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Conversation with Björn Schmelzer from Graindelavoix


Björn Schmelzer stands for layering with his Graindelavoix and dares to drive his singers and himself so far in the search for 'the grain of matter' that they start showing their own limits to the audience. A form of artistic fragility or fragility perhaps? It certainly does not leave the audience unmoved. On the occasion of 'Epitaphs of Afterwardsness', a new concert series by Graindelavoix, we talked to Björn about how he views his concert programs. 

How do you put together a concert program that can captivate the listener and the performer? It is a question many artistic leaders and conductors have to deal with. Do you return to known repertoire and try to perform it in a historically informed way, or do you want to explore and open up unknown repertoire? Are you looking for interesting links between various music styles and disciplines, or are you looking for a niche and purifying it down to the last detail? Or is a surprising angle, giving another artistic dimension to existing repertoire that you want to share with your musicians and audience? You will find numerous examples of each of these options in the musical landscape in Flanders in general and in the vocal or choral world in particular.  

For Björn Schmelzer, a concert program is an anti-historical reality that should not lead to a kind of re-enactment. He even finds it morally reprehensible to approach early music as an illustration of a glorious past. That's a tantalizing idea.  


Björn, how do you put together a concert program? Do you start from an idea, are you inspired by the music? 

Björn Schmelzer : 'I think it's great to read a book, watch a movie or listen to music and get ideas from it. A shock goes through you: good art and a good music performance is a kind of idea machine, I think. It produces ideas and shocks in the audience, but that does not mean that as a performer you should deliberately fill your performance with ideas beforehand! 

For a new program I often start from the intuition that a certain repertoire could be worthwhile. It is gradually during the exploration of the repertoire that the ideas and the resonances come to the surface almost automatically. Heinrich von Kleist once wrote a wonderful text about this process: ideas do not precede speech, they arise simultaneously with its articulation. 

It is gradually during the exploration of the repertoire itself that the ideas and the resonances come to the surface almost automatically

To be convinced of a repertoire, something has to wring for me, something has to be unwilling. An internal stubbornness or something like that. Often a limit is sought. The great thing is that you feel this with almost all polyphonic music up to the baroque. Composers do not simply apply rules of counterpoint, but actually do nothing more than flout those rules and invent new ones. You only get that idea again in Romanticism and in the 20th century. Art gives access to the sublime, but rather in the sense of the traumatic, the impossible.  

It is a pity that polyphony is so often seen as a canonized repertoire for church and state. Even when it was officially the case, you notice that composers time and again give their own subjective twist to canonical texts or musical rules. They suddenly make something unheard and inaudible audible, just like painters paint the impossible. With my singers I try to highlight that unheard-of part of the repertoire. It is precisely that unheard-of that gives the repertoire its universal dimension, and not the canonized one.' 

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In the program 'Epitaphs of Afterwardsness', which you will soon perform in Antwerp and Kortrijk, you will be working together with pianist Jan Michiels. On the basis of music by Machaut, Bach, Kurtág and Ligeti, you will search for the border, the in-between where music dies at the moment of performance. Is music then by definition already meaningless during its performance because it is dead? 

Björn Schmelzer : 'Music dies at birth, Leonardo da Vinci mused, trying to demonstrate its inferiority to the eternal existence of a visual work of art. Music does not stay but dies the moment it is brought to sound. While listening to music, we have to establish that our experience is already a memory. As a result, the musical experience becomes one of a memory. What sounds is over. As far as I'm concerned, music is something of the past, something we want to bring back to life or of which we want to evoke a memory that never existed.' 

In your project text you refer to a statement by Hegel that says that 'the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians are also mysteries for the Egyptians themselves'. Is that also what Nietzsche means when he says he fears 'petrified culture', art that imitates externals instead of internals?'

Björn Schmelzer : 'Culture is always something petrified, I suppose. It is that petrified that confronts us with the mystery, the ambiguous in art. Proust writes somewhere that something (art in the making) must first die in order to be able to rise again as a work of art. What he means is that a work of art must first become alienated from its supposedly original context of creation in order only then to really exist as a work of art. 

I could perhaps go even further: by definition, every work of art is already alienated from such an imaginary, original context. That is also the fantasy that early music practice presupposes: we have lost something, a certain repertoire appears to us but it has lost its original meaning. We have to look for that meaning if we want to recover some of that original fullness. But what if that original fullness never existed? What if repertoires always undergo a necessary alienation, displacement and so on? What if loss of meaning is essential to the appreciation and perhaps even the survival of a work of art? 

That is what Hegel meant by saying that to the Egyptians the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians remain mysteries. Of course it is up to us to try to imagine with our imagination that people from the past had direct access or not to the culture to which they belonged. Reactionary forces of today would like nothing more than to return to the time when everything still had meaning. Our program wants to assume the opposite: art has always been hieroglyphic, that is, a mystery, indecipherable. It is an encircling and ornamenting of a core that is ultimately emptiness itself.'

This idea, of course, fits perfectly with the metaphor of the epitaph in the title of the project

Björn Schmelzer : 'That's right! With the suggestion of Hegel and the idea of petrified art, we wander around in the concert as in a museum with invisible works of art or a cathedral of the mind where musical works are unfolded one after the other. Every musical work is like an epitaph (memorial stone with epitaph on pillars or walls of churches) whose original meaning has been lost. Or rather, the loss of its original meaning is an intrinsic part of its original meaning. The works we perform during the concert, first of all, commemorate themselves. 

Every work of art on a wall, every piece of music played is an epitaph: it commemorates its own fragility, its own ruin, its own ultimate demise. The challenge is to imagine the illegible or obliterated characters in new configurations. We must assume that they never communicated anything other than that legible illegibility, that as works of art they always want to make everything illegible legible.

The program "Epitaphs of Afterwardsness" is an attempt to establish a dialectical resonance between two composers who are miles apart, namely de Machaut and Kurtág. '


What is a concert for you in 2023 and how do you see the future of performing in front of an audience?

Björn Schmelzer:  'Making your audience part of the struggle with a repertoire and showing the struggle that composers also experienced to arrive at this repertoire and how they managed to learn something of the impossibility of their condition and of their own time. capture.

I want to offer the audience a kind of in-between space, confront the listeners with something other than what leads to a so-called immersive experience, offering the feeling of being physically present in a non-physical world. Everything is looking for such an experience these days: travel, concerts, sports, movies, entertainment and so on. How can you, as an artistic company, offer a counterbalance? I think that quest makes you look for simple solutions again... One of the most beautiful moments of our performance with Jan Michiels is the moment when Jan moves from one side of the room to the other at the beginning of the performance. walks through the audience and sits down at the upright piano. The way he does that and the tension that is created is for me already the essence of what will follow in the next hour.

So you start to give much more importance to everything that seems unimportant: the light, the positions, the silences, the pauses, everything that doesn't happen... You realize that the difference can be made by taking care of these in-between spaces. That in-between space you create is perhaps the only thing that cannot be commodified and absorbed by the (commercial) immersive.'

So you start to give much more importance to everything that seems unimportant: the light, the positions, the silences, the pauses, everything that doesn't happen

That interspace and that interval between life and death are related to each other. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze used the Kairos as the personification of the opportune moment, of inner time that is at odds with the Chronos or chronology. This in-between time frees you from clock-dependent anxiety or stress and guides you into your inner time, into the moment, the flow where creativity circulates and clock time loses its meaning. And you experience that flow - that inner moment - every time you go to a Graindelavoix concert.

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