In 2019 I was commissioned to create a musical score for the Danish National Museums exhibition on Germany. It was first created by The British National Museum in 2016 based on its former director Neil MacGregor’s book “Germany - Memories of a Nation”.
Listen to the score right here while you read:
In MacGregor’s incredible book he tells the story of Germany from a contemporary (outsider) perspective by going over the past 600 years of history told and exemplified with various objects ranging from monuments and beer mugs to works of art and poetry.
The first thing appearing on the pages of Memories of a Nation is an image (by the German contemporary painter Gerhard Richter), Betty.
Photo: John Lee, Nationalmuseet
In the beginning of the book, no explanation is offered as to why we are seeing this picture. Not until the concluding Envoi MacGregor reveals his its importance;
“In 1977 he (Gerhard Richter) took a photograph of his daughter Betty looking over her shoulder at one of his paintings hanging on the wall behind her. That painting was itself an imprecise, grey rendering of a an old press photograph. In 1988 he transformed the photograph of Betty into a painting, from which he later derived this lithograph. “
Thus, over many years, many different media have been deployed, moments of seeing and re-seeing have occurred, to distil the portrait of a figure whose attitude is impossible to decipher with precision or to articulate with clarity. In its very making it is a complex meditation on events and their recording. It would not, I think, be doing violence to Richters art to read it as a metaphor for Germanys subtle shifting, obsessional engagement with its past.
Richter and his daughter embody much of that past. Brought up near what is now the polish border, his childhood was lived under the Nazis and disrupted by the war. He studied afterwards in the devastated city of Dresden. He fled the GDR just months before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. Betty, who turns away from her father (shyness? distraction? indifference? revulsion?), was brought up in West Germany, part of a generation that grew up in a country committing itself to excavating a shameful past, publishing and, where possible, punishing the crimes of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations- and honouring their victims.
Betty inhabits a space still animated by her father’s works, although his painting is no longer discernible in the dark wall behind her, just as Germans live in the presence - growing fainter, but still commanding- of the deeds of their predecessors. What Betty makes of her father and his generation, we cannot know. But in a moment, this young woman will turn to face us, and the future.”
- Excerpt from Memories of a Nation. Envoi. (Pages 562-563)
Richters exercise of processing; photographing, painting and printing over the course of many years becomes a reflective meditation. All processes are silent to the visitors who is just presented with the lithograph of Betty.
Richter has always, to my knowledge, worked in several parallel lines; One is highly abstract, one is photorealistic, another is graphic, and so on. I was told once, that this is a dogmatic approach that he has taken is in opposition to the idea that an artist finds his path and produces in one style unique and recognisable for people to be able to say “ARH! Thats definitely a piece by x” (artist).
Moreover, this approach could serve to transcend the different ideologies Gerhard Richter encountered in his life, from Nazism (heroic classicism, soldiers and leaders portrayed in the style of roman sculptures, Communist realism (workers against the elites in the east) to the imagery of advertisements (capitalist ideology in the west).
Working with different expressions and mastering each one of them individually allows Richter to exist and work in a sort of vertical plane oscillating between the different tracks.
Specifically I wanted to create a piece that plays with time, the process, reflection and themes in a way similar to how Richters works.
I chose to base the score on the moment immediately before you take a photograph. Before you press the shutter and take your picture. It is about the active choice to register a given moment.
When you first encounter a piece of music, you listen to it on the surface, horizontally (for its duration). Listening again, you might start to notice the verticality of a piece when you hear the different layers (acts of proces, implied meaning, underlying narratives). If interested or moved by the piece, you might return to it and learn about those proportions. In time, one might even build a relation to a specific piece.
Music, painting and photography are all crafts that can make one forfeit real time (the time in which life is actually taking place) as of these crafts directly play with time itself, each in their own ways. With Betty originally being a photograph, I fell under the spell of indulgence...
This conclusion of mine is directly attributed to John Berger who, in his brilliant book, Understanding a Photograph, writes the following:
“The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time. One might argue that photography is as close to music as to painting.”.
Delving deeper into this inter-play with time, it emerges from reading Understanding a Photograph is that every time someone wears a camera (something to actively register what goes on around you) and venture out into the world you are faced with a a certain type choice; Gerhard Richter is of course highly aware of this. Berger continues his argument:
”I have said that a photograph bears witness to a human choice being exercised. This choice is not between photographing X and Y: but between photographing at X moment or at Y moment. The objects recorded in any photograph (from the most effective to the most commonplace) carry approximately the same weight, the same conviction. What varies is the intensity with which we are made aware of the poles of absence and presence. Between these two poles photography finds its proper meaning. (The most popular used of the photograph is a memento of the absent.)
A photograph, while recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen. It isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum. ”
I wanted to create a musical path through this continuum.
Photo: John Lee, Nationalmuseet
There are 6 sections in the score divided into pairs, 2 for each of the first 3 benches. The section starts with the sound a shutter mechanism in a camera advancing the filmroll to the next frame. The mirror in the camera pulls into position for you to frame your image through its reflection in the viewfinder. When the shutter is pressed, the mirror will quickly retract so the shutter mechanism will let the light through the lens to expose the negative. I like this brief encounter with the mirror. Instead of looking at your own reflection, this mirror is used to reflect the world and then comes the capture of a moment.
The next sound is related to a tape-recording of the string recordings done for the project – not the string recordings themselves – just the machine rewinding the tape used. I recorded this sound both of the tape rewinding (time effectively passing in reverse and at high velocity).
As we hear the tape rewinding, we are outside of the music, yet given a hint that some proces has taken place.
Also I recorded what the the output of what the machine recorded during the rewind.
I sat with a pencil preventing the machine from moving the tape away from the playback head- because of the violent torque in the winding motors would have caused the tape to grind the surface of the fragile head, effectively destroying it. This recording is only of those magnetic particles that fluctuated between far-away and perceivable to the playback head.
This is a technique I have grown fund of because it is like a performance and in this case it reminded me of Richters blurring. The playback head becomes an ”audience” to this performance only perceiving the ghostly smidgins that it was able to register.
When recording while the recorder is rewinding, one gets a completely transformed version of the contents of the tape, as its entire contents is now less than one minute long, despite its 22 minute duration at regular playback speed.
As I lowered the speed of the tape back to normal I now have a 1/22 resolution version that sounds like recalling faded memories, eroded from time.
The string recordings, on the tape, came about as annother layer of processing (and possibly the most important one in this project). I reached out to my friend, composer Kristian Rymkier. He makes exquisite music by himself and I became curious to see what would happen if I sent him some of my initial drafts (done in the computer as sound files) for him to transform into musical notation. Some were melodic lines that needed a direct transcription, but mostly I asked him to transform and modulate the sounds into tiny abstract pieces for cello, viola and violin as well as piano. Kristian created so much material and followed the project further into the recordings where he directed the musicians. I am very grateful for his contribution and generosity to this project.
I chose pianist Søren Kjærgaard (who is one of my favourite musicians) to record our piano parts. Mostly, the parts were reproducing what the notation instructed, but Kristian and I had been toying with the idea of including a Bach-style fugue. It didn’t work but Kristian had notated all of the chords of the small piece so we gave it to Søren for him to use as a lead sheet (used in jazz music for the musicians to know the structure of a song). Søren did some improvised takes on this sheet of music and that became the first melodic line we hear in Section 1.
What began as my fugue, was taken further by Kristian, then reduced to its chord structure and interpreted by Søren, who used his musicality to perform its final transformation. The significance here is the transformation from a classical fugue into contemporary interpretation.
At this point I felt that I had accomplished my adaptation of Richters process, therefore I began to focus on incorporating some references, of subtle nature, to some of the objects in the exhibition and of my own abstractions. I imagined the sound of a Refugee handcarts wheels pushing down into a dirt road caused by the weight of its contents (Reference to chapter 26 in Memories of a Nation, The Germans Expelled - And Bertolt Brechts famous play, Mutter Courage).
Photo: John Lee, Nationalmuseet
Also in Section 2/6, a simple piano melody played forward and backwards became a simple musical representation of soldiers pushing borders back and forth. In Section 4/6 the glissandi of the strings are nosediving Stuka JU87s. In Section 6/6, the piano is playing my first original draft for the score. This melody served as the starting point for many of Kristians small compositions. In this section, strings from all the sections are built into one song. Through this section I have re-recorded the string-parts through an old public address horn-speaker, as if they were a political speech given to a crowd.
Should you have a knack for morsecode, there might just be a challenge for you in Section 6/6. I hope that some of these references to the book, to Betty and to the exhibition gives the score the verticality that I think Neil MacGregor and The Danish National Museum has achieved in their work.
Where, throughout the rooms, the headphones are the musical source, now the penultimate bench is different. In this room - speakers were installed as invisible projectors in the dark ceiling allowing me to create a series of “impressions”, a 7th section, an amalgam of the entire score.
As you sit there (and it really takes a little time to surrender to the cadence of the installed sound), you will register the following; People pass by. As you start listening you will hear these blurry sounds being a smudged distance between you and the music you have heard in the headphones. As you sit there for any given time, you may experience having been In a space within the space- before you to head to the exit.
Betty is placed right next to the exit in the last room, oddly enough easy to miss for a visitor.
When you exit the space you will either see or not see Betty, if you are paying attention you will notice Richters signature ”blurring” of the motive. It creates a distance, a filter between the hyperrealistic image and the viewer. Just like the blurry fragments of my piece you that you heard while sitting on the last bench.
I would like to extend my biggest thanks to Knud Romer, Steen Lassen of the Sportsgood Foundation and the Danish National Museum. I am grateful for your support, criticisms, and faith in commissioning this music from me. In the short time available from the commission to the opening I took great pleasure in researching, working with my team and realising this music.
I took this photo of Søren Kjærgaard facing the score during the recordings at STC Studios.