From Dispatches from Moments of Calm

by Alexander Kluge Gerhard Richter


From Dispatches from Moments of Calm. Copyright Gerhard Richter, 2016.

In 1946 the Russian astrophysicist Gamow, transported in a US Air Force plane from California to Canada, from there to Washington, and from there to Florida, on each occasion to deliver a lecture, saw WITH HIS OWN EYES—while waiting in a noisy café on New York's Fifth Avenue during one of the few quiet moments he had to himself—the rotation of atoms and subatomic particles, their spin, the constant revolution of molecules and planets, the rapidly turning stars, galaxies and superclusters. This SNAPSHOT appeared to him as a uniform movement, divisible by the spin numbers one-and-a-half and one, similar to an extremely complex clock or a piece of music, like the one he'd heard in the Venice Cathedral during a visit Stalin had allowed him to make there in the 1930s. On the back of the café bill he noted down this observation as a mathematical formula, which initially seemed no more than a visual aberration, like the movement of blood corpuscles in front of the pupil when one gets up too quickly with the sun in one's eyes. Later he was unable to read the scrawl he had quickly jotted down. Never again did he see the world with such precision.

During the final rehearsals for his Europeras 1 & 2 at the Frankfurt opera house in the autumn of 1987, John Cage was staying at the Hotel Frankfurter Hof. This meant that when he received the disturbing news that the opera house was on fire, he didn't have far to hurry to the scene. He took a tape recorder with him, and he had filled the pockets of his winter overcoat with various different kinds of special microphones. The city's fire brigade had several of its units ready for an assault on the stage house, the center of the fire. In the meantime, a firestorm had already developed in this part of the opera house. It was simply too dangerous to send in the fire teams against it. They would have to let the fire burn.

It was only after the roof fell in, bringing a mass of building material down with it, that parts of the fire could be put out. Cage found that the acoustic power of a firestorm of this kind produced a sound he'd never heard before: an "infernal hissing." When he asked the fire chiefs about it, they explained that the sound was produced by the flames sucking the oxygen out of the surrounding air. A continuous noise could be heard on the tapes Cage used to record the sounds (he listened to them immediately afterward, though the recording did not correspond to what he'd heard at the scene). He played it several times to other people present, including to members of the orchestra who were now appearing at the scene of the inferno. Cage had also recorded the high-pitched tone of the firemen's voices, caused by excitement and nervous strain, and the same phenomenon among several of the spectators.

In the days that followed, before the first performance of his two Europeras, which had now been postponed until December 12, Cage acquired an audiotape from a sound technician at Hessischer Rundfunk containing recordings of the discharge and impact of shells fired from British 12-pounders, a type of heavy artillery. On the night before the premiere of his operas (the performance had been moved to Frankfurt's main theatre), Cage packed his audiotapes and notes into a cardboard box. It contained the draft for his "Suite for Cacophony and Orchestra," known as Europera 2a. Using the material he'd recorded at the opera house fire, Cage had tried to set to sounds the image of an air attack on Beirut.


From Dispatches from Moments of Calm. Copyright Gerhard Richter, 2016.

Along with the noises of the shell explosions (which he'd got from Hessischer Rundfunk) and the sounds of the fire at the opera house, Cage had included a passage from the last act of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's opera The Soldiers (containing no vocal music), and a page of sheet music that he'd sketched out in rough and which the members of the orchestra were to play on instruments of their own choosing according to a principle of random determination. This package, unmarked and unprofessionally tied together, was mistaken for rubbish by the hotel's chambermaid and thrown in the bin: lost sketch for sound and orchestra by John Cage.

———

The model of a city "as on an alien planet." The "ruins of a city of the future" emerged from the sawn-off stump of a tree—the structure, caused by the tree being felled before the saw passed cleanly through its middle, is tall and pointed, round and fibrous. That the loggers should have stopped their saw at precisely the moment that produced this structure is pure chance.

———

It was while out taking his exercise, crunching over the sand and gravel of Helgoland's windswept coast, that Werner Heisenberg had his legendary idea—the INDETERMINACY PRINCIPLE.

Since then, physics has come to regard it as a law of nature. You can either determine the momentum of an elementary particle or its position. This is not the effect of some deficiency in our measuring instruments or the limited scope of our present state of knowledge, but a basic characteristic of nature. It unfolds two parallel worlds. Between them, "noise" prevails; one cannot exist without the other. Together they are real.

The indeterminacy principle also applies to human relations, for entirely different reasons than it does to physics. In this respect, keeping a lens out of focus—that is, giving it a focus that is indeterminate—is not a technical device, but a response to a manifold reality. Certain reproductions are, so to speak, indeterminate by nature. What is more, authentic images always refer to something that lies outside the frame. Thus filmmakers such as Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Hans Richter, or Sergei Eisenstein have developed their art to such a degree that the most important impressions the viewer takes away from them are of a series of events outside the film.

Montage also produces "invisible images." If the film is well-made enough, they will necessarily arise in the viewer's mind. Two incongruous scenes provoke a "third image," the epiphany. Only those films that achieve this effect become part of film history. The musical equivalent to this filmic succession of "unseen images" is harmonics. From Monteverdi to Cage, they form the true choruses.

John Cage's composition, which is being performed at the Church of St. Burchardi in Halberstadt, leaves a whole year between its notes to allow for the piece to incorporate "natural sounds." These could be the footsteps and the hushed voices of visitors to the church. The sheep kept on the green outside the church could also contribute chance sounds to these intervals of tonality.

———

Silver content and gray tones: during the year 1966 it became known that the film company Ilford was about to greatly reduce the amount of silver in their 35mm black-and-white film stock. We bought large quantities of this negative, which was still available in 60- and 120-meter cans, and stored it in stacks at the Institute for Film Production in Ulm and my production house in Munich. In this way we stockpiled as much as we could get of a film stock that captured light so vividly.

The stock captures every distinction of light. Several Arriflex lenses, whose history goes back 400 years (to the Dutch lens grinders who developed the prototypes), focus light in the middle of the image, with the result that the gray tones run off from there to its edges. And what a wealth of gray tones! Nothing that Ilford produced in subsequent years could achieve the same effect. Since the eye would have to filter light itself out of the lava of colors, it is not visible to the idle attention of the ordinary gaze. It only becomes apparent when shown through a projector, namely as LIGHT, BLACKS and GRAYS.


From Dispatches from Moments of Calm. Copyright Gerhard Richter, 2016.

It was the view of our cameraman Thomas Mauch that somewhere in the image there had to be black, somewhere there had to be white, and between these a tumult of gray tones could run riot. He was known as a collector of gray tones. In certain borderline light situations, for example over several evenings in December 1965, he captured whole cascades of such tones, which he felt should be edited into sequences that completely ignored the action of the film. It was these that seemed to him to be film's authentic messages, in contrast to its scripted scenes populated by mediocre actors. In terms of the actors' quality, action, facial expressions, intonation, individual appearance, and talent for disguise, he could distinguish up to sixty differences per hour of shooting (out of 660 impressions that for him were just repetitions of things that had already been seen and that therefore could be ignored). By contrast, when it came to gray tones he could observe over the same period of time (partly because the light conditions became increasingly favorable as the afternoon advanced) 7,800 differences, among them over seven singularities that he had never seen before, and which he believed had never even been filmed before. This cameraman was known for his quick eye. The chief film editor (who also had a sensitive nature, though for other things than this) later mixed these discoveries up and even let some of them disappear into the remainder material (the remainders not used in the film were packed into cans and at some point spoiled in the copying plant's cellars, since the chemical does not stop reacting and in the end destroys itself).

Mauch often had to be reminded to point the camera back at the action, because he had turned away from the set to film gray tone phenomena. At that time, we shot every scene just once—which is not usual in the film industry—partly out of superstition and partly to keep ourselves in a state of creative tension. If every scene that goes wrong can be reshot, and if the film doesn't get into a crisis during editing, then it gets fat and intervenes between the viewer the living impetus that we (there were seventeen of us on set) felt during filming.

Translated by Nathaniel McBride.

Alexander Kluge (b. 1932) was instrumental in launching the New German Cinema movement in 1962 and is also one of the major German fiction writers of the late-twentieth century.

Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) is a German artist whose seminal works include Atlas (1964), October 18, 1977 (1988) and Eight Grey (2002).

Dispatches from Moments of Calm is forthcoming from Seagull Books in May 2016.

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BOMB 135
Spring 2016
The cover of BOMB 135
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