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The Syntax Itself: Marko Nikodijević, Nikolaus Bachler and Olivier Renaud-Clément in conversation

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Marko Nikodijević at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, December 2019. Photo: Wolfgang Stahr

I discovered the Serbian-born composer Marko Nikodijević more than a year ago at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. After an extraordinary interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 conducted by Teodor Currentzis, the orchestra performed an encore. The sheer expression of notes, sounds and percussions managed to prolong the intensity of Mahler’s composition. The audience was stunned.

The music gave me tremors but somehow provided me with a feeling of resolution at the same time. The piece, I found out later, was ‘GHB/tanzaggregat,’ Nikodijević’s 2011 work aptly named after a mind-altering drug popular in the techno scene. This obviously piqued my curiosity. Though the 40-year-old composer is impressively credentialed in classical music, having studied composition in Belgrade and in Stuttgart, where he now resides, his work often explores components of electronic music through classical structure and tonality.

In the summer of 2018, Nikolaus Bachler, general manager of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, commissioned Nikodijević to collaborate with the pioneering performance artist Marina Abramović on ‘7 Deaths of Maria Callas,’ an opera project Abramović first conceived almost 30 years ago. Set to debut in Munich in April (then on to Florence, Athens, Berlin and Paris), the production will be comprised of seven arias that Callas performed, all featuring heroines who die for or from love: Tosca, Lucia, Butterfly, Carmen, Desdemona, Violetta and Norma. Abramović (as Callas) will appear in film and on stage during the performance, and Nikodijević will compose the music for the opera’s musical arrangement.

In my capacity as a founder of the International Friends of the Munich Opera, I traveled to Munich in December to speak to Bachler and Nikodijević about the project. These are edited and condensed portions of our conversation. —Olivier Renaud-Clément

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Marina Abramović in a still from a film projected during the staging of 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. Photo: © Marco Anelli
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Marina Abramović in a still from a film projected during the staging of 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. Photo: © Marco Anelli

Olivier Renaud-Clément: Nikolaus, can you tell me a bit about how ‘7 Deaths of Maria Callas’ came to be?

Nikolaus Bachler: The idea came when I met Marina Abramović in Denmark and asked her if she would like to direct Béla BartÓk’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ [1911]. As we were talking, she told me that her dream had always been to make a film about Maria Callas and mortality. She sent me the script, and I said to her, ‘Could this not be for stage?’ She was immediately enthusiastic. The strength of Marina, of course, is in her action, not in her direction—the strength of Marina is Marina. We discussed how to include her in the piece, and we thought that if it were only Callas’ main arias, it would be a concert. To avoid that, I said, ‘You should be the center of the whole thing.’ So now the structure is, for the first part, she is onstage with seven singers while a series of films featuring Marina and Willem Dafoe [as Aristotle Onassis] are projected above. And for the second part, which is about the death of Callas, Marina is alone onstage, the set designed to look like Callas’ Paris apartment. Next, there was the question of who the composer should be. Since Teodor Currentzis was involved in the beginning, I wanted very much for him to do it. But I talked to him and realized the timing wouldn’t work. And so now, with Marko involved, there will be a new composition in the second part. And this, I have to say, I’m most excited about, because, as I imagine it, we will have, let’s say, Verdi’s ‘Traviata,’ and then comes the big boom, which goes in a completely different direction. Marko, have you seen the films yet?

Marko Nikodijević: No, not yet.

NB: Two or three are amazing, and the other ones are very good. So now I can imagine how the things will come together.

ORC: I first became interested in you, Marko, from the concert at La Scala, when Currentzis and the musicAeterna orchestra performed one movement of ‘GHB/tanzaggregat’ as an encore. It came out of nowhere, after all the applause. It was a musical revelation. Since I work mostly with visual artists, something I’d like to try to understand is your process of composition, how you create a piece of music.

MN: Well, you capture time—that is what composition is—and the sounds are the color in that time. That is the essence of music, capturing time and trying to make time timeless, or immortal.

ORC: You have a very interesting background. I understand you were a DJ…

MN: That came later. I started studying music as a child, which is one of the nice things about the East European school system; there are still state schools of music, so you can actually go to a kindergarten for music! My aunt is a music-history teacher, so before I could read, I knew that the blue LP was Beethoven and the green was Mozart. As a child, I would stand in front of the record player because the sound transfixed me. And so, after I finished my academic studies in composition, I sort of had a crisis. It was a combination of teenage angst and midlife crisis. I went from desirable to a has-been, which I now find refreshing—I’m really free. It’s fantastic.

ORC: Marko, this is the second time today that you’ve referred to yourself as old. [Laughs]

MN: I’m old in the way that I am still a creature of the last century, and I understand that a time is coming that I cannot comprehend fully. You see social changes and political changes and artistic changes, and you see a time coming that is not completely yours. It’s a dawn on the horizon.

NB: It’s yours in a different way. Your description of capturing time and filling that time is beautiful; it’s a very philosophical description for what music is. Do you think for Mozart it was the same?

MN: Well, we have to separate two things. It is also a menial job. It is not different than being a cook or a secretary. It is really a job where you sit down and do it.

NB: The handcraft part.

‘We evolved to hear things with a complexity of spatial resolution—we can tell if a bird is flying up or down!’
—Marko Nikodijević

MN: My favorite anecdote about Tchaikovsky, whom I adore, is that, for 40 years, he would wake up and eat his toast and drink his coffee—a rare Russian who liked drinking coffee in the morning!—and he’d write a fugue as a technical exercise. So, of course, you have to work on craft. The history of Western music is very interesting. It started with prayer chants, with the formulas at the end of those chants and listening to how well all the voices sounded in the church. They’d have cadences, and out of those cadences, ever more complex harmonic relations developed. And then those voices were moved around until they achieved counterpoint. Then instruments were introduced to those spaces and the virtuosity of instrumental play developed. Composers started pushing it ever more. So the complex cultural phenomenon that is Western music basically evolved over 900 years, completely separate from all kinds of other music-making: folk music, different types of ritual music we see in Africa or Tibet. But the one thing that the syntax of Western music has achieved is that it is able to assimilate everything. You can assimilate the didgeridoo into a symphony orchestra, and it won’t change the nature of it. It can pull everything into its context of meaning, which is why Western music achieved this kind of lingua franca. It is able to pull everything inside without changing the notion of the complex language it is in itself.

ORC: So within that, what is the ultimate form to you: the symphony, a sonata, an opera?

MN: That’s an interesting question, because these forms came as instruments were perfected. Then the tonal system fixed itself around what is harmonically possible, the temperament of the tones. The early pieces of music were usually a collection of dances; a typical suite in Baroque music is just a collection of dances that are simple forms—AA and AB, or A with a variation. Then the structural elements grew more complex—composers thought, ‘How can this syntax last longer?’ Of course, other cultural strains were happening at the same time: the Renaissance resurrection of the Greek idea of a staged music play, of opera; the monody, so that you have one voice singing with an accompaniment. At that point, you wouldn’t have an orchestra of 130 playing a symphony that’s 90 minutes long; 300 years were needed to achieve a musical syntax of that complexity, but in the end, it is really the syntax itself: How does a motif become a musical sentence? How does that sentence become a musical period, generating ever greater connective musical structures?

NB: Well, I think there is also a simpler explanation. The complexity of Baroque music, of music of the 19th century, is not more complex than the music of Monteverdi [1567–1643]. I think the big difference is that, until the 20th century, music had a certain purpose: to please the church or the person with the money. Composers had to find their way, or their genius, in the complexity within these constraints. From the 20th century on, we got so-called free time…

ORC: Ah, the bourgeois society.

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Marko Nikodijević at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, December 2019. Photo: Wolfgang Stahr

MN: Well, it’s certainly true that the church and the nobility have more or less disappeared from public conscience. I mean, who had an orchestra and a choir? The church and the duke. When the bourgeoisie discovered that it could step into the role, music became more democratic. Something that fascinates me is that there is no silent culture on this planet. All cultures organize sound for ritualistic, spiritual or purely pleasure purposes.

NB: What is yoga? Yoga is organizing people in silence.

MN: Yes, but there is no such thing as a silent culture. There must be an evolutionary explanation, but I don’t know why music exists in this sense.

ORC: It’s interesting to hear you, as a composer, talk about this notion of silence, which is very important within music.

NB: Silence is the base of music, isn’t it? The moment when the music starts is the deepest moment of silence.

MN: It’s a question what silence is—silence as a spiritual state and not just as an absence of sound, because—except if you’re in an anechoic chamber—there’s sound everywhere. Now we have also music everywhere, which I find irritating.

NB: You’re right. That’s why I think silence is not like a blank canvas; silence is like an orgasm, like a spiritual thing. You cannot deal with it practically.

MN: There is so little silence in today’s world. Everything is so loud. There is noise and noise and noise. And this devolution of music…Why on earth do we need music coming out of loudspeakers to go shoe-shopping?

ORC: Or simply to go to a restaurant and eat peacefully?

MN: That’s something that almost physically hurts me, this idea that you can turn music into background noise.

ORC: Who do you think are the key composers who brought something new to the form?

MN: It’s not really composers; it’s that the zeitgeist changes. Haydn was a prototype of a composer in a time of educated absolutism. Beethoven was a prototype of a composer for an emerging bourgeois society. The first decade of the 20th century is when the revolutionary changes in music really began to happen.

‘Because I grew up in theater, I think it’s important to think about how everyone experiences a piece differently…with his biography, with his fantasy, with his ears. Does he have good hearing? Has he a sense of vibration? This, I think, is the big mystery of our job.’ —Nikolaus Bachler

ORC: Now, 100 years later, we’re in the computer era, the information age, and we’re using new technologies to do many things, among them, make music.

NB: For this project, the first thing Marko said was that he needed loudspeakers. And it will cost a fortune, because he needs the best loudspeakers. [Laughs]

MN: Well, Marina’s voice narrates in between the arias. There are limits to how well you can achieve sound distribution that is both mellow in character and present in a large room like an opera house. An opera house also has this strange height problem that you don’t have in a concert hall, which is usually a shoebox form. You see, with a body that emits a sound—be it a human voice, a violin or a piano—that sound is already extremely complex spatially, because it emits in all possible directions; it refracts. A loudspeaker is a very narrow spatial thing, so you have to have sound coming out of enough loudspeakers to get a resolution that’s not broken.

ORC: You want each of the people in the audience to have the same experience?

MN: That’s technically really not possible, but you need to understand the complexity of what happens spatially with the sound. One of our ears hears sound slightly before the other; that’s our stereo hearing, and that makes the localization of sound for us. We evolved to hear things with a complexity of spatial resolution—we can tell if a bird is flying up or down! We don’t have to see it, we hear it. So if you put just one loudspeaker in front of you, it will sound completely unnatural, as if there is a television set.

ORC: It’s interesting that you talk about hearing. When I heard your piece for the first time, it was more of a physical experience for me than a hearing experience.

NB: For me, because I grew up in theater, I think it’s important to think about how everyone experiences a piece differently, for many reasons. A person experiences it with his biography, with his fantasy, with his ears. Does he have good hearing? Has he a sense of vibration? This, I think, is the big mystery of our job.

ORC: I would like to go back to your music a bit, Marko. When I started looking into your work, the title that caught my attention immediately was ‘GHB.’

MN: It’s ‘GHB/tanzaggregat.’ That’s a part of a psychedelic cycle that’s all about psychedelic experiences, either through ketamine or GHB or ‘tiefenrausch,’ which is this intoxication that happens when you dive deeper than 30 meters under water. It changes the experience of time, and it also changes your sensory experience. I have always been interested in these sorts of mystical experiences, these places outside of ordinary life that have some kind of spiritual ascension. But it is not the typical teenage druggy tourism. Rather, it has a spiritual dimension in that, all of a sudden, time, color and sound are different.

ORC: You know, as I’ve listened to the pieces over and over again, I keep thinking of the artist Wolfgang Tillmans—his beautiful and beautified world, his technical experiments and the almost banal aspect of a lot of his snapshots through the multiplicity of images.

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Wolfgang Tillmans, ‘Lighter 50,’ 2008. Photo: © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

MN: I’ve never thought of that association before. But I’m happy to hear it, because I love his work. It’s something that comes out of a subculture that I find fascinating, but he doesn’t make pornographic tourism out of it. It makes something very special. His Berlin nightlife snapshots at the end of the ’90s have a gentle beauty about them. You know how transient these moments are. The people are often physically naked, but they are also in a state of rather emotional nakedness. I also love his work experimenting with chemical photographic processes.

NB: For me, the ‘GHB’ title is like using a code, like the Freemasons, because 90 percent of the population doesn’t understand GHB. That meaning is for only a few people, but that doesn’t matter, because everyone experiences the music differently. On the one hand, the title is playful, and on the other hand, it’s personal: ‘Oh yes, I’m part of this group.’ This is probably what Freemasonry was for Mozart. It’s something you share with certain people that you don’t have to explain very much.

ORC: Is that elitist?

NB: Everything is elitist in that sense; there are so many different meanings of elite. Music fills a room with emotion, and this is completely about emotion, nothing else. You cannot analyze it.

ORC: Nikolaus, as a producer you have to know who to bring together, but you also have to follow the process and be there to redirect, correct, handle and ultimately deliver the final ‘product.’ Why did you think Marko was the right choice to work with Marina for this?

NB: Well, we have seven arias that everyone knows by heart. That’s why I was happy that we could go in this unexpected direction. This is the real purpose of my job—that we go in a new direction.

MN: This is why I have managed to frustrate so many people—they may expect something virtuosic and fast and loud, and then they’ll get something very slow and breakable, on the verge of silence. Or I’ll say, ‘I will write an eight-minute orchestral piece,’ and then I come back and say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s 20 minutes long.’ When you bring people together, the most important thing is that they will be able to work together. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, we’ll just get big names,’ but the chemistry has to work. It’s not just about enjoying somebody else’s work; it’s about giving each other the space and about understanding their ideas and about wanting their ideas to succeed. I asked Marina exactly how she envisioned the piece, so I could make the music to realize what was in her imagination. You have to say to the person, ‘Show me the world you are creating that you can’t complete on your own. I want to help build the houses in that world.’

‘I have always been interested in these sorts of mystical experiences, these places outside of ordinary life that have some kind of spiritual ascension. But it is not the typical teenage druggy tourism. Rather, it has a spiritual dimension in that, all of a sudden, time, color and sound are different.’ —Marko Nikodijević

NB: For me, it’s different. I work from my emotion. And in my experience, the best understanding between people doesn’t necessarily produce the best result. Sometimes a horrible atmosphere in production can produce a beautiful result. Sometimes a very good atmosphere produces a beautiful result. It’s really just about emotion, about passion, about feeling someone as a person more than just through his or her work. The main thing for me is always to avoid expectations and let myself be surprised. To put together this person and this project is always a risk. You have to love this risk. And you can’t complain about the problems you will inevitably have. I’ve had situations in my life when things exploded or didn’t happen, but they were important in the long run. Mostly, I think the problem of our métier is that it got so commercial. Not commercial in the money sense, but commercial in the sense that it has to be…

ORC: Entertainment?

MN: Success.

NB: Exactly. Success and media attention and all of that, which is necessary; you cannot avoid it.

MN: To grow as artist, you actually need to learn from failure.

NB: We all know that we grow more from pain than joy. This applies to what I’m doing with the Abramović production. I’m not just trying to avoid problems. I know that working with such a big institution, it wants to avoid problems, which is also a matter of fear, which is very human. I mean, for this production, we have seven singers, we have a composer…

ORC: And a lot of speakers. [Laughs]

MN: We have video artists and two different film projections…

NB: We even have clouds in the beginning, which cost a lot of money.

MN: You have to trust somebody’s vision, that they know where they are taking us. They may not know exactly what the path is, but they have an idea where they want to arrive.

NB: The time when I learned the most was when I was 29 years old, and I became the artistic director of the Vienna Festival. I worked with Giorgio Strehler, Peter Stein and Peter Brook, so this was my university. I was sitting in the hotel room next to Strehler, and he was very coquettish. [Laughs] He had his hair styled every morning. He never went out without makeup. The only thing that all of us had in common was an amazing passion. Strehler had passion as if he was 18 years old. And this is exactly what I felt from Marina for this production. When she had the photos taken of her looking like Callas, I felt this fire. I said, ‘Let’s go for it! What can happen?’ As my grandma always said, ‘Why do you have so many problems? It’s only theater.’