Shooting undercover at the Paris Opéra, a Mahler pilgrimage in the woods, and how I learned to spell Götterdämmerung.

I have a deep love of music that goes back to the earliest memories for me. I remember lying in my bed listening to the radio late at night, when I was probably eight or nine, and being overtaken by this strange subterranean rumbling of orchestra and singers on the transistor radio. This thing went on and on and on, and I remember hours into it, sometime after midnight, I was electrified and sitting up in bed with a pencil and paper thinking, “God, what am I listening to?” At the end  of this strange experience the announcer came on and I tried to write to write down phonetically what I had heard. Off I went to the city in Melbourne, to Thomas’ record shop, and presented this piece of paper; there was a roar of laughter because I had tried to spell out Götterdämmerung!

For many years I’ve had a particular interest in two conductors – Rafael Kubelík and Carlos Kleiber. But it was Erich Kleiber who I played to Simone Young when I was asked to photograph her for the National Portrait Gallery in 2002. She was working on Der Rosenkavalier when she came to the studio. I told her, “Well, I’ll play this for you. I want you to stand on a box in your stilettos and conduct to the recording.” Of course she found it very strange, saying, “I lead, I don’t follow.” Then she said, “You probably won’t have Kleiber’s recording,” but I did, so she conducted the entire opera standing on a box. That session was great fun and exhausted both of us.

In 1975 or ‘76 I started a series based on Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, the Songs on the Death of Children. It sparked something and I felt like I might create a body of work, one which in no way tried to illustrate the music but rather produced a parallel universe in visual images. I spent many years on and off climbing through temperate rainforests on the mountains surrounding the Wörthersee in Corinthia, photographing, and eventually I stumbled upon the composing hut Mahler built above his house. It was completely overgrown and surrounded by a large, dense forest full of toadstools; there was no path to it, no signage, nothing. I took a bus one day from the town of Klagenfurt and this elderly woman, who was practicing her English on me as I was practicing my German, suddenly yelled to the driver to stop on the winding road. She pointed up into the forest. After clambering around for hours I came upon the composing hut, the door wide open, completely untouched. I’ve since been back and photographed the lake in different conditions, and added pictures made in Vienna. I’ve been working on it for 40 years –it’s still not finished!

I go to few concerts, but when the Paris Opéra approached me to do something for the opening of the Bastille, I realised I wanted to focus on the audience gathered together in this darkened space, awaiting some special event. I worked there for some time making photographs during performances. But studying them back in Melbourne, where I was working on the actual prints, I felt there was too much of a sense of these pictures being reportage of some other event, so I restaged the whole thing, using the original footage I had shot in Paris as a guide.

In some ways, artists are more like composers than performers. We sit in a room alone and things come to us; we then try to find a form external to our bodies in which to articulate these things. I listen to
a great deal of music while I work, though never when I’m photographing, certainly never when I’m working with a model, and never merely as background. It’s always with great deliberation. It can act as a facilitator or as a prompt in some way to help with the realisation of things that one wants to do.

Bill Henson’s cloud landscapes is at the Art Gallery of NSW, May 30–Sep 22