Dialogues with the (in)visible

Composer, guitarist and filmmaker Tobias Klich
explores the hidden connections between image and sound
by Dirk Wieschollek

‘I have always had a horror of listening to music with my eyes shut, with nothing for them to do. The sight of the gestures and movements of the various parts of the body is fundamentally necessary if it is to be grasped in all its fulness.’1

As Igor Stravinsky already pointed out at a remarkably early date, a musical performance is much more than a matter of auditory perception. Yet after the radical artistic manifestations of the 1960s and 1970s known as ‘Visible Music’, developed mainly in the experimental sound labs of Dieter Schnebel and Mauricio Kagel, the visual aspect of music fell into a deep sleep lasting for decades.2 A good 50 years later this picture had changed. With the increased semantisation and contextualisation of the composer’s craft, a younger generation of composers re-established contact with traditions that saw music in the context of its emergence and laid artistic claim to the ever-present theatricality and visuality associated with the generation of sound.

One composer who does this with fastidious poise is Tobias Klich, a guitarist, filmmaker and visual artist active in diverse fields of artistic endeavour. Even in the field of composition – a particularly significant point in his case – he combines sonic, theatrical and cinematic elements within a single work to produce a multilayered realm of expression. Three basic aspects form an often-inseparable unity
in his creations: an urge toward complex assemblages of sonic phenomena, the visual potential of sonic articulation, and references to extra-musical sources of inspiration from art, literature and philosophy. ‘In dialogue with…’ is an essential part of Klich’s aesthetic approach, and it is explicitly cited in the subtitles of almost all the pieces on this album. These sonic conversations with pre-existing artistic or intellectual materials are designed to open spaces that reveal, on a third level, wholly new and independent areas of perception.

Countless works of music derive from creations in the visual arts, particularly paintings, but it is surely less common to find a work relating to a performance artist. In this case, what makes the reference particularly interesting is that the point of departure is itself a musical presentation: Bruce Nauman’s Violin tuned D.E.A.D. (1968), a roughly hour-long repetition of a single chord played on then open strings of a violin tuned in scordatura (D-E-A-D). In the video, the static music is matched by the static image, which shows a rear view of the nearly motionless player (Nauman himself) against a grey background. What fascinated Klich in this radically reductive starting point was its visceral bodily appeal: ‘I played a concert reperformance of Violin tuned D.E.A.D. for the first time in 2018 and was shocked at how extremely physical the experience was for me. After a while I felt the vibration of every echo trembling in my own body. It was as if I’d merged with the violin and had myself become a soundbox. I hadn’t expected that degree of intensity.’ 3

But Klich’s idea of responding to the powerful sensory aspects of Nauman’s installation had matured long before then: Die Wiederaufnahme der Zeit (‘The revival of time’, 2005–06/2015) is an expanded ‘recomposition’ of Nauman’s minimalist video installation, and thus, one might say, a performance on a performance. Klich’s live violin (likewise tuned D-E-A-D), played against a recording of the rigidly consecutive unchanging chords of Nauman’s performance, enlivens the frozen chordal skeleton with expressive reiterated modules that intermingle in various ways in the course of the performance and engage almost contrapuntally with the video violin. Nor does the violin, for all its expressivity, escape a certain static and formulaic quality: the striking inventory of sounds includes gently ticking ostinatos, soaring tremolando figures, jagged double stops, pulsations from a very broad array of pizzicatos, microtonal ribbons of glissando and chromatic sul ponticello undulations. A full 126 bars have to pass before the live violin takes up the chords of the pre-recorded material, fraying them chromatically and microtonally and gradually leaving them aside. All that is left in the final section are overtone echoes and fluttery tremolandos in artificial harmonics – a reaction to the pre-recorded chords, which suddenly fall silent while the live violin steadily dissolves into toneless whispers, first sul ponticello, then on the rib.

Klich prescribes two ways of performing the piece live: either the Nauman video is screened and simulated by the player of the solo part, or a pre-recorded audio track resounds from a ‘sculptural’ violin placed on stage with an attached surface acoustic speaker. The soloist is thus integrated in a dialogue not only with Nauman, but also with himself/herself! Just how seriously Klich views the cinematic medium as an independent artistic sphere in his work is made clear by the fact that in 2018–19 he produced a separate filmed performance for this album in conjunction with filmmaker James Chan-A-Sue (the same applies to all the films on the DVD). It begins with a grey wasteland of empty corridors and leads into rooms of glaring vacuity in which the solo part wanders about in varying degrees of agitation. It is not until fairly late in the piece that the performer becomes visible. Suddenly a jump cut: the existential emptiness of an abstract ‘interior labyrinth’ is transformed into a state that enables, as Klich puts it, ‘the surmounting of stasis, the revival of time’, in which the musician is ‘no longer identical to herself’. The camera pans slowly across the midsection of a now pregnant female performer who gently clasps her belly with her hands.

Klich regularly focuses on the hands as elemental generators of artistic reality. As early as his guitar piece grüntrübe Ritornelle beim Verlassen des Territoriums (‘Murky green ritornellos when leaving the territory’, 2009–11), he directs our perception entirely to the hands, in that the player, dressed as darkly as possible, becomes lost in a black stage area and the lighting focuses on the activity of the hands. Klich refers to the piece as, in essence, a ‘choreography for two hands exploring the territory of a guitar’, thereby evoking traditions of ‘instrumental theatre’. That said, here the ‘stage’ is limited to the playing surface of the guitar, subdivided into five sonically independent areas by a capotasto and tablespoons inserted between the strings. Rather than being fixed, however, the areas are modified as the piece progresses by shifting their boundaries. The result is a polyphony of gestures, actions and timbres caused by constantly crossing the hands – a polyphony sometimes suggesting that two players are at work. The impression of heterophony is, however, further differentiated in the piece’s spatial alignment: each sonic area has its own contact microphone and is projected into space via eight loudspeakers surrounding the audience.

That the guitar is Klich’s personal instrument is manifest in a highly sophisticated array of performance techniques, causing it to appear here as a ‘multiply split personality’. In a dramaturgically fundamental alternation between action and silence, general pauses frequently cause the player to freeze into immobility while Klich concocts an intricate soundscape of percussive, noisy, overtone-rich articulations only distantly related to the customary sound of a guitar. It is particularly the often hybrid character of tone and noise that gives the piece its special and relatively unpredictable character. Klich views the concept of ‘ritornello’ as something more than a formal repetition of concise building blocks that offer a sort of orientation in the non-identity of the partitioned instrument. Here ‘ritornello’ is also used in the sense defined by Deleuze and Guattari as an ‘intermediate’ place located on the threshold of order and chaos.4 In short, it is a sonic hybrid that embodies dissolution and morphogenesis in equal measure – a ‘no longer’ and a ‘not yet’ – and that develops its special expressive aura from the freedom to abandon its ‘home territory’.

Multiple hands are also the focus of events in Goya-Triptychon (‘Goya triptych’, 2013–20). Here the hands are charged with iconographical meaning. This ‘music-theatrical composition’ refers, in three sections of sharply contrasting instrumentation, to Francisco de Goya’s famous cycle of socio-critical etchings, Los Caprichos (1793–99).5 The pieces in the triptych can be performed singly or as a whole; all of them contain video projections and stage instructions for the gestures and facial expressions of the performers. The musicians play behind a scrim on which the video is projected; all are dressed entirely in black and perceivable mainly in the form of their hands and heads. The depicted gestures refer to specific pictorial elements from selected Goya etchings and are to be ‘integrated as organically as possible into the gestures of the players’. The projections, too, consist of fragmentary excerpts from the etchings, synchronised as closely as possible with the music and the players’ movements. At times the two levels of perception merge with each other to the point that they become indistinguishable.

In Goyas Hände (‘Goya’s hands’, 2013), for guitar and video, only fragments depicting hands and arms are inserted into or simulated by the playing of the guitarist. In Goyas Räume (‘Goya’s spaces’, 2015), for guitar, percussion, trumpet, double bass and video, the musicians become tableaux vivants of various caprichos.6 Several elements from the etchings also find use as visual props.7 Finally Goyas Stimmen (‘Goya’s voices’, 2020), for voice, trumpet, percussion and video, places the human face in the foreground of the projection, using a selection of the many ‘heads’ in Goya’s iconographical inventory.

At first glance it may seem redundant to ‘replicate’, on the musical and theatrical level, contents from one of the most famous works of printed graphic art and its diabolically distorted take on reality. But things are not so simple in the case of Klich’s Goya-Triptychon. Its mixture of abstraction and adaptation from a semantically charged pictorial reality likewise gives rise to an open interior space
of sound and image. This space develops a poetics all its own because its iconographical ‘backgrounds’ often remain deliberately vague in the fragmentation of suggestive gestures or ‘blank areas’, especially since the wealth of allusions in Goya’s etchings have yet to be unequivocally deciphered. This is precisely where Klich finds his point of departure: ‘While composing, especially in the case of Goya’s Stimmen, I found it inspiring to freely devise an overriding plot among Goya’s isolated pictures, a plot that doesn’t exist in the etchings themselves. It expresses itself very well in physical terms, but like dreams it is hard to convey in words. To me, this is exactly what makes these pictures so eerie.’

Klich enjoys a close collaboration with the composer and sound artist CHEN Chengwen, who regularly takes charge of the sound design and video playbacks in his pieces. In 4 Hände (‘Four hands’, 2016–20) they also worked closely together on the compositional level, one might even say in genuine tactile contact with the instruments involved. This time it was not a work from the visual arts that formed the composition’s extra-musical starting point, but a philosophical text: Plato’s Symposium. Once again the focus falls on the hands. This ‘scenic composition’ for guitar, cello, accordion and voice is designed practically to replicate the playing of a solo instrument. Sitting behind the soloist (and barely visible) is another player who likewise acts with the hands on the instrument, conveying the impression that a four-armed creature is responsible for producing the sound. Klich elaborates on the idea of his cycle: ‘In all the four-hand pieces we were intent again and again on achieving moments that could be fully realised in no other way than with two players and four hands on a single instrument. In exactly the same way, our act of composing was a process that could only emerge in joint interaction between us – a four-hand interplay with no clearly defined areas of responsibility. That’s also how the pieces turned out: looking at them, you sometimes can’t tell which hand belongs to whom, or precisely who is responsible for what.’

Roughly speaking, Plato’s underlying reflections (in the speech of Aristophanes) have to do with the partition of man’s original nature into four-armed spherical beings that formerly existed in three sexes (masculine, feminine, androgynous), and with the resultant longing for reunification of these three sexual subdivisions that ultimately constitutes the basis of love. In 4 Hände, four ‘solo pieces’ explore various processes and states of convergence and detachment, separation and fusion, as two beings interact as a sonic unit within the narrowest of confines. As their arms and hands frequently cross while fingering, striking or holding their instruments, they necessarily come physically closer to each other through constant contact. Similar dualisms with the associated processes of staccato and legato operate on the level of, respectively, compositional invention and sound design, with a relatively abstract and ‘impersonal’ starting material yielding a wide array of variations and permutations.

In Musik für Gitarre zu vier Händen (‘Music for guitar four-hands’, 2016) the basic musical components, sonic gestures and dramaturgical procedures of the cycle are stated in the manner of an exposition: chromatic and microtonal scalar segments alternate with overtone-rich chords and swaths of rhythmic ostinatos, trills and tremolandos, often produced in acrobatic balance as the two agents interweave. Notwithstanding all the dexterity obviously needed to make fine adjustments on the body of the guitar, the four-armed performance never entails superficial gymnastics for the sake of virtuosic musical effect. The sonic material is in itself too terse and desubjectified for this purpose (at least on the surface). Here, too, musical events occasionally congeal into pure pantomime, as when playing positions suddenly freeze or gestures impishly refer to the Janus-faced nature of the situation.8 Towards the end of the piece, however, the players disclose their identities as separate beings when the head and body of the player to the rear shift conspicuously sidewards. The partition described by Plato becomes briefly visible, underscored on stage in the gaze of the Other.

Processes similar to those in the guitar piece can be heard and seen in Musik für Violoncello zu vier Händen (‘Music for cello four-hands’, 2017–19). Once again, two bodies blend into an almost inseparable intrinsic unity whose sonic and kinetic dramaturgy interlocks with utmost precision. Here, however, the physical element appears more suggestive, as the cello is an instrument immensely close and analogous to the human body. The musical gestures are similarly abstract; nor do they succeed in producing a melodious, elegiac inflection on the cello, even though the passage from Plato prefixed to the piece (as ‘Prologue II’) deals with nothing less than ‘Love’ in the form of longing for lost identity. That the physical aspects in the choreography of the arms can achieve almost ‘tender’ moments becomes evident at the latest when the players brush the strings with the palms of their hands, producing a gentle swishing sound. The frequent mutual passing and switching of bows embodies something decidedly interpersonal. The effect becomes even more pictorial in the staging: suddenly the first cellist pulls a second bow from behind the back and simulates the shooting of an arrow. Once Cupid’s dart has been released, the parts blend into a microtonally harmonised five-note melody that crops up like a leitmotif at dramatically meaningful moments in every piece of the cycle. At the end, as in the guitar piece, we are treated to a ‘bodily partition’ in the recognition of an Other.

In Musik für Akkordeon zu vier Händen (und eine weitere Stimme) (‘Music for accordion four-hands (and another voice)’, 2019–20) the previously explored processes of differentiation and fusion within narrow limits are further complicated, if only because the accordion is itself an ‘epicene being’ with bass and discant sides. In both its music and its gestures the piece proves to be still more expressive and restless than its two predecessors, with many noisy percussive actions. Later it is dominated by dissonant soundscapes that attach special importance to ‘difference tones resulting between a sustained pitch and a linear chromatic scale’. At some point a third voice – a melodica – almost imperceptibly mingles with the frequencies of the accordion. However, it only displays itself visually after the aforementioned ‘partition’ of the instrument, settling between the two accordion players to create a trio. At the end this trio blends in iridescent harmonies into a three-voice chorale on the previously developed five-note melody. The melodica seals this newly constituted unity with a gesture of embrace. But 4 Hände still has a way to go yet.

As a sort of epilogue, Musik für Stimme (‘Music for voice’, 2020) brings the cycle to a surprisingly solo conclusion. The melodica player, now metamorphosed into a soprano, treats us to hummed notes and vocalises in alternation with whistled passages (for a long time with eyes closed and lips only gradually opening). Basic elements from the preceding pieces are taken up (e.g. scalar segments or, at the end, the five-note melody in a mixture of singing and whistling), often vacillating bar by bar between microtonality and conventional temperament and moving back and forth in extreme leaps of register. Once again, in the individual participating body, we encounter a dualism of mood and expression that has little in common with firm identity. But who is this voice? What does it personify? The androgynous origins of human existence posited by Plato? Or precisely (to quote Plato himself) ‘what she is unable to say, but can only vaguely feel and suggest in enigmas’? Much like the visual compositions of Tobias Klich, which draw on the seemingly familiar and meaningful in order to magnify and heighten the notoriously enigmatic character of art. Music, as we all know, is capable of doing this, and music with images all the more so …

1) Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography (New York, 1936), p. 72.

2) In retrospect, it seems like an irony of history that during the first flowering of video in popular culture and art, ‘New Music’ – newly intoxicated by the expressive traditions of late romanticism and early modernism – largely refused to integrate visual idioms.

3) All quotations from the composer are taken from e-mails of June 2021 to the present author.

4) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, ‘1837 – Zum Ritornell’, in Tausand Plateaus (Berlin, 1992), pp. 423 ff.

5) It has often attracted the attention of composers, e.g. in Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 24 Caprichos de Goya (1961) and Hans Werner Henze’s Los Caprichos: Fantasia per Orchestra (1963).

6) Here the performance situation itself is ironically captured on two levels with the depiction in ‘Brabisimo!’ (no. 38): a monkey playing a guitar to an attentive audience consisting of a donkey and two human figures – a caricature of music performances at court.

7) For example, at one point the double bass part is ‘truncated’ with the scissors from Capricho no. 51, ‘Se repulen’ (They spruce themselves up). Later a bellows is employed as a citation from the particularly cryptic Capricho no. 69, ‘Sopla’ (Gust of wind), where naked men use the body of a child as a bellows.

8) For example, when the right arm of Guitarist I and the left arm of Guitarist II are slowly extended outwards, like a gesture of invitation from a unified body.

Translation: Dr. J. Bradford Robinson