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TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT "CITYOPERA"

Questions by Chiyoko Szlavnics, November 2008

Answers by Peter Ablinger, December 2008




1. Can you describe "Stadt Oper Graz" in a few sentences?
Only if the few may be long. Let's see. Because, in the cityopera, a lot of themes from my work come together. It kind of collects the different working strategies from compositions for instruments, from electroacoustic pieces, from installations, objects, or listening pieces--pieces without any composed or installed sounds (reference pieces, architectonic interventions, prose pieces).

On another level, the cityopera tries to rearrange the different art forms from which an opera is usually built (music, visual art, architectonic work, literature...). At first, these art forms are released from their serving role, and are given back their individual ways of being perceived, also their specific social pattern (sitting in rows in the middle of a large audience for a concert, standing with a wine glass surrounded by a couple of people in a gallery, walking with a friend through an architectonic space, reading a book alone in a bed...). Then, these differences themselves constitute the 7 acts of the cityopera. And while the only hero of this opera is the listener herself, she moves through the acts as through different scenes, she has various experiences, which are all related to exactly that place where the opera actually happens, the city of Graz. The cityopera is a site-specific opera that had to be rearranged and recomposed new for every other city.


2. Can you describe how you organized the act, "The Orchestra", with its 10 Tableaux and 11 Intermezzi? What are the elements, and why did you use them?


The basic intention of this act (the second act) was the presentation of pure recorded city noises (phonographs) in the largest possible format. Like presenting photographs in huge wall-filling sizes. And within my context, the largest possible format in music is the concert situation of the symphony orchestra. I always meant to sort of misuse the symphony orchestra as a trojan horse for the projection of such recorded city environments. The symphony orchestra functions as a solemn frame for the phonographs. Or, describing their relationship a little bit more precisely, we could also talk about "hand-colored phonographs", where the color comes from the orchestra. Almost all tones of the orchestral part are derived from spectral analyses of the actual sounding city recordings. As it would be in hand-colored photography, the "color" comes from the actual motive itself.

The specific form of the evening-filling-piece, with its tableaux and intermezzi, was only one of many possible forms. I always thought that "The Orchestra" could be understood as a collection of pieces from which one can make different selections. The existing version is built quite intentionally and, for example, with a lot of symmetries, like the framing of white noise at the beginning and at the end of the evening.


3. "Stadt Oper Graz" is both autobiographical (your own history with the city) and it is also a kind of portrait of the city itself. Can you explain these aspects of the work?
I dont think of "cityopera Graz" as being autobiographical. Graz was just the place where it happened. Cityopera is a portrait of the "here and now". In this case, it was Graz. And at the moment, I am working on a "Landscapeopera"...


4. Can you describe "The Plot"? What do the elements of this act represent and/or facilitate? Could the woman in white have been a man, or did it have to be a woman?
"The Plot" was a 6 minute short scenic installation for 6 analogue tape-players, an actress, and a maximum of 6 visitors for each of the approximately 40 performances. This act actually happened in the opera house of Graz, and both the scenery and the audience were on the stage--the "natural place" for a plot. "The Plot" was the central (fourth) act of the opera. A person in white enters a perspective view of white walls and turns on six tape machines, one after the other, and these play loud, room-filling white noise. Motives: nothingness, pure experience, experience without a reference, or maybe a scenic transformation of the white square--white: the sum of all sounds, the impossible as experience, experience as action (explanation: the German title of the act was "Handlung", which means "action" as well as "plot").

Yes, the woman in white could also have been a man. In my private, unreleased language, this figure was an "angel". Therefore, the best casting probably would have been an a-sexual being.


5. The opera can only be experienced in totality--and then only with great difficulty, as one act moves to a different location every day--by going to different venues over a three-week period. Why did you structure it this way, rather than having all acts happen on one day, in one venue?
The difficulties you are talking about are--technically speaking--the difficulties one has while visiting one of these multi-faceted festivals, with its different art sections, where you visit a gallery at noon, a public installation in the afternoon, and a cinema in the evening.

What I definitely tried to avoid was the typical stage situation of a theatre, with its inevitable standards in the relationships and hierarchies between the participating arts.

In opposition to that, as a first step, I tried to separate the arts from each other, to give each artform its own space, its own act, and only then, from this newly-gained position, I was able to unfold a network of formal and textual crosslinks between them.

The initial listing of art forms could also be understood as an inventory of the opera as a historic phenomenon, in order to ask how--and if--we should recombine the arts in a different way than the historical theatre practice, which has basically remained the same since the invention of opera around the year 1600, until now.


6. What did you wish to produce/express with the Act that involves film and stereo ensembles?
Well, in this part, the seventh, and last Act, called "The Audience", my personal wishes had less to do with the final result than they did for the other acts--this Act was a collaboration between film-maker Edgar Honetschläger and myself. One of my projects for the film was a series of portraits of people from Graz, the potential "audience" of the opera. But this didn't happen. Edgar Honetschläger refused any direct appearance of Graz, or people from Graz in his film. So, because I still trusted his vision, the piece unavoidably drifted into a different direction. The outcome was a piece for 2 parallel films, and a composition for city noises, speech, and instrumental sounds (2 ensembles, and 2 computer-controlled pianos), 69 minutes in length. I didn't compose the sounds and the music until the film was finished. The film(s) had no sound, and I reacted to the film by trying to create a multi-dimensional counterpoint between seeing and hearing, between the artificial and the more documentation-like materials in both of the art forms: this is probably the most untypical piece in my work list.


7. You often talk about the listener as being at the centre of your works - in this case, the "Hero" of the opera. Does this have a political aspect? Why do you insist on the listener being the subject of your work?
If this has political aspects, that is an interpretation, and interpretation is not exactly my role in this game, as I see it. This would rather be a possible part of the hero herself! But generally speaking, in the cityopera, I was more aware of political and social relevance, only because the opera was so expensive, and paid from taxes--that is, by the "audience". This aspect alone made it much more of a public issue than a chamber-music piece would have been.

But back to the listener. Here, we enter quite a fundamental discourse of my work, of my thinking: "Not the sound, but the listening is the piece". Josef Matthias Hauer said it like this: To put together a 12-tone-piece is child's play. In contrast, performing it correctly is not easy--just hearing it, alone, is a real task. Music after 1950 seemed to objectify the sounds, no matter if they were created by series, or by chance. And the minimalist aesthetics emphasized the idea of a sound being an object, but, on the other hand, rejected relations (Cage). In opposition to that, I don't believe in objects, I don't believe something like an object can exist. All that exists, are relationships. All we can talk about is the relationship between us and something outside of ourselves. We can talk about the "between". Therefore, the subject of my work is not exactly the listener, but the listening.


8. You emphasize perception in your works, often "altered", or "different" perception--changed, or changing perception. What is the difference between art as an "object" and as a "facilitator of experience"? To what extent do you consider your pieces to be "artworks"?
I have no idea what you mean by altered, or different perception. But yes, I am an observer of perception. "Hearing Listening" was the title of an exhibition of mine last summer in Berlin. Perception is what relates me to the world. And if I knew what perception really does, I would know what the world would be like. And listening is the way of perceiving I feel closest to. Therefore, I am not interested in creating artwork. Even though pieces of mine sometimes look like artworks, they are still based on hearing, or on time.

Art as an object is the golden calf - "Facilitator of experience" sounds a bit too therapeutic to me. I don't try to heal people! My attempts to understand perception aim for what is BETWEEN the "object" and the "subject". And I think that one thing I have already learned is: hearing is not at all a passive sense. I am quite sure it does not work that way, that we just perceive the sounds that are outside us. Before we perceive anything, we have to create it. Hearing is creation. I imagine that there are a lot of things around us that we just don't hear because we have not learned to hear them. Do you know the story of the African tribe to which somebody played a recording with some Beethoven? They just did not hear ANYTHING!


9. Your oeuvre is so multi-faceted, your various individual works, and series of works, reflect so many different interests and aspects of/approaches to making music and sound art (and listening)--it is extremely difficult for me to summarize what you do. Do you consciously work against categorization? If so, why?
People always make media and techniques too important. I don't see the different interests myself. I rather have the feeling that I just always do the same piece. Whether I hold a snail shell to my ear, or I am planning an opera, I have the feeling that I'm just telling the same story. And this story somehow always has to do with a certain difference--it might be called "the difference between thinking and hearing", or "between hearing and hearing hearing", or "between my hearing and somebody else's hearing", or "the difference between you and me". And if these words sound as if there are differences between these differences, this is just the sound. If I were able to perfectly describe the title of that story, I could stop composing, I guess.


10. This opera brings together many different facets, different areas that you have been developing over the past twenty years, or so. On the one hand, you have conceptually "pulled apart" many of the single elements of "opera" and presented them as separate pieces, ranging from outdoor installations, to a live stereo performance with film, to a book that one must purchase and read. On the other hand, each one of these so-called "Acts" mixes together/reflects many facets of your own oeuvre and interests, and is quite complex. Would you say that despite the fact that you are presenting opera as a "Gesamtwerk" separated into various elements, it is actually a "Gesamtwerk" of Peter Ablinger? (when seen in its totality)
I like "Gesamtwerk". I hate "Gesamtkunstwerk". (I am not sure how the difference sounds in English). Many of my efforts aim at finding strategies not only to produce single works, but to articulate that the particular piece is part of something larger, is part of the entirety of thoughts and works. The single piece is just the current view from the entirety of the work. It's as if one piece presents "the work" from a distant point, providing an overview, its outlines, while another piece looks at it up close, and presents a lot of its details. And, as "the work" is not just about "music", but also about the conditions of music, sound, and hearing, in general, my occupation isn't just content with creating concert or performance situations. It sometimes has to leave the concert hall, it cannot just remain "inside", it has to create remote sites from which the observation of the conditions that define a concert situation become more palpable. These, then, are the remote sites, which might sometimes seem as if they are artwork, but aren't. They just provide a different side-view of the same complex. In this sense, the Cityopera - just like other, less ambitiuous pieces of mine - tries to claim that same kind of entirety: "the work".


To read about Chiyoko Szlavnics, go to: http://www.chiyokoszlavnics.org/




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this page was created by Aljoscha Hofmann. last edited 29.01.2011 CET