Scenic anthropology. Iterview with Manos Tsangaris

MONIKA PASIECZNIK: We started our meeting with a musical excerpt from your piece Winzig, a collection of music theater miniatures. Does it make sense just to listen it without any visual elements? It’s not self-contained music, but musical theater.

MANOS TSANGARIS: The question is natural and important for me in general. In the beginning I must admit to some sort of contradiction. It’s not meant to be music the way we are listening to it now. From the very beginning, for 30-35 years, I’ve been writing situations for listeners and also for watchers. The conditions of our daily life which build up the complex contextualization for these situations have become a basic condition of my work. Nowadays I call it, just for fun, scenic anthropology. skene in Old Greek means ‘tent’, so before it became a hut or a stage it was a tent. I think our consciousness in daily life functions like that: it creates tent-scenes. This is why so many people can use iPads, mp3 players, etc. Of course, I’m only interested in art, I don’t want to mix things up and say “life is art”. I’m interested in how the work builds its own tent, so to speak. I’m also interested in perception, the situation of the watcher and the listener nowadays in rather intimate contexts. At home you have your laptop, smartphone and perhaps also television, friends in the room next door. Those small public events in our private rooms are also very political. It is by accident that my music is just being played. Radio presenters need to broadcast it and I say: OK. It pretends to be music, but it isn’t.

MP: What is music to you and what is the point when it starts to be something else?

MT: For me it’s all about composition. I don’t feel bad about hearing it as pure sound. Since the 19th century music has been something that is meant to be abstract, inside a concert ritual, basically meant only to be heard. This is of course a great development, a great invention of our culture. I wouldn’t get rid of it, I love going to concerts. But meanwhile this development has become kind of absurd. What is music? Sound is available everywhere. In Germany people have two hundred forty minutes of sound a day on average – in commercials, films, television, in daily life. If you really like music, you can feel forced to think: what does it mean, in its emphatic sense? Is it that I want to play my favorite Beethoven on a CD player now, and then a telephone rings and I do stop and go to answer the phone… Where is the work, where is art?

From my beginnings in the 1970s I found it simply necessary to reflect on the working conditions of music. And what does it mean the ‘conditions of music’? There are loudspeakers for example. The concert situation is quite exotic. Of course people are still going to concerts, like – fortunately – they are reading books, but it’s only a special segment of the public, of perception. For me a concert is the way it’s composed: at first it is the sense of space and spatial things, but it’s also the sound, which is the main part of a concert.

MP: You almost never compose music in the traditional sense, such pieces for specific  line-ups, e.g. for ensemble or orchestra – to be played and listened to. Do you feel uneasy within this traditional concert situation? Are your pieces a critique of it?

MT: I wrote quite a lot of traditional pieces with standard instrumentation and for regular line-ups – because it’s what I can get. Someone asks me, “could you please write a piece for an ensemble?” And I answer “Yes” and immediately think: “maybe I can also add two singers or an actor, an engineer, etc.” It is very pragmatic in a way. I would say at the same time “yes” and “no”. As a listener I love the concert situation, but as a writer and composer I got bored meanwhile or from the beginning on – I’m not satisfied and I want more. For me as an artist, the concert situation is too formalized, standardized. But it’s also good, that standard. We have an ensemble culture in modern music which wasn’t present 40-50 years ago. Ensemble music is a kind of new genre which developed and that’s great! There are so many young people really skilled to play the strangest things, it’s amazing but also dangerous. Some people love to do strange things and musicians are treated like reading machines.

MP: How do you start to invent your untypical concert situations? How do you compose all elements into your music theater?

MT: The first thing I do is imagine a space. All things come together as a spatial music. I think the space itself is musical. Even if it seems to be a static one, the room can get very dynamic by adding little things. If it’s dark and you have only one little light, you can switch it on and off, even without sound. That’s enough to arrange a situation in a rhythm. This is what interests me very much. The very first piece I wrote was Studie for one person and some light. No sound, it would be too much. I needed something very pure in the beginning. Recently I thought that maybe in the coming years I will go back to it and make something very small for light sources. But then you have a heterogeneous situation – of course I also wrote for orchestra, for choirs (plus subway trains, I did an opera in a subway station called Orpheus, Interludes). Batsheba. Eat The History! was a 24-hour opera for big orchestra, choir, actors in several places. It was huge! But the main thing for me is to compose the spatial quality of music in itself or the musical quality of space. It is very romantic, Novalis said that music, poetry and graphic arts are one unique fenomenon.

MP: And what is the place of text in your musical-spatial composition? You are a poet!

MT: It changes, like a violin is not always a violin – in every piece the instrument has a completely different function. In the Warsaw version of Vivarium the text had a prominent place in the beginning. People were saying words in between the musical structure. Little phrases sounded also cantare, parlando, reading… The beginning of Vivarium, with Marcin as the speaker was something like a typical fake theater situation: he came and behaved like theatre or festival director who has to make an announcement before the piece actually starts later on. It’s a kind of guide into the piece. He is somebody between a director and a crazy scientist who cannot get rid of his thoughts; who reflects the cultural background of what we are dealing with. He comes back in the very end and gives some reflections on the zoo… In between there are little phrases sung – especially in the cooking scene, where we have a dialog of two singers about cannibalism. It is a very short concentrated commentary on the birds which eat one another. Did you know that if you have thousands of turkeys on the farm, they get neurotic and start pecking each other. It’s kind of cannibalism – I used this word in the scene with cooking.

I like very much the idea of opera. I don’t want to throw away the opera. Is for example Die Zauberflöte an opera? The idea of a play based on singing and acting is OK. It’s also a very romantic idea. I like it, it’s not absolute!

MP: You’ve mentioned the speaker – at some moments he makes in his lecture many esthetic statements, for example about the aim of art, its relation to reality… Does he speak seriously or it’s only a joke about the discourse of art, the sophisticated jargon of esthetics, the ways to speak about art? I mean: are these esthetic questions an important topic for you? 

MT: I’m not against humor, however I’m serious about it. I like to have different colors, mental aspects. It’s both, I would say: a little ironic about how we think, what is in one word like Rilke or Stravinsky. I found this aspect of language fantastic, the miracle of thought. I can say ‘football stadium’ and we see red and white squares (in Warsaw nowadays because of the new stadium in red and white). How fast I can go to Himalaya, the film runs so quickly. I have loved theory since I was a child. I started to read Lenin when I was eleven. Of course I’m not a scientist in the strict sense. But I like reading a lot of theoretical stuff. It’s part of my work. I ask myself: what should I compose, why so and so.

MP: The title Vivarium means ‘a place of living’. The term is normally used for a kind of closed space created to observe or study plants or animals. In your piece we have people: musicians and actors. It’s a kind of ‘life laboratory’. There are also questions about the well known duality of nature and culture. Did you want to deal with these problems?

MT: Yes. Of course the title is not meant to stare at as at a statue. The subtitle is ‘traveling, cooking, zoo’. For example on German television in the last few years there have been three broadcast cycles which became very popular: the first one is about adventure and traveling – people are sitting at home on the sofa and watching people climbing etc. The second one is about cooking – they sit still on the sofa and eat chips, drink beer watching star cooks preparing a very special meal. And the third one, which I found special, is about the zoo, but like a day-to-day TV theater, for example: the penguin has fever today, what can we do with him? It has already got a pill. And then the lion has toothache. This is the first funny level, and on the second level my piece relates a bit to human history. In the beginning there were just nomads who then became domesticated, started cooking at home with the family. When you see all these situations from the outside, from a distance, it looks like a zoo. People are sitting in those cars of metal – also behaving like animals! Look at the adrenalin, how they get angry because someone is not driving fast enough. It’s purely zoological. For me it’s obvious I wouldn’t separate traveling from cooking and the zoo. It’s a continuity.

MP: In the beginning of Vivarium the speaker stresses the workshop situation. What does it mean for you: workshop, experiment, laboratory, open form?

MT: In the few last years it has become fashionable to talk about art the way you talk about the work of a scientist, especially in terms of natural science. Physicists do their experiments in laboratories. I think it’s correct because all artistic activity, whenever it happened, even two thousand years ago, was basically experimental. We have some questions, challenges, we are forced to think about theory and to try it out. We prepare an empirical situation to see what happens, how we can manage, what the conclusions are. Those artists I respect. This is a dialectic phenomenon, the interest in Werkhaftigkeit, which means that the work itself is still an approach and idea and afterwards you get a piece of art. On the other hand, it has to be a very lively and at the same time responsible laboratory.

MP: What did you examine in Vivarium, what conclusion did you come to?

MT: I’m not interested in the frontal situation: here is the audience and there is the stage. Not many of my pieces are like that. This time, however, I decided to write for this kind of conventional setting. Then I saw the room from above like a bird – the whole box with people inside. And this is a ‘vivarium’, a zoo, as I said. We think everything is very normal, we go to the concert or theater performance, sit down and wait for the event. But if you see it from the outside, it’s completely crazy. That distance brings us back to the miracle of life. It’s also the matter of death. If we don’t have the awareness of mortality, we don’t respect the beauty of life. For me it is really the motor to do art. Of course it’s banal, it’s a cliché to write against death and mortality, but memento mori is the basic condition to do art in general. At least it has to do with art. Maybe this is the difference between animals and human beings. I’m not sure, but perhaps we can say so. How far do elephants have an awareness of death…  They have death rituals…

MP: You mentioned in the beginning that perception of music is an important topic in your art. What is the place of intended recipient in your compositions?

MT: There are so many characters among them, fortunately. I very much respect those people who achieve a completely objective relation to the whole setting. For me it was always important to deal with the typical visitor of event. It’s also a spatial experience – I imagine I enter the room, sit down, perceive distances, have some relations with the other people around me. And then it starts. I call it – for fun – scenic anthropology: how our social and political constructs deal with different systems of perception. Of course this is what is art about. I wrote many pieces for a small audience – Winzig was one of them. The very first – from 1980 – was for one person from the audience and could only be done once. Someone enters a dark room in which an invisible ensemble is placed. I’m very much interested in this kind of events. Normally the audience is a kind of mass, and we as artists are individuals. It’s a kind of confrontation. And I imagine that on this single chair is sitting only one person and I can compose the distances, dynamical movement, the room – specifically with relation to his position. This is still what interests me nowadays because it’s outside this circuit of us-and-them. Music is exactly where you are sitting, in the head of the listener, not where I’m playing it. This is an important difference, a laboratory in itself! I wrote this piece in 1980 and then ca. 13 years later came the next step – Ten pieces simultaneously played in a house just for small audiences, f.e. two or three people in an elevator. The way you can enter each piece is a part of the work itself: you just look through a spyhole to realize one of them, in another one sit in the middle of the room and the ensemble is playing around you. At this moment the way of listening becomes an integral part of the piece. It’s not just an accident or something added. Something is happening and the way we perceive it can change it.

MP: A laboratory of listening! It’s amazing how also from the historical perspective our behavior has changed. It’s an interesting sociological observation about the way to something that Adorno called ‘structural listening’. In the 17th-18th  centuries people used to walk and chat to each other during the concert. Subsequently in 19th century listening gradually became a conscious, intimate experience, enhanced additionally by turning off the lights… Nowadays we concentrate intensely on musical structure, we try to understand during listening the way the piece was composed and what the idea of the music is… Many people however want to get out of this ‘normal’ concert situation… I wonder, how do you personally prefer to listen to music?

MT: It’s like asking what is my favorite food! I like eating, now a cake, in the evening maybe some salad. I don’t think we have a kind of linear development or progress in listening; it’s rather a large sphere in which also nowadays we have different kinds of music. Sometimes I listen to contemporary compositions at home on my laptop; I like YouTube as a source where I can find for example Lutosławski’s works. There is also a lot of shit, but at the same time modern compositions. You don’t eat every day only chocolate. Of course, the problem is very interesting. Now we are forced to think about the situation of ourselves in the context of all-penetrating media. It’s really hard to survive spiritually, mentally and intelectually. In every place we have touchscreens; monkeys scratch themselves, we touch our iPads. This is part of the evolution: we want to have something new. The society is addicted to stuff like that. I think it’s a survival training to be in contact with arts. All the signals call us: “look at me!”, “buy me!”, “listen to this!” The question is where we ourselves are in all this. I don’t believe in identity, but in the necessity of identification. That is a difference.

MP: The new media change our perception, we cannot concentrate for a longer time on one thing. That’s a challenge also for artists, who have to keep the attention of their audiences for some period of time. Isn’t this tendency to visualize music, theatralize a concert an element of the audiovisual culture and sometimes also a desperate attempt to react to the need for intensive and diversified sensory stimuli?

MT: The question seems to be simple, but it’s more difficult. It’s rather the case of an analogue experimental film which has become so radical that you can leave out the film. For me it was in the beginning my reaction to experiment with or about the technological situation. Where is music now? What are we doing as musicians? My colleagues were writing string quartets and I resisted it. I wanted to examine the situation of a human being in the middle of all this. Now I write huge pieces sometimes, but originally it was the reflection that so many composers steal time pretending to do what the audience is expecting. The next masterpiece is coming: Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Schönberg, Stockhausen, and then me… Every new piece calls: “listen to me, I’m a new masterpiece!” And this masterpiece seems to take 60 minutes, even if it takes 12… So in the beginning I wanted to create something like homeopathic pills: very short pieces, 3’-4’, not to steal time. Of course it shouldn’t become a mechanism of thinking: we have to be short and audiovisual and commercial. I love long pieces by Morton Feldman, La Monte Young or John Cage’s As Slow as Possible meant to have the duration of over 600 years. Why not?

(cooperation by editing in English – Tomasz Zymer)

source: „dissonanze”  121/2013


  1. Pingback: EN | Monika Pasiecznik
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