Music as design: Kafka Fragments

Less is plenty. With some clever lighting, a single trapezoid block of blue-grey wood as both background and foreground around which Elizabeth Watts (soprano) and Alexander Janiczek (on violin) dressed in simple black, moved, sang, acted, and performed only meters away from the audience, they were able to take us through an emotional range that seemed to span the entire experience – humour, fear, pathos, angst, being tong tied, boredom, challenge, amazement, love, life, and death wish.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre

This was Kafka Fragments, composed by György Kurtág and directed by the Rene Zisterer, in a single performance at the beautiful sport-gymnasium-like City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre.

Composed in the late 1980s, during the fall of the iron curtain in the composer’s home country of Hungary, Kafka Fragments is based on tiny fragments from Franz Kafka’s diaries and letters.

Kurtág chose the 40 fragments seemingly at random, but there is a logic and an emotional power that simply carries the listener through its hour-long songspiel. Using a complex but easily approachable musical language, Kurtág manages to convey the feel of each tiny fragment, some lasting less than a minute.

Even the superficially banal pieces were given deeper meaning by the use of music. You could say the music is used to design the language and vive-versa – viewing design in its more fundamental sense of giving deeper meaning and significance to something, and highlighting a characteristic that is hidden in its essence.

Such apparently random words as: ‘Meine Ohrmuschel fülte sich, frish, rauh, kühl, saftig an wie ein Blatt’ (My ears felt fresh to the touch, rough, cool, juicy, like a life) were given another dimension when set to music.

‘Kafka Fragments is a work that goes to the heart of mankind’s existence, seen through a mix of cutting insight, profundity and at times mundane day-to-day experiences,’ wrote cellist William Conway and artistic director Hebrides Ensemble (who performed Leos Janácek’s Kreutzer Sonata earlier) in the program notes.

The CBSO Centre with its wooden flooring and three rows of balconies skirting the walls provided the perfect setting for looking inward into mankind’s – and one’s own – existence.

Watts sang and acted the words like she had lived them. And Janiczek’s violin, using three instruments each tuned to different pitches, gave out sounds and musical patterns that open the ears to a new world.

In the last fragment, ‘Es blendete uns die Mondnacht’ (the moonlit night dazzled us) ends with: ‘Wir krochen durch den Staub, ein Schlangenpaar’ (we crawl through the dust, a pair of snakes).  Watts crept up to the wall, using her right hand casting a writhing shadow on the trapezoid wall as she sang ‘Schlangenpaar (a pair of snakes) Schlangenpaar, Schlangenpaar’. And Janiczek undulated and twirled the snake around in sound from behind the wall. Both visually and aurally an amazing end to a remarkable evening, achieved with minimal visual intrusion.

It is a sad reflection on the almost total separation of different art forms that the small CBSO Centre remained half empty. There is nothing unapproachable to the evening’s music that could not add to the life-experience of many. Alas, a magical experience was experienced by the void on the empty seats.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

Kafka Fragments by György Kurtág was at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre on 3 June 2011.

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