Quatrieme Biennale d’Art Vocal: Wölfli-Kantata

Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart; SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/ Marcus Creed

Cité de la Musique, 17 June 2009 4 stars

Adolf WolfliThe Quatrieme Biennale d’Art Vocal festival currently running at Paris' Cité de la Musique already saw a remarkable performance of Berio's Passaggio. On Friday night came a more contemporary offering in the shape of Georges Aperghis' Wölfli-Kantata.

This large scale a capella work, for six vocal soloists and mixed choir, was composed in 2005 and premiered in Stuttgart a year later. It provides more evidence of Aperghis' continued creative vigour. He has composed a few large vocal works in the last ten years, each of which encourage his being considered the foremost vocal composer working in contemporary music. Indeed their display of technical invention, febrile performativity and radical temporal process can make other vocal composition seem uninventive and passé by comparison.

The subject taken by Aperghis for this work is Adolf Wölfli, an artist from the early twentieth century who previously inspired Wolfgang Rihm's Wölfli Lieder. Wölfli is a marginal figure in the world of art, and is considered to be one of the founding members of the Art Brut movement. Born into poverty and orphaned early on, after drifting around as a young man he was arrested for paedophilia-related charges and sent to a mental institution. There he remained for the rest of his life and took up art. Up to his death in 1930 and with the encouragement of one of his wardens, he amassed a vast corpus of works of an idiosyncratic and indeed syncretic character.

It is not hard to see why Aperghis would be attracted to his work. It comprises a mix of the pictorial and the textual: a 25,000 word imaginary autobiography; profuse crayon drawing; admixes of iconography, symbols and geometric designs; collaged cut-outs from various international magazines; invented words and vocables, sometimes in the artist's own unique orthography conjoined to figurative images; and a form of musical composition that Wölfli wrote and himself performed on a paper trumpet. Permeating all of this is an intense originality of voice and enigmatic lustre of appeal. Art and madness is not an unknown theme of course. It is one perhaps in sympathy with Aperghis's particular brand of vocal composition, whereby the everyday is warped into the delirious and the ecstatic, and the stage assumes the function of opening the spectator up to a radical and interrupted sense of self.

Aperghis says of composing from Wölfli's oeuvre, 'he had already done the work for me.' Certainly Wölfli's chains of meaningless phonemes seem to encourage the adaptation given. What becomes apparent in listening to Wölfli-Kantata is that the words chosen are not merely 'set to music,' represented or 'musicalised:' they are the material of the music itself. The enunciation of each word – its phonology – is dramatised and is itself made music. In this way the music in the work is derived directly from the choice of words and vocables used and not appended to them. The materiality of the word itself in the orator's mouth gives the audible character of the music. An unusual and intense challenge is posed for the performers of Aperghis' work in this way, as they participate directly in the compositional substance of the piece.

Performing the Wölfli-Kantata on the night were the six members of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, along with the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart conducted by Englishman Marcus Creed. The same group of performers gave the world premiere of the work four years ago in Stuttgart.

The architecture of the work sees five movements: the first and third given by the six vocal soloists, the second and fourth by the choir, and the last by both together, lasting an overall duration of an hour.

The first movement, Petrrohl, was the first composed and is also a stand-alone work. It begins with all six voices entering in quick pulsations, the sound streaming outwards as from a vinyl turning on a record player. Six disparate babbles course along separately, meeting in shards of microtonal harmony. Repetition is frequent in the extremely rhythmic parts, glimmers of soprano and contralto melody occasioning the general discourse and soon disappearing again in the hurtling tumult. The piece worked up to a crescendo as all six vocalists maintained the high pace constantly up to the end, moving into a homophony of chords and simple rhythm. It was a brilliant performance and display of concentration, and as all six sat down at the end they were panting, with sweat on their foreheads, exhausted.

For the second movement the stage was given over to the choir. An antiphony of female and male voices in blocks set out a more solemn mood, the opening section twice building up to block chords sung by the choir in unison. Again a dizzying manner of vocal technique flied by, building up in a constant eddy of sound. The end saw a semi-religious climax, soprano voices chiming like birds or like an electric current, with declamations of 'ha ha ha,' 'Viva alla,' 'Gloria,' and a final 'Amen.'

Both ensembles were equally impressive in the third and fourth movements. The fourth saw an extraordinary passage featuring repeated text. Wölfli's 'SäCHZäH CHER EIS' was repeated in a call and response pattern between the altos and sopranos, basses murmuring in the background, and with the metric stress of the phrase changing constantly at regular intervals. The effect was to produce a swirling acoustic object, which shifted for a while before again being swallowed up by the ensemble. The last movement, featuring both ensembles together, was quite restrained, but the standout without a doubt was counter-tenor Daniel Gloger. His powerful voice shot through the hall as he put in an incredible performance for his solo part, ushering the grand piece towards its uncertain conclusion.

By Liam Cagney

Photo: Adolf Wölfli


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