Alpine tales and metal: Kindertotenlieder by Gisèle Vienne and KTL in the Holland Festival.

Text: Neil van der Linden

“Thank you for coming to this memorial concert for my friend, and I want to thank one of this favourite bands for agreeing to play here today. He was my friend since we were 2 years old, and I knew he would have…” (voice cut). These are the words of one of the characters on stage, Jonathan, commemorating the death of his friend. Whom he supposedly killed, we are about to learn.

On stage is a group of people in a snowy landscape, some of them are children. In one corner of the scene there is a coffin, with the lid open. Slow movements, slowly evolving electronic sounds. But after a while one of the people runs to two of the children in front and makes movements as if killing them. Kindertotenlieder is the title. Killing children and snow, I had to think of Brueghel’s The Massacre of the Innocents; I will come back to that later.
The children figures turn out to be stuffed puppets; I will come back to that later too.

A guitarist starts to play growling loud slowly progressing chords, style ‘black metal’. The audience has been given earplugs.
The actors keep on moving slowly to a virtual point on the left of stage where rays of light are shining from.
The killer gets killed by another character.
After a while the former rises again and grabs another character, takes off his clothes and stammers texts about raping him, and then kills him. Spoken text suggests that that was the person who was probably murdered by Jonathan.

The group keeps moving to the light, so slow some seem like puppets. After a while we notice that some did not move at all: they are puppets.
Another actor grabs some of the other figures, the puppets, and stacks them up together.

More snow is falling. Heaps and heaps of snow. Everybody still alive now has their winter coats fully buttoned up, except for the naked rape and murder victim, still lying on stage. It turns out that the young boy who was killed by his best friend has returned as a ghost during his funeral, and the story started from there.

Kindertotenlieder is a performance from 2007 by Gisèle Vienne, who along with Japanese composer and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto is associate artist of this year’s Holland Festival.

The two musicians on stage, Stephen O’Malley on guitar and Peter Rehberg on electronic equipment, work together under the name KTL (KinderTotenLieder!, I assume) since they participated for the first performances in 2007. In the storyline the murdered boy’s favourite music was KTL. Their style,, ‘Black metal’, is often associated with satanism and ‘doom’cults.

Another cult that plays a role in the performance is the German and Austrian Alpine rite of the Perchten. Gisèle Vienne is partly Austrian. At some point in the wintery landscape on stage two tall figures appear, dressed as ‘Perchten’. Perchta (English: Bertha) was a pagan goddess in the German and Austrian Alps. She lived on since the arrival of Christianity, entering village homes during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, especially on the Twelfth Night. She knows whether children and young servants have behaved well and worked hard. If not, she would slit their bellies open, and stuff them with straw and pebbles. There you have it, child murder and stuffed puppets, two of the elements we see on stage.
For centuries after paganism disappeared boys would roam villages wearing animal masks, the midwinter Perchten feasts that still exist in the region, intended to chase out winter.

Maybe the title of the performance is derived from (Austrian composer) Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, in which the composer reflects on the death of children; to which Mahler and the poet of the texts Friedrich Rückert were no strangers, Mahler having lost eight of his siblings and later a daughter and Rückert two children.

It occurred to me that the idea of child murder in combination with midwinter also can be associated with the ‘celebration’ of Mary and Joseph bringing the newborn Jesus to safety from the troops of King Herod;  as pictured by Brueghel the Elder in his Massacre of the Innocents. When King Herod had learned from The Three Wise Men from the East that stars had taught them that the future king of Jews was born in Bethlehem, he ordered all newborn males of Bethlehem to be killed. Mary and Joseph fled in time after being warned by an angel, and fled to Egypt.  (All other babies were killed; thank You, God.) Brueghel the Elder’s painting, set in a snow-covered landscape, was in fact an allegory on the cruelty on the Spanish occupation troops fighting the Netherlands’ independence movement. Here comes another Austrian link, as what was considered to be the original version of the painting is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. (It is now thought to be a copy by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. But as other authorised versions have been censored for its cruelty, this one shows the original cruel details of the mass-murder as conceived by Brueghel the Elder.

Vienne and Sakomoto are the festival’s associate artists. Partly due to COVID19 and unfortunately because Sakamoto is ill, a full collaboration between the two could not materialise It is possible to envisage why the two artists might have been attracted to each other’s work, with both’ interest in atmospheric music and immersive visual art.

Meanwhile, that the Holland Festival could happen at all including complex productions like Kindertotenlieder and Sakamoto’s opera Time is yet a miracle


Concept and choreography: Gisèle Vienne, dramaturgy and texts by Dennis Cooper, music by KTL: Stephen F. O’Malley and Peter Rehberg.

Zuiveringshal West, Westergas, June 19th 2021, as part of the Holland Festival

Photos by Antoine Masure and Mathilde Darel

 

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