If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The performers recount their experiences with Henning Christiansen and his work.
On the occasion of the Blank Forms Henning Christiansen exhibition, Freedom is Around the Corner, two of his regular collaborators, Ute Wassermann and Werner Durand, and I caught up before our performance together in the spirit of this most individualistic composer. I led the casual conversation and worked to tease out Henning’s methods of collaboration and creativity with our humble guests.
Mark HarwoodUte, your relationship with Henning goes back a long way; since you were quite young, you studied with Henning?
Ute WassermannYes, I studied with Henning at the Hochschule für bildende Künste, Hamburg, in 1986. During my time at the art school, he got me involved in his pieces, which were actually mostly happening outside of art school … in Rome, in Sicily, in Copenhagen, for instance. I don’t know how many productions we did together, but we collaborated for many years and became very good friends as well
MHThe traditional way to operate in the experimental music world is mostly through exclusively sound-based contexts, be it either in a venue or a gallery space. But the performances you were involved in had theater, movement, film …
UWYes, Henning was always invested in building out, in branching off. When I met Henning, I had already been working for years on my own, and he knew this and was interested in what I did, what of my own I could artistically contribute to his pieces. This was maybe surprising as it was very different from writing a fixed score and asking me to interpret it, which is the traditional approach. He used me as a complete person, and that’s the way he worked with most collaborators.
MHAnd yet, he’s really not very well known. In the experimental music world, if you flip through any twentieth-century book on experimental music, he’s never mentioned, and people ask why that’s the case. Do you think it has to do with his interest in working across so many disciplines? That it was never just a sound-based practice?
Werner DurandYes, but this changes during different periods; by 1967, I agree, he really got involved with Joseph Beuys and the art world, but if you look at the early work, like the Perceptive Constructions recordings, it’s almost like pure minimalist sound work. It’s quite amazing to hear those pieces now. Of course, those works would eventually be collected by the art world, and he was always looking for something different outside academia, but he was not necessarily doing performance pieces his whole career.
UWYes, but regardless, as you said, he is excluded from these anthologies of new music—
MHExactly, because he doesn’t follow this path of pure new music through—
WDNot included yet!
MHAnd obviously Beuys had a massive influence on him; that was sort of an epiphany. And his interest in Fluxus, which he wasn’t part of but appropriated or used as a moniker, also did a lot to determine the context in which he’s often seen.
WDRight, he was not involved in the earlier years, 1962–63.
MHBy that time in Denmark there was already Arthur Køpcke, and Poul Gernes, and the Ex-School. Sure, later in the sixties Emmett Williams goes out there and Nam June Paik is invited by Christiansen to perform. But still they sort of created their own thing there in Denmark. It wasn’t exactly isolated, but it was certainly separated from the larger Fluxus movement.
UWYes, and as for the question of context and exclusion, I know this myself, because I also work across different fields; and if you do that, you become a different artistic being than someone who studies with all the important composers and stays on that track. That’s really different from what Henning did; he really was active in many different fields—music, film, art …
I think that broader approach gives a lot of freedom, working like that. It comes back to that key phrase of Henning’s that “freedom is around the corner.” He always had different places to go artistically.
WDRight, this is something we’ve all thought about while formulating our performance here and perhaps something worth returning to now. We named it Reality is Around the Corner, which comes from the phrase Ute just used and another one of Henning’s, “Reality is a ghost in my mind.” He used both of these titles in shows at Ursula Block’s gelbe MUSIK gallery in Berlin in the eighties. So they felt like strong reference points for us.
MHBut this idea of “freedom around the corner” is also the suggestion that people always have hope, even foolish hope—that it’s just about to be better, that it’s really always just around the corner. “We just have to do this and that and!” It’s the idea of this frustrating tension with something that’s always almost but never quite resolved.
UWOr maybe, it’s that you have the illusion that you are free, but you’re not, it’s still around the corner.
MHI think there was also a little bit of contempt for European composers like Stockhausen who took themselves deeply seriously and were really a little bit aggressive in their movements in order to gain a degree of success and stature.
WDYes, and you could maybe hear that critique even in a title like Abschiedssymphonie. It’s absurd to have such a title at that time. Symphony itself was already—
WDYeah, no one was writing symphonies anymore in the late sixties—
MHI like this about his work; there’s that period where he’s doing quite beautiful, romantic scored music and then very wild collage, musique concrète. Simultaneously the very old and the very new exist next to each other without caring about any of this other stuff. So Werner, you worked with Henning just before Ute came into the game?
WDYes, our first real acquaintance was in 1984, yet we might have known each other before that. This theater group from Rome, La Zattera di Babele, did a piece in Berlin, and René Block brought in Henning as a composer. There were a couple of musicians, including myself, who were asked to interpret Henning’s music for the performance.
MHThis was Penthesilea?
WDYes, one part was composed by Henning and one part composed by Robert Ashley with “Blue” Gene Tyranny on piano. It’s fantastic. We did this as part of Rosenfest.
MHYeah, it’s incredible.
WDI don’t remember all of it, but the last part was by Giancarlo Schiaffini, an Italian trombone player, who worked with Nuova Consonanza. It was very unique—three parts, and each composer had his own thing. It’s funny, right after that was the first time Ute and I met, in Rome. And now it’s the second time, and we’re performing together. I’m sixty-four now, and at that time I was thirty-two. So every thirty-two years we play together.
MHDue to Henning.
MHAnd so were you mostly involved and drawn to live performance with Henning? Because you’re also on a lot of the records—
WDRight, both of those activities existed alongside each other but could be quite different. In terms of live performances, one that comes to mind as a favorite was Umwälzung at Inventionen Festival 1990, in no small part because it was here that Henning brought me together with Erik Balke, the Norwegian saxophonist. We clicked instantly and soon after formed our own ensemble with my invented wind instruments: The Thirteenth Tribe.
I have a photo where you can see Erik and me, each of us blowing on a very long PVC pipe with a sax mouth piece. Before the show, I proposed to Henning that Erik and I could somehow look like we were blowing into the same pipe by putting a resonating tube on the floor into which each of our pipes would lead. Henning liked the idea and the way it looked and sounded, much to my delight.
For recorded material I’m mostly thinking of the few soundtracks we recorded. We went to Møn Island in southern Denmark to record a soundtrack for Ursula Christiansen, Henning’s wife. And then I later went to Hamburg to record for the Penthesilea performance in Rome; it was some prerecorded material that would be played while we were posing with our instruments. Frankly, I wasn’t so happy about that one. When we were on stage they told us, “Oh just stand there like a statue with your instrument, and we’ll play the tape.”
MHAnd did the nature of the performance always change? What was Henning’s working method? Was it chaotic?
UWNo, not so much chaotic as—
WDUte, may I recall the anecdote when we arrived in Rome and were meeting for the first time? You and me and the cellist, the three of us. We were given some space to warm up our instruments, but Henning comes in and listens and says, “Oh, that’s exactly what I want.” We were really just warming up, but he wanted those sounds which were maybe not so intentional and polished. He wanted that kind of looseness and spontaneity. At the time we might have thought of that as strange.
UWYes, but it’s not chaotic. It’s being there in the moment and choosing. His thinking was always very structured; he thought a lot about composition techniques, how to structure a piece.
MHRight, and his background in composition. But in the process of the presentation, he’s trying to break it down.
UWYes, he was always breaking it down.
MHHe wants to always leave it as open as possible; by his later period, he sounds quite wild. I mean, John Cage never made anything like that in his numbers period!
WDNo, absolutely. Maybe Cage’s “everything goes” period is more like Henning’s.
UWYes, but he always had the idea of the composed tape, the Grundtone, which are Henning´s tape compositions that he wrote for his music actions. They provided the context, an atmosphere, a mood, and a structure, both temporally and sonically, for the performance.
MHIt was the soil that things grew from.
UWYes, and there was a lot of freedom about what could grow on top of it, but it’s this grounding—
MHThings could grow in any direction from the base.
WDAs Ute said, it set the mood, the context for these other elements to come to life. So growth, yes, but always in a determined milieu or setting.
When I performed another piece he had explicitly written for me at the gelbe MUSIK gallery in 1985, it was live broadcast on German television at eleven in the morning on a weekday! (laughter) He wrote this graphic score with six parts. It called for canaries to be caged in the window and for him to do something with water, that sort of thing. And we went through the score together, movement by movement, explicitly deciding, “I propose here we do this, and there we do that.” And so I proposed something, and he either agreed or not, or asked to do it more like this or that.
UWYes, we always talked about the material and music before the performance. You know the one in the harbor, in Copenhagen in 1988, Nyhavnstrut-Hafenbrei-Stew-Music?
MHI’m curious about that one! We just released a tape of it in the new box set of Henning’s work on Penultimate Press.
UW Basically, I received a graphic score, with a lot of freedom but still totally scored and composed. There were fishermen in boats who also got a score, which told them when to turn their motors on and off. And then there was also this pre-recorded tape in the background that was playing this very structured piece.
MHSo the people on the boats were all part of the performance?
UWYes, exactly. They had their own score. It was supposed to be this fifteen-minute performance in the harbor, but, you may know, he didn’t ask for permission, so the police were coming and he was still conducting.
MHYes, and you can hear all of it on the tape! And the thing is fifteen-minutes long, and it’s fucking intense! It’s so nuts!
UWYes, very intense. “Stew” is the right word. It was very funny.
MHI only heard that recording this year, but I knew the story. I thought it was crazy, but it’s actually a really nice piece.
UWYeah, it was sort of written for me. I was supposed to be like a siren on a boat. That was the image he used.
MHHe was a character in all of this. He was political, and punk, and anti-academic. Really quite radical to the end in that free-spirity way.
Henning Christiansen: Freedom is Around the Corner will be on view at Blank Forms on 55 Walker Street in New York through November 2. The accompanying publication, which features contributions from Harwood, Wassermann, and Durand, is also available for purchase.
Mark Harwood is an Australian publisher, event curator, and sound artist residing in London. Under the guide of Astor, he records and performs music that deploys a wide variety of techniques including field recording, musique concrète, and thrift shop electronics. He is known for his collaborations with Áine O’Dwyer and Graham Lambkin, and for his record label, Penultimate Press, the first contemporary imprint to investigate Henning Christiansen’s archives.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.