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Credits: Alvise Predieri

Turn Turtle Turn, Part I. Premiering June 5th, 2024, as part of the Munich Biennale. 3 Questions for composer Yiran Zhao.

Nassrah Denif: Can you tell me something about the creation process? What is the same, what is different compared to previous work procedures?

Yiran Zhao: “What, in essence, remains the same is the approach to the texts, the libretto. All spoken text as well as all sung lyrics result from a collaborative process within the Oblivia Working Group, of which I am also a part, over the course of several months, even years, in some cases. At times, one person writes, then another one writes, then they are writing together. Finally, a small fraction is chosen from the larger range of material we have at our disposal. Basically, I have come to know the work methods, the procedures, and the aesthetics so well by now that I am able to jump straight into the work. I have been working with Oblivia since 2019; this is our fourth production together since Oblivia has been involved in the experimental musical theatre scene; there is a high degree of familiarity. A novelty with Turn Turtle Turn might lie, for me, more in the scale of the piece with four performers, three singers, and an eleven-strong musical ensemble plus conductor. This is slightly bigger than it was with “Obsessions”. In contrast to the previous productions with their classical philharmonic orchestras from Bremen and Wuppertal, Ensemble Ö is a contemporary music ensemble that is used to not only handling their instruments but being open to all sorts of things, which, in this production, means working with their voices in various different ways. The biggest actual challenge sits in the setting. A public space such as the HP8 as a performance venue is peculiar, especially regarding acoustics. One the one hand, the creative composition phase naturally signifies a concentration on musical content and issues, while, on the other hand, one needs to always consider how to present everything within this space, which local phenomenon may influence the composition and whether or not certain sensitive materials can even be employed at all in such a lively room. That is why I asked for sound tests on-site, and why we need a capable sound direction. The other recent productions were, after all, made for the black box, or a regular opera stage. And the collaborative process with the vocalists is even more intense with this piece. Because we were able to select them ourselves through an audition in Munich, we made sure to watch for persons who enjoy engaging in this kind of working process with us. And that is how it is now: There is great motivation, and also interest in introducing their own creative ideas. I like that very much, and Annika as artistic direction as well as the other Oblivia performers feel the same. We experience this as a definitive enhancement.”

Nassrah Denif: You already hinted at the orchestra’s vocal involvement. What else can you tell us about your composition for Turn Turtle Turn; how would you describe it?

Yiran Zhao: “Exactly, all ensemble musicians wear headsets, they speak certain passages in unison, make certain noises, and they also sing the choir parts. In one passage, for example, they all speak in their respective mother tongue. We will, among other languages, hear German, Finnish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Swedish, Rhaeto-Romanic, English, Spanish, Russian, and Lithuanian. The vocal main share lies with the singers, of course, yet the performers also apply their voices frequently throughout many different passages; they sometimes sing as well as speak in unison. All in all, we have a complex acoustic amplification for this production to balance all the voices coming in from different angles as well as the instrumental music and the electronic material, to be presented as a whole, in its entirety, to the audience. It is an honour for me that we are able to collaborate with Zoro Babel, who brings so much experience with exceptional room acoustics, on the sound direction. My music for Turn Turtle Turn is basically an amalgamation of both acoustic as well as electronic material, with the live acoustic material prevailing; and in the composition, it is a mixture of different musical styles, ranging from classical to contemporary, and also encompassing pop elements. At the beginning, as a kind of overture, there will be an eight-minute-long sound installation that also serves as an acoustic claim to transform this space into a performative room then, to let the audience know ‘this starts now’.”

Nassrah Denif: You already brought up the special setting at HP8 multiple times before, also labelling it as a challenge to compose for such a room. Could you, in conclusion, tell us some more about this? And in what way is your composition sensitive to the space?

Yiran Zhao: “Yes, it really is special at HP8. On the one hand, this is a real public space with permanent transitory passage by people; the hall is, at all times, hub and meeting point for all kinds of visitors. Public access is never restricted in any way, neither during rehearsals nor during the performances, and it could, of course, not be handled any other way. This means, there will naturally be people on-site expressly for the piece and the performance, and many others who will not. So, definitely anything could happen; people could approach us in the performative space, there might be loud noise and disruption. All of us, especially, of course, Annika as well as the other performers, need to be prepared for that somehow, need to be able to deal with that, and this also carries its own positive tension somehow. The extraordinary acoustic properties in this space, also concerning the different levels therein, which we will perform on, are one of the crucial topics to me overall. As I told you, we conducted extensive sound testing to determine the points in space featuring the best acoustics. On one side on the first floor, you arrive, for example, at an almost church-like sound that is especially well-suited to one certain vocal part. Another exception for this production is that we do not exclusively employ musical loudspeakers but that we bring in the HP8’s own ELA system, normally used to make announcements, for the electronic parts with speech. Those tiny speakers are ceiling-mounted in the room, while the ceiling itself can be quite low at some points. Compared to other speakers that are positioned some metres away, they have the advantage of being more on the audience’s head level. Their acoustic coverage is more functional than it is musical so it might induce the impression of the whispering voices being very close to the audience. Considering this, the sound arrangement is clearly geared towards this space in the middle of Munich, and its conditions.”

Translation from German to English by Julian Rybarski