Richard Wagner is one of Germany’s most divisive figures, both revered for his musical innovation and denounced for his questionable political beliefs (and subsequent glorification by the Nazis). In a video piece that plays alongside Lorin Maazel’s drastic shortening of Wagner’s Ring Cycle from 12 hours to 75 minutes, Elisa Gómez Alvarez explores the composer’s life and legacy by reimagining the cycle’s time frame, crafting a narrative of a futuristic society garnering and storing genetic information to create the perfect individual, juxtaposed with a surreal dreamscape of two women breeding flowers. It premieres on May 5 as part of UdK’s Crescendo Festival. Alvarez, a 27-year-old Berlin-born atist and student of Ai Weiwei, explained the intentions behind her piece.
Can you describe the approach to the project?
Well, firstly, it was really hard dealing with Wagner and his work. The project as a whole is half an orchestral work, half a silent film that I’ve produced. When I was listening to The Ring Without Words I felt the whole thing as very modern; very emotional and futuristic. People usually interpret the Ring Cycle as having to do with mythology, of Vikings and that kind of thing. But mythology is no longer relevant, and I need to tell a new story with Wagner. Hitler abused and appropriated Wagner’s music and that went into my thought process when I was devising the film – what’s the next big issue, what’s the next state that’s influencing humankind? And that’s how I came to the major theme of my film, the chemical engineering of the perfect human through the manipulation of genetics.
A sort of science fiction take on Wagner?
The thing is is that what was once considered science fiction is now a reality – I’ve done a lot of research into IVF, and the ways it’s improved since the 1970s. Nowadays you can fertilise a group of cells and livestream them as they develop, all the while algorithms tracking the development. Now I’m not at all being a Catholic here and talking about the sanctity of unborn life – but it’s an entirely new level of control, tracking, and supervision that I think can lead to new, scientific discrimination.
How did you approach working with the music directly?
Wagner was a genius, especially in his use of leitmotifs, and The Ring Without Words focuses on these as a way to turn the 12-hour work into a 75-minute piece. I play a lot with the leitmotifs, foreshadowing what’s going to happen or creating connections between a character or an image. It took a lot of listening, but now I feel that I truly understand the language of Wagner’s music, and I’ve created a language of video footage to go along with it. The more I deal with Wagner the more I wonder – why do people think of this as so old fashioned? Why so traditional? It has so much potential for young artists to reinterpret. It was especially difficult, however, with the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence, because it’s got so many associations in culture. I ended up using a sequence of found footage of blood and cells splitting apart, which really plays with the perspective of the audience and makes for a powerful moment.
The film will be playing along with a live orchestra, reminiscent of a silent film.
This makes the project much more interesting, but also more logistically difficult – I’ve separated the film into around six clips, which I cue live to account for the slight changes in the playing of the music. No two performances with a conductor can be exactly the same, and I want to be sure things stay in sync.
How do Wagner’s anti-Semitic associations figure into your work? Is the piece a sort of indictment?
The piece is by no means an indictment – we all know Wagner was an anti-Semite. Rather, it is more about imagining new forms of racism that stem from social Darwinism and eugenics, but with the modern technology of chemical engineering. I think the work is about moving forward from just talking about Hitler, especially as he pertains to Wagner, and rather imagining and preparing an emotional archive, and tools to face new forms of racism – and Wagner is the perfect tool for connecting the past and the future.
The Ring Without Words, Fri, May 5, 20:00, UdK Concert Hall, Charlottenburg