KUNSTHALLE FOR MUSIC THE PROJECTS OF ARTIST AND COMPOSER ARI BENJAMIN MEYERS CHALLENGE THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN MUSIC AND CONTEMPORARY ART. ON THE OCCASION OF THE SYMPOSIUM “MUSIC IS NOT! A SYMPOSIUM ON AND AROUND THE KUNSTHALLE FOR MUSIC”, HELD IN MAY AT WITTE DE WITH IN ROTTERDAM, DIRECTOR OF LAFAYETTE ANTICIPATIONS, FRANCOIS QUINTIN, TALKED TO HIM ABOUT PHILIP GLASS, HIS MEETING IN THE 90S WITH TINO SEHGAL, AND SCHöNBERG'S LITANY AND RAPTURE. INTERVIEW BY FRANçOIS QUINTIN FRANÇOIS QUINTIN : Let's start at the beginning – how did you approach music? ARI BENJAMIN MEYERS :
Well, my father is a musician, a jazz trombone player. I started to play piano and to learn little Mozart pieces, little Schumann pieces when I was four. But the strange thing is that, as I got older, I began to like rock music. The music that I liked, that I listened to, had nothing to do with my classical training. I look back on this period as almost a schizophrenic split: you are spending so much of your time practicing and studying classical music, but the music that moves you has nothing to do with that. Sometimes I think that almost everything I do might have something to do with this duality. It was at around 14 years-old that this issue began to surface, because that's when I started to compose. As much as I love Bach and Beethoven, I needed to have something a little bit more connected to me. I started to compose on the side, and then I started to do it more seriously when I was admitted as a high school student to Juilliard in New York. I did piano composition. Around 16, I also started playing in rock bands, but again in my mind these two worlds had nothing to do with each other. At that time, it was still the end of high European modernism and a school like Juilliard would have never tolerated the crossing of such worlds.
I guess you were listening to a lot of Philip Glass and Steve Reich at the time?
Yes, absolutely. When I was around thirteen or fourteen my father took me to see Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It blew my mind! I did not know Philip Glass and I was like: “Wait, this is a composer? Because it's sounds like rock music!”. It was loud, intense, and people were coming and going. It really exploded my mind for sure. In fact, this piece followed me around because later in Berlin I conducted two productions of Einstein on the Beach. So, that piece is definitely important for me. Later on I went to Tanglewood, which is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That's where I saw, met and worked a little bit with Leonard Bernstein. He was a brilliant composer who wrote West Side Story, but was also very well respected as a Maestro. After that I definitely wanted to conduct. Long story short, I then went to Yale and met other composers who influenced me a lot.
I wanted to hear you on the relationship that you nurtured throughout your time with Tino Sehgal around the notion of “situation”, but also with Anri Sala, Saâdane Afif, Dominique GonzalezFoerster or Philippe Parreno.
Well, to pick it up where I left off, after at the end of my studies I got a Master in Opera conducting that brought me to Berlin, about 20 years ago now. It was a pretty exciting place. It still is, but at that time I was new to the city and I tried to find people. Tino Sehgal and I found each other quite early. I think I've known Tino since 1999. I remember that the theater which is now called the Hau HebbelTheater was organizing a dance evening called Solo Duo. It was basically an evening where someone would do a solo, and then someone would do a duo. I remember doing a duo on a piano with some dancers and after that it was Tino doing a solo. I think that he was naked at some point. I was like “who is this guy? I want to meet him!”, and then we became friends. Since then we've kept on with our discussions.
Tino Sehgal is totally breaking the boundaries between dance and space and the physical relationship between the viewer and performer. You have also been questioning these relationships.
Absolutely! We definitely were frustrated young guys. We were very invested, Tino in dance and me in music. Maybe for different reason, but we both asked ourselves: Why does it have to be like this? Why does the audience always have to be in this position? It was the same for dance and theater as well. While a lot of stuff still happened in all those fields, especially in dance with the Judson Church, Trisha Brown, and in music with John Cage or Fluxus, at the end of the day music was all about concerts, and dance mostly about theaters. There was a lot of frustration about that, but also, even on a very practical level, if I'm a musician but I don't want give a concert, well then, I'm not selling tickets. But if I don't sell tickets, how do I earn any money? How do you produce a work in a different way, and yet have the funds to produce it? If you consider the bigger picture, it's all about the music business, the theater business, the world of state theaters and dance companies. Tino Sehgal realized this problem earlier than I did and made this move toward contemporary art. Somehow, I was still very interested, maybe naive. I was trying to change things from the inside.
You are referring to the project Redux Orchestra, right? It was even before you participated in Il Tempo del Postino in the context of the Manchester International Festival.
Exactly, so it was in clubs like the Cookies, the Watergate and so on. Clubs are these very singular places where you have music, lights, and even costumes if you consider some extravagant people. It's like an Opera. So, I was wondering if it was possible to develop something in such places. I wanted to go a little further, to try to find another format as opposed to invent a completely new one, an art one let's say. So, in the middle of the 2000s, I did a lot of work within the club scene and in the experimental theater scene. Tino and I were in touch throughout all this, and he approached me in 2006 for the group show he was involved in curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno. He told me that the show was not going to be in a museum but in a theater. He then told Hans Ulrich about me and that's how I got involved.
Il Tempo del Postino was this moment where you realized this need for music throughout the contemporary art world. It is comparable with what happened in the nineties with cinema: this generation was intrigued by cinema and started to investigate the very technical issues of the medium. So maybe the early 2000s were also this moment where artists realized that to work with music implied going down into the technical issues.
Yes, you are absolutely right. That's very interesting when you start to compare it to the nineties and the cinema. When you get into the medium and bring it to that level where you question “what is cinema?” or “what is music?”, and then “what is a musical situation?” or “what is a cinematic situation?”. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster for instance did a lot of work based on cinema that contained no film. In other words, it was a cinematic work without moving images. If we come back to music, it starts to be very interesting because you begin to have a musical work, a musical situation, that may not even have sounds or will be only about the relationship between musicians.
You have worked a lot on this notion of the score of the score which goes back to this image of a rose in a rose in a rose. This idea is present in your beautiful
“I WANTED TO GO A LITTLE FURTHER, TO TRY TO FIND ANOTHER FORMAT AS OPPOSED TO INVENT A COMPLETELY NEW ONE, AN ART ONE LET'S SAY.”
project, that I saw in Hong Kong at Spring Workshop, called An exposition, not an exhibition, which is a reference to exposing a musical theme.
Maybe the first thing to say, quickly, is that this show actually had two parts. The part that you are talking about, which was taking place every day at Spring Workshop and that was called Litany and Rapture, and the second part that was called the Hong Kong Solos. The latter was these short miniatures for which I asked six Hong Kong based composers to write a musical piece for 6 different individuals working in 6 different Art Institutions. Each of them would then perform directly from their desk, and people could book an appointment to see them. So, one part was very much localized at Spring Workshop, and was dealing with the idea of contemporary music and new music, the repertoire and the idea of a repertoire. While the other part was off-site and spread out between different places incorporating contemporary music into the art institution in a very literal way. If we focus on Litany and Rapture, the title of the piece comes from the second string quartet by Schönberg, written around 1908. The last two movements have a poem; the first one is Litany and the second one is Rapture. At some point there is a line in the poem where the soprano sings: “I feel the air of another planet”. It is also at this moment that Schönberg moves into atonality. It's one of those rare moment in history where you can actually say: “this is the exact moment where it happened”. When she sings “I feel the air of another planet“, she basically explodes four hundred years of tonality.
The philosopher and musician Peter Szendy wrote a beautiful book called Ecoute, une histoire de nos oreilles about the notion of listeners and the idea that there might be a history of listening to be written. This notion of community between listeners and musicians, this secret link, is also at the core of the project at Witte de With in Rotterdam.
The Hong Kong show was a kind of prologue and lead me to the large-scale project for the Kunsthalle for Music at Witte de With that will be inaugurated in January 2018. It revolves around this idea of a place that would focus on music as a live contemporary performing practice. To put it in a really simple way: it will be a place for music that's not in a concert hall. It opens up a lot of questions like “How do you exhibit music?”, “How do you position music inside of contemporary art?”, “What's the work?”, “How do you collect music?”, “How do you document it?”. These questions, and the idea of the Kunsthalle for Music, are something that I have been thinking about for a long time and that I talked about specifically in a small book called Music on Display, that I wrote together with MarieFrance Rafael. This publication is about the boundaries, or how to plumb boundaries between music and contemporary art. The Kunsthalle for Music became possible when I received a call from Witte de With's director Defne Ayas. She said: “I read about this Kunsthalle for Music, should we make it?” And I said, “Yes, let's go for it”. That was the process, and in two weeks from now, on May 26-27, we are going to have this symposium in which you are participating. We are just trying to get different people together to discuss these ideas. It will include composers like Jonathan Bepler, who did all the music for Matthew Barney. We are going to have the first auditions for the Kunsthalle for Music as well, in order to find one or two musicians and work with the composers to create new works.
In Hong Kong, the musicians started their day of “exposition” by singing the anthem you composed for them entitled “music is not!”, which is also the title of the symposium at Witte de With.
This is a way to say that music is not necessarily what we think it is, a negative form that opens new possibilities. I think this is a beautiful sentence to conclude this interview. I think this is quite a good end, and also a good beginning.