© Xavier Lambours

Andri Hardmeier: In addition to coal, iron ore was also mined in the Ruhr area, and as of the mid-19th century it was smelted with the coke from Ruhr coal. Your music theater piece, Die Erdfabrik (The Earth Factory), premieres in the Gebläsehalle at the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord. Until 1985, pig iron was produced for the steel industry here. How did making a new piece of music theater for this place transpire?

Georges Aperghis: When they suggested I write a new piece of music theater for the Ruhrtriennale, in addition to the geographic location I immediately thought of the mines and the coal. When I was a kid, we heated with coke. I started writing about the subject, reading a lot about the mines, looking at photos of miners. Then Jean-Christophe Bailly brought me a poem by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and we started to talk about it. Jean-Christophe had been in various mines in France, in the Ruhr, and mainly in Wales. He showed me pictures, and then I started to realize what concerned me, what I wanted to talk about. About this job under very specific, difficult conditions, the darkness and the various perspectives on it. What is darkness? How do the spaces come about that you can hardly see, or you can only see from a glimmer, a small light?

The 1844 poem Erzstufe (Ore), by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff is an integral part of the text that Jean-Christophe Bailly compiled and largely wrote himself and which the composition underlies. One part of the poem goes, »The winch wheezes, the tub trundles. / Don’t you hear the plumes whirling?«[1] Annette von Droste-Hülshoff plays with the sound of individual words or syllables. Here you really hear the music. You parse words into syllables and phonemes, play with fragments of text, repetitions of single sounds that seem arranged like building blocks. Would you describe the game as an integral part of your compositional work?

Definitely. For me it’s important to play with the audience’s memory, the recognition of things that appear in a different context. I like it when the audience is active, and I play with sequences, expectations as they always are in classical music. You hear a theme, a variation, you follow a line and that’s lovely. It’s a game, a little labyrinth. Working with syllables for me is like working with notes, with sounds. They are sounds, but you can’t make harmonies with them. They’re to be spoken only, but music is not intended to arise from what is spoken, from the juxtaposition of individual syllables.
Jean-Christophe also told me about a carnival in Bolivia where there’s a huge mine. A reward for their daily work, the people would throw a wild party with masks, a mix of invented deities that belonged to the mine and Christian deities. That all gave me the idea of transforming the stones and cave walls into grinning, almost demonic figures, like a crazy festival at night.

Die Erdfabrik is a kind of journey through the past of our earth, to times millions of years ago. Jean-Christophe Bailly calls coal the »child of light«, as it is the ancient storage of solar energy from previous ages. How does the removal of layers deep beneath the ground manifest in your composition?

The removal of layers is precisely what interests me. For me it’s contained in the title, Die Erdfabrik. People think they can create the earth according to their own will. They can find and dismantle things, they can build mining galleries and tunnels. They have ways to fashion the earth as they ultimately desire it. And it’s not about beauty, rather it’s mainly about profit. And as you go into the depths, you gouge through various layers, sediment from times before humanity began to inhabit this planet. I have tried to find various musical materials as one comes across various materials in the earth’s interior.

The way you deal with the phenomenon of mining is very associative. It’s music about ourselves, about love, about language, about the body, how it behaves. It’s a kind of poem about darkness, night, about stillness.

Right, that’s it, a small mental journey. There really isn’t a lot to see, little things the singer does, focusing on the falling drops, for example, she plays with and talks to. The players, four musicians and a singer, don’t play miners; they manipulate symbols and tones to create an illusion. The audience thinks they’re seeing, but they don’t really see, rather they imagine things, fill in gaps.


It’s almost like you see things with the eyes of a child.

Yes, that is my perspective. Originally, there was a sequence in which a child crossed the room into the blackness, just because. I ended up leaving it out because it seemed too tangible. But these images really speak to me. The child’s fear in the dark, children’s games in the twilight. The game known as blind man’s bluff. That’s precisely what interests me!

Your instruments as well attest to playfulness: the rich percussion is equipped with melodica, tin whistles, decoy birds, singing saws, hammers, sirens, glass bottles, just to name a few.

I work a lot with sounds, but here I tried to find two things in particular. One, how I imagine the sound of falling drops. Two, how and what one hears in the dark. Those are two things at the root of my compositional work, which of course I then revised and ramped up. And I looked for sounds from materials similar to the miners’ tools. So there are hammers or even alarm sirens. And I tried to coax sounds out of the instruments – drums, contrabass, and trumpet – which musically transpose the noise of working in the mines.

As the poem by Jean-Christophe Bailly goes, »The darkness of night with its luster of stars is the likeness of earth’s darkness, where many small, invisible highlights wait to be seen by us.«[2] What does the reference of the depth, the darkness beneath the earth to the universe surrounding us mean to you?

I really like this image. What you find in the depths of the earth is ultimately the heavens, for the deeper you go the purer it becomes. Die Erdfabrik also deals a lot with opposites, the connection of extreme poles: light and darkness, heaviness and lightness, small and big, the serious and the playful. Because if you really go into the depths, into the darkness and it seems to to become more and more hopeless there’s still the child in us that comes back and says, all right, let’s wake up again, let’s get up and keep playing. This, too, is a way of saying, as Jean-Christophe puts it, that the deeper you go into the earth, the closer you come to the heavens. The deeper you sink into sadness, the greater your sense of humor, which you need to survive. Which is how you come closer to the heavens, by getting to the bottom of the earth. And here we return to coal as the »child of light«, the insight that coal is nothing more than the vegetation of bygone eras, that it’s made of plants from that faraway time that were nourished by the sun.

Insomnia, too, immersion in stillness, the uncanny quality of the darkness around us, figure prominently in Die Erdfabrik.

In principle you could call the whole piece insomnia. It’s about the things that go through your head when you’re not asleep or dozing off. There are pleasant moments, and then there are moments when it can become quite frightening. You realize that in the dark everything is very different. As in silence, we don’t have the same perception. We hear different things in silence. And what’s amazing is that Jean-Christophe told me about precisely the experience he had going down into a mine. About the absolute silence, which still isn’t like silence, and about the darkness. So I tried to imagine that. Since we’re used to darkness that isn’t black, where there’s always something shining somewhere. Absolute blackness is rare, as is absolute silence. The last time I experienced it I was at IRCAM (Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique), where there’s a room with just nothing. And so you start to hear yourself, to hear how your own body works. For me, it’s a kind of machine music, with machines that are organic. That’s what I wanted to work on.


Since founding your theater group Atelier Théâtre et Musique (ATEM) in the 1970s in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet, you’ve become a formative character in the development of contemporary music theater. »Théâtre musical« can be seen as a counterpart to opera. A poetic, experimental music theater, in which musicians, singers, actors, and visual artists come together and collaborate on the creation of new forms of music theater.

Yes, it’s abstract, poetic music theater that brings together various players. For me it’s less about finding a counterpart to opera; I’ve composed operas side-by-side. My approach is rather to isolate each component of music theater. For example to isolate the lyrics, the light, the images, the sounds, which don’t all say the same thing. Meaning they’re free. What leads me to write music are the many ways of bringing together, superimposing or juxtaposing fragments that at first don’t have anything to do with one another. My work consists of creating connections, but not transitions. Rather they’re breaks or conflicts or a game between things, a back and forth, to arrive at a construction which I don’t know, would’ve never expected, and that I want to hear. In this way a kind of polyphony of various texts, various music, etc. can develop. In opera there’s one text, a theatrical situation, there are characters and a story that wants to be told. And once the composition of the opera is complete, the director joins to bring the story to the stage. In »théâtre musical«, however, there’s a subject that I’m trying to illuminate from different sides, that I’m trying to tell different stories about. Here it’s the mine. Before I made a work about robots or a piece on surveillance and control. So these are all subjects that I revolve around. But everything involving music, sound, or video is independent at the beginning. Everything has a life of its own. From this I try to create polyphony. So it’s totally different than telling a linear story. And ultimately it’s the audience that becomes the narrative, as they make the stories. I just set the elements. Oftentimes after a show people will tell me they’ve experienced many different things in the same evening. That makes me really happy.

You yourself once described your work as »faire musique de tout« (make music of everything). What does that mean to you?

I didn’t come up with that. It’s the idea that music also has a visual component. That is, gestures in musical time become music themselves, and that ultimately everything found in that time can become music. It’s like in the theater, when you configure theatrical time. And for me theater is always in musical time, a time into which you can inscribe events. Musicians or singers or actors can for a short time become a character, even only for a few seconds. And then they do something else because the music indicates it. It’s not about playing the instrument, it’s the whole body that’s involved, behaviors. Language and body, communication and interaction are the focus. You could say that it’s like a puzzle, that you perceive different moments, for example, that the trumpeter ultimately did become a character in an indistinct way, without really knowing what character. You have an idea, more tangible than intended, but you can’t define it. It’s not just the nice sound that makes the music.

Your equal treatment of music, language, gesture, and mimic art opens a whole field of research. Your pieces integrate vocal, instrumental, narrative, and staged elements into a singular expressive frame. Making music itself becomes a staged action. How do you develop such a show? Is it a collective process as well?

I usually start alone to see where the journey is going. Then I saw that the drawings produced by Jeanne Apergis could work really good with the world that I imagine, and create a distance to a more tangible theater play. So I told her about it and she tried different things. It all happens simultaneously. I started writing and at the same time talked to Daniel Lévy about the lighting and to Nina Bonardi about the set. And that’s how it all comes together. We meet at my place and continue working together. Jérôme Truncer came on board for video. And of course, Jean-Christophe Bailly was there from the beginning. Bit by bit all of these aspects merge while I write the music.

As part of the Ruhrtriennale, The Wege Project allows visitors to experience and discover the Ruhr area on foot. At the last Ruhrtriennale, the South American artist Lisandro Rodriguez plastered the way to the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord with questions about the relationships between art and mining, about relations between power and nature. In his project EL EXTRANJERO, he saw himself as a stranger who asks questions in order to understand. One of them was, »Is art the new mining?«

I often think that the daily work of the artist consists of going down into the mine every morning to bring material up to the top. Every morning you continue your work anew, you wonder what’ll happen, what will come if it. Of course, it’s not as hard and dangerous as in a mine, socially it’s unrelated. But it’s the bottom of the shaft you have to go down into. It’s definitely a metaphor for concentration, for the attempt to go within to hear things. Without deceiving yourself, without lying.   

Aus dem Deutschen von Vivan Ia

[1] Original German: »Die Winde keucht, es rollt der Hund. / Hörst du des Schwadens Sausen nicht?« Translated by Vivan Ia
[2] Original German: »Das Dunkel der Nacht mit dem Glanz der Sterne ist wie das Abbild des Dunkels der Erde, wo viele unsichtbare kleine Glanzpunkte darauf warten, von uns gesehen zu werden.« Translated by Vivian Ia

The Greek-French composer GEORGES APERGHIS is one of the most influential figures in the field of contemporary music theatre. In the 1970s, he founded the theatre group "Atelier Théâtre et Musique" (ATEM) in the Banlieue Bagnolet of Paris, in which musicians, actors and local residents worked together to develop new forms of musical theatre. For his comprehensive life's work, Georges Aperghis was honored with the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 2021. The interview was conducted by dramaturge ANDRI HARDMEIER during the preliminary musical rehearsals in Munich in February 2023.