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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.

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