Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The original breakup album - by Schumann

Schumann Street: love, loss, recovery
Photo: Spitalfields Music

If you're heading east in London this weekend, don't miss a whole streetful of Schumann and Schumann-derived songs. Spitalfields Music's Festival, which is on now, spans everything from glorious Monteverdi through to the present day, with Anna Thorvaldsdottir as featured composer. But it has an unusual feature based on our Robert's best-loved song-cycle, Dichterliebe.

You know those street parties where you go from house to house and have a different course of a meal at each one? This is the Lieder equivalent and more - with numerous surprise flavours. Bengali folk, rap, jazz and soul all feature in reinterpretations of Schumann and Heine's journey through love, loss and recovery, situated in the Huguenot houses of the Spitalfields district: as the festival puts it, "16 songs, 16 rooms, 1000 journeys".

The festival's artistic director, the conductor André de Ridder, told me all about it the other day. He credits the Icelandic artist and performer, Ragner Kjartansson, with inspiring the idea: "At a festival at the old GDR Funkhaus in Berlin that was underwritten by some famous indie and rock figures, and Ragner performed a song from Dichterliebe on loop for four hours. I know he’s also done the whole cycle in his inimitable way. He was playing 'Ich grolle nicht' to a huge audience that had never heard it before and was more used to a pop festival - a setting that my group, Stargaze, and people like Bryce Dessner are trying to use, because people lap it up. And I was reminded how beautiful, essential and to the point Dichterliebe is.

André de Ridder
"Some songs are only 15 seconds, with very poignant words: a few turns of phrase can capture the really beautiful essence of an emotion. I don’t want to equarte that style with pop asongs, but the best pop songs today capture the essence of an emotion or vibe in very little time or with just a phrase. It made me think this cycle can be presented in that kind of context.

"When I combined that with these houses that are at our disposal in Spitalfields then the idea of House Music started playing on my mind. I decided we could put each of 16 songs into a different house and let the audience make their own way through the sound. You also make it a hybrid withan immersive sound installation, done live with humans rather than speakers. Another layer is immersive theatre pieces, like those pioneered by Punchdrunk. All these ideas came together and landed well on this idea.

"There are about five classical singers out of 16, and a couple will do the songs in the normal style; one will accompany himself, another will do the songs with other instruments. Then there are artists completely new to the composer and the music. They went through the cycle and found the songs that really spoke to them. In most cases we were able to give them the songs that spoke to them most and  they’d translate the accompaniments into their own musical language. 

"In the case of the German rappers, they created their own lyrics inspired by the original Heine. I also said to other people, especially with the songs that are very short, they might extend them with their own stanzas, continuing the text and bringing it into teir world. I really tried to give liberty to each performer to be inspired and develop it with their own practice. I don’t know yet what they’re all coming up with! I’ve only heard about two demos out of 16. So I’m very excited to see what happens.

"The whole theme of Dichterliebe is not unlike artists from our time who, when they made an album, took on another personality - like David Bowie who’d be Ziggy Stardust. They become another person and then in an album express their journey, eg through a breakup. The so-called 'breakup album' has become ubiquitous in our time and in a way that’s almost what Schumann is doing here! There is something about tracing the steps of a poet’s love, overcoming the loss of it and the hope of it and coming to terms with it that’s expressed. Maybe that is the first quintessential, universal breakup album!"

You can find more details and a complete list of performers and where to find them here.

One thing I haven't told you - at least, I don't think I have - is that references to Dichterliebe are implanted all the way through Ghost Variations. For the person who writes to me having found the full list of them, I have a small prize to award: a lovely recording of the Schumann Violin Concerto by my old friend Philippe Graffin.