The Drama of Listening

A portrait of Beat Furrer

Anyone who wants to get to know Beat Furrer’s music should head directly to the starting point of his tonal fantasy: to the dramatic moment in which the outrageous happens. At the heart of his output lies music theatre work – most recently Wüstenbuch (world premiere, Basel 2010), preceded by FAMA (Donaueschingen, 2005), Invocation (Zurich, 2003) and Begehren (Graz, 2003), as well as Narcissus (Graz, 1994) and Die Blinden (Vienna, 1989). Around the dramatic work, and closely interwoven with it, are his instrumental works. The compelling power of Beat Furrer’s compositions results from the precision and consistency with which he creates musical symbols for those elementary constellations which stand at the centre of the drama.

Beat Furrer’s music theatre works give audible expression to incredible events. The outrageous instant, the moment of sudden change in a plot is the initial moment and gravitational field for sound and structure: the opera Invocation takes as its starting point a cry which cuts into a child’s piano lesson and reveals a murder. In Fama it is the distress of a young woman who is forced into prostitution in order to pay her father’s debts. In the original source, Schnitzler’s novella Fräulein Else, events culminate in an unparalleled sensation in which Else poisons herself and exposes herself in front of a hotel gathering. At the centre of his first music theatre work, Die Blinden after Maeterlinck, comes the shocking moment of realisation that the only sighted person, the leader, lies dead in the middle. Narcissus perishes from the unattainability of the utopian image in the mirror.

The composed glance backwards: Begehren [Desire]

Begehren contains the moment of Orpheus’s ascent from Hades, the realm of darkness, and his fateful turning round. The first scene sets the rushing, sibilant sound of “shadows” in instrumental and vocal sounds, a complex collective of orchestra and chorus performs the movement of ascending in lines layered one on top of another, ascending lines which transform tonally from dark to light and which are projected rotating into the space. The spellbinding reminder “Und wandte mich um” [And I turned around] cuts into the action as a turning point, repeated several times.  Several layers of text and language are present: alongside Der Untröstliche (The inconsolable) by Pavese there are tales by Ovid and Virgil. The sound is generated from the physicality of the various languages as well as the span between speaking and singing. The poles are personified by the two main figures HE (spoken) and SHE (sung), their sonority meeting only in one, whispered scene. The insuperability of the separation through death is not cancelled out in Begehren:  SHE formulates the conclusion: “I can speak to you as if you were here, and yet night lies between us... separation insurmountable more conclusive with every hour...”

Beat Furrer composes the idea of the story condensed into a moment in a complex musical matrix. Its component parts are superimposed over each other and presented or faded out through filters; it is, as it were, projected into space and time. A dramatic conception of simultaneity results which Furrer develops from the narrative in retrospect. By memorising, a story is complete, with development and resolution present, and corresponding with this, the whole drama is already present musically in the opening scene of Begehren.

Beat Furrer has developed this process following on from instrumental works such as nuun (for two pianos and ensemble, 1996) and still (for ensemble, 1998). In Begehren he used it for the first time in combination with a music theatre work. Instrumental works such as andere stimmen for violin and orchestra (2003) and PHAOS for orchestra (2006) develop these materials further.

The drama of listening: FAMA

A metaphor for the existence of the composer is listening to Fama, the mythical figure whose house is made “entirely from sounding brass” and who is described “with overwhelming sensuousness” by Ovid: “everywhere it reverberates, throws sounds back and repeats what it hears”. According to Beat Furrer, the composer goes through this world and attempts by listening to comprehend events and to analyse their sound. Stories such as those of Orpheus, of Narcissus, of Else, of Anne are those which can resonate in the house of Fama.

In Beat Furrer’s sound theatre piece FAMA, the theatrical idea of a place where stories coincide became the starting point for an architecture which is at the same time the listening room (auditorium) and the stage: a cube of moving panels, reflecting or absorbing surfaces around the listener makes it possible to thematise the presence of the sounds, that is the nearness and the distance, the inner and the outer. The voice and language of an actress enter a space in relation to the instrumental and sung vocal sound, which gradually becomes the inner space of the main figure. The text material is Schnitzler’s novella Fräulein Else, augmented by Lucretius and Carlo Emilio Gadda. Else’s restless soliloquy is a human fate which resounds in the house of Fama – as a cry, as a despairing whisper, as a breathless stammering. This figure, which is only thought, language, oscillates between being lost in a dream and the entrapped present. Else has been sent into the refined world of a hotel in the Dolomites. She has a despairing matter-of-fact feeling for the path this society prescribes for her, in which women are wearing pearl necklaces like a leash. “If I get married one day, I’ll probably do it more cheaply” – marriage is just another form of prostitution. Else has to get hold of money for her father in debt. The sponsor demands a price which drives her to self-destruction, a further “victim on the altar of a world of total reification” (Furrer). – “How strange my voice sounds” – the voice and its changing sonority draws ever closer in the course of the piece, until it is close-up and united tonally with the instrumental sound – and finally with the loss of the voice: Fama leads into an instrumental aftershock which follows the catastrophe.

“The drama has already happened” – only the moment of the incomprehensible can be recapitulated. Beat Furrer’s pieces are not accounts, they do not relate narrative threads, but seize their stories at the core of the cathartic moment, circle around them illuminating through scenes which develop aspects of the events – from distant utopia to the entrapped present: shaped temporality aimed at the present.

On the search for the alien: Wüstenbuch [Desert book]

With his sixth music theatre Wüstenbuch the simultaneity of all occurrences, one could also say, the eternal, which Beat Furrer composes in the overlaying of textual and tonal layers, is given a new visual presence. The desert is the symbol for everything which is not, a negative object of projection and equally a vanishing point.

In Wüstenbuch the confrontation with the all-pervading strangeness, emptiness, isolation, timelessness and absence of history or past, of the closeness of death, becomes the dramatic concept. The desert as a place of nothing is simultaneously an object of projection, full of history. In Wüstenbuch Beat Furrer approaches the idea of a drama without a plot, a setting of the pure state of being. Faced with this placeless place, the person is thrown back on himself. In his music theatre work Beat Furrer creates a dramatic construction in which the state referred to is loaded with history.

In Wüstenbuch the story of a journey into the desert is composed of different layers of text: scenes from Ingeborg Bachmann’s fragment of the same name, combined with a text and scenario by Händl Klaus and further texts by Lucretius, Machado, Valente, Apuleius and from the Papyrus Berlin 3024. The starting points for Furrer’s work on Wüstenbuch were ancient Egyptian texts, brought to the composer’s attention by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann. Finally, the famous Papyrus Berlin 3024 is introduced into the composition, the “Dispute between a man and his Ba”. The worldly soul, Ba, which accompanies a person during his life and leaves him in death, has a dialogue with itself, reporting in the greatest despair of his loneliness, and reconciles it with the idea of death. The dialogue leads into a highly poetic vision of death as a homecoming. “Death stands before me today, as if a sick man recovers from illness ...” The question about death, which had the same significance for the Egyptians as forgetting, and about everything alien, is one layer of the composition. The fear of forgetting led to that advanced civilization whose monuments are still visible for us today – the realm of death, established by the Egyptians on the west side of the Nile.

In a bundle of papers entitled “Wüstenbuch”, Ingeborg Bachmann compiled scenes from a journey to Egypt in 1964. They became part of her major novel project “Todesarten”. In it, the “cases” of women are presented who are destroyed by their partners in an apparent protection of a marriage or a relationship. Bachmann travelled as a sick, disabled woman, humiliated and almost destroyed following her break up with Max Frisch. Her journey into the desert had the characteristics of a purification and return to life.

“On the search for the alien, which actually no longer exists,” is how Beat Furrer summarizes the theme of Wüstenbuch. “The neighbour is the stranger who lives near you. But the stranger in the sense of an inhabitant of the other space no longer exists. The desert is the disintegration of this structure, the placelessness. The sense of place is dissolved by today’s constant travelling. The desert is a metaphor for this placelessness, for the breaking up of social structures. It was already like this with the ancients, so that they saw the placelessness, death, on the other side of the Nile in the desert. For us it is the absolute forgetting of social responsibility and structures, the destruction of the space ... Again and again the attempts to remember. In this desert there are a few fragments of a bygone stable culture, which knew nothing of this frenzy and speed. These are only fragments which we attempt to decipher. The protagonists attempt to decipher something, to read something which is no longer comprehensible.”

As a kind of inner scenario of Wüstenbuch, we can see a journey in twelve stages. People on the search for the alien, for the origins of culture, encounter the ghostly figures of the past. The composition takes place as a development to the very extremes of oblivion: it culminates in exposure in the desert and the loss of all memory and in the disintegration of the feeling of identity. The subject is obliterated, a part of an abstract cosmos in which physical particles perform a dance of attraction and rejection. In the farewell, the distant utopia appears from a mere living together, humanity.

Double characters and phantoms belong to the cast of Wüstenbuch, thematicised musically in the area between the singing voice and spoken voice. One of the central musical themes of Wüstenbuch is the synthesis of music and spoken language. In some parts the score leaves open spaces for spoken text, and in others, speech is transformed into the musical structure. The encounters with the voice, the perception of one’s own voice as something foreign beyond hearing, the obliteration of the voice through language are variants on this synthesis. The musical process is a development of the spoken, and the instrumented sung, that is to say of the absence of the voice, via the combination of many and diverse vocal forms up to pure solo singing.

If the image of the journey into the desert implies a formal process of flux and motion, so the scenes appear like windows which open onto an action. Time, the succession of events, is, as it were, spatialised.

Drama and development

The story of Furrer’s composing led to a turning point after Wüstenbuch: his Studie für Klavier (2011) and Enigma V for chorus a cappella (2012) are works about the creation of a process of flux and motion. The sequence of breathing in and breathing out gave the title to Ira – Arca for bass flute and double bass (2012).  And in linea dell’orizzonte for ensemble (2012) the process of the approaching and polarisation of sound textures is composed. Form and reflection, repetition and distortion are the musical themes of this group of works from 2011 onwards. A musical principle has connotations with an intellectual content: “The phenomenon of doubling, but also of the distortion into a shadow interested me, and the creation of the process-related resulting from this intersecting of voices into each other”, Beat Furrer says, describing his choral work Enigma V, which sets text by Leonardo da Vinci about the appearance of shadows and reflections. Finally, regular repetition and distortion, or espressivo, are juxtaposed as two principles. “One will see forms and shapes of people and animals which simply follow these animals and people wherever they flee to”, as Leonardo da Vinci said. The content becomes the technique, becomes the structure, developed further from work to work.

Marie Luise Maintz

(English translation: Elizabeth Robinson)

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