The first slice of a three-part series from composer Neil Luck, on performance, politics, and the possibilities of the colloquial.
It’s problematic, being an artist in Britain right now. The somewhat natural ambition towards international expansion; building audiences, networks, collaboration, discovery, study, travel etc. often feels at odds with an increasing public and political sway towards reestablishing borders and divisions.
There seems to be a rift between the utopian ideals of what we see on stage, in the concert halls and theatres, and what we see happening on the streets outside them. When it’s addressed directly dialogues about nationality often evaporate into televised arguments, Facebook echo chambers, Kafkaesque VISA requirements, didactic onstage monologues and ‘edgy’ YouTube rants.
I’m interested in how artists might begin to suture such an ideological gap. Not via some ham-fisted political statement, but how through a détournement of the colloquial, a weirding of the ‘folk’, or a speculative fictioning of national identity works of art might resonate with and inspire genuinely diverse audiences, globally.
I’m being intentionally vague here in an attempt to gently pull complex issues away from infuriating politics, towards sumptuous aesthetics. Over the course of three short articles I want to draw attention to a handful of recent music-theatre and sound-art works that represent interesting and strange examples of a kind of ‘radical-colloquialism’. Perhaps buried trojan-deep in local forms and languages we can find models of art making that begin to connect global communities in powerful and surprising ways.
Gotthard Tunnel Opening Ceremony
On June 1st, 2016 an astonishing piece of music-theatre was staged in the Swiss Alps. Volker Hesse’s opening ceremony for the Gotthard Tunnel – the longest and most expensive ever constructed – was designed to celebrate this major engineering feat. Lasting an hour in total the German director and producer fashioned an outrageously maximalist parade, featuring hundreds of performers; actors, dancers, singers, and musicians.
Fortunately, the whole thing was live streamed. The two acts begin at 1:58:30 and 5:57:55, respectively.
Drawing on the rich traditions of Alpine folklore, the performance is tough to describe, but thematically seems to centre around the goat-horned figure of Krampus, as well as other characters drawn from Alpine traditions. Google “Buttnmandl” and you’ll see the incredible straw costumes that feature throughout. Add into that melting pot brass bands, alphorn orchestras, and yodelling choirs and you’ve got a veritable fondue of Swiss culture.
Perhaps equally interesting though was the audience for this event; a clearly proud, yet baffled congregation of EU delegates and other major politicians. Then French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi are amongst them. At 4:27:50 you can watch Angela Merkel give a rousing speech — her walk-on music is the William Tell Overture.
Immediately after the televised broadcast, the footage went viral. Not amongst the art-house intelligentsia mind you, but the internet conspiracy theorists. Dozens of websites published blow-by-blow accounts of the ceremony reinterpreted as a Satanic Illuminati Nazi ritual. Krampus was read as Baphomet, massed singers and dancers were “fascistic”, the circular video projections were the all-seeing-eye, the tunnel itself a hellmouth. Here’s one of my favourite analyses.
The ceremony recirculated, recut, edited, screenshot, and shared online took on a second life in the highly creative minds of bedroom theorists around the globe. Divorced from its European avant-garde context, the work built an entirely new audience on the internet eager to pore over its tiniest details, re-authoring and fictionalising anew.
In a curious turn of events, the hardline conservative news source Breitbart (often connected with king conspiracist Alex Jones) published perhaps the most balanced article on the performance, debunking the satanic interpretations, and drawing attention back to its folkloric origins. In a ouroboric twist, then, the zealous reclaiming of national identity trumped the bloggers, and by implication reinstated the inherent values of avant-garde aesthetics.
I like to imagine that Hesse intended this all along – indeed watching the ceremony it’s hard not to believe he’s trolling us, just a little bit. But there’s something significant to learn here; in his work Hesse magnetises Swiss folk art, EU politics, global online fanaticism, and the American far-right, all under the guise of experimental music-theatre. This is an Über-Gesamtkunstwerk; an expanded, weirded, post-internet opus that echoes far outside the carefully regulated acoustics of the opera house – Toi Toi Toi!