Vol. 24 Issue 2 Reviews
Georg Hajdu: Der Sprung
Wireworks Orchestra, Pumpenhaus Theater, Münster, Germany, 2-3 October 1999

Reviewed by Eberhard Hüppe, translated by Richard Polex (Münster, Germany)

Like no other genre, the music theater of recent years has been subject to polarization. On the one hand, conventional institutionalized methods have a tendency to place their mark on all concepts which are open to compromise. On the other hand, intelligent ideas that diverge from normal operatic procedures shift the actual events in the opera to the audience by aiming at a static set–which comes close to eliminating the visual scenario. The drama consists in making the audience aware of the dramatic possibilities of its own sense of hearing. In order to achieve this, it is absolutely necessary to embrace the incongruity of hearing and seeing. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and John Cage developed concepts for the aesthetic-cognitive problems of the opera genre, which led to widely diverging opinions on dramatizations of cognitive dissonance (not necessarily of the sounds). Internal, culturally determined inconsistencies of perception are the domain of music theater, of the high-brow avant-garde. This is also the starting point for Georg Hajdu’s opera project Der Sprung (based on a libretto by Thomas Brasch), which premiered–with René Gulikers conducting and Georg Hajdu controlling the sound–on 2-3 October 1999 in Münster, Germany.

Der Sprung is based on a tragic incident which took place in 1984 at the University of Cologne: a female student shot and killed a professor of Jewish Studies and seriously wounded another. An investigation of the incident revealed the tragic entanglement of a personal and a national malady. It turned out that the schizophrenic student felt that, because of German-Jewish history including the Holocaust, it bordered on the criminal for a non-Jewish professor to teach Jewish Studies. She had converted to the Jewish faith and, as a result, felt justified in committing murder.

Literature as analysis: Thomas Brasch combines the crime and its genesis, including personal notes and information about the student’s environment, as a drama of ideas. The result is a tableau of the most diverse elements, and this carries over to the music as well. What is the connection between a jump from a diving board with Mick Jagger, the inhabitants of a terrarium, and a woman who has wrapped herself in a prayer shawl? Mr. Brasch’s conception makes it necessary for the music to bring the disparate elements together.

The use of interactive computer technology, which is a further development of serialism for controlling both the act of composition and the performance situation, necessitates "software of the second degree" to start the artistic process. Such software can be found in everyday life, but one has to be able to recognize it as such.

The point of departure for the music and the libretto stems from an offhand remark made by Mr. Brasch: "Writing an opera means having no other way out." Mr. Hajdu asked him to repeat the sentence on his answering machine. By transforming it into diagram form via sound analysis, by setting a time frame and measuring the sections to determine the structure (dividing it into "slices of time," according to the composer), the sentence became the structural formula for an eleven-part libretto and a two-act opera (each divided into four scenes) with a prologue, intermezzo, and epilogue. The student is portrayed by an actress in a speaking role who writes the key sentences of each scene on a blackboard. The opera includes elements of a radio play. Eight female and male singers sing at times solo, at times united as a chorus. They are also linked to the electronic equipment via microphones and headphones. The chamber orchestra, with its 20 musicians, includes–apart from the conventional instrumental formation–three synthesizers and a jazz group. The coordination of the entire group is carried out by computer.

Each scenic moment is clearly defined in terms of its exact episodic content. The horizontally-oriented plot has been constructed vertically in order to make the drama of the heterogeneous events vivid and clear. This is achieved through the use of electronic music. But Mr. Hajdu’s musical style, as indicated by his instrumentation, is meant to offer a cross-section of styles. Thus, each scenic moment has its own language of sounds. The "water music" in the prologue, which deals with the dive from the diving board, uses specific sounds from a swimming pool, transformed and heightened by live electronic effects. The text is projected into this soundscape and becomes part of the transformation brought about by the sounds. The sensual result is a static, ornamental, fluctuating music.

Mr. Hajdu prefers to use the orchestra for plot-driven scenes with dialog; here the music is impulsive and full of gestures and elements from traditional genres. The orchestra is also the medium used to depict stylistic transformations, to illustrate the past, as in the jazz-rock allusions in one of the scenes from the first act which deals with the muddled alternatives considered by the protagonist. The "destruction" of Mick Jagger by throwing away his records (as a result of an imagined affair with him) is already on the level of an intent to kill, also motivated by an imaginary relationship with the instructor at the Institute for Jewish Studies. "I can’t get no satisfaction" has been incorporated into the music. Mr. Hajdu is not interested in composing authentic jazz-rock but in transforming it through the use of serialistic elements into a strange, synthetic form. The scene that describes the criteria for buying the murder weapon works in a similar fashion. "The weapon should be one from the Middle Ages" (Act 1, Scene 4) engenders echoes of Ars Nova while fake klezmer music accompanies the drama of the fake identity in Act 2.

Mr. Hajdu is working towards the conceptualization of a kind of semantics which, as Mr. Brasch has formulated it, is the semantics of observation. For this, different styles of language are necessary. The observation of the opera’s semantic levels leads the listener to the spoken structural formula on the answering machine, or, to be more precise, to its background noise. A discussion of the complex structure of the Intermezzo (chorus and live electronics) would take up too much space here. Various sections with long glissandi, each with a different harmonic structure in a microtonal system, become clearly audible, resulting in something that sounds like spectral music. It could even be described as an extended chorale. The Intermezzo can be seen as the musical climax of the opera. The microtonal harmonic progression is taken up in a rondo-like scene for solo alto (in her lowest register) and live electronics, reflecting on the conditions of "speaking another language." In this micro-intervallic environment we hear a resynthesized, tonal sound world which, instead of being irritating, has an iridescent effect. There are continually descending sequences of notes in various parts whose order can not be foreseen and which could well continue into infinity.

In order to achieve the "schizoid" structure of a drama of ideas, and to make the structure audible and, as far as possible in concert, visible (for the staged realization, videos are added), it is necessary to make use of all forms of multimedia capable of producing both integration and dissociation. The form that Mr. Hajdu and Mr. Brasch have given their drama of ideas requires conceptual, constructivist, and deconstructivist methods. While constructivist elements are necessary for the creation of any type of musical structure, the cultural disparity of the event is revealed through the use of deconstructivist methods. The various meanings that exist for the German word "Sprung" (leap, jump, dive, crack) lead to the opera’s wide spectrum of associations. The disparity of the cultural levels corresponds to the variety of compositional styles. The composer develops a dramatic structure out of various layers of multimedia transformations, which are at the same time equivalent to the structure of the drama of ideas. This is why language and music are intertwined from the very beginning.

Thus, we return to the sentence "Writing an opera means having no other way out." What this means is the desire to create an identity that lies somewhere between drama and structure, and that the beginning and end of the route taken will reveal differences, "leaps." One leap consists of linking the act of hearing to the events on stage. Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk was the first step in this direction. While his form of Gesamtkunstwerk is inextricably linked with the aesthetic discourse of the industrial revolution, the work of art that relies on multimedia concepts–as referenced by Frederic Jameson–can no longer be explained by this historical notion. The multimedia work of art serves to make perception possible dramatically as well as structurally, and it is the active role of perception and consciousness that is prerequisite to perceiving anything beyond hallucinations. This is true both in an artistic and a political sense.