Film Still: Valeria Kafelnikov
Film Still: Valeria Kafelnikov | © Rosa Wernecke

Composer Sarah Nemtsov and director Heinrich Horwitz discuss the music-theatre project HAUS with Henriette Gunkel, Professor of Transformations of Audiovisual Media with special emphasis on gender and queer theory (Ruhr University Bochum). The discussion is chaired by dramaturg Johanna Danhauser.

Johanna Danhauser (JD): The HAUS cycle was not created in one go – it happened over several years.

Sarah Nemtsov (SN): HAUS has grown wildly. It started in 2013 with Zimmer I–III (Rooms I–III) for Ensemble Adapter, and every time I’ve thought »now it’s finished«, new twists and turns and additional levels come along. The invitation to perform in the Turbinenhalle and Heinrich Horwitz’s production have also opened up new spaces. I am currently composing the pieces Halle, Keller, Flur and Luke (Hall, Cellar, Hallway and Niche) for this. And the existing sections also take on new meanings, even if the notes remain the same. The work transforms because of the people with whom I have worked on it in different phases and will probably acquire very different resonances again because of the audience.

JD: It’s a contradiction to call a former industrial space HAUS, because the place is anything but intimate, homely or personal. In Sarah’s composition, the house remains an abstract entity. How do you, Heinrich, include this metaphor in your directorial concept?

Heinrich Horwitz (HH): In my work, I look for a queer-feminist perspective. In bourgeois thinking, the house is often ascribed to the idea of the nuclear family: with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room and children’s room. We want to break that open. There are other visions of homeliness from a queer context: places where people can meet, exchange views, care for each other and where a feminist struggle can take place. But these places have suffered a great deal during the years of the pandemic. History contains examples of abandoned locations that were occupied and given new life by queer communities, because of a lack of alternatives. I’m thinking of places like the piers in New York, where the gay-PoC community met to go cruising. The vacuum of a disused industrial wasteland awakens a desire in me to create a meeting place or a home for marginalised groups. Referring back to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, we also want to allude to the right that feminists have fought for, for women to have their own place to work.
Because art and culture have moved into these former production sites, processes of transformation are already underway inside them. The space is continually mutating. This is a dynamic that I want to drive forward in the production and apply to a queer idea of transformation and cyberfeminism. We see the building as a body that we are going to rip open, restructure and rebuild. In our concept, HAUS represents the trans body – we are tearing it open, re-arranging it and joining unfamiliar elements together. New spaces can be imagined in the holes, cuts and voids, and room can be created for new bodies and their worlds.

SN: In a way, the cycle is also a fluid body in musical terms: it can appear in a variety of forms, present itself and then be put back together again differently.

Henriette Gunkel (HG): The Turbinenhalle is located in a region that is undergoing structural change. Occupying or repurposing former industrial buildings for the arts makes it possible for spaces to be opened up, appropriated and overwritten. I find your idea interesting in the context of the Ruhr, because it’s not simply putting a fresh coat of paint over things, making small adjustments; it’s about fundamental processes of transformation. The question of whether any kind of repair is actually possible after one has intervened forcefully and destructively in nature or in a culture is a complex one and is evident for the rewilding initiatives that are happening here. It is also asked in Black Studies in the context of slavery and post-colonialism.
In hindsight, the coal mines and the massive steel industry of the Ruhr region were a futurist industrial project that also includes a violent history. The Bochumer Verein made a profit from forced labour and, on top of this, there are migrant working experiences and industrial accidents. A significant number of workers with disabilities was employed in the Turbinenhalle, because it contained machines that could also be operated by the people with limited mobility.
For this reason, I can sense a tension between its demolition and the new beginning this is planned to create, and the question of how we deal with the experiences that are stored up in that space. How can we appreciate those undead witnesses and take them with us into the future?

HH: I want to activate the audience’s senses. That’s why the public will begin HAUS by being able to walk through it, criss-cross it and discover it for themselves in an explorative section. I think it’s important that it becomes a communal space, where it is natural for people to choose their own lines of sight and movement.

HG: The idea of process seems to be a central one for you, even if the music is not directly improvised.

HH: For me, there is improvisation in every form of artistic interpretation. What matters is not simply fulfilling what is written down on the score but bringing something to life. It’s a conversation or a sharing of knowledge, a feminist gesture of togetherness.

SN: Even if I do prescribe a fixed notation, I’m interested in the freedom of music-making itself: what’s created through the interpretation of the individual. I find it an enriching experience how differently soloists or ensembles can play my works – how different the energy of a piece can be without it being right or wrong.

JD: In some works, you really provoke a shift – for example, the pieces Zimmer I and Zimmer II (Room I and Room II) can either be played one after another or simultaneously, layered over each other. Also, in the installation section at the beginning of the evening, chance correspondences will occur between sound stations in the space.

SN: Layering interests me as a kind of musical metaphor for our layered reality, the simultaneousness of different worlds: virtual, real, internal, external, adjacent and also urban ones. In composing terms, it creates a special kind of counterpoint.

Haus is also a fluid body in musical terms: it can appear in a variety of forms, present itself and then be put back together again differently. Sarah Nemtsov

JD: In your scores, the pieces are often prefaced by written quotations: words that are not included in the composition itself. For example, before Tür (Door), the following is written: »The longer one hesitates before a door, the more of a stranger one becomes.« (Franz Kafka)

SN: Those texts stay with me with varying intensity during the time I am composing. It should then – though not always – be possible for the audience to reinterpret their influence afterwards. Particular literary figures, such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, have been important to me for a long time. Their biographies as women artists also affect me deeply. When I began the cycle ten years ago, I felt that relating myself to them was also a feminist statement. Since then, a lot has happened; I have learned a great deal and – partly through meeting Heinrich – I’m much more aware of queer perspectives.

HH: Whenever I develop a piece of choreography, I always start with a text that inspires me or by referencing other artists. Those starting points then combine in a direction that leads to improvisation and encounters. And in your work, too, I never feel the quoted texts are strict definitions or instructions. More the opposite: I get the feeling you’re using them to open a lot of space for associations.

JD: This is a work of music theatre with no singers. In HAUS, the theatrical performance concentrates on the instrumentalists.

HH: In my directing work, I’m interested in »unprofessional« bodies, because they speak for themselves, within their own form. Bodies break through the axes of time and space, and that gives them the potential to transform. For me, this phenomenon has a lot to do with gender, because I don’t look for ascriptions but for different expressive possibilities that enable the body to free itself from a particular bearing. In HAUS, I am going to work with a kind of glitch. I ask myself where the friction is in all our bodies, the empty space, and how this can be empowered to develop its own language? I am also exploring this, in a way, with the disabled people that Henriette mentioned who worked on the turbines – people who maybe didn’t have a complete range of functions but who invented new movement structures. I want to reveal that strength. On the other hand, I’m interested in the collective, the ensemble, in becoming united. What do we share? What is a community? What is commonality? How can organisms unite – and how can they reproduce? In the choreography, they will become protagonists of the future.

JD: Henriette, in your article, Alienation and Queer Discontent, you present queer, artistic strategies to unsettle (hetero-)normative constructs of time. Could this be achieved in HAUS?

HG: Disorientation seems to me to be a central element in this project on many levels. For example, it is created through the video work that doubles, shifts and distorts the space. Disorientation not only confuses our supposedly stable structure of looking but also our perception of temporality. Looking at the horizon stabilises our position, looking towards a future. Our accustomed visual axes are often defined by colonial perspectives, as Hito Steyerl writes in her article In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective. In the moment of disorientation, something opens up that forces us to perceive our surroundings differently and to move differently. This also includes a different way of hearing, because disorientation always leads to a more conscious relationship to being in the world. This project makes use of this in several respects – for example, by letting the setting itself – the walls, the equipment and machine parts that are lying around – be heard. Disorientation is also an interesting method when it is related to infrastructure: how can what evades our eye or ear be made visible or audible? Taking what is infra (Latin for »below«”) seriously and tracking it down. Of course, there are limits, but I think this is also exactly what you’re interested in, Sarah: that it’s not always possible to grasp everything, that there’s always something that evades our knowledge. Your situation of dissipated space creates a potential to perceive that space differently and also move around inside it.

JD: Yes, I often recognise the cyborg identity – a hybrid creature between a machine and a human organism – in Sarah’s music too, which welds together the boundaries of human-analogue sound production with the tools of electronic music.

SN: The hybrid is something I’m very interested in. It began back with Zimmer, when I distorted the harp using a Kaoss Pad. This created something that wasn’t entirely a harp anymore but also wasn’t purely electronic music; it was something in between. I like that undefined quality a lot, especially because instruments generally have a cultural history attached to them that’s not always pleasant and you can’t help counting it in. Electronic distortion allows you to redefine that. I also think analogue effect devices like the Kaoss Pad are great, because musicians can use them intuitively. Unlike very complex live electronics for which you need additional training. If the devices can be played in the context of chamber music, then that also has something rebellious to it for me.
The new piece Halle will reference the history of the Turbinenhalle. The pianist/keyboard player/synthesiser player Sebastian Berweck told me about a virtual instrument, the digital synthesiser »Mysteria«, which is equipped with voice samples and choruses that can be distorted or used to create androgynous voices. I’m thinking about a polyphonic ghost chorus of the people who worked in this place.
I’m also interested in the dysfunctional, because it’s so human. In my experience, what society regards as a weakness is often the source of a particular strength.

JD: Turning a shortcoming into a superpower, in order to assert oneself from a marginalised position, requires creative visions of the future. A tool that is used in extreme form in Afro-futurist story-telling strategies and aesthetics, which you, Henriette, are focusing on in your research. Do you see connections here?

HG: I was just thinking that the synthesiser is a very important bearer of the Afro-futurist vision – for example, merging with jazz in the case of Sun Ra or funk in the case of George Clinton and resonating in various different musical directions.
Afro-futurism has a non-linear understanding of time. That distinguishes it from other futurisms, which only want to look forward. Afro-futurism insists that the past is part of the future.
By including the spectral past, in my view, HAUS is also a futurist project, because there is a desire to transform the space and to make it accessible to everyone, without exception. Of course, there is a tension between utopian thinking and political action, but imagining this is the first step. In her notes on the pieces, Sarah also writes about dreaming of spaces. And the poem Dark House by Sylvia Plath that is quoted in the score is also about this. In the artist’s imagination, a process of transformation has already been activated. Tearing down the walls takes place in an imagined future, but its effects can already be felt now. It is an intervention in the present.

JD: You’ve also composed some secret spaces, Sarah. Do you want to reveal them to us?

SN: There are two acoustic hiding places. In Amplified Imagination, the flautist wears headphones that play a distorted Bach collage, so she can’t hear what she is playing herself. She can only imagine what it sounds like, but she has no control over it. On the other hand, the audience can’t hear what she hears. Loneliness and isolation are often themes in my pieces. In HAUS, the percussionist has his own room behind the thunder sheet, where he can see pictures and photos, some of which he can transmit to the outside using a live camera. Everyone has their own secret, inner spaces – thoughts, feelings and memories that are hidden, that they can’t share but might want to communicate. These are safe spaces – places to retreat to, in order to be alone in a positive sense.

Translated from the German by David Tushingham