Listening to the Unheard / Writing Double Jeopardy, and the Premiere by Ensemble Proton Bern

Spider and its shadow

I flipped from side to side on the single bed dressed in cold bed linens stiff from laundering. Coated in the Alpine mists, Bern felt chillier than Paris. Where I stayed was up high in the mountain area, a place called Bremgarten. The kind gentleman of this house lived a tranquil life with very limited technology, so I let my angst twirl around me after I got back, unable to reach my distant friends on Skype or the like for relief therapy. I was on my own, yes, with my angst.

Always, I relived my existential crisis as a composer at and after the First Rehearsals, my Achilles’ heel. This day was one of those days. I took a train from Paris to Bern the day before, and on this day I attended my first rehearsal with Ensemble Proton Bern for the piece they commissioned from me, Double Jeopardy (2013) for eight instruments. And my existential angst surfaced and – Au bon Dieu! – everyone could see it and was suffering from it! What could I do? I wanted to hide myself under the bed linens and never come out again, never attend the second rehearsal, the dress, the performance….

By training of a composer, before bed I had studied my own score, and from my memory of the rehearsal marked the spots in the music that required special attentions. I made a long list of things for which I would need to communicate with Matthias, the conductor, the next day. However, I flipped from side to side in the bed, unable to sleep. Why were these bed linens so dry and coarse? Why did I put so many god damn details in my score? Why did I talk so much in the rehearsal? God this bed is hard! Would this piece be a failure? …um, cold… I wish there is internet so I can talk with someone. What would happen if they still are not ready tomorrow? I must be the most hated composer in the world. Ah, I really need to sleep NOW – there’s a long day to come tomorrow! Oh god, it’s three already…

I survived, more than survived. The bright spring sunshine quivered with morning dew; the descend from the picturesque uptown to the old town down by the river was rejuvenating. The Dampfzentrale, a performance space converted from a former factory, was quaint. I showed up to the remaining rehearsals more or less calm and collected, and things progressed. The talent and energy of the Proton musicians were beyond admirable. Each one of us Protonwerk N.3 commission award winners received about five hours for one’s piece within a week’s frame. We became friends as well. Not once before in my life had I experienced such amicability and support within a group of young composers who arrived together through way of competition. We had coffee together next to Aare River, chatted, and ate very little – the food there is very expensive. We appreciated each others’ music very much; we cultivated this sincere respect for each others rare in the field of contemporary music. We listened, and we communicated.

To listen and to communicate, these are simple human things yet are so difficult to do, at least for us contemporary Homo sapiens.

Monday, 24th of February, dress rehearsal. I left the score at Bremgarten. Sky was clear except for few silky strips of cloud, and the air was high with cold warmth. I bought a little cup of Bunder Gerstensuppe (Swiss barley soup) on the street with a heel of baguette, and lunched sitting on the stone balustrades of the Bundesterrasse, overlooking the distant Alpes topped and veined with chalk-white snow. They looked gigantic and formidable. Day was bright, and I had to wear sunglasses. After lunch I descended and went inside the dark hall of Dampfzentrale with its black window sills, black structural beams, black floors, black decks of chairs, black curtains, black space ready for spectacles. Dress rehearsal of Double Jeopardy, me without my score. Religiously I closed my eyes. Now I wanted to listen – to what was conceived, to what was being realized, to what was eventually performed. This would be the first time for me to listen to Double Jeopardy, not only as a piece being performed, but also as a Being as I first searched for, discovered, and moment-by-moment revealed and confirmed which’s existence.

I was listening to a Quest. The Quest of Searching. A search for how to listen.

*           *            *           *           *           *

   [To listen, I am]

In search of the hidden, the concealed, the obscured.

In search of a woman.

A woman can be an open book, yet the mystery and secrecy lay unseen in plain sight, throbbing and baffled. Red would not be intense enough without the right mixture of yellow and blue. If one looks close enough, one can see that yellow and blue without actually seeing them.

The desire to activate your phantom limb is stronger than that of moving an arm. (We call that an “itch”, don’t we?) Real silence is not a rest, a pause, a relief from the action of sound. It is an absolute abstraction charged with various forms and possibilities of energy. Silence — it moves.

Treating sounds as objects, as some platonic utterances of the universal truth has recently disinterested me. The projection of sounds that takes less effort than farting has bored me to death. In a world where the production of sounds has become unnaturally easy, we have long forgotten that the sounds embrace physicality, and it is not merely in the physical effort of a performer to produce a sound, but also in the potential intention of a sound itself to give birth to itself. Sound – it thinks.

At certain point in the recent years I started to develop a certain repulsion – a repulsion toward a way of using sounds as objects only able to perform one-dimensional, singular functions within a musical piece that are not altered over time. Between these sounds applied in the piece there is no humane connections – no audible humane connections. The relation between such composer and his musical materials is like that of a factory owner and his low-level workers, or of a whorehouse and its whores.

In a piece of music where there are only factory workers and whores, there exists only the dichotomy of sounds and not-sounds; either there is productivity or there is not. The consideration of silence is conveniently absent. The sounds, oh tired, tired whores used again and again and again, mechanically perform their functions with muscles flaccid and pale as dead fish. Not that I am against this kind of musical production – as there are effective, famous, important compositions that were built upon such diligent and organized capitalistic enterprise – but I am simply not going to buy it. I have become physically allergic to such artistic conduct, and have simply decided that I would build a (different kind of) relationship with my own music.

It is a relationship.

And it is a relationship between what is called Sound and what is called Silence. Both notions are physical yet abstract. Sound of Sound is so concrete as a result. How about Silence? Did not our musical forebears tell us that Silence is not only the absence of Sound? Of course it is much more; it does not even have to appear in the form of the sound of Silence. It is the womb of Sound; every sound is born from Silence. There is no exception. Silence is not an empty void; quite a contrary, it is everything besides. Phantoms, ghosts of music past, Janus with fingers pointing at every direction, unspeakable sins, premonitions of what will happen, prohibition of what is to happen, concealment of what is happening, scintillations of what will not happen….

Therefore, Sound and Silence realize each other, each another’s negative or shadow. Sound became less certain, less definite, as it belongs to the creations of Silence. It is a relationship, and a relationship activates movements and exchanges. One witnesses an object being born, developing and gaining agency, and ascertaining its subjectivity — constant movements. I turned toward this relationship, peering into the core of Silence, listening in the Unheard to the becoming-Heard.

*           *          *           *           *           *

   Double Jeopardy (2013) was coming alive. Proton musicians’ intelligence helped it so. One recognized everything. The brief moment right before a body pushes out a shoot of air. A deep inhalation beyond what a physical body can exercise. The shallow breathing preparing one to sleep. The palpitation that had being hammering all this time but only shockingly revealed at this moment. The double sides d’une geste qui sont puissantes et faibles simultanément….

I opened my eyes.

One day after the premiere I woke up late. My dream night was drugged headily with a sense of elation. The concert went beautifully. The 400-seat hall looked deliciously populated. Earlier in the afternoon a young man stood on a 40-feet high stage ladder to adjust a spotlight, and the radio station engineer listened harder than I did. My pregnant friend and her husband traveled from Genève, and my dear, elderly host traveled from up Bremgarten, to the Dampfzentrale. The flutist, elegant in physique and hardcore in performance technique, prior to the concert looked, in dismay, into the dressing area dominated by fellas in different stages of dressing and undressing and napping amidst their instruments. After the concert beer was half-priced, a token to our work. I remembered our Dutch composer said something very intelligent about his work. And, when being spoken to, the harpist pattered in such endearing, twangy Swiss German – I wish I could write a piece with that music!

Before my train, my host and, by now, a dear friend, cook for us a pot of slothy, soupy risotto with mushrooms. I had two servings. Afterward we drank tea and watched his two Finnish Lapphunds ventilating the back garden.

I caught my train from Bern to Genève. Switzerland is so beautiful! German regions it’s the well-maintained architectures and green moors, and French regions it’s the lakes. I sat stretching my legs over two seats, watching the sun setting across the Lac Léman and the Alpes, now close as giants.

I did not sleep – how could I sleep? All I could do was to think about what happened in the past few days in Bern. I relived every memory, be it my First Rehearsal angst or be it the audacious happiness post-concert. I then recalled a conversation I had with one of my new friends, a young, talented Swiss composer, after one of our rehearsals. We were talking about our rehearsals and our pieces. Then, I received the most beautiful complement.

He said to me, “You really love your sounds!”

I was happy. I knew I was starting to hear music.


To listen to the Protonwerk N.3 concert on air, tune your radio/internet radio site to SRF2 kultur at Central European Time July 9th, 2014, 22H35. Protonwerk N.3 features music by Yasutaki Inamori (JP/DE), Nicolas von Ritter (CH), Mu-Xuan Lin (TW/USA), Aram Hovhannisyan (AM), and Jesse Broekman (NL).

 Acknowledgment: Ensemble Proton Bern —  Bettina Berger (flute), Martin Bliggenstorfer (lupophon), Richard Haynes (clarinet), Lucas A. Rössner (kontraforte), Maximilian Haft  (violin), Jan-Filip Tupa (violoncello), Samuel Fried (piano), Vera Schnider (harp), Matthias Kuhn (conductor).

P.S. This essay is dedicated to the loving memory of Hans Rudolf Burger, an esteemed author, friend, and individual. He left this world nine days after my visit at his residence in Bremgarten, surrounded by his best friends Freija and Tassu — his Lapphunds.

Cover photography by Dominique Schafer, 2013.

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