Known for the bloody rituals of his avant-garde performances, the artist is also a composer inspired by Bach and Wagner.
Hermann Nitsch is better known for the visual spectacle of his works than the music that accompanies them. The Austrian avant-garde artist’s ritualistic performance pieces are often brutally shocking. 150.Action, one of Nitsch’s Orgies Mysteries Theater performances, which will take place in Hobart on Saturday as part of Dark Mofo, has already attracted criticism from animal rights groups for its use of hundreds of litres of animal blood and the carcass of a bull.
What is less apparent, as the images of blood and dismemberment are splashed across the media, is the important role music and sound plays in the experience Nitsch is seeking to create. “Influenced by the classical antique tragedy, by Wagner and Scriabin I have tried to develop a Gesamtkunstwerk [a total work of art, a term particularly associated with Wagner’s operas] already when I was 19 years old,” Nitsch tells me via email. “This happened by the means of happenings and actions. My theater stages real events. Real incidents are registered with all senses. By the means of the sense of smell, the sense of taste, and also the eye, the ear and the sense of touch.”
Hermann Nitsch’s 122.Action, 2005, Burgtheater Vienna. Photo © Georg Soulek
And yet despite Nitsch’s notoriety as an artist on the front edge of the avant-garde, his musical tastes are deeply rooted in the traditions of western classical music – particularly those of Vienna, where Nitsch was born. “I’ve loved music for all my life,” Nitsch explains. “When I was about 17 years old, a performance of Mozart’s late symphonies conducted by Karl Böhm opened my ears for classical and ethnic music from all over the world.”
“I became an ardent admirer of all the great masters,” he says. “Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss inspired and strongly influenced me. The Second Viennese School with Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern deeply impressed me. Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde I saw at least 30 times at the Vienna State Opera. As a student I have made use of nearly all the subscription packages offered by the Jeunesse Musicales. Also at work I listened to classical music from morning till evening. Music stimulated me and stung me into the intensity of my doing, like a strong tea.”
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Nitsch has been described as the “Bruckner of the happening.”
Alexander Scriabin is the other composer who comes to mind when exploring Nitsch’s work. Scriabin’s planned (but unfinished at his death in 1915) magnum opus Mysterium sought to bring about the end of the world through a seven-day-long mystical performance involving a choir, orchestra, dancers, perfumes and lighting effects in a specially built cathedral in the Himalayas.
Does Nitsch see himself as part of this tradition? “I have tried to continue Wagner, to proceed Scriabin whose work filled me with enthusiasm in direction to a Gesamtkunstwerk. The celebration of real events towards a total work of art has automatically placed myself inside it.”
Nitsch’s musical tastes don’t simply extend to the classical, however. “All types of music inspire me,” he says. “From the music of earliest worshiping via the complete history of music through to rock and soul music.”
Hermann Nitsch. Photo: supplied.
Despite these close links with the musical canon, Nitsch’s music bears little resemblence to that of Wagner or Bach. His Ninth Symphony Die Ägyptische, recorded by European Philharmonic Orchestra, is a dense mass of roiling, dissonant textures – except for the second movement, which is a bizzare, capricious and demonic Scherzo.
Nitsch doesn’t use traditional music notation for his performance pieces, or Aktionen, however. “I’ve been troubled a lot due to the fact that I wasn’t able to use musical notation,” he says. Instead he takes a different approach. “I created my own score which allows me to lay down the music for my actions,” he explains.
The scores to Nitsch’s performance pieces notate more than simply the organisation of sounds – they also dictate visual and olfactory elements – and his Aktionen are surprisingly symphonic in conception. “Nitsch’s Partitur [score] treats all the variables (sound, smell, taste, etc.) as motivic, as susceptible to development and variation,” explained Adrian Daub, Associate Professor of German Studies at Stanford University, in his essay The Abyss of the Scream – The Music of Hermann Nitsch. The screams and noises of participants – and even those of protestors – also come together to contribute to the aural tapestry.
Nitsch’s music – which he has described as Lärmmusik (noise-music) – might sound cacophonous and, like the music of John Cage, involve elements of chaos and chance, but the artist seeks to distance himself from the concept of improvisation. “It is about manipulation and construction of coincidence,” he says. “My scores use coincidence and provoke coincidence. But it has nothing to do with improvisation.”
The ensemble Nitsch employs usually in his Akrionen generally consists of organ, trumpets, drums and whistles in addition to recorded sounds. Nitsch’s regular conductor, Andrea Cusumano, is unable to join the artist for the performance in Hobart. “I will have to arrange the music by myself, while guiding the performative part of the action at the same time,” Nitsch explains. “For this reason I have structured the music in way that makes it easy to perform it. By no means this will be at a disadvantage. Maybe this conception determines the music even more intensively.”
The music will play a vital role, Nitsch explains, drawing the audience into the ecstasy of the performance. “My Orgies Mysteries Theater is supposed to effect an intensive registration of being,” he says. “The music should even boost the sensual perception. Intensity and ecstatic registration shall be achieved.”
The heightened perceptions elicited by the music have their echoes in the bloody orgy of the physical performance. “The shout or scream in my music – when applied correctly – is music,” NItsch says.
“My music has its roots in the most extreme arousal, in scream and noise. The scream of death, the scream of pain, the scream of lust have influenced me. But this music got subtilised and currently also the sound of the organ of my orchestra is important. My music stimulates the actions and the actions stimulate my music. Quite simply music in general inspires and stimulates me.”
Nitsch also draws parallels between the intense tactile experience of flesh and blood and the sensations evoked by his music.
“Meat, blood, moisture and intestines should be felt with the eyes and the senses of smell and touch. In the same way the sound, the passion of the tooting (music) should invade the intestines of our perception. The use of recorded sound will be limited. The living sound is what matters, the sound brought alive by our musicians.”
The music also plays a role in expanding the sphere of experience beyond those taking immediate part in the ceremony. “The music conveys [to] every participant a sensuous experience in the action to those who are not able to take part directly by touching, smelling or tasting,” Nitsch says. “An experience that invades the roots of our sensations.”
So in the end, what does Nitsch hope the participants – those that are directly involved and those simply standing witness – will come away with after the performance? “I don’t know,” he says. “But I do hope that catharsis, awareness and form finding result from it. For me ‘form’ is the aesthetic realisation of an art event. Form is a deep aesthetic experience, which only can be conveyed by comprehended art.”
In any event, Nitsch’s 150.Action promises to be a powerful experience. “I hope that my music screams something visceral-like into being,” he says.
Hermann Nitsch’s 150.Action is at Dark Mofo in Hobart, June 17