Based in New York and Vienna, respectively, MELANIE MAAR and CHRISTIAN SCHROEDER have been working together for nearly a decade. Though one of these artists generally works with sound and the other with bodily movement, neither subscribes to categorization, staying in one’s lane, or conventional roles and boundaries in the realms of music, performance and art. Both are performers and both are musicians. Both are composers and both are choreographers. And both have become even more of the other through that which they have created together.
Maar and Schroeder meet in the space of the non-obvious, the uncomfortable, the interchangeable and the indefinite. Though an ocean usually stands between them, that’s about all that separates them when it comes to the organic flow of their creative work in dance, sound, composition, choreography, music and expression. Their mutual affinity for repetition, subtlety, the art of listening, drama in the non-narrative, and the moment of release following states of discomfort, are aspects which connect them, and continue to do so as their collaborative creative exchanges continue.
As part of our CROSSWAYS IN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC series, Arianna Fleur Alfreds sat down with Maar and Schroeder to find out where exactly the body and sound, choreography and composition meet and what can grow from breaking down the boundaries between them.
Let’s start with the basics: What are you actually doing? Which terminology can you identify with? Contemporary music? Sound Art? Contemporary Art Music? Contemporary Dance? Movement? Do any of these hit the mark?
Christian Schroeder: Well, I think not even one of these makes sense in the way that we first came together. It was more like a practice to exchange ideas, without categorizing anything.
And you, yourself, as an individual artist, how would you describe your work?
Christian Schroeder: It’s always depended on the occasion. If I’m working with musicians, then I call myself a composer, if I play, myself, then I call myself a musician, if I make an object, I probably call it ‘sound art’.
So, it’s fluid.
Christian Schroeder: Yes, but always to do with sound in a way.
Melanie, how about you? Are you actually a ‘dancer’?
Melanie Maar: (laughs) I’m definitely a dancer, and I am a choreographer. And I am a musician. And I am also a movement artist. And I like to call myself a scenographer. And I like to call myself an art-life-escort. So when someone calls me a choreographer, I’m not mad. When someone calls me a dancer, I’m not mad.
Actually, I’m a closet musician, and I love being called a “musician”. And I love to see Christian perform, because he is not only a musician, but a performer. I guess I’m attracted to the forms that are not the most obvious.
Christian Schroeder: It’s also nice to have something in between. Even if it’s clear that Melanie dances and I produce sound, in the performance, there’s always a feedback loop that occurs between us.
I’m a closet musician, and I love being called a ‘musician’
So roles and genres are obsolete?
Christian Schroeder: Yes, I’d say it’s less about the genre and more about the person you work and grow with. I think all of my collaborations typically last a long time, and you usually develop a kind of love for the person. Which is also good because then you can also have fights in between. There can be huge drama – which is also nice! You can really get crazy with that person. But then you find a way back together because you meet at the work.
Melanie Maar: It’s true. In our case, and the way I usually work with composers, is with close, evolving relationships. Sometimes only talking is the start of a piece. You have to get along with someone – but not only get along, but be interested in how they perceive things, as well.
What separates you and/or what joins you? What is ‘the space in between’ when you collaborate?
Christian Schroeder: I think the space in between us changes over time, sometimes smaller, sometimes bigger. Probably it’s something we try to get rid of – that space in between.
Melanie Maar: There’s something about the space in between I think of not as a separation, but as where we meet. It’s the work that grows out of our work together. When we are collaborating, I think of this space where auditory, sensual, spiritual, the attraction to the dark side and to discomfort – that those are elements that join us, that we are both drawn to, and come together in a certain way when we work together.
It’s something we try to get rid of – that space in between
Like, the first time we made a piece…
Christian Schroeder: …it was a napkin!
Melanie Maar: Yeah, it was a napkin! We made it on a napkin! (laughs)
Christian Schroeder: Yeah, we were at a bar and Melanie wrote the score on a napkin.
Melanie Maar: Yeah you were working on these sine waves and I was working on repetition, and the kind of invisible sound that comes with bodily repetition. And we talked, and then immediately there was something drawn, some kind of score or choreography, on a napkin. And a few days later we ended up performing it. And I think it was somehow this mutual obsession with repetition that got us easily talking.
We are both sort of repetitive freaks
And there is something about contemporary composition and choreography, in which repetition is a huge element. You can find in forms, no matter what niche. And we are both sort of repetitive freaks. (laughs)
Christian Schroeder: And I think it’s also a love of discomfort, in a radical way. I remember the first time we rehearsed this, Melanie felt really dizzy afterwards, and yet, still, she said, “that was great”.
Melanie Maar: Yes, and we also made this piece together, “Speaking Numbers”, where we were really repetitively speaking and walking in a circle, while always increasing speed. So it was really hard on the mouth and hard on the mind, struggling to keep it going, to get the right speed. For that, I was also working with a hyperventilation breath. So, we were both really physically uncomfortable in the roles we played, but by sticking to the discomfort, there’s usually a moment of release. And I am quite interested in that moment.
Christian Schroeder: Yes, absolutely.
By sticking to the discomfort, there’s usually a moment of release. And I am quite interested in that moment.
Melanie Maar: You can use that moment as a compositional tool, or an emotional or aesthetic one – that if you just stick with this long enough, and you look at and hear it long enough – you go through the phases of curiosity, excitement, boredom, hate, acceptance, eroticism, release, joy. Like, afterwards, we were usually pretty high from the feeling that we’d made it.
Through the discomfort, you land at some sort of bliss state?
Christian: Yes. And I think that aspect of ‘boredom’ is something I’m interested in as well. Like with counting numbers, it’s a very ‘boring’ task. But I think through that process, something interesting comes out of it – or at least you hope it does. Naturally, you can’t keep going till infinity, so at some point it has to stop. That’s also an important aspect in music: the moment when the music stops. That’s a really nice moment to pay attention to.
The arrival of silence.
Christian Schroeder: Yes, silence. But also to suddenly hear the sounds of reality again – to realize that the performance is really something arbitrary and constructed. And reality is something totally different.
You could have chosen anyone to work with. Why did you choose each other?
Christian Schroeder: No, this is not something that is really chosen. It is chosen by a higher power. I mean, that you then keep on working together is a choice. But the point to start something was not ‘chosen’ by us, I would say.
Melanie Maar: Then what do you think made us continue to work together?
Christian Schroeder: I think it was this feeling of creating something new. And creating something that is a bit out of control, but within tools that are, of course, controlled. But at the same time, creating something third – ‘the in between’.
Melanie Maar: For me, it had something to do with that I was so excited by your understanding of performativity and aesthetics, and that it wasn’t just sound. There is an element of your work that I perceive as very conscious – about the entire experience. Rather than the position of ‘here’s my sound, and I have no part in the rest’, I feel like in the work we’ve done together, when you have been a composer you have also been an active performative participant in your compositions.
It’s a very intuitive process, to know what one needs
And that’s how I feel about my work as well – that I am an active participant in auditory experience as much as being in my body on stage. The first time we talked about it in the studio, I was so excited that I didn’t feel a separation in any way. We have a separation in crafts, but I felt our interest in how we engage audiences was very compatible, and, if not similar, than at least very complementary of what we each needed. It’s a very intuitive process to know what one needs.
Christian Schroeder: Before this, I wasn’t so aware of being a ‘performer’. It started only with you (note: Melanie) that I was actively performing on stage. And then discovered myself in that role.
So, through your collaboration, parts of your artistry became more emphasized and present?
Christian Schroeder: Yes, much more present. Also through working with Melanie I found out that dance can be very similar to working with sound. Usually when I worked with dancers, it always had a very strong dramaturgical line, and even if the pieces wanted to be non-narrative, it always had some outlines. And with Melanie it was completely different. With her it was like, ok, the only outlines are that it has to start and it has to end, and everything in between – well, it’s like a drone, or like a watch – things can be intensified or relaxed, sped up or slowed down, but that’s it.
The only outlines are that it has to start and it has to end
Melanie Maar: That’s interesting because it makes me realize that I – having felt conscious about auditory experience within my work, that I am making music or sound with my body, always – that through our work, all of a sudden, this was a legitimized element. We talked about sound and choreography both equally, and could kind of guide each other, equally. It was nearly like a recognition of the things I had already been doing, and through working together I realized, ‘oh, this is what I do’. But I also needed someone else to have a different perspective on it, and to help grow it.
The aspect of the “non-narrative” has been touched upon. What’s your stance on it?
Melanie Maar: I think we share a certain resistance to ‘narrative’. I’m completely all about emotional experiences. So, my non-narrative interest does not mean that I’m not interested in affect, sensation and emotion. It’s just non-narrative. And I think that’s a big part of our work together. For example, when you (note: Christian) really turn the music up and there’s this push to the extreme, and one gets all kinds of feelings, and then it’s over and there’s a kind of death and total silence. To me, it’s a completely physicalized experience that I know from performing with my body. So, there is plenty of drama, just without narrative.
Christian Schroeder: There is maybe even a narrative in the head, when you see or listen to it. But it’s your own thoughts – not something theatrical, which is meant to guide you. We never worked this way. For example, we never had a rehearsal where we really outlined what would happen. Yes, maybe structurally, of course, because someone has to turn on or off things. But other than that, it’s not cue-based.
There is plenty of drama, just without narrative
Do you even rehearse?
Christian Schroeder: Honestly, not much. We spent a lot of time together working. But never rehearsing. Trying out things sometimes – yes. And maybe making adjustments to see if they match – sometimes, yes. But still it’s been very different to other collaborations I have, where there is always some kind of master plan. We never had this.
Melanie Maar: I think that’s something I know from musicians too. I know a lot of musicians who play together and they don’t rehearse so much. But every rehearsal that I do is a performance. I don’t consider rehearsals as bits and pieces. When we figured something out, we did it as if the gods were watching. And we learned from the performative rehearsal. Each ‘figuring-out’ is a performance itself. We made each rehearsal an experience in and of itself, which was guiding the composition and choreography.
We did it as if the gods were watching
Christian Schroeder: Also, usually the things we were doing were very challenging, so you can’t rehearse them too often. Like I remember for the breathing piece we did, we met in Mexico…
Melanie Maar: (laughs)
Christian Schroeder: … And we said, ‘ok, let’s do something together.’ And I was like, ‘I do this thing where I walk in a circle and I count. I can’t do it now, it’s too hard.’ And Melanie was like, ‘Ok I have this thing where I breathe to the point of nearly hyperventilating, like this (loud breaths), but I can’t do it too long now, cuz it’s too hard.’
So, dramatic tools nonetheless…
Melanie Maar: Yes, I am totally interested in aesthetic and drama – just not the narrative drama. You know, in some performances I am wearing wigs or we are both wearing costumes.
Christian Schroeder: It is narrative in that it creates a picture, and an emotion.
But not an obvious one. Bringing us to the element of subtlety. Is that another connecting point between your approaches?
Christian Schroeder: Yes. But subtlety in the way that I try not to spoil the thing, and fuck it up. (laughs)
How can one fuck it up? I’m curious.
Melanie Maar: Me too. (laughs)
Christian Schroeder: If I would have a strong idea in my mind of what the show would be like, and then I just drive over the performance – taking up too much space for myself. And I don’t mean I shouldn’t turn up the volume. I mean more with the picture that is drawn.
Listening is not just through the ears, it’s with our bodies
Melanie Maar: That’s a good way to put it – “the picture that is drawn”. Because the only times I’ve worked with composers and musicians when I found it… let’s call it ‘unsatisfying’, was when there wasn’t any listening. Subtlety has so much to do with listening. Even if the sound is so loud, even if I’m exhausted by doing something, I can still have this space of subtlety, where we can find each other through the subtlety of how to listen.
And listening is not just through the ears – it’s with our bodies. That space in between. Tuning into that third space. Tuning into the audience. So I think subtlety is super important in working together – as a place to meet.
Your work is not really ‘presentational’, with clear separation of performers and audience. The lines seem to be much more blurred. Especially, as the work feels relatable at very sensorial levels, as with the beads and the Vortexing performance that you and Christian conceived together.
Melanie Maar: I think that aspect of feeling yourself in the performance, as an audience member – it’s a big connecting point. This piece with sound, or counting numbers, or when I throw the beads around which are very auditory – it’s the motion – sometimes I look into the audience and I see people swaying back and forth in the same way that I am.
Absolutely. You simply can’t help yourself.
Christian Schroeder: It’s also with the breathing. One falls into the breathing that Melanie is in. It’s natural.
You call yourself a ‘closet musician’, Melanie. Christian, would you call yourself a ‘closet choreographer/dancer’?
Christian Schroeder: Maybe (laughs).
Melanie Maar: This reminds me of an article in The New York Times. I did a piece with a musician, Anaïs Maviel. We did something on the street to honor a space that was closing in New York – The Chocolate Factory. And a photographer for the newspaper took a picture of us, and that picture made it into the article, and under it they wrote “Melanie Maar, Musician”! So you could say they mis-credited me. And at first I was disappointed. But then I was like, “yes!” (laughs) You know, it was kind of just the symbolism of it – of how I felt being named that.
Actually, we both started this interview by saying that the naming of things is not something that either of us value so strongly, or feel attached to. Yet, at the same time, when I was named that, I felt excited by it.
It’s A liberation to find music in myself – that I am music
Do you consider yourselves co-composers and co-choreographers?
Christian Schroeder: In the best case, yes. I remember we had some imbalances at times. For example, for a piece at Judson (Church), I sent a sound file from Vienna to Melanie in New York, and I remember I really wanted black metal to happen in it. But when I look back at it now, when I see the performance on video, it feels a bit forced, from my side.
Melanie: Isn’t that interesting? That was the one time that you composed something that you weren’t physically present for. By the way, I love that moment of heavy metal. And you were the impetus to it.
But actually, what you’re saying is that the live performative collaborative aspect is very important. In line with that, Melanie, you have said that you don’t want to work with recorded music any longer, but only live collaboration; and that in a perfect world, you would work exclusively as such.
Melanie Maar: It is a perfect world! At the moment, that is my reality. More and more, I feel a resistance in me – which I have had for a long time – to working with recorded music. As such, I felt a great liberation to find music in myself – that I am music, when I work. And then to work with other artists with whom I connect on this level as well.
Sound is movement and movement is sound. And to explore that, live, is different. There’s a deadness, for me, that comes with recorded sound that I have just not been interested in, in the last years. In the future, I don’t know what will happen. But that’s my position now.
Christian Schroeder: I was thinking about live music a lot. And I have this project where I destroy records. It’s a vinyl that is played, but only once. So it becomes like a one-time live music experience. And if you go to a concert from, let’s say, Phil Niblock, he also just presses ‘play’. But he presses it, and so it is live. And you can feel it.
Melanie Maar: Yes, and I want to see him hit ‘play’. Of course I also listen to recorded music and am glad it exists.
But you’ve been referring to the specific aspect of pairing recorded music with physical dance and performance.
Melanie Maar: Yes and there is a big difference to being part of a compositional process, or being part of the aftermath. I also want to say about the live music aspect – that’s something that really bugs me about contemporary dance – when a dancer and musician are standing next to each other on stage, without any relationship. The musicians sometimes thinking they’re invisible, because they think we only see their instruments.
There’s a long tradition of the opposite. In flamenco, for example – something I was exposed to a great deal growing up (note: Melanie grew up in her mother’s dance studio in Vienna, Tanzstudio Maar) – the musician and dancers are together. The musician is in it, with the body. The musician will also likely, at some point, stand up and dance. And, as well, the dancer is a musician. They’re both completely in both roles. And in a lot of traditional forms of African dance, there is the oneness of dance and music, as well. But in the contemporary forms, there is often a lot of separation. Putting us on stage together, but not going further than that.
When I see that – the use of defined roles on stage that are not quite relating – it nearly makes me question the relationship between dance and music even more than the use of recorded music. So that’s an interesting question. But I guess it’s one we two are generally investigating, as we are continuously interchanging roles in a way with traditional dance/music practice.
Do you see examples in the world of artists or approaches that work similarly to you?
Christian Schroeder: It’s difficult. As I experience it, the majority of what I know is that you compose the soundtrack, send it off, and then you come to the premiere. Very often, that’s it.
Melanie Maar: I know some choreographers like Eszter Salamon and others who have really worked with music intensely, in all kinds of ways. So of course there are many artists who are deeply concerned with movement and sound.
Melanie, you’ve been living in New York for over two decades now. And, Christian, you are based in Vienna. Both of you have positioned yourselves internationally, in general. In your experience, are there any regions which are more ahead of the game when it comes to the fluidity of the relationship between contemporary music and dance?
Melanie Maar: In New York there is a long tradition in the experimental performance world – it didn’t start with Cage and Cunningham, but they are some kind of “forefathers” of the tradition. But I think some regions have a kind of approach – like Mexico, as well as Japan – where there is a certain openness. There is something about performance itself there, that is recognized as an important aspect of… well, life – because it’s related to ceremony and ritual. And I felt in both those places a kind of openness to embrace the work without looking for narrative or ‘comprehension’. Yeah, in Mexico and Japan I just felt like… this has always been around. Like there we were, part of a long tradition without even realizing prior to being there.
Christian Schroeder: Yes, my experiences in Mexico have been incredible, for so many reasons. I think one of the pieces I saw there, before Melanie and I had met actually, was at a festival that had this section called, “Who’s Afraid of the in Between” where they invited different artists from different categories to collaborate. I remember very well one performance by DD Dorvillier for the performance “Choreography, a Prologue for the Apocalypse of Understanding, Get Ready” (2009) and the musician on stage was Zeena Parkins! And it was amazing!
Melanie Maar: Yes, and I would say DD Dorvillier is also someone who intensely worked with music as with her body, and she has also worked a great deal together with Zeena who, incidentally, is also very aware of her performative self. She is not a musician on the sidelines.
It’s important to recognize the women who are shaking up the conventions
Christian Schroeder: Totally!
Melanie Maar: And there is a long tradition around her. Her knowing the reality of the theatricality of being seen in a performative space. Everyone in that space means something and exudes something, and has a theatrical effect. And I love that she has so much experience in that. Even though she is so much known as a musician, if you’ve seen more of her work, then you know that she is indeed a performer as well.
It’s important also for me to mention that there is an assumed maleness for the composer’s side, and an assumed femaleness on the choreography and dance side. And of course that’s true in some instances, but not in all. It’s important to recognize the women who are shaking up the conventions.
Right, and your collaboration together is an affirmation of that, as you are both interchanging roles fluidly in your work.
Melanie Maar: Maybe that’s part of my excitement too – breaking down these assumptions of gender roles, along with lots of other assumptions!
Thank you for the interview!
Arianna Fleur Alfreds