The composer and conductor Beat Furrer is the star of this year’s MaerzMusik Festival. He will be conducting the Klangforum Wien (which he cofounded in 1985) for the festival opener, Salvatore Sciarrin’s impressive 1998 opera Luci mie traditrici ; then he’ll be premiering Wüstenbuch, his latest piece of “music theater”.
For this departure from his previous works (like 2003’s invocation and 2005’s FAMA), Furrer used a set of texts that all dwell on death and the desert, ranging from writing by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado and the Roman philosopher Lucretius to an ancient Egyptian papyrus (catalogue name “Berlin 3024”). The Swiss-born Furrer has never been in a desert, but he pictures them as “places of silence that make concentration possible”.
What gave you the idea to use those particular texts as a basis for your work?
The Egyptologist John Assmann asked me years ago if I would be interested in presenting some ancient Egyptian texts he had discovered in a theater, with music. I said yes, I would be interested, but that I thought it wasn’t possible to work with a language which no longer exists – because the language is written, but it no longer exists as a spoken language. But then I decided to search for other texts. I already had the idea for a musical form, so I searched for ones that dealt with the themes of the ancient text.
Wüstenbuch draws inspiration from the idea of the desert, from its expansiveness. How does this manifest itself in the music?
The foundation is Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Wüstenbuch-Fragmente” from Todesarten-Projekt. An Austrian writer, Händel Klaus, wrote an additional text which we collaborated on and changed through the composition process. The question “What am I searching for in the desert?” keeps coming up, as it does in Bachmann. On the one hand, the desert is a place where you can’t avoid confronting memories. On the other hand, it is also a place for new beginnings, for forgetting…
Right at the end of the piece, a window opens onto a utopia when [the female protagonist] says, “I’m hungry”, and she’s taken into a family’s home and they sit down at the table to eat dinner together. At the end, I wanted to have this glimpse of a utopia – to show that there was a place where people were happy.
Is there a formal storyline?
There is a storyline, based on the text from Bachmann. The story is about travelling through Egypt, from Cairo through to the Sudan. It isn’t a standard kind of story because it isn’t told in a linear way – but in the background, there is the linearity of this journey through Egypt.
How are the original Wüstenbuch fragments incorporated?
I’ve chosen a few – about five – small fragments which will be spoken and integrated into the instrumental sounds. It’s very important for me to not have a melodramatic relationship between instruments and the spoken voice, that’s always dangerous… I have always been interested in the sounds of the spoken language – in creating a strong connection, a strong relationship between the sound of spoken language and the orchestra. I split these roles up among actors who only speak and singers who only sing. But I have composed several steps in between – in unstylized language, more stylized spoken language, and then singing. This path from spoken to singing was another theme of the composition: for example, at the beginning, there is a man speaking, but the orchestra – and actually this is based on an analysis of spoken words – ‘speaks’ with him. I have instrumentalized these sounds, and they sound like a person in a glass house.
The exploration of this particular relationship is a new element – but this is the third time you’ve worked with director Christoph Marthaler. Has your professional relationship deepened?
Yes, I think so. Teamwork in the theater requires trust and that’s what I admire in his work: he never does anything that works against the music. He supports the reception of the sound – he listens first and then he decides to try this or try that. He creates images, but never in a static sense.
Do you see this kind of opera – of “music theater” – thriving in future?
Yes, I think there is still enormous potential to create confrontations between music and other media.
At the moment, many composers are interested in opera because of this chance to confront the music with language,with different languages, and also with the concrete – with reality. It somehow opens windows to the world.
WÜSTENBUCH, March 26, 20:30, March 27-28, 20:00, March 28, 15:00 | Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Kurfürstendamm 153, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Adenauerplatz, www.berlinerfestspiele.de