Interview with Andrea Ravagnan, preparation for an article in "Il Giornale della Musica"
A brief description of I Went to the House But Did Not Enter from the point of view of the author. Can you tell us something about what we’ll see on the stage
I could tell you that you will see a salon, a house, a hotel-room, but this doesn’t mean anything. So I better tell you nothing. What you will see is as much an experience as what you will hear, and I couldn’t even say, what is more important. My set designer Klaus Gruenberg and me, we try to create images to open our imagination rather than images, which are supposed to have a precise and therefore narrow meaning.
... and the scenic presence of the Hilliard Ensemble?
Definitely it is the first time that the four singers of the Hilliard ensemble, who are used to sing mediaval music in churches since 30 years, are performing in a theatrical context. And they are doing very well. To my and their own surprise!
In your artistic career you’ve always mixed different means of expression: first of all music, but theater, literature, poetry, dance too.
Without dance this time... I hope all these elements have an equal importance.
How are these elements balanced in this work?
I like it most, when an audience can never be completely sure, what to attend: a concert? A performance? An installation? A theatre piece? Each format asks for a different perception mode. It is already such a difference if we hear music or hear a text. And this performance is exactly about this insecurity between these two categories – text or music - specially with the beckett text. I deeply think that in these moments of a pleasant irritation the audience is more open to a artistic experience, because these moments deeply change our conventional hierarchies of perception. You might not exactly know, what to do: is it more important to listen to the musical quality of a speech than to understand a text, or does both interfere with eachother? And how do I decide? Whom do I trust more, the content or the form? the word or the tone, in which it is being said? The composer or the poet? The sound or the image?
Which is the relationship between the literary texts and your use of them on the stage?
Even when I stage and compose these texts I try to keep the pleasure and freedom of imagination, which you might have while you are reading. I hope this was true for the texts of Gertrude Stein in “Hashirigaki” and those of Elias Canetti in “Eraritjaritjaka” – all of which are non-dramatic texts: Texts which are written to be read, not for theatre.
When you ‘see’ texts spoken on stage, which are written for theatre – figure speech – then you identify them with the actor / singer. When you hear non- dramatic texts, they still might happen in your own head. That’s why I like them...
Two of the authors you chose for this work (Eliot and Beckett) are strictly connected with the idea of ‘crisis’. Even if they’re separated by many years, they recall a common feeling about philosophical changes of the 20th century, the post-Nietzsche thinking, the disoriented world after the ‘Death of God’ (at least the first Eliot, before his Christian faith). Why did you choose these authors?
You are right. All three texts indeed - though they are very different - are dealing with hesitation and failure. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t really work as a love song, the story of Maurice Blanchot is quite confusing and the Beckett text...what is that supposed to be? a prose, a prayer, a litany? I choose them because they all reflect that in their aesthetical form and challenge my compositional decisions.
How is this choice related to your philosophical and religious thoughts?
I don’t consider myself as a religious person, but when you hear the Hilliard ensemble singing, you can never completely extinguish the context, in which this vocal culture has been developed and most of us grew up – me in a strictly catholic context. But in our wiered ambience of what Guy Debord called “the society of spectacle”, it might be helpful and a relief to find new, saecular ways of constructing some important qualities of rituality and meditative concentration, which we might have lost. So this piece is actually the most quiet and fragile piece I ever did.
I Went to the House But Did Not Enter: can you tell us something about this title?
It’s a quote from Maurice Blanchot’s Story (is it a story?) “The madness of the day”. Already in this one line you hear a bit his strategy of disappointing the expectations of the reader, his connection with the writing of Kafka. And it was actually him, who was one of the first critics having made Kafka being perceived in France. You might guess from this my preference to disappoint expectations of the audience and to raise new ones at the same moment.
Two English writers plus one French writer: which will be the relationship between them and a German composer? Do you believe in common roots of European culture? Is European culture your main source of inspiration or do you look outside of Europe too?
I am rather attracted by what I don’t know. So I worked with Greek, African, Iranian, Japanese musicians, but without hiding my European point of view and my distance. Instead of insisting on a vague, meaningless and hard-to-believe commonness we should rather learn to develop respect and tolerance towards whom and what we don’t know. According to Blanchot: “the other is not your brother”
Let’s use a word, too often abused: ‘postmodernism’. Which is its aesthetical meaning for you? Would you put your work (full of many influences and many mixes) in this category? ‘Postmodern’ composer could be synonymous of ‘open-minded’ composer’?
No it could also be easily used for composers for which “anything goes”, who are working rather in an arbitrary way missing strong criterias for their work and taste. I think/ I hope I don’t belong to those. These criterias of an artistic choice and reflection are more important than ever.
The debut of your opera in Italy will be in Bolzano (a mittel-european city): what do you know about the situation of music in Italy? Why do you think Italian promoters are so scared of contemporary music? Is this a problem of cultural tradition? Is it a political problem?
I cannot tell if the situation in Italy is different to / or more difficult than in Germany. And of course promoters often underestimate the audience and are missing the confidence in an exciting new program. But with money or without: the problem is also on the side of the contemporary music itself. Not only. But also as a problem of the fact that academic composers often work in a splendid isolation and don’t connect them with the society they live in, or even worse: when they tend to have a didactic relationship to their audience. As if they know more / are supposed to teach them. This superiority prevents the music from offering a space to the listeners, from considering the composition as an invitation for the audience to a strong artistic experience.
Il Giornale della Musica (IT), November 2008