Manfred Gurlitt and the forgotten Wozzeck

Manfred Gurlitt


The arbitrariness that exists in music history can sometimes be quite confusing. Why did one composer become famous and another did not? We know all too well that it is not always based on an objective value judgement; all too many really good composers (and/or their works) have totally disappeared from our stages.

Why is Alban Berg’s Wozzeck so often performed and recorded and why has almost nobody heard of Manfred Gurlitt’s Wozzeck? Both operas, based on the unfinished play by Büchner, were premiered in quick succession. Berg’s in December 1925 in Berlin and Gurlitt’s in April 1926 in Bremen.

Masterpiece versus craftsmanship, you say? Not quite. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Gurlitt’s music. Both composers use a new musical language and they are – each in his own way –  both progressive.

The immense popularity that Berg’s opera enjoyed from the very first day obviously contributed to Gurlitt’s work falling into oblivion. But: is this the only reason, or is it more complicated?

Manfred Gurlitt’s biography raises many questions. He was born in 1890 as the son of the prominent Berlin art dealer Fritz Gurlitt and his wife Annarella; yet he claimed that his real father was Fritz Waldecker, for many years the lover, (and after his father’s death, husband) of his mother.

Whether his father’s suspicious ancestry (according to the Nazis, he had Jewish blood) had anything to do with this claim, we do not know, but it certainly cannot be ruled out. Especially since young Manfred was a great supporter of the Nazi regime and he signed up as a member of the party as early as 1933.

That did not really help him and in 1937 he was expelled from the party and dismissed from all his positions, after which he fled to Tokyo. Under pressure from the Germans he had to resign from teaching at the Conservatory in 1942, but he did not suffer real persecution. What happened between 1933 and 1937 remains a mystery.

Gurlitt Wozzeck 1951 Tokyo (scene uit een film)
Gurlitt conducting his orchestra in Tokyo, 1951 (still from a Japanese film)

In 1953, he founded his own opera company, “Gurlitt Opera Company”, in Tokyo. Gurlitt never returned to Germany, he died in Tokyo in 1972.


Gurlitt Wozzeck

It is not easy to compare Berg’s opera with Gurlitt’s: the proverbial apples and pears are nothing to it.

This already begins with Büchner’s play, the starting point for both operas. For his opera, Gurlitt selected eighteen scenes, two more than Berg. To this he added an orchestral epilogue, ‘Klage um Wozzeck’, with “Wir arme Leut” sung by an off-stage choir at the end.

Gurlitt’s Wozzeck is much less bullied than his alter ego in Berg’s work; he is more of a victim of his own delusions. This becomes very clear in the scene with the imaginary  predictions of the future, which Berg skipped.

Unlike Berg, Gurlitt did not compose interludes between the scenes. His opera is more chamber-like and intimate, but also more theatrical and less atonal: in other words, more Weill and less Schönberg. The murder scene, which has a very late romantic feel to it, would not be out of place even in Verismo.

It was only in the 1990s that Gurlitt’s Wozzeck started with a cautious comeback. In 2016, after ninety years of absence, the opera returned to Bremen, the city where it had had its premiere. There were also performances in Bremenhaven and Berlin; and in 2013, Darmstadt dared to programme both Wozzecks in the same evening.

Gurlitt wozeck darmstadt
Wozzeck between Doktor and Hauptmann ©Satstheater Darmstadt

The recording I listened to was made in 1995 by the German company Capriccio. Gerd Albrecht, the conductor, with his heart in the right place for everything that has ever been declared “entartet” and the greatest advocate of music from the interwar period, leads the superbly playing Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin.

Dirigent Gerd Albrecht
Gerd Albrecht

The main roles are impressively played by Roland Hermann (Wozzeck) and Celina Lindsley (Marie).
Unlike in Berg, the Hauptmann is sung here by a solid bass baritone (Anton Scharinger at his best), making the role sound less caricatural. The baritone Jörg Gottschick is a very macho Tambourmajor. (Capriccio 60052-1)

And what did Alban Berg think of the ‘other’ Wozzeck?
In a letter to Erich Kleiber, he wrote: “I am objective enough to be able to say that it’s not bad or unoriginal-but I’m also objective enough to see that the broth in the kettle of this opera, that is, in the orchestra, is too watered down, even for ‘poor folks’ [arme Leut]…” (Christoph Hailey: Alban Berg and His World)

Hats off to Martha Argerich

Martha! She is eighty now but is she thinking about retirement? No way! On the contrary, she is still making new recordings, and knowing her, I expect her to keep stealing the show with her performances all over the world. For example look at the DG-cd with her interpretation of Debussy’s ‘Fantasy for piano and orchestra’. She has never recorded this work before, so it is a first.

She plays it in her own unique and inimitable way: a bit boisterous, with many colour nuances and demanding all attention. Center stage all of the time! The Barenboim-led Staatskappele Berlin is no more than just a decent accompanist to the real star. Which I don’t mind.

In ‘La Mer’, Barenboim loses me a bit. Used as I am to more impressionistic ‘brush strokes’, I am frightened a bit by the sheer violence of the sea. But well: it is surely a matter of taste and interpretation.

As for the violin sonata, played by Barenboim’s son Michael, I have heard it better. Not that it is bad, but it lacks the mysticism that I appreciate so much in other recordings. Try Shlomo Mintz with Yefim Bronfman:

Kian Soltani also does not quite convince me in the cello sonata. And since it is Barenboim and not Argerich playing the piano in both works, the cover of the CD is a bit misleading

Claude Debussy
Fantaisie pour piano et orchestre L 73; Violin Sonata in G minor, L. 148; Cello Sonata in D Minor, L. 135; La Mer, L. 109
Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim (piano), Michael Barenboim (violin), Kian Soltani (cello)
DG 74797990

Interview with Svetlana Aksenova from 2016

foto: Toni Suter/Tanja Dorendorf

Eight years ago she made her DNO debut as the girl Fevroniya in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitesh. Dmitri Chernyakov’s production won the 2013 International Opera Award for best new production of the year, and Aksenova’s performance was described as sensational. The critics praised her velvety tones and her endurance: in the more than four-hour opera she was on stage almost continuously. Eight years ago, she was still the ‘rising star’, but by now you can safely leave out the ‘rising’ in front of her name.

Marc Albrecht (conductor), Dmitri Tcherniakov (director/sets), Dmitri Tcherniakov/Elena Zaytseva (costumes), Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting design)
Svetlana Aksenova (Fevronja) Foto: Monika Rittershaus

How does she look back on her Amsterdam debut and on the production itself? And what does she think of Fevronija? To me, she (but also Emma and Liza) embodies the Russian soul: melancholic and often depressed and grieving.

“She’s pretty other-worldly, yes, but it’s a fairy tale. Whether I can find something of the proverbial ‘Russian soul’ in her? I don’t really know. The melancholy, the wistfulness, you can find it in her music. But she is also a kind of bright spot in all the sadness.”

“I found the role very challenging. Not only in terms of the notes themselves: the production itself was demanding. It was very heavy, especially physically. I was pregnant with my son at the time, so I had to push myself to the limit. Would I ever want to sing it in the old-fashioned setting? I never really thought about it. I found the Amsterdam production extremely fascinating.”

And Emma?
“Emma is so difficult! To be honest, I’m a bit scared of Emma: she’s so expressive!  Her performance is very short, no more than fifteen minutes, but those fifteen minutes are so terribly intense!”

What do you think: does Andrej (Chovanski) love Emma? After all, he is always looking for her? And: could Emma possibly feel something for him too?
“Are you kidding? Andrej has just killed her parents and then he is raping her! She despises him! Andrej is indeed fascinated by her, but he is obsessive. You can’t call that love, can you? Emma is different too, she is not Russian, she is German. And Lutheran.“

And Marfa? How do you see her? Does she really want to protect Emma? After all, she was Andrej’s mistress and she is still in love with him?
“Interesting question. I haven’t even thought about that. Rehearsals haven’t started yet……”

But what do you yourself think? “Marfa is radical. She’s in the cult…”

But is she in it because she believes in it? Aksenova is silent for a moment.
“Interesting question,” she repeats. “I think I’ll wait and see what the director does with it,
what he will make of it”.

“But: write it down, please: I love Mussorgsky and I have high expectations of the production. It also gives me the opportunity to spend some time together with my husband (the tenor Maksim Aksenov who sings the role of Andrej). We met nine years ago and have been married for five, but it is not often that we can really be together for a while. And: I’m looking forward to seeing the chorus of DNO again. They really are so, so, so fantastic!”

Chovanshchina: trailer – De Nationale Opera | Dutch National Opera:

“And I am really looking forward to Pique Dame. To be able to sing that very role with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and under Maris Jansons… It’s more than a privilege!”

You have sung the role of Liza (Pique Dame) before. Can you compare her to Tatyana
“Liza I find a bit strange. She has an attractive and rich fiancé and yet she is attracted to the unworldly man. What should she do with it?”

 On my question of whether she sees her as a Gothic girl, she has to think for a moment. “Gothic? What do you mean by that? No, not that, but she is definitely strange. I don’t think she’s that pure and innocent. Really not. How else could she sing: in you alone I can confide what is etched into my soul, what I really feel……”

“Liza is so different from Tatyana! Tatyana is strong! She may live in her own fantasy world, but she is courageous! I admire her very much, also because I don’t know if I could have done it. Especially back then, in those days”.

Aksenova as Liza in 2011:

Svetlana Aksenova was born in St. Petersburg. She studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, after which she continued her studies in Italy with Renata Scotto.
“I was an apprentice of hers for three years. I was one of her ‘court pupils’ in her opera studio.
She taught me a lot. The most important thing was how to deal with the score. How you should move. She also always said: perfection does not exist”.

“As a child I always used to dream two different dreams: something for now (ice cream!) and something for later. For when I am big and famous. It was unrealistic maybe, but I was dreaming it anyway. I love coloratura sopranos, so I wished for roles like Lucia. Or Violetta. Sometimes I still envy my colleagues: I would really like to sing these roles, but I realise that they are not really for me.”
“I started out as a mezzo but now I’m a real spinto. Not really dramatic, but certainly not really lyrical and certainly not a coloratura.”

Aksenova as Butterfly in Oslo:

“The only really lyrical role I sang was Micaela in Carmen. It was a production by Calixto Bieito. I was a bit afraid of it, but it turned out to be a hundred per cent better than I expected. The collaboration was good. Then we did Britten’s War Requiem in Basel together and I thought that was fantastic. But then came Otello which was a real disaster. I could not understand the connection between the first, second and third acts. They were like three different characters… “

Aksenova as Desdemona:

“My dream roles? Something comical, please! I would like to be funny on stage! I have a talent for comedy, really! But it is so difficult in my type of voice. The only one I can hope for is Alice in Falstaff and that will come.

What else? I would really like to sing Salome in Herodiade by Massenet, the aria alone is so incredibly beautiful! Also Adriana Lecouvreur and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk are high on my wish list. But my absolute dream role is Maria in Mazeppa by Tchaikovsky.”

“Nowadays I prepare my roles with the great Bulgarian mezzo Alexandrina Milcheva (a.o. Marfa in the Sony recording under Tchakarov). She is now 80 years old.”

Trailer of Pique Dame in Amsterdam:

War… there is no word more cruel

Weinberg 18

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, or at least his music, is making an accelerated catch-up. After years of being completely ignored, his works are being programmed more and more often, and one composition after another by the great master (for that is what he undoubtedly was,) is being recorded and released on CD.

Many of his compositions are strongly influenced by his teacher and intimate friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, but never before have I perceived this influence so strongly as in his trumpet concerto composed in 1966. Of course, this is also due to the choice of instrument. Like no other, the trumpet is perfectly suited to express irony, the favourite form of expression of both composers. No wonder that Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings comes to mind.

The orchestration is also ‘des Sjostakovichs’: think of his Lady Macbeth of Mstsensk. The essential difference lies in its overall refinement and in the development and solution of the main theme. Where the teacher still set his own limit, the pupil takes it a step further, into the wide world.

Part two, Episodes, strongly reminds me of Ives and in the third part, the Fanfares, Weinberg explores atonality. In doing so, he freely makes use of improvisations and free jazz.

Andrew Balio is, I think (I do not know him), one of the greatest virtuosos among trumpet players. His melancholic sound in the second movement contrasts sharply with his fantastic improvisations in the third.

The 18th symphony is, as the title suggests, nothing less than a major indictment of war. Composed for the Soviet Union in the turbulent 1980s, it does not fail to impress with its unconventional division of the movements. It starts with an adagio and it also ends with an adagio; the pianissimo poem by Aleksandr Tvardovsky sung by the choir:

“War – there is no word more cruel.
War – there is no word more sad.
War – there is no word more holy
In the sorrow and the glory of these years.
There is and there could not be
Any other word on our lips.”

Very impressive.

Nicolai Gedda, lyric poet of the tenor voice

Scandinavia is a cradle of good voices. They have a singing culture that we can only dream of. No wonder, then, that many world-famous singers come from there. Nicolai Gedda is one of them. The Swede born on July 11, 1925 spent the first nine years of his life in Leipzig, where his Russian father was appointed cantor of the Russian Orthodox Church. From childhood he was fluent in Swedish, Russian and German, to which he added a lot more languages later in life.

Gedda was an exceptionally musical and intelligent singer with a healthy technique, which allowed him to have a very long singing career. I myself heard him for the first time when he was well over seventy, but his voice was still young and fresh.

His repertoire included, apart from the heroic roles, basically everything: opera, operetta, oratorios, songs, old and modern. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, but also Massenet and Puccini, Bernstein and Barber. The latter composed the role of Anatol (Vanessa) especially for him.

Below: Nicolai Gedda sings ‘Outside this house the world has changed’ from Barber’s Vanessa

In 2010, it was fifty years since Gedda made his first recording for EMI, and to celebrate this, 11 CDs were compiled with anything and everything from his rich repertoire. An absolute must for anyone who loves the art of singing.

Below: Nicolai Gedda and Maria Callas in ‘Vogliatemi Bene’ from Madama Butterfly

Bach, Gluck, Mozart, Adam, Puccini, Beethoven, Borodin, Berlioz, Bizet en nog veel meer
EMI 4560952

Here is a small selection of his many capabilities:

Die Kathrin, Korngold’s last opera, still awaiting rediscovery


Through the years 1934 – 1938, Korngold commuted between Hollywood and Vienna. He worked on film music in winter and spent the summers on his “more serious” works. This was also the time of Die Kathrin, an opera that he had already begun in 1932 and which would remain his last. The story is set during the First World War and deals with the love between a French soldier and a German maid.

The premiere was planned for January 1938, but Jan Kiepura, who was to sing the role of François, unfortunately had to cancel, due to his obligations at the MET. The premiere was postponed. And then came the Anschluss.

Just in time, Korngold was called back to Hollywood, where he was required to finish his score for Robin Hood in just a few days. On January 29, he set sail on the ‘Normandie’, coincidentally together (oh, the irony!) with Kiepura and his wife.

The composer was safe, but his possessions, including the manuscripts and scores, were confiscated. In a sly manner (page by page sewn in between the safe Beethovens and Strausses) they were sent to America.

Die Kathrin was performed in Stockholm in October 1939 and it was an enormous fiasco. This was partly due to the weak libretto, but mainly due to the anti-Semitism which also prevailed in Swedish newspapers.

More than sixty years later, the opera was recorded by CPO. That is fortunate, because there is a lot to be enjoyed. It is filled with really brilliant music, presenting a fusion of opera, operetta, musical and film. A common mix in those days – a “Zeitoper” therefore. There is a lot to listen to and the many arias lend themselves to singing along.

Kathrin’s ‘letter aria’ is strikingly similar to Marietta’s song from Die Tote Stadt, and her prayer brings tears to the sensitive listener’s eyes. And of course the tenor has some lovely music of his own.

Below Anton Dermota sings ‘Wo ist mein Heim’ in a recording from 1949 conducted by Korngold himself:

The love duet is perhaps the most beautiful in all of Korngold’s operas and even the villain, Mallignac, gets to sing beautiful notes, which immediately makes him more human.

The last word on Die Kathrin has not yet been said, but will we ever get to experience a live performance? The music deserves it. Was something like this perhaps Puccini’s intention when he thought of writing an operetta?

Below, Renee Fleming sings ‘Ich soll ihn niemals mehr sehen’:

About music that was banned

The term “entartet” (degenerate) was already in use in criminology in the 19th century, it meant something like “biologically degenerate”. The Nazis made grateful use of this idea; that it was something to be wary of, a bad influence that had to be banned. Modernism, Expressionism, jazz … and Jews of course, they were degenerated from the start, they could make Aryan souls sick. They all had to be banned.

What had started as prohibition soon developed into exclusion and resulted in murder. Those who managed to flee to America or England usually survived the war, but at what cost?

Those who stayed in Europe were doomed. Many composers were deported via Theresienstadt to the concentration and extermination camps, many ended up there directly. After the war they were totally forgotten and thus murdered a second time. Those who survived were called hopelessly old-fashioned and therefore their works were not performed. The turnaround finally came in the 1990s, too late for most.

Michael Haas, then a very efficient producer for Decca, started an unsurpassed series called ‘Entartete Musik’. Unfortunately, it did not last: it did not sell. Haas was fired and most of those CDs are now out of the catalogue.

Michael Haas at Tonzauber Studios Vienna, photo Georg Burdicek

In 2004, Michael Haas was back, in Amsterdam of all places: together with Jan Zekveld and Mauricio Fernandez (respectively artistic director and head of casting of the Matinee) he put together a beautiful series for the Saturday Matinee in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, starting with a magnificent performance of Schreker’s Die Ferne Klang.

But the small German firms CPO, Cappricio and Orfeo assiduously continued to record special treasures of forgotten works. Orfeo even devoted a special series to that music, called ‘Musica Rediviva’. This included the opera Die Bakchantinen by Egon Wellesz (Orfeo C136 012H), which was also performed at the Matinee.

Schulhoff’s vocal symphonies (Orfeo C056031 A) are not to be despised either. Composed in the years 1918/19, they breathe the unadulterated atmosphere of the fin de siècle: dark and heavily melancholic they show us another Schulhoff, the romantic pur sang. The warm, dark timbre of Doris Soffel fits the melancholic melodies like a glove.

An absolute must is the DVD entitled ‘Verbotene Klange. Komponisten in Exil’ (Capriccio 93506). It is a documentary on German and Austrian composers who, as the commentator puts it, “instead of being revered, were despised”. And who, thanks to emigration, survived. With interviews with, among others, Ernst Krenek and Berthold Goldschmidt: the latter we meet at the very first recording (after 50 years!) of his string quartets. And the almost centenarian Krenek says something that could be called typical for that generation: “I am caught between continents. In America I don’t really feel ‘heimisch’, but I would never consider going back to Europe. There is no home for me anywhere. Not anymore.

Khatia Buniatishvili: the world’s most glamorous pianist?

Photo © EstherHaaase/Sony

She has been called the world’s most glamorous pianist and that may well be true. In today’s music world, it is not only talent and ability that counts. Even winning a prestigious competition does not automatically lead to a contract with a record company: if you really want to make it, you also have to be able to present yourself as attractive as possible on a cover.

© Esther Haase/Sony

Khatia Buniatishvili is busy. Performances, recordings, book signings, interviews, festivals and even TV appearances with talks about fashion and her choice of clothes: like everything about her, her dresses are special too.

Getting an interview is easier said than done, but after a lot of scheduling and rescheduling, I finally manage to get her on the phone. She apologises for postponing the appointment and I immediately forgive her: Buniatishvili is extremely kind.

Batumi is mentioned as her place of birth. An exotic name I know from a song from my childhood in Poland. A song, sung by a very popular girl group at the time, which after all these years still haunts me.

Would Buniatishvili know it? I sing it to her and she laughs. No, it means nothing to her. The name of the composer, Ajwazian, is also completely unknown to her. Moreover, she may have been born in Batumi, but in fact she is not really from there.

“I was born there, but that was no more than a coincidence. We are originally from Tbilisi and my father happened to be in Batoumi for his work. When I was two months old we moved back to Tbilisi. So actually I am from Tbilisi”.

© BBC Music

It is more than striking how many new young musical talents come from Georgia. Pianists, violinists, singers… One Georgian name after another appears in large neon letters above the biggest concert stages and halls around the world. Buniathisvili may be part of a musical family, but how about the others? How does she explain the enormous success of Georgian musicians and singers? Is it something to do with training? Or just the upbringing? Are children there being fed something that makes them more receptive to music? Is there a special diet that makes Georgian children more gifted than those from, say, the Netherlands?

“Hahahaha! No, of course not. It is our folk music. Well, mainly. We have a huge and rich tradition of music making, it’s in us, in our genes. Georgia is a small country inhabited by different peoples, so we have a huge diversity in folk music. There is a song for everything: for love, war, struggle and victory. And for death. Really for everything.”

“Music is natural to us, playing and singing is innate in our people. What’s more, our country has an exceptionally good music education, we are spoon-fed anything that has to do with music, as it were.”

I tell her that I am particularly impressed with her penultimate album, Motherland. The pieces she plays there are less virtuoso than her usual repertoire. She also plays them very softly. And lovingly. The CD moves me very much.

But why is the album called Motherland? You would expect it to contain music by Georgian composers, but apart from When Almonds Blossomed by Giya Kanchelli and a folk song Vaguiorko ma, arranged by Buniatishvili herself, there is nothing Georgian to be discovered.


“I dedicated the CD to my mother. I wanted to combine all styles, from baroque to (more) modern, to folk. In this way I wanted to declare my love to her, to let her know how much I love her. So the title refers to my mother, not to my country. I am really glad that you like the CD so much, it means that I have succeeded in communicating my emotions…”

“On the CD I also play a piece, Dumka by Dvorak, with my sister Gvantsa. She is a great pianist and I regret that we cannot play together more often. But we are making lots of plans. And soon we are going to record something together. I’m looking forward to that.”

“Why did I choose the piano and not another instrument? I didn’t.

People say I should have become a violinist because of my perfect pitch, but it was the piano that was meant for me. I didn’t make the choice. At least, not consciously. I didn’t choose the piano: the piano chose me.”

Is there still such a thing as the renowned ‘Russian piano school’?
For a moment there is silence and in the silence I can hear a question mark, so I repeat my question.

“No. I don’t think so. Everything has become international. Borders no longer exist or are blurred. Which gives you more opportunity to develop your own style, not bound by national borders. What is important for me is that I stay true to myself.”

“I am not a perfectionist, nor do I strive for that. Perfection takes the soul out of music. I am and will remain a flesh-and-blood human being, not some building material.”

“I also think it is important to enter into a kind of relationship with the composer. I find the thought that a composer made a certain piece especially for me very important and exciting, it also helps me. When I study a new piece – and by that I mean new to me – I try to avoid all other interpretations. I never listen to recordings then, because I want to make the score my own, all mine. I want to feel that I am the first.”

“My style can be described as a combination of extrovert and introvert. I love both equally and both are parts of me. Of me as a person and also of my way of making music. But it is, I think, also a female characteristic. Piano as a symbol of the loneliness that you can share with other people.”

Her interpretations are rather wild. Or, to put it kinder: energetic. Extraordinarily virtuoso too. Does she choose her repertoire from that category? How does she feel about the more subdued composers? Which does she prefer to play: solo recitals? Concerts? Chamber music?

“I like to play chamber music. Just like concerts and recitals, by the way.

Which of the three do I prefer? I couldn’t choose, but recitals are my favourite. With concerts you have to make a lot of compromises, it can’t be helped. The same with chamber music, because you also have to deal with your partner(s). But if it clicks, the result can be very satisfying.”

But what if you don’t agree with the conductor? I cite as an example the famous quarrel between Glenn Gould and Bernstein concerning the interpretation of Brahms’ piano concerto.

“I firmly believe that you can make compromises. That is what rehearsals are for, so that you can exchange ideas and if necessary meet each other halfway. But my thoughts, my ideas about a composition are sacred to me.”

Artists today are real globetrotters with many residences all over the world. Where does she feel at home?

“Everywhere actually. Georgia is very dear to me because that’s where my family lives, but Paris also feels like home, this is where I live.”


In February 2016, Sony released a solo album of hers, featuring works by Mussorgsky, Ravel and Stravinsky. And in May that same year, Buniatishvili performed at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ.

Buniatishvili plays Mussorgsky at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam:

“I love Amsterdam. No, I don’t ride a bike. My parents never let me. I always had to be mindful of my hands, take care not to hurt them, so I didn’t learn. But I like to walk through the streets of the city for hours… it is so beautiful!

Autobahn versus magnetic levitation.

Text: Neil van der Linden

I first got to know the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto (b.1952) through the Yellow Magic Orchestra, formed in 1978, a Japanese electronic artpop ensemble of which Sakamoto was a member, responding to Euro-synthesizer-pop acts like Germany’s Kraftwerk, Switzerland’s Yello, Jean Michel Jarre and Donna Summer’s disco music recordings with Giorgio Moroder. The Yellow Magic Orchestra or YMO as their name was often abbreviated gradually developed a style of their own, a mixture of jagged computer-generated riffs resembling computer game tunes and smooth, suave and sometimes cheesy melodies. As more and more of the electronic instruments were being made in Japan, first by imitating the American and European originals, then coming up with more advanced, reliable and userfriendly models, the members of the YMO more and more went their own way well.

Sakamoto’s solo career started to soar with his magnificent role as actor in the movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), playing opposite David Bowie and Tom Conti, for which Sakamoto also composed the music.

Ryuichi Sakamoto © Kab Inc. | Photography by zakkubalan

Japanese culture was becoming fashionable just when the Western political leaders started to depict Japan as an economic threat to the West. In Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence Sakamoto personified a different Japan. He was likeable, good looking, easily embodying the semi-homoerotic infatuation between the characters played by him and by Bowie that is at the centre of the storyline. Musically this was even sealed in a vocal version of a piece in the soundtrack, ‘Forbidden Colours’, performed by Sakamoto with singer David Sylvian, frontman of the British glam-art-rock band Japan, who were toying with queer symbolism as well as hip Japanese and Chinese aestheticism in their image.

Sakamoto did more beautiful collaborations, with Sylvian and others, and he continued making soundtracks for movies like Bertolucci ‘s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant.

PhotoByNata_ opromadze19-e1602257243821

Swiss-Georgian composer Alexandre Kordzaia a.k.a. Kordz (b.1994) studied in Basel and at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague (with Yannis Kyriakides). In Georgia Kordzaia made a name with dance music and collaborations with the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra. Here he worked with Asko|Schönberg, the Nieuw Ensemble and the Residentie Orkest in The Hague. Recently he wrote an adaptation of for Dutch dance ensemble Club Guy & Roni.

Kordz x Sakamoto is a collage of material mostly originating from Sakamoto’s early years, including the theme song from Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. We hear modern electronics, plus vintage electronic instruments, plus the acoustic instrumentalist of the ensemble, with Kordzaia behind the piano. Most of the music flows like a smooth machine, but sometimes disruption occurs, like drum rolls that go against the metre, and a long virtuoso and in this context deliberately alien, ‘dirty’ clarinet solo, by David Kweksilber.

The result sounds like Sakamoto embedded in an idiom that ASKO|Schönberg is so much at home with, of for instance Louis Andriessen. “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence meets Andriessen’s De Staat.” Imagine the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra playing Bert Kaempfert, including of course masterpieces like Strangers in the Night and Living it Up (alias Theme from Kapitein Zeppos), paying homage to the tone colouring of Bruckner and Debussy at the same time. Something I would not want to miss.

Kordzaia emphasised that some of the music of the Yellow Magic Orchestra in their early years has inspired the later pioneering American techno and hiphop musicians, by interweaving techno- and hiphop-beats at certain points and making the ensemble-members rap and cheer as if they are in a houseparty.

I listened to the radio broadcast of the performance the next evening and it became clear that the music, somewhat against my initial misgivings I must admit, stood the test of being consumed as music as such. While another strong point of the live performance, which I had not yet mentioned, was absent, namely the wonderful visual installation by the Dutch light artist Boris Acket.

From back to front the cut parts of a single tree are fixed to the ceiling, its branches arching over the musicians. Above the tree, a set of LED-light screens, a metre wide, thirty metre long, stretches along the middle of the ceiling of the hall. The LEDs initially show black and white light patterns, resembling the patterns of early computergames, or white on black stripes of a highway, but soon the images become coloured, resembling landscapes gliding by in high-speed, as is we were riding the Maglev, the Japanese magnetic levitation train, the fastest in the world, with the Milky Way above us.

This association with high-tech urban transport could stand for how Sakamoto might see his evolution from emulating one of his first main influences, the 1974 LP Autobahn by Kraftwerk, to becoming an artist on his own, with the German Autobahn, the German highway, with what drives on it, German cars, once the pinnacle of Western  technology, in a few decades gradually being replaced by technology often coming from the Far-East, much better suited for modern metropoles, like that of the clean and smooth Maglev. Tree-friendlier, even though for this event a tree had to be felled.

Could the tree stand for Sakamoto himself, the giant who recently was diagnosed with recurring cancer, the reason he could not be present at the festival?

The Autobahn is there itself as well.

The Asko|Schönberg ensemble performing adaptions of Ryuichi Sakomoto’s mysic by Alexandre Kordzaia, conducted by Kordzaia.
Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, June 15th 2021.
Pictures of a rehearsal by Ada Nieuwendijk.

Avantgarde and retrospection

Text: Neil van der Linden

Short Circuit

Avantgarde and retrospection, that could be the theme of Short Circuit, a Holland Festival event filled with four performances created by favourites of the festival’s ‘Associate Artists’ Gisèle Vienne and Ryiuchi Sakamoto. The whole program ingeniously made use of the various spaces at ‘De School’, an abandoned school building that for a while was known for its alternative art events and audio-visual parties.

Gisèle Vienne herself made a choreography for performer Katia Petrowick. One of the former classrooms is dressed up as a sort of vintage disco, apparently during in the aftermath of a dance night, with garlands, crumbled drink cans and chips bags lying around on the floor. We hear loud music in the style of mid-eighties Detroit techno or the kind of music Alex Patterson of the Orb would play during after-parties; I remember great nights at Paradiso and Fuse/La Démence in Brussels. Petrowick enters and moves across the floor in slow motion, while the music still without metre. Knowing that the whole event is supposed to last three and a half hours, at first you could be inclined to ask yourself am I ready to attend this kind of things for such a long time, but soon the whole ambiance of performance takes over, and the music catches tempo.

As absurd as it may sound, a highlight is when the character on stage finds a leftover full bag of chips in a Lidl shopping bag and slowly opens it; the thud of the exploding bag being pressed open brings us back in real-time and becomes an almost frightening event.

The whole ambiance reminded me of the magnificent, ghastly movie Climax by Gaspar Noé, about a group of young French dancers having a farewell party before leaving for a US tour, which completely runs out of hands after somebody slips LSD into the drinks, with even mortal consequences, all this on fantastic vintage techno music. I imagined the performance to be the scene of the evening after the events in Climax unfolded.

Meanwhile the performer was about 10 metres away from the front row where I sat, yet the smell of the chips from the bag was penetrating. Also, this for a moment brought me back to the present; if we can inhale the smell chips at 10 metres, what about the aerosols we were afraid of during almost one and a half year? However, no reason to worry, everybody in the audience had to be tested for COVID19 prior to the event. Good to know.

The audience was guided through the performances in various orders. For my group, the evening concluded with a concert by J. Bonnet and Stephen F. O’Malley, performing on guitars and sundry electronic devices. I deliberately use the word sundry as that was the favourite word for pioneering seventies and eighties progressive rock guitarist Robert Fripp describing the instruments he used, and indeed his is the music I had to think of. Harmoniously rich, making use of all the possibilities of distortion, reverb and feedback, and loud. Other alternative rock influences I had to think of are Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth, and, talking about loud, the Irish ‘shoegazer music’ band My Bloody Valentine, who were notoriously loud; like with that one My Bloody Valentine concert I attended in Paradiso, I’m still a little deaf after yesterday’s performance, although a bit less deaf than then – time soothes.

The setting was in another former classroom, overlooking a dark seemingly quiet garden outside. But the building is located next to a ramp leading to the Amsterdam ringroad behind it and through the trees every five or six seconds the head- and taillights of cars could be seen, however as their noises were drown out by the sound produced on stage, the lights looked strangely tranquil. By then the three and a half hours had almost passed and you still found yourself glued in a chair absorbed by the whole event that otherwise might have looked like something you had all seen before.

The two, both Japanese, performances in between were of no less ‘nostalgic’ interest. At first Yuko Mohri, who names Satie, Duchamp and Cage as her examples, especially as she shares their use of coincidental elements in music. She puts up small ‘sundry’ household objects dishes, pots, tins, attaching them to toylike mechanical and electric devices that create vibrations causing the objects to resonate. The resulting sounds are captured by directional microphones and transferred to an electromechanics device that play the keys of a piano. The playfulness and the loving care with which everything was carried out were a joy to watch. In the end the audience joined as the sound of the applause was also able to steer the piano keys. In between there was a viewing of a video of the zen gardens created by the artist Yuki Kawae.

For the other Japanese performance, I would also like to name a reference. Tujiko Noriko’s single long song in which she accompanies her etheric voice singing in alternatingly English and Japanese sounded like slow-motion, softened down version of Walking on Thin Ice; if there was only one great example of Yoko Ono’s contribution to pop music to be named, it was that song. She and John Lennon concluded its recording of it in December 1980, the day that on their return from the recording studio John was murdered.

This performance by Noriko, serenely standing next to her laptop in slowly shifting colours from the light installation, probably coincidentally, embodied something dramatic beyond its seemingly soothing sound.

Later in the Holland festival, the performance Kindertotenlieder will reunite Gisèle Vienne, Katia Petrowick and Stephen F. O’Malley,  June 16 and 18, Westergasfabriek.

(And by chance the movie Climax is back in Amsterdam these days at LAB 111.)

Short Circuit, Yuko Mohri, Gisèle Vienne/Katia Petrowick, François J. Bonnet & Stephen F. O’Malley and Tujiko Noriko, and a video by Yuki Kawae, as part of the Holland Festival, De School building, Amsterdam, Saturday June the 12th