Saturday, 29 October 2011

Visiting Bethlehem

There is some historical evidence (in Josephus and Tacitus) that Yeshua-bar-Yosef ended his life in Jerusalem, given they mention him being sentenced to death by the Roman governor based there, Pontius Pilate. The birth of Yeshua-bar-Yosef at Bethlehem is quite another matter – it is not mentioned outside of the Gospels, except in apocryphal material which looks even more like mythology than they do. There is certainly poetic meaning and no small beauty to be found in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity but as an adult I have never given much credence to them being literal accounts of the birth of a historical man (the same goes for the virgin birth; personally I quite like the Pantera story whilst acknowledging there's no evidence for its historicity). Yet the clearly mythological tone of the Nativity accounts has not prevented Christians, from the earliest times, of mapping out mythic events on the actual land of Palestine and marking places in or near Bethlehem as the site of these events. 

A trip from Jerusalem to see these sites in Bethlehem today means a traveller encountering another, far from mythical and all too contemporary story, as Bethlehem lies behind the Separation Wall and visitors must pass through the Gilo checkpoint into the West Bank. We'd booked a half-day coach trip for the visit and our Israeli coach-driver dropped us off at the steel-walled and iron grilled checkpoint which we then passed through to be met by a Palestinian driver on the other side (Israeli citizens are not permitted to travel into the Palestinian territories). The checkpoint is ugly and oppressive but the passage through into the West Bank was quick and simple enough. Driven then towards Jerusalem, we then got a chance to see a the great amount of graffiti which has been done on the Palestinian side, including a dove in a bullet proof vest by Banksy. The Wall on the Israeli side is as your proverbial whitewashed tomb. I will say more about the Wall further down.

We visited three Christian sites in Bethlehem. First, the Milk Grotto purports to be the cave in which the Holy Family rested on the Flight into Egypt. Legend has it that the walls of this cave were once red but a drop of milk from the breast of "the Virgin" spilt onto the floor here and everything was miraculously changed to white. The chalky walls of the cavern are now scraped and the dust sold to women desperate to conceive a child; this small business and the site itself is run by the Franciscans. Our guide was quite serious that this miraculous property of helping conception did indeed exist in the cave's chalk; I remain to be convinced but if it does, I think it's a poor show for the Franciscans to be charging for it. The Grotto itself is a not particularly interesting interior and the modernist chapel constructed alongside it is very featureless; more whitewashed walls…

Nearby another grotto claims to be the cave in which the shepherds were visited by the Angel of the Lord, telling them that the messiah had been born. A small Church has been raised in what is now known as the Shepherd's Fields, The Sanctuary of the Shepherds. This is a small, granite dome the interior of which is decorated by the most tasteless, tacky frescos imaginable – the kinds of things one sees on cheap Christmas cards, with pseudo Pre-Raphaelite angels bearing down on dopey shepherds surrounded by docile sheep; in one of the frescos, an idiot boy shepherd leaps for joy; there's an entirely predictable nativity scene. The Church is in peaceful and well-kept grounds and this is not a bad place to spend some time in quiet contemplation – but how much better would it be if the announcement of the birth of Jesus, who in the gospels comes across as a most unpredictable and positively dangerous character, wasn't being celebrated in such a conventional and anodyne way in the decoration. The grotto itself is a pokey interior decorated by nativity cribs. Inside whilst we were there were a group of South Korean pilgrims being spoken to about the angelic announcement and how it heralds a message about the replacing of the "stony heart" with the fully beating, compassionate human heart which life in Christ can give us. I found this message rather affecting, and was pleased to be reminded of Dylan's lyric Property of Jesus. From the manufactured peace of the Shepherd's field one gets a good view of a nearby Israeli settlement, a kind of monstrously growing, drab Middle Eastern Milton Keynes. 

The Church of the Nativity itself is an impressive if ramshackle edifice. One enters, via Manger Square, through a doorway known as the "Gate of Humility" – as only children, dwarfs and midgets wouldn't have to stoop to get through it. Inside one is faced with an impressive if barren Nave, in the floor of which some Byzantine mosaics are exposed, a remnant of the earliest church in this location,  built by Constantine's mother Helena. The altar of the church is in stark contract with the nave, a gaudy Greek Orthodox explosion of icons, crosses, cencers and paintings. Beneath this is the Grotto of the Nativity itself, the space claimed to be the stable in which the Christ-child was born. 

The Grotto is quite an unpleasant space, in terms of it being thronging with pilgrims and worshippers and therefore cramped and uncomfortable. It has little formal elegance, with the specific locations of various events scattered around and made impossible to see for more than a glimpse as they are covered by the prostrate and praying bodies of the faithful. A silver star marks the spot on which the Virgin supposedly dropped Our Lord, perhaps suggesting that he is a kind of Lone Ranger deputy of the Lord sent to sort, Western style, the bad men out. Given it is such a small and low-ceilinged space and given the throng inside, it is easy to imagine the chaos that must have ensued when the Magi, their servants and the shepherds all barged in to give their praises at the birth; it’s a wonder the baby Jesus didn't suffocate. 

Next door to the Basilica is the 19th century Franciscan Church and Cloister of Saint Catherine, the distinguishing feature of which is a large brass showing the Tree of Jesse near the main door. In the cloister, a statue of Saint Jerome presides; high on the cloister wall, bullet holes from the 2002 siege are still visible. Coming back into Manger Square, I was struck by the pall that hangs about the place – it's a World Heritage Site but there's an unease in the air; I later read that the Basilica is in a parlous state of repair which the custodians, infighting amongst themselves, fail to do anything about. Perhaps in this way it is an apt memorial to the birth of a message of Universal Love – falling to bits as folk argue amongst themselves. 

Getting back into Israel from the West Bank is not quite so simple as getting in. One travels back through the Gilo checkpoint and to do so, one must join the queue. Most of the people here are Palestinians, who might well have land, work or family on one side and home on the other; they probably have to do this chore of queuing daily. It took a good 40 minutes to get through the checkpoint, as each of the Palestinians much present their papers (a ragged sheet) and undergo fingerprint recognition before the demonstrably bored young Israeli soldiers let them through. One young woman, in the midst of her family, didn't quite know how to finesse the fingerprint procedure – she kept putting her hand on the reader and something about this was wrong; the Israeli soldier grunted and ordered her to do it again. Again and again. She became exasperated and frustrated, clearly in need of some guidance which was not forthcoming from the checkpoint guard; her family tried to help her but it took her a good few tries before she got it right. This was an unpleasant and humiliating moment for her and for her family and I felt embarrassed to see it, especially given the fact that myself and my partner walked through vaguely flashing our British passports, waved through with disinterest by the guard. We were then waved onto a bus for Jerusalem which was also carrying a large part of the Palestinians who had just travelled through the checkpoint. A young Palestinian guy heard our voices and wanted to talk with us in English, seeming very pleased at this chance encounter but before we could engage with him, a taxi driver got on and dragged those of us on the Bethlehem excursion off and into his cab. I wish I'd have stayed on and done the trip with my fellows in the checkpoint queue.

Travelling through the checkpoint reminded me of the weeks I spent directing a couple of musicals with prisoners in Maidstone prison. Twice a day we'd have to go back and forth through security, as well we might, given we'd chosen to work with convicted criminals, many of whom had committed heinous and violent crimes. No matter the realities on the ground in Israel, who could think it not a shame (I use the word with force) that ordinary Palestinians are forced to go through such a daily palaver with moments of humiliation merely because of acts of terrorism the vast majority of them have nothing to do with? That a country might become a kind of holding camp for swathes of its population has to be unsustainable, whatever the rationales. This walling of the Palestinians casts a vast shadow over Israeli consumer society, darkening all of the shopping malls and the beach parties and the markets and the essentially European infrastructure. Where this leaves the Holy sites is a nagging question – Mere tourist traps? Part of the factional, sectarian problem? Remnants and reminders of another Way in the midst of a fallen world? Or all of these things in a complex mesh? 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Jerusalem and its Sites of Mythic Events...

My partner and I spent 7 days in Israel this in late August/early September, on vacation as the Americans would say or was it on Pilgrimage as a Medievalist might say? One thing is for sure, we weren't on a crusade. It is such a strange, alluring and complex part of the world that I want to write a blog or two on it, and this is the first; fragmented thoughts and scattered insights. Others will follow if I get the time…

We arrived at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport and, after my partner faced some reasonably stringent questioning (they didn't seem that bothered by me), we got a car to Jerusalem. Our first four nights were spent in The Holy City, and our first morning there was spent walking the Via Dolorosa

The Via Dolorosa is a walk through the winding streets of Old Jerusalem, which is still a walled city, with seven gates; we entered in through Damascus Gate. The Via Dolorosa supposedly traces the journey of Jesus from his condemnation by Pilate to his internment in the tomb. Each of the famous Stations of the Cross are marked on the route, some with a simple round medallion on the wall, some with a chapel or sanctuary. It's a fascinating walk to take, both for the sites  - some of the chapels are exquisite (for example the Church of the Flagellation with its beautiful stained glass and Crown of Thorns ceiling, or the Chapel of the Third Station, with its compelling paintings)  - and also the characters: the local traders trying every which way to make a dollar from the tourists & pilgrims, the former stopping to take photographs and the latter mostly in groups, singing hymns at each Station. This heady mix of money-making and tourism with sanctity and religiosity is the most palpable and peculiar flavour of Jerusalem, and it would be wrong to wish for it to be any other way. It's kind of a theme park where people go not simply for fun but for ecstasy and grace. I can't say I felt, at the time, any great spiritual affect – but being there is to be swept up into this very real and very present place which is at the same time very unreal and very Eternal. It is a kind of place where time and eternity meet but the effect of that happening is not what you might expect. One thing is for sure, it could only be Jerusalem.

I have a lot of time for the Gospels as Imaginative Art and I've done a fair bit of reading around the historical Yeshua-bar-Yosef, the various theories as to what really happened if any of it did, the "reality" behind the Myth. I suppose my take on this is relatively unusual, because for the Myth to work in me (and at times it does), there doesn't need to have been a literal reality. The Jesus of the Gospels exists in the words on the page and in the Imagination of the reader. Whether a first century Jewish holy man was the reality behind that Myth isn't essential, any more than whether some Theban tyrant really stands somewhere behind Oedipus. Of course, someone came up with the Parables, which seem to me quite extraordinary literary achievements, and someone stands behind the ideas; if Saul/Paul of Tarsus or some other early follower had made it all up, they would surely have credited themselves with the parables and ideas and claimed they were themselves Messiah; so the background figure I suspect strongly was a real person. This ambiguity I have as to the historicity of the figure is an ambiguity which is essentially writerly. As a writer myself, I might base this or that character or situation on a real person or event; I wouldn't want anyone to get too interested in the reality, as the story as I have written it is The Thing. The kick I get from finding out about the life of Yeshua-bar-Yosef is in seeing what the writers of the Gospels – clearly men of literary genius – did with it to turn it into this incredible Myth. That Yeshua-bar-Yosef was something of a literary and philosophical genius himself is an added layer of intrigue…

But how to approach Jerusalem, where real places are presented as mythic ones? The Via Dolorosa ends inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains not only the supposed Sepulchre of the Resurrection but also the rock of Calvary and the place on which Jesus was laid to be perfumed and shrouded after death, the Stone of Unction. There are contested theories as to whether these places are the actual places, if the actual events took place (which is, to some more than others, a big if). I am made a little queasy by real land being made mythic in this way; the mapping of Imaginative space onto actual space kind of bothers me. Yet this sceptic wasn't always in place. Underneath an elaborate Greek Orthodox altar and glass case, one is presented by a rock which does indeed look like a skull. One doesn't see the rock until quite late as you approach the altar and, at that moment, I felt a palpable shock. One has to bend down in order to reach through and touch it and there in that moment I wondered "What will happen? Will some vision course through my mind, splitting it open? Will my heart burst with the kind of love St Teresa felt in her ecstasies? Will I be taken on a Trip of mind-altering, cosmic dimensions?" But it was just a cold rock I felt with my sense of touch, as it would be, and those not blessed with a spiritual moment or cursed with a schizophrenic one are left with their imagination to build on this place in that brief moment of touch and after, in contemplation and creativity. 

The Holy Sepulchre is more difficult to get one's head around. It is easy to believe that someone was crucified on that rock two millennia ago; it is somewhat harder to swallow that on the nearby site of the now elaborately covered Holy Sepulchre that same man came back to life. It is easy to take this in a myth – Tiresias changed his sex and Leda was raped by a swan, of course I agree with those story elements and can just as soon agree that Jesus came back to life; it is easy to take as a metaphor – after all, you can't kill an idea. But as a historical moment? This is where one needs faith and unless you have this with you already at the Holy Sepulchre, I doubt you'll find it in the Aedicule of the Sepulchre itself. Pilgrims and tourists are harried and herded, about 12 or 13 at a time, into the Aedicule and given a very limited time in the actual space (you pass through one chamber into another). There's little chance here for the trails of mystery and awe to weave themselves around one's mind. Perhaps thinking about the place later? In that case, might you as well not have gone, just Imagined? The literal presence of the places simply leads one back to the Imagination, where such events really take place. William Blake posited that all events take place in the Imagination…

Behind the Sepulchre there is an ante-room with a battered old altar and you can pass through this to the Tomb of Joseph of Arimethea, which unlike the Sepulchre has no ornate or any other decoration and therefore has rather more atmosphere (not many people venture in here, as an added plus). In this barren, unlit cave, crouching down, one can get strange intimations; you could believe that out of sight, out of mind,  a wondrously strange thing might happen here… The lack of decoration, the lack of light, the lack of others presents the Imagination with opportunities…

In retrospect, the walk along the Via Dolorosa and around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was an extraordinarily special thing to have done – whether or not one subscribes any truth to the legends about these places. These are rich sites from which have sprung stories and from which stories can and will continue to spring. The place of the skull though – that is a place in your head, and it is there ultimately that the Saviour will be crucified and might Rise Again; is it there all other mythic events, about Jesus and anything else, will ultimately take place… 

The crucifixions and resurrections that go on in your own mind will bleed and come back to life in the reality we share, which is after all the site of the meeting of minds. 

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Walking around the Stories on The Franks Casket, and Everywhere

Amongst the many beautiful and extraordinary objects in the British Museum's current exhibition of reliquaries and associated materials, Treasures of Heaven, is an early 8th century box carved from whale's bone, originating in England. The Franks Casket, as it has come to be known, is ornately carved with scenes illustrating mythological stories on each side as well as on the lid. Walking round the box, peering at the scenes depicted and reading the translations of the inscriptions, I was struck by the idea that here was an almost perfect work of Art, and more than this, a work which could inspire us to create Art which is democratic, provocative, thought-provoking and which might intercede in the lives of those who encounter it as a challenge.

The carved scenes are taken from diverse traditions - Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic. The front panel shows the Adoration of the Magi, wise men bringing their gift to the infant Saviour, alongside which is, and here I'll use the useful description from the exhibition catalogue, "the Germanic tale of the exiled Weland. Imprisoned by King Nithland, Weland extracts a terrible revenge, murdering the king's two sons and raping his daughter." Two tales, two kings (the latter of this earth, the other of a kingdom "not of this earth"), on showing a horrible revenge for past deeds, the other positing forgiveness of sins (which, as William Blake suggested, is the key message of Jesus - see For Children: The Gates of Paradise).

On the lid of the casket, there is a scene which "depicts a siege from an unidentified episode in the life of the Germanic hero Egil, while the back shows the capture of Jerusalem from the Romans in AD 70." The first scene depicts a situations of entrapment and the second its bloody consequences (the Jews besieged at Masada killed themselves en masse and their compatriots who survived the 70 AD uprising in Jerusalem were driven from the Holy Land). The casket is sphinx-like as to what we should make of these scenes, but it is certain that we probably (unless we had a death-wish) wouldn't want to live them.

On the left panel, the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, are suckled by a wolf, as in their legend, and the catalogue supposes that this is "a symbol of the mother church offering succour". This may be true, as the Church in that day was the Roman church, but is it really inviting to see the maternal in the shape of a she-wolf? We cannot know how anyone seeing the casket in the 8th century would have taken this scene, nor can we suppose that everyone encountering the casket would have taken it in the same way - perhaps the ideology of Rome was so pervasive as to give everyone mono-vision; certainly with that ideology less gripping now, we can respond to the image with the full power of our imaginations (do we really want to suck on a wild and dangerous animals teats and be brought up as pack children?).

The right panel, described in the catalogue as "enigmatic", has a scene which "relates how Hos suffered at the hands of Ertae". The inscription reads "Here Hos sits on a sorrow-mound; she suffers distress as Ertae had assigned her to a wretched den of sorrows and of torments of her heart." This the she-wolf nurtures whilst Ertae rejects creates a tension between the left and right panels, but I wonder if this is an either/or tension or a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The stories bounce off each other, comment on each other, offer alternative views and stark choices. Can you believe in the redemption through Christ, or are the horrors of history inescapable and definitive? I used there the phrase "the redemption through Christ" but today (and perhaps this has always been true?) and we might ask ourselves what this could mean. I'll suggest that the words are poetic, and the Christ-child on the casket (like all of the other figures) is a hieroglyph whose meaning is framed in the eye of the beholder. This is why I suggest above that the casket offers the possibility of a democratic experience of Art - the individual is confronted by a number of stories, and must choose which one to believe is the Truth. Or is there no Truth, just different perspectives depending on where one stands? The Franks Casket is both democratic and postmodern.

The inclusion of the Jewish scene makes the casket problematic, but when has any Art worth its salt been anything else? If we insist on seeing the casket purely and simply as an ideological item selling Christianity as the One True Faith, then we might take the Jewish scene as evidence of anti-Semitism, although the casket is no more positive about Germanic/pagan traditions; perhaps what we have here is simply evidence of Christian chauvinism? But then again, by positing a saviour who offers redemption through the forgiveness of sins, a way of breaking free from the past into something new, the casket asks a very striking question - is this what you want? Do you want to break free? Because if we strip Christianity of all of its mystical obfuscation, all of its moralising cant and all of its kidnapping into Imperialist propagandas, we are confronted with a core message which is still capable of shaking the inner being of anyone who opens themselves up to the possibility that life could be something other than merely wars and rumours of wars.

To walk around the Franks Casket and looks at its various stories is to do what all of us always do - walk around looking at various stories. These stories are often both contradictory, complementary, frightening and inspiring. The Franks Casket does not tell us what to think about them, and nor must a contemporary democratic Art. It simply leaves the reaction up to you.

All catalogue quotes from:
Bagnoli, Martina, Klein, Holger A., Mann, C Griffin, Robinson, James (Eds.) Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe (London: The British Museum Press, 2011), p. 120.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

SONNTAG aus LICHT Teil 2, Oper Köln

[SONNTAG aus LICHT Teil 1, see here]

The second part of SONNTAG aus LICHT began in Auditorium B, where the raked seating faced the now unscreened expanse of the deep stage with its black pool of water. In this pool, the 4th scene, SCENTS – SIGNS – took place. Yet the scene spilled out beyond the parameters of the performance space, as a major factor of the scene is the burning of 7 different kinds of Incense, each scent assigned to a day of the week; as the incense is burned as part of the performance on stage, dark figures walk the stairs by the side of the seats with incense burners, to ensure the audience get a proper nose-full of each perfume. Although theatre is a sensual art form, it is unusual for the sense of smell to be engaged in a performance (an exception was Rufus Norris' production of Afore Night Come at the Young Vic in 2001, where the pungent smell of pears viscerally brought one into the pear-orchard setting). Of course, incense as an element of religious ritual has a long history and it is this tradition which SCENTS – SIGNS plays into. As the incense is burned, the singers (again done up as space-age medievalists)  and dancers conduct obscure rituals in the pool. Large metallic frames are lit and burn with flame; a circle of fire is built around Lucifer, making his only appearance in this LICHT opera (and surely giving a nod towards the circle of fire placed around Brünnhilde by Loge in Die Walküre) and providing some deeply compelling baritone singing as he is immured. I got the impression watching this scene that we were very much back in the world of a pre-Reformation Europe, where initiates performed obscure ceremonies for a captured audience who dimly realize that some rite is being performed but we're not sure what (perhaps some Stockhausen adepts in the audience – dressed resplendently for the occasion in white -  understood all the minutiae of the work more than I did). Yet despite not knowing quite what was happening, I was overwhelmed and seduced by the spectacle – glad to be a passive recipient of the ministrations of these priests and witch doctors of LICHT

Again, I felt like something was unfolding in the time the scene takes – on this occasion, the scene comes to a climax of extraordinary beauty. The boy Michael is summoned to the stage area and, after singing a beautiful duet with Eva, a (puppet) white horse glowing with light appears, cantering on the water towards them Michael is placed on the horse which flies off. This is a moment of monumental, heart-stopping gorgeousness in which the heavens open and we are in a world of magic and beauty (I couldn't help reflect how much more meaningful and heart-stopping this moment was compared to anything in the drab and dreary War Horse, which many English audiences have somehow taken for an evening of theatrical magic and emotional affect; how much more does SONNTAG aus LICHT bring the idea of peace into the audience's heart…). The music and ritual SCENTS – SIGNS had taken me, through the seven days of the week (each with its own sign and scent) from turbulence to union and ascension.

By now, the audience were accustomed to being summoned to each new scene by a short musical phrase and, on hearing this, we rose from our chairs and departed our standing points in the makeshift bar and lobby and walked, as one, towards the auditorium of the next scene. There was something reminiscent of the notes which summon the connected humans in Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the Mothership or, indeed, the bells or muezzins which call traditional devotees to services or prayers. It could be said that the event had trained and pacified us to have an almost Pavlovian reaction to this musical phrase, yet such was the beauty of SCENTS – SMELLS that I was in no mood to critique the situation from a rationalist or cynical standpoint; truly, Lucifer had been restrained.

The beauty of SCENTS – SMELLS had raised my expectations of the rest of the opera, yet little prepared me for the overwhelming affects of the 5th scene, HIGH TIMES. HIGH TIMES is, even for this opera, an unusual challenge to the producer. The music is arranged for both choir and orchestra. In Auditorium 1, the choir music is performed whilst simultaneously, in Auditorium 2, the orchestral version is played. On top of this, on 7 occasions, the two different performances blend with each other – here with the help of live visual/sound relay. The audience is divided into two (we were given gold cards instructing us) and one half goes into Auditorium 1 for the choir whilst the other half goes into Auditorium 2 for the orchestra. I was sent to Auditorium 1 for my encounter with what turned out to be one of the most awe-inspiring theatrical events I have ever witnessed.

In Auditorium 1, the HIGH TIMES choir is unseen. The audience walks into a promenade space (the deckchairs have gone) and sees a number of dance troupes around the room. The audience tentatively realizes that we are free to walk amongst these. The dance troupes each represent ecstatics from different cultures; there are Sufi dervishes, Hindu Brahmins, Buddhist monks, African shamen and, representing Europe I suppose, 4 club dancers – 2 go-go boys in gold Speedos and 2 women in lesbian chic suits (they will get into both hetero and homosexual couplings as the scene progresses). As the  divided choir sings in various languages – as an audience we come into the orbit of one or other as we walk around the space – the impossibly agile and beautiful dancers perform routines of mystery and wonder, generally mystical marriages/unions. As this goes on, the choirs and the dance troupes begin to mash up; the sections where the orchestra from Auditorium 1 is heard and appears on giant screens are most intense. This, the revelation seems to say, is the world we walk through when we see it right – a world where ecstatic mystics praise God in their many ways. 

As an adjunct to the dancing, individual dancers get into a plastic suit-cover which acts as a cross between a gimp-suit and a Matrix-pod, and breath through tubes until being released; a kind of odd enacted image of immersion in and rebirth from consumerism. The light horse then appears, with a Sufi mystic on its back; the sense of wonder and the insistent power of the music at this point were combining to give me rushes of joy. Whilst the horse flies around us, bucking and turning like a bronco, the troupes disappear then reappear on stilts. They gently – oh-so-kindly and patiently, sometimes with a light and loving touch – shepherd us into the centre of the space; we find ourselves corralled there, surrounded by the stilt-giant dancers and a wall of large round white shapes. The dancers put airplane-like wings on and, at the moment of climax, raise them. We are encircled by these beings, lights shine and we stand in the silence, the music having come to an end. The moment here, with us held in the circle, was an extraordinary hiatus. We didn't know what to do. We all knew, in our heart of hearts, that this was the end of the scene but no one dared move, as if we didn't want to break some spell. Then the dancers lowered their wings and, of course, we clapped. I came out of this scene buzzing with excitement.

Back in Auditorium 2, the orchestra play HIGH TIMES for the second time that evening (the dancers and choir, extraordinarily given the energy and precision demanded from the piece, are at it all again in Auditorium 1). As a number of small ensembles play in the pool, pairs of instrumentalists come out of their bands and play together, enacting as they do odd abstract scenes. Images are projected on a screen behind the orchestra and on a transparency across the front of the performance space (at the 7 times, we are shown what is happening in Auditorium 1). One odd anomaly is that we see a projection of an audience in the circle we found ourselves in at the end of the choir version – but these people take their clothes off, dance and pray (should we have done this, if we were truly in tune with God?). Slogans are projected, which are not in the libretto but which may be quotes from Stockhausen (although they were a bit generalist) – "Mankind must listen to its Visionaries", "Mankind must abandon political and religious parties" or "Mankind must live its life in the face of the Life After Death"; not messages to appeal to a rationalist or Mr. Worldly Wiseman. HIGH TIMES for Orchestra is somewhat less overwhelming an experience than the version for Choir but that kind of suited me; it bought me gently down from the adrenalin rush of the previous scene and sent me out of the event in a thoughtful and becalmed frame of mind.

We left the venue to the strains of a pre-recorded Stockhausen piece – SUNDAY FAREWELL – the miraculous, other-worldly sound of which is was hard to tear oneself away from (many of us lingered to hear more, that the spell not be broken). Finally leaving, I walked along the bank of the Rhine, the sound of SUNDAY FAREWELL growing distant. Across the river, the Cathedral glowed in its strikingly lit night time presence, truly the vision of the Kingdom of God which its medieval originators wished pilgrims to see, rising out of the earth and pointing towards another world.

Against all odds, SONNTAG aus LICHT was a constantly compelling and life-affirming experience. As a theatre event, it is memorable and unique. How rare it is to see a contemporary work of Art which affirms Light, Love and Union and how much against the prevailing trends of rationalist doubt Stockhausen was pushing his work and audience. It raised many questions in my mind – Do we need, regularly, a time spend imagining another, brighter world? Have we lost something now most of us have abandoned religious rituals? Do we need to turn off the inner and outer voices of cynicism and doubt, criticism and objection now and again in order to access something else? Do we spend far too much time mired, as William Blake would certainly suggest, in the rationalist world of Newton, Bacon and Locke (or, today, perhaps Hawking, Dawkins and Hitchens) and deny ourselves time spent bathing in the Light? Denying ourselves Sunday, our day of Rest…

Saturday, 23 April 2011

SONNTAG aus LICHT Teil 1, Oper Köln

When I read that Oper Köln were producing the world premier production of Karlheinz Stockhausen's SONNTAG aus LICHT, the temptation to spot such a rare bird (alongside the opportunity to visit for the first time the city of Köln itself) proved too much. Nevertheless, I was in two minds about seeing the opera – the piece was being produced over two nights and is the culminating part of the composer's seven part LICHT cycle of operas, one composed for every day of the week. The LICHT cycle is based around the rather obscure cosmic interplay between three characters - Michael, Eva and Lucifer - each of whom is represented musically by a formula which is then experimented with over the many hours of the seven operas. I'd heard a recording of SAMSTAG aus LICHT and, although I liked the music, the libretto as printed in the box set is almost impenetrable and very difficult to visualize as a piece of theatre.  But on the basis that the opportunity to see one of the LICHT operas is something unlikely to come around too often - only one, DONNERSTAG aus LICHT, has ever been staged in London (at Covent Garden) and I get the impression that the British critics gave it the kind of welcome that isn't likely to encourage our main houses to try that kind of thing again - I booked tickets, a hotel and flights...

I was delighted to read, just before going, that the staging of the opera had been placed in the brilliant hands of the Catalan theatre troup La Fura del Baus, whose production of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre was atriumph at the ENO and whose Valencia Ring cycle, available on Blu-ray, is a successful attempt at placing Wagner's masterpieces in the context of virtual reality. If anyone could make SONNTAG aus LICHT work, it was them.

Yet SONNTAG looks, on paper, impossible. Not merely the length, not merely the acquired taste that is Stockhausen's music but the concept of a near-on eight hour opera in which there is not only minimal story but also absolutely no drama whatsoever doesn't promise to be a theatrically exciting event. Lucifer, the cycle's antagonist described by the composer as "this very sceptical and often negative spirit" (Ermen & Stockhausen, 2011, p. 190), scarcely appears in SONNTAG and when he does he is easily subdued. The work is about the "mystical union of Eve and Michael" (Ibid.) and they spend the entire opera working together in order to, wait for it, praise God. Stockhausen said "All of this worships God through my music, because from the very beginning I have composed my oeuvre to worship God. Now it has been said. And the music sounds like that, I think." (Ibid., p. 193) Not an event, therefore, which is likely to go down a storm in European intellectual circles, sceptical and negative as they tend towards being. But also, it didn't sound something that would possess the energetic drive which I, for one, hope for from an evening (or two) of live performance.

The opera is made up of five scenes and a "farewell". Oper Köln have staged the piece as an enormous site-specific project in the Staatenhaus am Rheinpark, a large 1920s building largely used for conferences and "events" on the right bank of the Rhine. The opera is staged in two auditoriums – A, a circular, white space and B, a very long, rectangular space with raked seating facing an impossibly deep "stage". The first two scenes are staged in A, where the audience sit on (unreserved) low-lying deckchairs with the performance going on around them. 

Immediately, the first scene LIGHTS – WATERS (SUNDAY GREETING) is like very little I've ever seen and heard before. Lying in their deckchair, the audience listens to a long, sonorous, inter-weaving duet between Michael and Eva; the musicians are instructed by the pair to move around the auditorium and play from specific points (all of this, as well as the lay-out of the auditorium, is specified in detail in the libretto). Both white- clad, Michael in a spacesuit sings from a sideways-rotating podium whilst Eva wanders around mostly encased in a rubber suit in which a number of voiceless, white-faced women writhe (reminiscent of the Borg). Through the scene, some obscure slow process seems to be taking place – giant fan-wings rotate above us and projections of space, planets and radar-screens travel around the walls and ceilings. This all reminded me, in terms of imagery and pace, of the spacecraft docking scenes in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the end of the scene, Michael and Eva have achieved something, although it is hard to put one's finger on exactly what. They have, along the way, sung the praises of Light and the Solar System. I got the feeling that, by the end, a union has been completed…

Scene two, ANGEL PROCESSIONS, is also in auditorium A; we returned but took different deckchairs – some of the audience were freaked out by this randomness and the idea that the place they say in scene 1 isn't still "their" place. In this scene, seven angelic choirs, each dressed in a different colour of rubber suit, move down the aisles of the auditorium, each singing in a different language (Hindi, Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic,  African [Kiswahili], German), finally placing flowers on a central pillar. The choirs create a polyphonic and rather mesmerising sound; again, things are sonorous but by the close of the scene, something seems to have been achieved. For me, the scene offered a vision of several "missions" of light-bearers/message-bearers bringing their "flowers" (I take these metaphorically) to the earth.

In scene 3, LIGHT PICTURES, we meet Michael (sung superbly by the Tenor Hubert Mayer) again but this time in Auditorium B. We are given 3D spectacles on the way in. Michael and three musicians – trumpet, flute and basset horn – stand at the front of a shallow pool of water before a giant screen. The musicians play (from memory) and the tenor sings praise to the seven days of creation (these don't correspond to the Biblical account), culminating in the praise of God and his church. As this happens, computer-generated 3D images are projected and it is as if each figure – whether it be an abstract amoeba or an imagined landscape or a recognisable animal – is travelling through a cosmic mind, which of course is the mind of the individual audience member at the time of performance. Amongst the final images we see are the twin towers of Köln's famous Cathedral. Occasionally, the screen is pulled back and an impossibly deep expanse of stage is revealed, the rest of the pool then a concrete surface; on this, dancers perform abstract moves. It is as if the surface of reality is occasionally pulled back to reveal the cosmic dance of creation behind it. This scene is spellbinding. Again (as in all the scenes), the music – which seems at first shapeless – has a culminating effect and I felt as if I'd been witness to some mysterious process; perhaps not merely witness but party also, as the audience at a ceremony or ritual are not merely passive spectators but partakers in the ritual event. Intriguingly, Michael and the musician are dressed here in a mix between futuristic and medieval costumes, as if the future Stockhausen envisages is a return to a world pre-Reformation.

The first evening of SONNTAG aus LICHT was a fascinating experience. I was mostly spellbound by the music, yet not moved. Some (Luciferian?) doubts persisted in my mind as to the mysticism of the piece – was it just all just a load of intriguing-sounding New Age cobblers? Yes, the staging and projections were overwhelming in their beauty but does the event have any intellectual substance? Nevertheless, I looked forwards to the second evening without any feelings of weariness or wariness.

(Continued in next blog)

Works Cited
Ermen, R., & Stockhausen, K. (2011). Karlheinz Stockhausen talks to Reinhard Ermen about SUNDAY from LIGHT. In K. Stockhausen, SONNTAG aus LICHT: (pp. 189-210). Kürten: Stockhausen - Stiftung für Musik.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Judith: A Parting From The Body

With respect to Field Marshal Paulus, who had done the "wrong" thing and surrendered to the Red Army at the close of the siege of Stalingrad, Adolf Hitler stated "What is life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the life of the individual is the Nation." (Hitler, 2007) The question of whether an individual owes allegiance to something beyond themselves – their country or class or family or peer or political group – is a central question in ethics. It is also at the centre of Howard Barker's play Judith: A Parting From The Body, which is currently getting a welcome revival at the Cock Theatre. Judith posits that there is another force pulling at the individual, a force which may wrench them away from their allegiance to ideological forces and compel them to rebel; that force is desire.

Barker's subject is the assassination of the Babylonian general Holofernes by the Israelite widow Judith in his tent just before a battle which would have seen the nation of Israel massacred or enslaved. This is an Apocryphal subject, told in the Book of Judith, yet one which has been at the centre of European art  and culture for centuries: Chaucer and Dante wrote of it, Caravaggio, Artemisia  and Cranach painted it; Vivaldi composed an opera on the subject. In Barker's short play, Judith (accompanied by a servant) arrives at the tent of the general planning to kill him, only to have her plans thrown into doubt by a mutual desire which develops between the widow and the general. What does a person do when one's ideological commitments are at odds with one's desiring subjectivity?

Barker does not change the tale's end. Judith beheads Holofernes and so saves Israel. But there it also appears that in betraying her personal bodily desires for the body politic in this way, Judith has killed herself. She is paralysed after the act and only rises as a new being, one who announces that "Israel Is My Body!" (Barker, 1990) She stomps around declaring herself a god and wishing to massacre innocents. She is a walking talking price that has been paid for committing oneself ideologically against all personal considerations.

Barker does not indicate whether he thinks she has done the right or wrong thing. It is made clear, as in the original, that Holofernes death was absolutely necessary for the survival of Israel. Yet who could think that the being Judith becomes is admirable? Perhaps the choice is impossible and, one way or another, the only choice is between deaths.

The strength of Judith as a theatre event is that it shows, in one intense act and through the interaction of just three characters, the impossibility of the human situation at this extreme. Given the infinite calls of ideological commitment that pull at us all and the many times when we are expected to act against our own desiring agency's interest, Judith offers a microcosmic vision of a terrible, insurmountable  moment in which we could all find (and lose) ourselves any time now.


Barker, H. (2011, 02 08). Judith: A Parting From The Body. (R. Winfield-Smith, Director, C. Cusack, E. Prior, & L. Smith, Performers) Cock Tavern Theatre, London, England, United Kingdom.
Barker, H. (1990). The Europeans / Judith. London: John Calder (Publishers) Ltd.
Hitler, A. (quoted at) (2007, 05 18). General Paulus Nazi Germany. Retrieved 02 12, 2011, from Sparticus International :