“Is it a decision, or something that just happens?”

Photo: Yiran Zhao

Oblivia in conversation with N. Andrew Walsh | 17.10.2020

This last February, Oblivia performed “Verdrängen, Verdrängen, Verdrängen,” a collaboration between the theater group and composer Yiran Zhao, at the Stuttgart ECLAT festival for new music. This was the first time the group had worked with a composer to produce one of their performance events—it’s misleading to call them “theater pieces,” as they are both highly collaborative and intermedia—and has since become the basis for an ongoing creative partnership between Zhao and the group (their current project, supported by the NOperas! initiative of the Fonds Experimentelles Musiktheater, is in the production phase).

I met during the festival with Oblivia—for this performance, comprising Timo Fredriksson, Annika Tudeer, Alice Ferl, Meri Ekola and Stine Hertel (lighting), Anna–Maija Terävä, and Tua Helve (costumes)—and Yiran Zhao, to talk about the genesis of the project, their working process, and their experience in working with one another in developing the performance.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

NAW: When I was watching [the run-through], one of the first notes I wrote was that it felt very … Lynchian. If you know his films, you know they’re this mixture between this everyday stuff, and this sort of weird thing going on under the surface. And there’s this imbalance between people who are smiling and friendly, and it all looks nice, but then you notice that the smiles are wrong, and there’s something happening with the sound. I remember a scene from one of his films where a character is having a dream [Laura Palmer, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me], and she walks into a room: there’s David Lynch’s real-life son standing there in a suit, and he raises his hand, he snaps his fingers, and right as he does a light comes on from another room, and you hear this rushing fire sound. It’s a sort of signal in the film that things are about to get weird. I think that’s what, in my mind, made that association with Lynch: right at the beginning of the piece there was this passage calling out “light on,” “light off,” the synchronization between the sound and light. What was the initial impulse behind the piece? Is that a reasonable way to talk about the piece? That things are “normal” but also not normal? What was the starting point?

Timo Fredriksson: I wasn’t there!

Annika Tudeer: The topic was chosen, by me. It was here, in Stuttgart, in 2017, when we thought of what we would do next.

NAW: What was the topic?

AT: It was this “Verdrängen, Verdrängen, Verdrängen.” Actually, it hasn’t changed much from the original project description that I presented to Martina in Stuttgart that summer. It was about nationalism, and these undercurrents, of the mechanism of repression: Both in society and in the personal. And from that came the “Verdrängen, Verdrängen, Verdrängen”, the title. It was like “recitation, recitation, recitation,” that someone once said … it was Timo who said that.

TF: Should I do the anecdote of the title? It goes years back, when our colleague Veit Sprenger, from Showcase Beat Le Mot, was visiting us for one week, just spending time together, sharing things, doing this and that together. It was just Annika, me, and Anna Krzystek and a friend, at some point, asked, “What do you do when there’s conflict in the group? How do you handle it?” and Anna said, “Oh, you just suppress it.” And then I said, “ahhh: Verdrängen Verdrängen Verdrängen.” And that became an idea for a performance.

Alice Ferl: I think, though, that the process was many-layered. In the original project description there also many layers to the issue of “Verdrängen” on an individual but also collective level. And when we started to work on it in Detroit, of course the collective part was quite strong: it was very visible what processes can happen, how one can see them in architecture, feel them in the atmosphere of a city, you had also talked about Salzburg, how one can feel, very much…

AT: …the ghosts.

AF: The ghosts. Somehow. And I think that was maybe a bit of a parallel between the two cities. That they arouse imaginations of people who are not there. In Salzburg it’s connected to the history of the city. It’s very historical. In Detroit it has more to do with the emptiness that you see, the streets and houses. Because your brain is so used to seeing streets and houses with people in them that you start imagining them, and they somehow become present.

AT: And the very real “Verdrängen” of people out from Detroit. The dislocation.

NAW: Dislocated, and also flight. Detroit always felt to me like a city that was deliberately abandoned. I spent a little bit of time living in Buffalo (NY), and it was the same situation there: In the urban center, a lot of the economic and cultural base moved far outside of the city and into the suburbs, and they did everything they could to cut themselves off from the city. And so the people who couldn’t move out, they were stuck. They couldn’t get out into the suburbs, because they couldn’t afford it, at the same time that the city had lost a lot of its income. And so the interior of the city just rotted away. It was a very strange, very unpleasant situation living there. Much like Detroit, there were parts of the city you could tell had been designed to trap people in them, to keep them from having the sort of mobility that you have in cities (that you could go shopping, that you could go get food). The thing that struck me is that when you went into certain neighbourhoods, you noticed that the streets were just a little bit narrower, and every couple blocks they would shift, so that you couldn’t drive straight through the neighbourhood. You could get lost sometimes because streets would just end, and you’d have to turn around. But they were also one-way streets. It was very weird. A lot like Detroit, it was very uncomfortable because you got the feeling you were living in a space built by people who were hostile to you.

AT: I never thought so much about the relations between Black and White [people] as I did in Detroit, because there it’s so visible.

NAW: It’s very explicit.

AT: And gentrification, and ghosts, and all these things were there. But this is how it all started. And then in March we gathered in Helsinki. We started, like we always do, to get together in the studio and improvise, within our different methods or practices of improvisation.

TF: I remember one quite strong element was of seeing body parts. Out of the improvisation, and from our writing, it was an obvious thing to do with Verdrängen, but maybe this, seeing body parts, was the way into the body. It was a very important theme.

AT: And it also became more personal, more emotional, in March. Maybe not personal personal, but there were definitely a lot of evolutions.

TF: And then, of course, we knew that we were going to work with the voice, and that made it so that we needed a person on a different level than just producing texts and talking.

NAW: The texts that you were reciting, or singing. Were those personal anecdotes, were those stories that you made up? I feel like I recognized them, like some of them sounded like children’s songs, or pop songs, but I felt like maybe they weren’t.

AT: They are the idea of something, but they are not exactly. We just came up with them, because first we were using a lot of songs, popular songs, and then Yiran said we shouldn’t use songs like that, and so we wrote them ourselves. Because we had a very strong urge to have songs.

NAW: What really struck me, listening to some of those songs, there would be these moments where it sounds very much like a pop song, but then there’d be this line about, say, burning your house down. Something that very abruptly pulls you our of feeling comfortable, that I think I really enjoyed.

AF: Those words you just said, they became like a central topic for us. On the one hand in this very well-known analogy of Freud’s model of the mind that connects to the house, where the basement is the subconscious, the It, and the Ich, is in the house, and then the attic … but also the body is like a house.

AT: And then the stage became the house.

AF: The stage became the house. The stage is a house. So all around this, there are a lot of different layers.

NAW: That’s part of what interested me, that I’d like to ask you [Meri Ekola] about. The light design. Was that part of the development process of the piece, was it parallel to the performance?

ME: As a process for me, it was parallel. I was in Detroit, but I’m not part of the performer group. So I participated in this, with writing and reflections about the themes. But when the work goes to the studio, or they start to improvise, I don’t participate in those—other than from outside, time to time, watching, trying to grasp things. But I’m still in parallel there, trying to draw the concept of the lighting … I think the performers work a lot with intuition in general, and it leads the group work. And when we were on stage, I worked with that more, with the concept of the lighting, with the scenographic element, with lighting as a scenographic element in Oblivia’s work. I tried to find a way how that could be a scenographic element. Because the stage is empty. We don’t have anther scenography besides these pillars. On the stage there are performers, and the stage is empty. Like how a black-box works, the light could be counted as a performer in a way. But here, with the sound and the stage, it was even one step further. Like in an active role, reacting, having the presence of its own which is also performative. But the concept (I now refer to this visual structure), with the fluorescent tubes that are the most visual element on the stage; they came after this idea of the house, with an attic and a cellar, that there is this feeling of being under something, of being in the cellar.

NAW: That was part of what I thought was really fascinating about the watching the piece. When you’re in a blackbox like you say, it’s a very minimal, empty space. But when I was watching it I got a very different impression. Because it’s been so simplified—just these fluorescent lights, just a few spots and area lighting that you’re using—you start noticing a lot of the finer details of it. I really liked that with the fluorescents along the top, the starting points for the lights had been flipped from one to the next, while the ones in the back all came from the bottom. Did that have a role?

ME: It had a role, but it has to be said that with these lights it just unfortunately came to be like that. That they light up from one side. And this rhythmical, up and down, that was by accident that they were like this. But I also realized that when they have this character, then it became part of the theme. But initially it wasn’t my idea that it was essential. So it just came out through—

NAW:  – through improvisation.

ME: Yeah. What we have all the time. With things happening, and reacting to what happens.

YZ: I really liked that part. This half light.

NAW: Not quite illuminated, not quite on.

ME: But it’s essential because I think, with the lighting, it was part of the general idea that it should be quite dark. Or that I would like it to be quite dark. I wanted first to get this dark feeling, with these small lighting points, that the darkness feels quite big.

NAW: As the lighting would change on the stage, you got the feeling that the space was expanding and contracting. It’s not just marking off different points in a flat space, it’s creating senses of volume.

YZ: Amplification.

NAW: It’s like figures in the space feel like they’re in a different relation to one another. Like they perceive distances differently, depending on the lighting. When there’s frontal lighting they’re a lot more present, but when they’re just lit from above or from behind, or from the fluorescents, I felt like their size in relation to the space changed quite a bit. It’s interesting to me to hear you talk about how you were working early on in the process. You mentioned at the beginning that this is maybe not an ECLAT piece. I don’t mean that it’s wrong, or not suitable. I mean that it’s relatively uncommon that the people who are involved in all the different parts of the production, the sound design, the lighting design, the costumes. Was Tua also, early on, involved in the creative process?

AT: From Helsinki onward. She wasn’t in Detroit, but from March, and before that.

NAW: Is that part of Oblivia’s credo that you all collaborate from early on developing pieces?

AT: Yes. And we like to work with the same people as long as we can.

NAW: On multiple pieces?

AT: It’s very organic. We start to talk about upcoming, about the next work. It’s very hard to think that sometimes, maybe something happens and you never know. But the idea is that everybody is involved from the beginning. We are not involved equally. And not time-wise equally.

ME: Maybe not equally involved, but there is not going to a person who tells me, “actually, we would like your lighting to be like this.” Or the other way around, if I tell a person, “I would really like you to perform this character.”

AT: There are some premises, Meri said, that I could name off the top as we started to deal with Rampe. And they came up with ECLAT. I suggested, “what if we would make an opera?” because opera and “Verdrängen” go so well together. And then Martina started to think of ECLAT, and that’s how ECLAT came in. And then I had this wish for a composer, a sort of electronic-musical composer, although I didn’t really know what I meant by that.

NAW: What did you mean by “opera”?

AT: That’s a good question. I think it was more … sometimes you fumble around with an idea of something, like vocals. I didn’t think about, with music, that there is something like music-theater. I thought, a little bit like with Martina’s thinking, that there is opera, or performance-theater.

AF: I think it was always a little bit in the work we did before. In Children and Other Radicals we started to adapt, I guess what you would consider a very naive point of view, to consider structures of music, to look at how a structure of a piece would go, or a scene would go. For example, in Children and Other Radicals, minimal music was quite a strong influence because we noticed at some point that every documentary about money had minimal music as background. So it was a little connected. So there were scenes that we did that came, for example, from a Phillip Glass score or something like that.

AT: [sings]

AF: [laughs]

TF: And when we visualized it, we had find like a keyboard, and then these card scenes. And the ideas for that speech comes from things like this.

AF: And I think we also looked at the structure of opera.

AT: Yeah, we did.

AF: There was this idea of thinking more in structures of music.

AT: Yeah, we started working more with vocals.

NAW: Does the piece have for you a sort of narrative arc? In the conventional sense of an opera, that there’s a progression or resolution? I didn’t get that impression.

AT: Not at all. And the opera has gone out the window.

NAW: Well, but it does feel like a sort of opera in a way. I don’t mean that as an insult.

AT: No no, not at all! Well, opera is not all like that.

ME: Well, in an opera there’s this libretto, there’s still some sort of narrative. But here the operatic feel comes from something else.

NAW: This makes me think about Kafka’s and Amerika, and this opera by Haubenstock-Ramati that caused such a scandal when it came out in the Berliner Festspiele in the 1960s, precisely because the opera itself didn’t have any sort of narrative plot. It was just a bunch of scenes with different characters. They were in kind-of in similar orbits around each other, but not really, and it wasn’t really linear. It didn’t really have a clear beginning. And the novel also wasn’t really clear which order the chapters should be in.

Stine Hertel: And it can be changed?

NAW: It can be rearranged. It’s in the score that you can shuffle around all the different scenes [edit: not entirely, but in limited cases]. That’s part of the reason why it was such a scandal: because they felt that, to be an “opera”, it has to have this sort of narrative arc that he had no interest in fulfilling. That’s why this is interesting to me: I could almost still see this as an opera, but maybe only in the sense that it’s a piece of theater that involves music, and voices, and all the other stuff that you usually associate with opera. But not in any sense of content, or structure, or narrative design.

AT: But maybe there is some relation with the emotions, because opera is a very emotional form. Emotions are not like, on, but it evokes emotions, this piece.

NAW: There’s definitely some scenes that I could imagine provoking reactions in people. I think that’s intentional.

AT: Yes. You feel things. There are things that trigger feelings. We worked a lot with atmospherics in March. That’s something that all of us worked with. And then there is this mesh, you have this atmosphere, and then you just feel these feelings, but it’s such an embryo and then it starts to develop, but there’s something left of it in the final piece, something of this initial feeling.

NAW: I remember reading this review of a novel. This very strange, experimental novel, one of my favorites. The reviewer talks about how what makes that novel so fascinating as a work of literature, is that it doesn’t work as a novel. And the way he explains it is that it doesn’t work on the normal axes that novels operate on, of character and plot. Normally, when you think of a “novel,” you have maybe people, characters, that maybe have personal interactions, maybe something about their psychology causes a narrative outcome. And this one didn’t work that way at all. The way he described it was that this novel, instead of working on those axes worked on axes on atmosphere and metaphor. These impressions, that you feel are related to something, but you can’t quite see it. It’s like it’s under the surface, or some different kind of logic. Like from an alien planet. I got that impression here, too. It’s like you feel like there’s something happen, but maybe it’s not so directly described as such. Are those usually the axes on which you work as a group? Or was it particular to this piece?

AF: Character and narration are never axes that are being worked on, I think that’s quite clear.

AT: They are never there.

AF: So for example, to work with atmosphere (this was my third project with Oblivia), this is a quite a constant thing. And very often it’s also a very structural approach. Like thinking of a certain topic, you think of what are special structures of this topic. Where do these structures appear in space? Or maybe also in other forms of art. What also very often binds the work together is where it’s set. What’s the constellation, maybe.

NAW: I like that word, constellations. It’s a very nice way to describe it. Because it depends very much on your perspective. Things might look very distant from one vantage, but from a different one they might be right next to one another. And yet they would still have a sort of structure, it’s just that from where you are, maybe you don’t see it.

AF: For example, in Nature Theater there was a very early try-out. There was a friend of Annika and Timo’s coming and looking at it, and thinking that what we did was like a camera shift; something he knows from nature documentaries. So that was the visual he gave, and that was something we worked with from that point, with the angles and perspectives changing on stage.

AT: But one thing—I don’t know if it’s so visible in this piece; no, it’s very visible—it’s dark, in many senses. We’re in black, it’s all black.

NAW: And in a literal sense, it’s dark. Not just on the surface.

AT: Yes. And the lights are dark. There’s a lot of darkness and blurriness. And I think that’s really great. I think it’s also a big step here: It’s not only about us.

ME: I remember a big contribution was how to deal with this theme of abandonment, and when we started to work with Yiran. I think a lot of this—I don’t want to say “otherness”—but this sense of something else becomes, through the musical composition and how it’s related with the actions, and which kinds of atmospheres it puts together. Even though your expression is also there, there are these smiles in these places where you don’t want to see them, and it’s not just the music that adds something. But when we were doing these improvisations, together with [Yiran], you could tell that something else was opening up with the theme, that it was less layered when it was just [Oblivia] improvising. And maybe from that bond, that you started to ask about the [?]. I think that stayed quite strong.

AT: And that reflects our way of working: that it wasn’t just us leading. We talk about, “what did you just do?” and “how do you react to this?” or what it was you just did, and we reacted to what you did.

ME: Even though it was not at all, like …

AT: It was very little.

ME: It was very little, time-wise, compared to all this time we spend developing the piece. These moments are really rare because the available resources are so little. We need so much more to work all together.

AF: Still, it was different to work with this in mind. That you think the space will take an active role, or the elements of sound or light. One thinks they are more a partner, or an active collaborator in this work.

NAW: It’s a very different sort of working method.

AF: I think it came about with the progression of the working method. But at the same time it also fit into into the topic. Verdrängen is so much on the edge of being something that your body or mind just does, or is something that you decide to do, or something that in the process of the development of a city: is it a decision or something that just happens? It depends on which side you’re on. There was, in the topic there were a lot of things you don’t decide to do but that happen to you. Like with the Lippizaner story, it’s very much a part of that, or significant for that. There are a lot of situations that you don’t decide, but are imposed on you.

NAW: One of the things that happened early on in the piece that I thought was interesting. I think nowadays, particularly in theater (maybe not so much in new music), it’s maybe not familiar, but it’s recognizable when people on stage interact with people in the audience. But what I thought was interesting about [Timo’s scene] was that you weren’t really interacting with us. You would point to one of us and say, “ok, you have it. He has it! He’s figured it out. Now let’s try it again” and the process just kept going regardless of what the audience was doing. And you weren’t really asking the audience to do anything, either, which is what I really liked about that. Because that process is known, it’s this sort of 60’s theater where they’re going to talk to the audience now. But then it doesn’t do that, or it acts like it’s doing that, but it’s wrong. I really like that because it’s this feeling of being put outside of a process that you thought of as familiar, that you thought you regognized.

AF: You thought you were meant by it, but you’re not.

NAW: You thought this was going to be…

AT: And you feel great, because you’re picked out. But you have no idea why, but you feel great. And then if you’re not picked out, and you’re pointed out.

ME: “Here is something!”

AT: And you think, “oh no!”

NAW: There’s a movement from Berio’s Sinfonia that’s just all quotations. [some explanation of the third movement]. What I like about that piece, somewhere in the middle, where one of the singers starts talking about what kind of concert it is. Like you recognize it. He says, “oh, it’s a free show, that’s what it is! You go into the hall, you take your seat, you wait for the show to begin.” And he starts talking self-referentially about the whole practice of concert attendance. And it made me think of that: you think it’s going to be that sort of post-modernist self-reflectivity, but it wasn’t. At all. Was that what you were working with? Disrupting that sort of expectation?

TF: It took us quite a while to find, exactly, in what way. Yes, we wanted to have this sort of direct interaction with people, but … no reaction, please. It took a while to find this.

AT: And this theme of how you can divide people.

TF: Oh yes, to use Verdrängen as a big part of the look at the audience.

AT: Well, this also comes back to the same trope.

AF: For me this has a lot to do with this question of atmosphere. There’s a big gap between very light and humorous things, and then a very heavy atmosphere. It also has to do with this darkness that is happening all the time, and with this contrast between friendliness, this sort of playful humor, and these things that you know are luring you somewhere, but you don’t know what it is. I really like this imbalance between these two atmospheres. For me, it’s almost a bit like a sketch that I can enjoy as a funny thing that leads me on one track, and then of course it isn’t this, and it’s just something in the foreground. And behind this I can just see this dark space that has no back wall, it’s just very deep and you never touch what’s in the back.

AT: It’s very uncanny, this situation.

AF: Yes.

AT: And it is maybe a little bit of a theatrical reference there. The genre of entertainers, and magicians, and also performers.

NAW: I think it’s like [AF] said with structures, in the way cities are designed, it’s sometimes difficult to tell if the way the city was designed was intentional. If it was like my experience in Buffalo, or in Detroit: if it was intentionally designed to be a hostile space, or if the people who designed it just happened to be hostile to other people in their community and it just came out that way on its own. I think maybe that’s a part, when working with theater, there’s so much stuff with how we approach music theater, that is deeply ingrained just because that’s how we lived it for so long. Maybe the question of whether it’s explicitly intended to reference those things or not is beside the point.

AT: No, but those sorts of things are very rarely explicitly intended to reference, but maybe they become explicitly intended to be referenced, if you understand what I mean. It’s a circular argument.

NAW: No, I do. It’s one of the things about improvisation. I remember reading a criticism of online chatrooms. There’s a popular one called 4chan. One of it’s underlying ethos (it’s mostly populated by teenage boys) is that you should never have any consistent behaviour. You should do your very best, that everything you say on that board is completely unpredictable and random. Because they don’t want to present themselves as belonging to any crowd. They want to show that they’re outsiders, and they’re not going to let their lives be determined by culture, or grown-ups, whatever. But the person criticising it pointed out that when you try to do that, it becomes this very Freudian process. When you’re trying not to act like anything, what you end up acting like is the most consistently who you are. It becomes very revealing to see what people do and say when they’re trying their very best not to have any associations with anything. It comes out of their subconscious. And I wonder if that’s what improvisation, or any indeterminate process is: you get around the top level controls and how you think about things, and get deeper into subconscious ways of working with materials or thinking about things. Is that part of what happens while you’re improvising together? That you notice things coming out of yourselves that then become interesting?

AF: Oh yes. I think something that feeds very much into it, is that first-level associations are very much allowed. That when we start to work with a certain topic, it’s not about who has the most far-out or original idea about it, but that it’s very often the closest thing that you can think of. But as these are collected, and as they’re everyone’s, and as everyone also carries some of their memory, or also everyone brings their references that can be connected to everyday life, to media, to whatever, or the book that you’re reading at the moment. Everything is somehow connected at that moment, and we mostly bring it all to the table. And then at some point, because there’s so much and because it goes through such a long process of material being repeated, then being dropped, then picked up again. Maybe a certain thing we’ll do thirty times and then decide that it’s not there, and then in the next process it will pop up again because it’s now matured to what it could be. I think it’s mostly this process that somehow gives the possibility to create something many-layered. I think it has also to do with the work that is being done with the body. It comes from the method that Obilivia developed, “do what you saw.” Somebody does an improvisation, and then you will do what you saw, so you will do what the person before you has done, or what you remember the person has done. Your own body becomes quite filled with images of how you saw someone doing something, or how you have been executing it over and over again. There’s a certain movement I do where I have Anski [Anna-Maija Terävä] in mind, or Annika doing it, so this will change the way that I do something on stage and make it not my inner expression, but something that has been enriched by a very long process of reflecting on a movement, or a topic, or sound.

TF: And also the recognizability is highly valued. We’re not looking for obscure things, but rather the opposite: something that is in some ways easily recognizable. Or immediately recognizable.

AT: I think it’s this first level that’s important, because of the playfulness and the energy it brings, the atmospheres. Even if the things themselves might not translate, and not go through the whole thing. Even in this piece, the Hase, and the Lippizaner were in the very beginning. And that was all that was left from that: those two stories. So it’s not so much. I have to say, it’s one of my favorite moments, to do on stage, was to do a ghost. I think that’s the most silly thing to do on stage. To do a “ooooooooo!” ghost. I think that’s so cool. That’s where I get a kick out of self-referentiality. Because it’s something you don’t do on stage.

AF: Things you don’t do on stage.

AT: Pretend you are a ghost. Or you are a ghost. We don’t pretend. I don’t know what we do.

AF: There are so many taboos related to performance theater, what you can and cannot do. It was also a bit of fun to play with that.

AT: But I think this has been an incredible work. It’s different. It’s not recognizable as an Oblivia work. But with the collaboration with Yiran, and what [Meri] did with the lights. It’s another level. Or, it’s not another level, but it’s very special for me. It’s like a very big work. It’s quite a massive production. And with so many levels and layers. And it’s funny, Meri, because you didn’t come with us in March.

ME: I was there a little.

AT: Very little. But very quickly, you came up with the idea for the neon lights when we came to Stuttgart. It was quite, like, “wow!” It was quite a statement.

AF: I also think how Yiran came up with the sound very early. You were also starting to improvise with us. There wasn’t as much talking or thinking about how the concept is, but it came about by doing. I guess you had to come up with the concept for yourself, but it wasn’t like we were making a plan and you had to work according to it, but it was mostly everybody diving in together.

ME: Like you chose your synthesizer, and I chose my tools. I guess I felt I had to have some kind of thing I could bring it.

YZ: Jump in.

ME: Yeah. Something. You work with your bodies, and I needed some kind of tool that I could imagine. I don’t know how you chose what you would do.

YZ: Well, this synthesizer is actually not what I’m usually using. But I think this is a good try with it. Because it’s very fast. If a violinist will choose a violin, they can just directly start. But unfortunately I’m not. I only learned one year [of violin]. And this synthesizer can be very rich with the combinations of electronics, and software. And I think it’s good if I can try out with the movements at the same time, as interaction, dialog. And with the lights as well. It’s another approach than simply watching, and then come back home and produce some finished material. These, I always do like that, for 15 years. So this is really nice, to have this approach with you.

AT: This dialog, that is what I feel is really quite something.

YZ: Especially this translation thing that I did with Meri as a duo. And then some of you—Alice? And maybe Annika, or Anski—you did another translation of the light and sound material, but with your movements. And so on, this kind of thing. That was really helpful, I think, to find our mixture.

NAW: To build up these sorts of feedback loops, where influence would spread back and forth among the different performers.

AT: It was just one or two days that we worked with, but somehow it changed the whole dynamics and the hierarchies. It was amazing. And we’ve never done it like that.

AF: And it would be great to continue with that. I would be so curious, if we would have more time, to find out. It’s already so, that I have never, or we have never—when working a lot with technical devices in the performances we did—I have never had this feeling standing on stage that we are three people on stage, but we don’t feel like three people. We feel like five people. It’s very connected, and one feels very carried. Even six, really, with Tua, because costume is such a strong element. And with Anski, of course.

YZ: Seven.

AF, AT: Seven.

AT: And of course you have Annski in your mind when you’re doing something.

AF: It’s there.

AT: Because we carry everyone with us. It’s a big ensemble on stage.

YZ: It’s like a perfume, it will stay in the memory. It’s always there, in this memorial room. And when you keep doing things, the person is not present there, but the spirit is there in the work.

NAW: It’s like you say, with these ghosts. That was going to be my next question. If this is a new working method for you that you haven’t done before if that’s something that you would keep doing in the future.

AT: It only requires, not impossible but would take some organizing, would be in a black box, that you have some tools available. I’m sure it could be done in a studio, but to be rewarding. It’s just a question of organization. Because of course our residencies are places that you can have the time to work with everything.

AF: Working with equipment becomes more and more a privilege. Because there most of the stages have more programming. I remember making pieces five years ago, it was quite common that one could get two or three weeks in a row on stage. But it can enrich the process so much. I was talking to another light designer I know, and she was also thinking about it very much, that it was very much a part of the process that is feeding into the question, “do we make a piece and then ask someone to put lights on it, or is this a mutual process where light, as well, can become a concept.” And then at some point you cannot say, “but here I can’t see the face, can you put something more?” but no, it’s part of what a mutual decision of how these things work. I think it’s super-interesting.

AT: But summer is always perfect, because there’s always possibilities to get stages. Practically, I like one week, and then (later) one week. Like we had here two weeks in a black box, and I think it’s quite cool. With good organization it can be possible to extend that. It’s also quite good to have one week, because it’s also super-intense. But absolutely, it would be cool if we could continue in this way.

NAW: That’s something that’s really interesting for a festival like [ECLAT]. It’s not something you normally see. It does have a very different impression, when you see the way people work together. I think even if I didn’t know that that was your working method, that you had been collaborating with each other on the piece over long stretches of time together, that you were all contributing more or less on equal footing, I think even if I hadn’t known that in advance, I still feel that there was something different about how you had prepared the piece. You do get the sense that it’s not like a conventional music-theater or opera piece, where you start with some base material that’s a sort of given, and then you add a layer on top of that. Like you have the libretto already, and then you write the music on top of that, and then someone else writes the music on top of that, and then the setting, the Inszenierung.

YZ: Dramaturgie.

NAW: Right, the dramaturgy. On top of that. And then …

YZ: Directing.

NAW: … and then the director comes in and has a whole other concept. There are all these layers, but they’re one after the other in the production chain. You can see that in the final production. I think, watching this piece, you get a fairly good sense that it was developed differently. I think that’s interesting to see. It’s fascinating to watch. I’m very curious to see how it’s received in ECLAT. People still do have their expectations about what they see. There’s still this sociological level that certain institutions still have their traditions. Even something like ECLAT, or any music festival, you still expect a certain sort of “event,” when you go there.

SH: But I still think it really has a great impact, what kind of space you’re performing in. This space, what traces are in this space. What are the conventions that are usually performed in this space. Even if the audience is a different one, it still somehow translates.

NAW: People expect something different in a black box than they expect on a concert stage.

AT: But that was one thing that was so cool, when we performed in the opera. It was the Helsinki Festival, so we performed in the Helsinki Opera on a small stage with Children and Other Radicals. It was so cool to be there. And of course it was the Helsinki Festival, so it was mainly our own audience and their audience, it wasn’t the normal opera audience. Of course, institutionally it’s a very high-level place, so that was cool, it gave a confidence boost there. But it was something, it felt to me, like, “well, this the right place for us to be.” I didn’t feel at all odd. First a little, but then it felt normal.

NAW: One of my very favorite performances, one of my last performance in Buffalo when I was there, we started an ensemble for graphic scores. We started an ensemble improvising (which is part of why it’s interesting to me to talk about here). The first year working together, all we did was improvise with each other. We knew eventually we would get to playing scores, but we also knew that we had to build up that working method, that we could have to listen to each other and react. But when we put on one of our first concerts, it was at a music festival, an American one that’s very conventional, 70s American new music. It’s not something you normally think of when you think of radical avant-gardism. One of the pieces we performed, the composer had taken air-pressure measurements from two cities over six months and graphed them out. And he took that six-month time-frame and compressed it to five minutes. The way we performed the piece, he gave us these big foam discs and had us move them back and forth in line with these curves. And it was the most hilarious program note I’d ever read. The way he described, it was very simple. He said, “air pressure changes that happen over really long times is weather. And air pressure changes, if it happens over really short times, is sound. So this piece is between weather and sound.” Very simple, very charmingly naive way of describing it. The way it was performed, the two of us just walked out on stage, took these foam discs up, and for five minutes all you see is these two foam discs moving back and forth. One of our colleagues was on the side of the stage watching the audience, and he said it was hilarious watching the audience trying to figure out what was happening, because they had no idea. They were thinking, “am I supposed to be hearing something? Is this supposed to be the piece? Is something going to happen?” And then we put them down and took our bows and there was this confused clapping.

AF: “Confused clapping.” Very good category of applause!

NAW: But I think that sort of experience, where you’re in a crowd that wasn’t expecting what you were going to do. And you can do something very much outside of their normal experience, but it still works out, is one of my favorite concert experiences.

[END of interview.]


[1]       Anna Krzystek (1968–2017) was a founding member of Oblivia, who toured and performed with the group until 2013.

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