The Body Electric in Berlin

by HRM on February 16, 2012

Seeing Naldjorlak and One Pig

by Lacey Haynes

If you find yourself dismissing electronic music as a medium perpetrating the demise of real music – as a genre that relies wholeheartedly on a MacBook and a Synth – may this enlighten you to the broad and varied scope that is the electronic genre.

At a special performance of Éliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak, performed live by the three musicians enlisted for the project’s original debut performance five and seven years back, Radigue was in attendance and just days shy of her eightieth birthday. Eight days later and half the age of Radigue, Matthew Herbert visited the same Hebbel am Ufer theatre in Berlin, presenting his One Pig show to a similarly sold-out theatre. While Radigue employed one cello and two basset horns for her minimalistic and restrained show, Herbert enlisted multiple laptops, various instruments and buttons, along with four other men and a specially constructed pig sty shaped string instrument.

THE COMPOSERS

Eliane Radigue

Éliane Radigue (France, 1932) is an electronic music composer who began creating in the 1950s. She was known for using almost exclusively a single APR 2500 synthesizer for most of her compositions until 2001 when she began composing for acoustic instruments. Her music is reminiscent of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, which she started to explore early on in her musical career.  She consistently creates arrangements that abide by a slow and decisive unfolding of sounds and textures.

Matthew Herbert (Britain, 1972) is an electronic music composer who has been a pioneer in the use of real and ordinary sounds in his music production. In his first performance in the mid-90s, he allegedly used a bag of potato chips as an instrument. He is a politically charged musician and in his manifesto from 2000, he imposed a ban on himself from using pre-existing samples and drum machines in his compositions, stressing that anything he created in the studio would be replicable on stage.

THE SHOWS
Radigue’s Naldjorlak,
a meditative and careful production, opened the Spectral Music Festival in Berlin – a festival exploring experimental and haunting creations from international artists. The show was an extremely special affair, not only with Radigue in attendance but also with Charles Curtis, Carole Robinson and Bruno Martinez performing the three parts of the composition which were crafted between 2005 and 2007. Radigue, who can be seen in internet videos sitting at a massive machine, carefully turning knobs and adjusting levels, explores the heightened awareness that is created with long droning sounds and subtle shifts in frequency.

The Naldjorlak team

The first portion of Naldjorlak saw the solitary cellist, Charles Curtis, backlit on stage, playing languorous notes for the better part of thirty minutes. Not only did he play the strings, but by the end of his performance, he had the cello cradled in his lap, while he dragged the bow along the metal stand that supports the instrument’s body. This was not a performance for everyone. The intensity was palpable as the quiet shifts in seats and timid scratches of legs became magnified beyond belief. That perverse feeling to do the opposite of what you are supposed to do overtook two of my neighbors who began laughing uncontrollably when Curtis played the cello’s stand. They were consequently scolded by another spectator during the intermission, upon which they left and did not return.

In the second portion of the show, the basset horn players, Carole Robinson and Bruno Martinez, blew long repetitive sounds, during an extremely abstract duet. Intermittently, Martinez would slowly rock in circles, shifting the direction of his instrument. The piece created such a heightened auditory awareness that even the most subtle shifts in the instrument’s location transformed the shape of the sound sweeping through the space.  The show concluded when all three musicians came together on stage, creating a culmination of sounds and layers that had many members of the audience on their feet clapping as the performance closed.

Herbert’s One Pig was perhaps the exact opposite experience. It was extremely provocative, wild and unrestrained, while managing to be equally enthralling. Five musicians, including Herbert, wore white lab coats, all facing a large pig sty shaped instrument, made with red strings and multiple crank mechanisms.

One Pig live

The show follows the life of a pig, from birth to death to consumption. One of the musicians represented the pig and he played the pig sty instrument, standing in hay, as he changed lab coats periodically to track the passing months.  One Pig is actually the result of Herbert tracking a singular pig’s life – the pig’s noises, its death, the blood being drained from its body, and as well, the body being cut apart and then consumed. Herbert even partook in the eating of said pig and subsequently used the pig’s body to create instruments for the live show. Needless to say, he has received harsh criticism from animal rights activists like PETA claiming that the show is a cruel and unnecessary objectification of the murdered animal. Herbert claims that the show in fact honors the animal’s life – a life that would normally have never been acknowledged and instead forgotten about after the animal was sold for its meat and consumed.

recording the pig's noises

After the pig’s death is represented, a chef came onto the stage where an entire cooking station was set-up. The chef then proceeded to cook what appeared to be Spaghetti Carbonara, while the musicians continued to play, accompanied by the sounds of food being cooked live while the aromas wafted through the theatre. The chef completed the meal after which the musicians took the plates to a table, the lights dimmed and then Matthew Herbert sang a sweet, down-home kind of tune. It was the only song that included live vocals – a performance that stood in opposition to the mostly unruly and loud performance that had come before. In the song, Herbert crooned that “the simple life is all we need” then an audio recording of people eating the pig played as the musicians in white lab coats stood motionless. The musicians then left the stage, whereupon one returned to serve the plates of freshly cooked food to audience members.

WITH YOUR EYE TO THE LOOKING GLASS
Common ground
may seem an implausible place to arrive at between these two pieces. Firstly, Radigue’s show was simplistic – three people playing instruments, while Herbert’s was entirely techy, with cords and speakers and electronics populating the stage. In the divergent space between Naldjorlak and One Pig, the shows somehow seemed perfectly placed chronologically here in Berlin –with the contemplative experience of Naldjorlak followed by the boisterous realization that was One Pig. It was as informative as night is to day, insofar as you need to be able to reference one to understand the other.

I left Radigue’s show feeling impossibly satisfied. Naldjorlak doesn’t come to an expected audible climax – it maintains and shifts gently, but doesn’t really go anywhere large. It just exists. To have a theatre full of people, sitting in silence, observing something so unimaginably restrained and languorous elucidated itself as a completely necessary happening. Amidst our lives that ebb and flow, between expectations of grandeur, high-highs and low-lows, it was beautiful to be presented with something that relished the moment. It showed the path as the thing that is of the utmost importance instead of the destination. In a world perpetually inundated with noise and spectacle, this was a reprieve and a reminder that subtle transformations are extremely potent when we are connected and aware of what is actually happening. It is like being tuned into a frequency on the radio – when you hit the sweet spot, you can hear what is being projected at you with perfect clarity.

On the other hand, I walked out of Herbert’s One Pig feeling elated. It required the same amount of concentration and awareness as Naldjorlak, but instead of feeling like I had to dive into it, it left the stage and came completely to meet me. It was loud and it was a spectacle, and it was also thoughtful and provocative. It was the antithesis of Naldjorlak in many ways, but it was born from something similar. The transitions were big and obvious, and the gestures sweeping, but it was about connection. For Herbert, it was about connecting to the life of an animal. For the audience, it was connecting to the unstructured soundscape in order to be transported to a place that lacked walls and ceilings. It was endlessly creative and alive, and it was phenomenal.

Inside the sty

ELECTRONIC IS HUMAN
It must all work together. Radigue’s Naldjorlak was performed solely with instruments yet it maintained so much of what she’s known for with her single ARP 2500 synth. The show harkened back to the mode of composition that she became recognized for in the 1970s: one woman, sitting at a huge machine, turning knobs meticulously, until the very sound in her head was presented before her. While One Pig, with its unique fusion of everyday sounds and human effort was the epitome of electronic music. It had all the electro-accoutrements, but amidst the music making gear, it maintained a sense of the ordinary, by taking unremarkable noises – pigs squealing, humans breathing – and transforming them into something fresh, and sometimes alarming and almost unrecognizable.

Both shows offered the audience a chance to meditate – a call to be emotionally altered through music, music that was neither melodic, nor harmonious or predictable. Unlike a pop song, these pieces were not easy to follow or decipher. They required a presence of body and mind, and the willingness to be fully submerged in noise – relinquishing one’s own thoughts, clearing the way for something new.

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