For his year-long project ‘Escalier du Chant’ (Staircase of Singing), Olaf Nicolai turned the imposing interior diagonal staircase of the Pinakothek der Moderne into a stage for works by 12 contemporary composers, among them Tony Conrad, Georg Katzer, Enno Poppe and Mika Vainio. The artist invited the musicians to compose a series of songs addressing current political events of particular importance to them. The results were performed by members of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart – an ensemble specializing in the interpretation of contemporary vocal music – on one Sunday in each month of 2011.
With this project, Nicolai activated a traditional form of expression that exists in all cultures, and that can often reflect moods and links between current events, while centring on the human voice. Giving this voice an opportunity to speak out or take a stance was the artist’s main concern. Stepping unannounced out of the crowd, the soloists of the Neue Vocalsolisten performed the composers’ pieces conceived especially for the occasion and for the space, often filling it with free atonality: sounds, squawks, whispers, shouts. As a performance venue, the museum allows not only spatial constellations but also social ones – a quality Nicolai reinforced by letting the singers decide when to sing the songs and how often to repeat their performance on any given Sunday – as a fleeting, not entirely predictable moment, quite unlike a conventional concert situation. This made the Pinakothek der Moderne’s spacious entrance hall even more like an agora or a space for political assemblies, where people moved almost as if choreographed, gelling into groups to witness the performances and then wandering apart again.
Tony Conrad made impressive use of this situation with his piece ‘Middle Class’. Its notation invited the singers – a soprano, a countertenor and a bass – to choose freely from lists of words and list of notes to make variations on a sentence (‘do corporations love the middle class’, ‘will corporations destroy the middle class’, etc.). In this way, Conrad – in terms of both form and content – refers to the way companies use consumer choice as a means of control. In an accompanying statement, he cited the instance of Amazon.com offering Lady Gaga’s most recent album as a cut-price download to attract music fans to its new online music service while creating an impression of digital participation.
Australian composer Liza Lim’s attempt to render a musical score accessible in visual terms was a little too literal: she let the sheet music for her piece roll down the stairs in the form of a scroll. It was interesting to walk along the score with the singer and thus experience the spatial dimension of the composition – yet it didn’t bring you any closer to its content, which involves enigmatic lines from Hélène Cixous that posit the figure of the angel as a mediating voice between love and abandonment (‘3 Angels’, 2011). British composer James Saunders’s approach, in which the singers invited the audience to form groups and voice an interplay of small, quiet sounds, also felt unpleasantly familiar. These small units of sound could be performed anywhere, we were told; they could even be distributed via the Internet. Such desperately low standards of participation, evoking strategies of ‘crowd-sourcing’ without actually using them to say anything, are often seen in artistic projects that claim to be ‘political’. More specific approaches were far more rewarding, as in the many songs by composers who, like Conrad, did not shy away from attempting to address complex social issues. Elliott Sharp’s contributions, for example, included ‘The Ballad of Bradley Manning’, about the American solider accused of handing over large quantities of secret documents to WikiLeaks.
The title ‘Escalier du Chant’, with its double reference to Marcel Duchamp – calling to mind his painting Nu descendant un escalier nº 2 (Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2, 1912) and playing on the homophony of ‘du Chant’ and Duchamp – linked Nicolai’s year-long project to a notion of artistic production that does not restrict itself to a single medium, instead using time, space, body and voice to weave together production and reception. As for contemporary art, venturing into the terrain of contemporary ‘serious’ music appears especially productive when, as in these cases, composers, singers and artists cooperate in ways capable of enriching each other’s respective media – and the viewer’s experience.