Manuela Kerer – Bursting the Contemporary Bubble

Manuela Kerer (c) Nafez Rerhuf
Manuela Kerer (c) Nafez Rerhuf

The South Tyrolean composer Manuela Kerer has been involved with musical theater for nearly two decades, so her recent appointment as co-director of the Munich Biennale seems only appopriate. She recently spoke to Sylvia Wendrock about her new responsibilities, collaborating with others, and bringing contemporary music and audiences together.

What were you doing in Dresden?

Manula Kerer: I was there with Katrin Beck for the Munich Biennale, at the invitation of the Netwerk Freies Musiktheater. These events often include meetings for artists; this time it was a meeting of producers and festival organizers to talk about cooperation, etc. In Dresden, we had a wonderful chance to get to know the faces of national festivals and performance venues. There’s a huge difference between established houses with rigid structures and festivals that are much more flexible, but much greater uncertainty about their possible budgets. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and we want to stage and collaborate in both worlds, both realities.

The Munich Biennale has a premiere character for music theater…

Manuela Kerer: …for music theatrical forms. Hans Werner Henze founded the Biennale in 1988 to attract young composers to opera. A few years earlier, Pierre Boulez had said: “Demolish the opera houses; we don’t need opera anymore.” Henze defended his position against that, and we’re obligated to keep the roots of the festival in mind. In any case, we’ll be concentrating on music theatrical forms in the broadest sense.

“There’s so much unexplored potential.”

Your passion for opera as a genre makes your appointment as director seem very appropriate. We spoke years ago about the creation of [Kerer’s opera] Toteis. With it, you raised the form into the realm of contemporary music, but you also emphasize the collaborative aspect of making music theater. Where is your focus for the Biennale?

Manuela Kerer: Humans are multisensory creatures; that’s why at a string quartet concert, the atmosphere of the concert hall, the smell of one’s neighbors, the movements of the musicians and so many other impressions play a role – that, too, could represent an understanding of music theater. When that’s all combined on stage – whatever the stage may be – it’s just wonderful.

Collaborations like Toteis, with the author Martin Plattner and the director Mirella Weingarten, are wonderful, but of course they also entail a certain risk. As artistic director, I see it as  my responsibility to bring people together who can really work together – but who also chafe one another enough to set free the necessary energy. On the other hand, it’s tedious to constantly be dealing with problems and lose sight of the art. There’s so much unexplored potential in interdisciplinary work. Dreaming an idea together is a very promising aspiration. Opera and music theater are among the most beautiful things for me, where everything that music is for me meets.

Photo of "Toteis" opera (c) Alessia Santambrogio
“Toteis” (c) Alessia Santambrogio

“We Both enjoy jumping into the Deep end.”

Aside from your love for contemporary music theater, what attracts you about your new position at the Munich Biennale? You been curating for a while now…

Manuela Kerer: The responsibility is totally new in this concentration. In a jury, you deal with specific works for a certain period of time; for instance, I’m part of the artistic team for Ensemble Reconsil, but there are several of us and the cooperation is limited in terms of time. Sharing directorial responsibility is also a challenge, because much more communication is necessary in order to keep one another abreast of current processes. Katrin Beck and I were already acquainted and knew that we get along very well, but working together also entails a certain risk. We both enjoy jumping into the deep end, because things can only emerge when you’re open to them. I know we’ll be equal to this formidable task, because neither of us allows any compromise. We’ll discuss existing doubts, because we both have to be convinced of our decisions. I couldn’t imagine trying to do this alone. I like working in a team, because my thinking progresses through talking. And the conflicts, the friction that will – inevitably – arise in our cooperation will help us grow, as individuals and together.

Katrin Beck und Manuela Kerer (c) Astrid Ackermann
Manuela Kerer and Katrin Beck (c) Astrid Ackermann

When Christof Dienz and Clara Iannotta briefly shared the directorship of the Klangspuren Schwaz, they spoke of mutually conceding their professional fields to one another. Is there some kind of division of labor with the two of you?

Manuela Kerer: No – although you might think so at first glance, it’s completely different with us. Katrin Beck comes from music management, so her expertise is different from mine as a composer. She always says, “I can’t write a score, but I can read one” – I think that’s great, and she can do so much more besides. It was clear from the beginning that we wanted to make all the decisions, artistic and operative, together. Daniel Ott and Manos Tsangaris have already solidly established this double directorship, proved that two people can carry out such a responsibility in tandem par excellence. The thing that makes us unique is that Katrin Beck can look at the contemporary music theater scene both from inside and from outside; that gives us a much greater chance to stretch the contemporary bubble, to open it, to burst it.

Do you also intend to make an impact politically?

Manuela Kerer: We pay promptly, and a famous director doesn’t get any more than the composers. Over time, the arts have slipped into the bad habit of paying people according to how famous they are. But in our society, respect is very often expressed with money. We value quality above all, not just the big names. Sustainability in the cultural branch is also very important to us; we want to – we have to – substantially confront that issue.

“You give the people a shoehorn.”

In your music, the artistic motivation to externalize the internal is always accompanied by a mediational aspect – not just the creation of the original work, but an invitation to enrich one’s perception. How do you forge a path to the recipient without betraying yourself, or losing sight of the recipient?

Manuela Kerer: And without being condescending. A lot of people attempt to mediate contemporary music by bringing the art closer – by simplifying it. I’m very much against that. Music doesn’t need a product information sheet where the ingredients are explained. That’s why Katrin Beck and I also speak of translation, in the sense of being ‘translated’ from one shore to the other, providing the recipient with a means of recognition. Children’s synapses are still much freer for that; the capacity diminishes in adolescence, because it’s basically one’s existential purpose to distinguish oneself from the older generation – you have to keep that in mind if you want to reach them. But the mediational work with older people is also extraordinarily important to us; in that case, it’s also very much about the social aspect, such as someone to go to the concert with. You give the people a shoehorn that they can use to slip into the shoe themselves.

Video: “zersplittern” by Manuela Kerer

You also plan to take the Biennale much more into the city – do you already have ideas about actions that could support this opening of the festival?

Manuela Kerer: The Biennale is a festival for the city of Munich, and it should be unique to this city, something that Munich residents can connect with – so searching, making inroads into society is one of the primary criteria of our work.

Were there any thoughts on the fact that the co-directorship is switching from two men to two women?

Manuela Kerer: Not from us. Obviously we’re aware that we’re women, and perhaps the people who appointed us had thoughts on it. But when Katrin Beck and I speak about artists, the issue of their sex never enters the conversation. There’s a high percentage of women in our heads, due to the quality of their work. That means – as long as nothing goes wrong – we have no need of a quota. I think it’s best when there’s some of everything. We can’t divide ourselves into two groups anyway, so it’s not enough to simply speak of sex. At the same time, we succeed in becoming more diverse when we do more than just talk about it.

“Never underestimate the audience.”

What led to “seelenblitz”?

Manuela Kerer: That was a commission from the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, played by the Hugo Wolf Quartet. The string quartet is the highest form of composition, and I thought for a long time about what it should be. Basically, it’s about different aspects of laughter: rhythmic, neurological, even laughing fits – with theatrical elements that are also funny. At the Austrian premiere, it was framed by pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn. Mozart probably wrote the piece in the night that his child was born, and during the artist talk, I joked that I probably wouldn’t be able to compose in the night that my child was born. Nothing but uncomfortable silence…but they gave the piece an enthusiastic ovation. Proof, once more, that you should never underestimate the audience. Which, up to that point, had just been chuckling to itself.

Video: “seelenblitz” by Manuela Kerer

You’re also active in radio and you’ve written newspaper columns for ten years; a selection of them was collected in the 2020 book Kerers Saiten [Kerer’s Strings]. What strings resonate inside of you?

Manuela Kerer: In college I reviewed concerts because I could never afford tickets. But I’m no critic, and I don’t appreciate the fact that newspapers exploit inexperienced people and take work away from professional journalists. When I decided to quit, the South Tyrolean daily newspaper Dolomiten asked me to write a monthly column about music. It stayed that way, Fridays for ten years – I kept wanting to stop, but that would have meant there would be no music column anymore. My music educational impulse probably took hold of me there as well – the columns were always about composers, music in connection with current issues, contemporary music in small doses. At some point I finally decided it was enough, and then – fortunately – the idea of the book came up.

I started the radio program “Querschnitte” on RAI Südtirol on my on at the beginning. Later on, three South Tyroleans joined me, until the program director at the time said the music was too brutal and no one was interested in it. Now that there’s a new director, I do four shows a year; I’m happy that I’m able to maintain this little space for contemporary music in local radio.

Sylvia Wendrock, edited and translated from the German original by Philip Yaeger.