through Germany, not the river Rhine. And one critic noted very well that the beer takes the rapture out of the music and gives it in a more direct way. Wagner was thereby defused and de-raptured.
Keywords: rapture and dream. Do some things also occur to you in your dreams?
Georg Nussbaumer: Dreams are something important. For my next piece, which I’m doing for the Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop in Berlin, I practically dreamed a piece for each of them within two or three nights, that is, the entire setting including the sound characteristics. That’s about fourteen pages of sheet music, and some of the musicians were really startled and quite taken aback because I got to the heart of it.
During the conceptualisation it was also important that we adapt the performance to the corona measures, and that maybe not everyone can be in the hall and so on. I’m not so concerned about the fact whether these are trans-lucid dreams, and I don’t always have them, that was just a time when it worked well, but right now it doesn’t work any more. I don’t even know if I’ve dreamt something, but I often make notes after I get up. Well, it’s going to be fun after all this corona shit anyway, where all the money will go and who will still dare to do crazy things.
Despite or perhaps because of your unusual ideas, your pieces seem immediately accessible, they don’t reveal themselves only after an exegesis of pages and pages of conceptual text …
Georg Nussbaumer: That often pleases and amazes me, but there’s no design behind it all. I think it comes from making and then thinking about it. As a result, the works have a relatively high sensual content and at the same time can have a completely different meaning.
Now your elementary music theatre “Der Opernwürfel” (“The Opera Cube”) comes to my mind. Inspired by the invention of the stock cube by Justus von Liebig, concentrated excerpts from several hundred years of opera history since Claudio Monteverdi were performed on a stock-cube-like modular hilly landscape.
Georg Nussbaumer: Liebig is also the inventor of the insert picture, which was later found, for example, on Bazooka chewing gum, and which is now traded and collected, sometimes at high prices. Series of key scenes from operas were – late 19th century, early 20th century – included with these stock cubes, or scenes from “Life in Africa”, the “Life of the Eskimos”. What happened to me with my piece and which I didn’t know: the styrofoam of the stage design modules makes a noise. After a performance, one of the stage designers said to me, “That was the epitome of theatre, the noise of the styrofoam”.
Maybe also because we only used piano scores by dead composers? And that was funny as hell during the rehearsals, as such absurd text passages like “… the chaste John …” were suddenly created by chance. The musical theatre play was performed twice and had two completely different end results. I have to say that I can only do something like this with people I’ve known for a long time, like the Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop, the soprano Sarah Maria Sun or the electronic musician Robert Schwarz. They just try things out without discussing much beforehand.
… I CAN ONLY DO SOMETHING LIKE THIS WITH PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN FOR A LONG TIME
Now, this should not be misunderstood as an authoritarian conductor’s behaviour on my part. Trust is there, it’s as simple as that. In “Ringlandschaften mit Bierstrom”, they were given Wagner’s entire “Ring” to listen to over headphones for sixteen hours, and they filtered and modified following the piano score. They were quite impregnated by the sh… But that’s what pleases me the most: when I have such a relation with people that I don’t even have to travel with a lot of sheet music, as I did for the last two productions. We then reinforced all that with card games like Memory. In the music theatre “Der Opernwürfel” there are also small dices that tell you what to play and how to transform it.
AFTER ALL, THE POSSIBILITY OF AN OPERA IS LURKING EVERYWHERE
You also sell little “Micr(o)peras”, DIY performance instructions with opera elements packed into matchboxes …
Georg Nussbaumer: Yes, there are people who never spoke to me again afterwards. [laughs]
There are “Micr(o)pera” boxes that are only allowed for people of 18 years and older, and also some that I don’t have in my repertoire yet, because I’m not sure, legally speaking. I like that: reducing operas to cheap clichés. After all, the possibility of an opera is lurking everywhere, it’s just a question of seeing and hearing.
Can you briefly explain your current internet project “Beam of Silence”?
Georg Nussbaumer: It’s based on an idea that came to me during the first lockdown. The project came out later, because the realisation doesn’t happen that quickly. I was annoyed by all the orchestras’ websites. To suggest that an orchestra can play together via Zoom is complete hokum. I wanted to be able to send something into this silence and also offer the possibility for answers. Basically, it’s like this: with a click, you can randomly start a sound that slowly fades out in a murmur. These murmurs always remind me of the emptiness of, say, northern Canada. Some sound or some process, and a response from someone you can’t even see.
You can become addicted to it when you realise: Ah, there’s someone else who is present in this “chat”. But “Beam of Silence” is programmed in such a way that you have to wait 20 seconds before you can trigger a sound again. And the sound doesn’t come immediately, but only with a short delay. In the Wittgenstein Haus we also had this project as a live version with an audience. A gigantic symphony of chirps is created when one-minute sinusoidal tones oscillate and float together at different pitches and the noise swells and diminishes.
Does “Beam of Silence” also have something to do with the concept art of John Cage?
Georg Nussbaumer: More in the sense of being content with what is here. That’s also one of his great teachings. It’s about the strange miracle that people have a piece of paper, write something on it and then music can be played that all fits together. It’s not so much about being a musician, about emphasising the individual, as in Beuys’ statement “Every man an artist”, but about reassurance. Just as Thomas Bernhard sent postcards to himself: On his journeys to Cairo and Iran, he wrote postcards to himself that simply said on the back: “Calm down, Yours, Thomas”. [laughs]
And “Beam of Silence” of course has something to do with the aleatoric techniques of John Cage. Just like a tree grows: one branch here, another branch there. The stature doesn’t matter, you still recognise the tree. The more unshaped, the more interesting. Whereas I have an ambivalent fascination for designed bonsai trees, yet at the same time, of course, I find these corseted little trees perverse.
You have been working with the electronic musician Robert Schwarz for years. What is your relationship to electroacoustic music?
Georg Nussbaumer: I can’t play the “electronic”, but I can’t play the violin either. I come up with strict concepts that we then dress up with sounds. For example the “Badeoper”: there’s a midi file of the “Liebestod”, certain tones are then given a filter, so that what comes in via the microphone is then transformed live. It seems to me that especially with electronic music, this “form of the instrument” is even more susceptible to mannerly stereotypes. It’s a drama that the equipment is now so cheap that practically anyone can make such a loud noise with so little effort, and I don’t find that to be healthy at all. The same goes for those 300-euro violins from China.
Let’s move on to the “onomatopoeic” project AIAIA, which sounds like a cry of joy. Is there an acronym behind it? Onomatopoeic sound magic?
Georg Nussbaumer: Well, Stefanie Prenn and I have been working together for about twenty years now. She used to play a lot as a cellist in various projects, and later also studied dramaturgy. In 2020 we decided to organise events together in Vienna, for the time being. Right now, there are only two of us in the organisation, and that’s a bit tough at times. We named our project after the island of Aiaia. That’s the island where Kirke lives, where Odysseus arrives and where his companions are turned into pigs and back into humans again. He stays there for seven years, then he gets tired of it and travels on again.
We want islands like this to appear and also to disappear again. The audience might be enchanted – or not. We definitely offer sensual pleasures that also took place on Aiaia. That is why the two larger projects – the second one will be carried out towards the end of the year – are called “Inseln aus Wasser“ (“Islands from Water”). The “Insel aus Wasser I” was the bathing opera “duck and listen!” in August, the planned “fluxturm” will take place in a different way than originally planned.
We won’t get the water tower because it’s already fully booked for this year. But we can’t take our subsidy into next year either. There’s already another idea for “Inseln aus Wasser II“, but we can’t talk about it yet. There will be new locations, because we had good experiences with the articulated bus, departing from the State Opera. Everyone went along, the audience, the musicians, as there’s room for up to 150 people. People also liked the fact not to know where they were going.
I also like the mix of performers. I teach the subject “Gesamt.Kunst.Werken” for one hour a week at the mdw, and during the couple of years I’ve been doing it, some great people have shown up who also participate in my projects. I like these networks. Or the experiences with lifeguards. I recently did a project in Flachgau in Salzburg with three huge bells that were lifted and rung by truck drivers. Originally I wanted to put an intermediary next to each lorry driver who would explain this project “Gaugeläut” to the audience. But they were completely useless because the truck drivers identified themselves so much with the project that they took it over. Afterwards, we drank beer together in the truck garage after each of the seven performances…
Interpersonal dynamics of projects in public space are often very astonishing …
Georg Nussbaumer: A highlight of “Gaugeläut” was a complaint about disturbing the peace. A lorry with a huge church bell was then pursued by the police with flashing blue lights. I have had many experiences: with amateur choirs, with bikers’ clubs, with apnoea divers, and some of them identify very strongly with the projects.
The planned project “fluxturm” will probably also change its name. During my research, I noticed the term “incidental music”, which I haven’t heard very often …
Georg Nussbaumer: Yes, the name will change. And “incidental music” is a bit like the term “performance”, which can mean something different in English than in German. “Incidental music” is the term for an occasional composition for theatre plays. In connection with Fluxus, the term used by George Maciunas, it is used by George Brecht, La Monte Young or also by Yoko Ono as minimal scores on little cards. One effort of the Fluxus artists was certainly to make people realise that art can take place always and everywhere.
From La Monte Young, this quint B-F sharp is relatively famous, which one should play as long as possible. Or an example by George Brecht, a little card that says: string quartet, shake hands. Or: flute solo, disassemble-assemble. “Symphony” by George Brecht is great. It’s a calling card with a little square hole in it. What can you do with it? You can look through it, think about Bruckner, or anything else. From Yoko Ono there are, among other things, Scream to the Wall or Scream to the Sky.
The intention behind it being definitely also the idea that lay people can do it. And of course the provocation of the bourgeois music-making situation in the 1960s. Because these people didn’t come from pop music, but from the bourgeois tradition. That was also the time of the piano destructions or the „Aufziehmanderl“ [note: a wind-up toy], the tin drummers in Beuys’ “Composition for Two Musicians”: again we have this category of incidental music or musical event. This term has often been used. Even if the event consisted in no more than the turning upside-down of a salt shaker. In any case, we, Stefanie Prenn and I, have commissioned a number of composers such as Martina Claussen, Robert Schwarz, Iran Zao, Jorge Sánchez-Chiong, Cornelius Berkowitz and Christina Raab as well as Andreas Trobollowitsch to create works that have to do with water – river – fluxus or that react to it.
THE INTENTION BEHIND IT ALSO BEING THE IDEA THAT LAY PEOPLE CAN DO IT
I like to demonstrate the Fluxus piece “Three Aqueous Moments” by George Brecht to my students: It’s basically a pan or a pot with ice cubes in them, and then you turn up the heat. You have the melting process first, then the boiling of the water, and in the end the water disappears through evaporation. It’s quite an acoustic treat, these changes in the state of the aggregation of water over a few minutes. Simple processes, yet containing the whole world.
The thesis that water possibly consists of two different, variably dense liquids, i.e. the two-liquids model of water, has recently been confirmed experimentally by researchers. This also seems to provide a better explanation for water’s anomalies …
Georg Nussbaumer: I see, that’s why it’s called H 2 O. [laughs]
What I’m actually getting at is, that we often believe to be living in a time when many scientific relationships have been clarified. But that’s not the case, there’s still a lot that remains mysterious, especially because of intensive research.
Georg Nussbaumer: The beauty of art is that it asks questions and poses riddles. The beauty of art is precisely that you don’t know what you’re doing. The moment I think I’ve understood everything, that’s the moment when I’ll roll my eyes in front of the radio and turn it off in annoyance. That’s not interesting. Going to places you don’t know anything about is truly interesting.
If I show exactly what I know, I’m demonstrating a skill, like someone who paints icons by Rublyov anew. And in the aesthetics and world view in music of the 20th/21st century, I’m also often missing the use of the brain – except perhaps with John Cage. There the focus is much more often on skill. And even the great music of a composer and communist like Luigi Nono probably only differs from the music of Beethoven by one percent, just as the genome of some apes only differs from ours by one percent.
Now’s the time for an ending question.
Georg Nussbaumer: There are only starting questions …
In music, what is still mysterious to you?
Georg Nussbaumer: You just can’t overestimate puzzles. You shouldn’t care whether you understand them or not, maybe only the next time you approach them, maybe never. I also notice that I have less and less to say because I have the feeling that I know less and less. I used to be much more certain about many things and claims, but that is all dissolving.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Michael Franz Woels
Translated from the German original by Julian Schoenfeld