THE CREATION OF „TENDER BUTTONS -
A POETICAL MUSICAL PLAY
- A lecture -
In Hamburg-Altona - in its most beautiful part called Ottensen – there is an empty factory which could be called as a „cathedral of work“ as in the twenties. In 1989 with the help of the town and other organisations there the SCALA was established to present a location for cross-over- productions. I was part of the team as a „house composer“ and partner of the private limited company. At first it was used as a theater for freelance travely groups. 1989/90 the team decided to create the first production. The Hamburg cultural authority supported the project „Tender Buttons - a poetical musical play“.
My dream which goes back to the early sixties became true. I first became aware of Gertrude Stein when reading a book by Günter Blöcker entitled „Die neuen Wirklichkeiten“ (new realities). Blöcker takes a rather critical and distant view of Stein’s work, but I read her writings for the first time, and I started with „Tender Buttons“ – the „stoniest“ of her works, not easy to approach like for instance „The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas“.
At all times I wanted to write like she composes. I made a lot of attempts, e.g. in 1990 the short piece for choir „Peeled pencil, choke“ from „Tender Buttons“ but it was not yet the right..
Together with the dramatic adviser and co-partner Ulrike Gabrielli I searched for the coworkers.
I recalled with pleasure Jasmin Solfaghari‘s staging of an opera by Kounadis. She presented herself as a smart and witty story teller. I was of the opinion that a musical theatre making perception to the subject of ist work must supply clear and realistic examples.
With Florence von Gerkan I had previously worked at the Thalia Theater. Fashion is a code she gave me to understand and the costume designer convinced me completely. (Of course she knew „Système de la Mode“ by Roland Barthes).
Later Mascha Braun joined in with a voluminous file of stage designs. I was most fascinated by designs which seemed to be fragmentary and incomplete.
The percussionist Matthias Kaul agreed on the condition that I should compose something for his newly purchased glass harmonica.
During the production Wolfgang Brüggemann joined in and designed the poster and programme brochure like a text by Gertrude Stein.
The search for Margite, Marguerite and Margherita was long. At the end I had two American and one German singer.
In the beginning no musical note and no plan existed, an outline only.
There were two books. The first one was entitled „Tender Buttons“ from 1914 and the second one „Zarte Knöpfe“, and this was a terrific attempt of a translation by Marie-Anne Stiebel of the Suhrkamp Verlag which we treated with great respect.
There was another thing:
There were file-cards with notices, impressions, reflections, questions, drafts, explanations etc., the so to say Beethoven notice booklet by the composer Thomas Jahn without five note lines and notes. It was, today I confess it, copied . Copied in reverence. Copied from Roland Barthes.
In many meetings, we studied the texts in different ways.
We found that Gertrude Stein prefers double meanings, allusions and words like „suggest“ or „suppose“, and also rhetorical questions beginning with „if“. Cumulations of words seem to be a sort of provocation. The structure of her texts calls for a rhetorical performance.
When speaking, reciting and repeating the texts we found combinations of words which must be guided by musical-acustical conceptions. The arrangement of vowels and consonants moves within a spectrum of formants of most refined nuances and shades.
As you know vowels and consonants have a part of overtones called formants which give them their characteristical tone colour. Oral,- nasal and thoracic cavity are resonators of elementary importance.
For example the words „light“ and „white“ present vowels in a resembling range of formants. When hearing them repeatedly one discovers differences which originate from the tone quality of the foregoing consonants.
The consonant „l“ dismisses „ight“ faster in its range of formants than „wh“ (w) in „ite“.
Beside them „w“ and „h“ dye the following „ite“. The transient phenomenon will be delayed.
The word „disgrace“ with its noisy inharmonic parts within the spectrum of partial tones of the consonant „s“, the combination of „gr“ and the sizzling „ce“ at the end relating to „light white“ presents formants on a „higher level“. The words „ink spot“ with their flashlike formants of the light vocal „i“ and the dark one „o“, hardly closed by the inharmonics in „k“ and „t“, and once again be set in relation to the phenomenon of overtones of the foregoing words offer an additional compression.
Only the words „rosy charme“ with formants within the middle spectrum of overtones present a moderate lightness and have a character of a finale.
Each of these pairs of words or syllables is preceeded by an „a“. They are not separated from consonants, they are moderate in their overtones and can well integrated. They add. Moreover, it gives to the subtle mixed coctail of overtones.
And „a“ has a metrical power. The word is like an arsis. It comes into action for four times. It induces moving. It dances.
"A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charme".
As you can hear one can consider a text by Gertrude Stein under aspects of pure tone colour. And this is even easier when the semantic spect is most complex.
The gesture of her texts which appear when speaking and which are co-ordinated with body-language were realized and noticed. The moving of a hand, the turning around of a body, the tensed and relaxed posture of the head, the wide step or the insecure walk, all these gestures resulted in a repertoire of fragments for the subsequently arrangements.
A lot of time was devoted to creating subtexts and substories often not longer than a breath. This was an exciting process, also in our contacts with each other. Whoever invented a subtext presented it to the others – not to be criticized but to stimulate the others to go on with the text. It was finished when it was no longer a pleasure to go on with it or when our interest was drawn to another text by Gertrude Stein. The same happened with the substories. There could be an unimportant situation filled out with fantasy, but which was not developed further. But there were other stories widened and grew and became something quite different. The impulse came from the combination of different tone colours but also from naming the colours repeatedly.
At the end of such brainstormings there was no obligation at all to transform the gain in theatre or what it would ever be. It was a „ practise in the Stein grammar“ as I called it. It was a practise for a special way to act texts. No preliminary talk could have achieved that. The understanding came with the étude, slowly and insistent.
Thinking more and more in definitions like „structure“, „function“ and „to bring structures into function“ instead of hierarchical definitions and assignments like „writing a text“, „composing music“, „to act a gesture“, „ making a costume“, „to make up“ or „to build a scenery“ helped us to realize our ideas for a different type of musical theatre.
The view to bring a structure like textile in function for a dress does not differ from a structure like a frequency brought into a verticale like a chord or a horizontale like a melody. The speaking and thinking in definitions from stucturalism and information theory is the expression of a free communication. The often helpless formulating „in a language to much spoken “(Maurice Merleau-Ponty) makes it unnecessairily hard to work in a theatre which is exploring other methods of work. In the new territory of the poetical musical theatre with its meanings being meanings of other meanings, with its myths, which are extrapolated myths of other myths, with its manyfold levels and with its aleatoric being gain and trap at the same time the precise, objective emotionless kind of communication must be the prerequisite. If creating art is „what the man wrenches from chance“ the communication about must be exact to take the chance. A chance not taken is an agent provocateur, an object of corruption, an intriguer it’s desire is the accidental, the arbitrary, the interchangeability.
The cathedrallike space of SCALA produced an effect which stimulated the phantasy. We walked in it, we explored it , we ran in it, we smelled the smell of oil of the machines of past times. Ulrike Gabrielli lived there for a certain time.
We read texts by Stein from a far distance to experience the sounding of the hall. We promised each other not to make this space accustically „friendly“. What would be created would be for this space as it is.
At the end of the brainstormings we had a repertoire of innumerable scenical fragments which reminded me of small stickers of a mikado game. One had to let them fall to see how they came down in order and how they could be arranged together.
At the beginning I brought along another text by Gertrude Stein entitled „Margite, Marguerite and Margherita“. We thought about a triangle story which could be fitted into the texts. When looking more closely we found out that Margite, Marguerite and Margerita (to quote Musil) were „ladies without character“ no ego persons, no heroes but highly artistic mounted beings. They were figures but pliable figures full of flesh and blood, marvellous emphatic figures as part of a story.
When deciding to understand them as moderators of a narration the form became clear in its outline.
This term is less burdend than terms like story or action when taking ino consideration that it is a component of the rhetoric too. Roland Barthes speaks of „persuading performance“ fixing two characteristics:
„1st. its nudity: no deviation, no prosopopoeia, no direct argumentation;...it must be only clear, probable and conclusive.
2nd. its functionality: it is a preparation for the argumentation; the best preparation is when the sense is concealed, the evidence are dispersed like insignificant seeds...“
That was the point!
A persuading performance with all the functions a musical theatre can offer. This would be the adequate sensuous making of a text created after the same principles.
There followed a time-consuming process of changing the succession of the fragments - just those mikado sticks mentioned before which were thrown out and ready for an order in our conception - and they sent diverse connotations in all directions. Now it was necessary to test which common factors and differences existed between them for a convincing succession.
At that time I wrote on an index carte:
- Yesterday the place of the performance was there -
- It has been changed -
- Do I stand here or there -
- At first there but it can be changed -
- Do we settle it now -
- I‘m not sure. Possibly it must be changed -
- Is yesterday‘s change still valid -
- No, it must be changed -
- Why do we change -
- To tell a story -
Now I started to compose the first music.
The basic material was a seven beat rhythm which should go like a motive through the entire construct. At which place the motive would stay dependet not on me but on the result of a permanent changing of the single parts.
The writing of music included related epecially to the precise noting of the gestures, the going, the positions of the body, the moving: the body-language. Some musical scores developed to moving scores like in „Mildred‘s umbrella“ or „A piece of coffee.“ These scores were appeals and prefabrication for the co-workers too to keep accuracy and clearness in the case that other scores be made of musical signs only. „A dog“ consisted of a music roll in a kind of a scenical frame where one could move freely on the understanding that the creative finding must be presented as precisly as possible.
I fixed the idea of clearness with an example about the upbeat on an index carte and gave it to the others.
„75 millions possibilities to make an upbeat. The upbeat is always
a step to the next.„Tender Buttons“ is a series of upbeats. The gesture:
arms and hands take part primalary in the upbeat but the entire body
must be observed. The body must be put in a screen of gestures.
During the upbeat: How is the position of the head, how wide
is the angle of the arm in the upbeat, how is the position of the breasts, the position of the pelvis, the hip, the positions of the legs and feet. Polyphony of body language - and all must be fixed in the score.“
The emphasis on accuratesse and clearness was not based on literary patterns least of all on traditional or musical theatres. but on films. I saw the body language through an imaginary camera lens. My look was the zoom, the american, the fade in, the long shot, the close up. I drove in the dolly behind the body language, met it or circled around him. I froze it in. I cross-faded it to another perspective and yet another to integrate all in the split screen finally.
This point of view reflected clearly in the score had to converted to a live situation in a cathedrallike room.
An interesting reprise.
What the theatre gave to the film in the past the film gives back to the theatre. And the theatre is no longer that what it seems to be.
The bronze coloured tam tam touched by the hand of the percussionist in snow-white gloves in „Objects“ is like a view through a telephoto lens. But it has happen live with a percussionist hidden behind the tam tam, pretending not to be there fort he audience and this produces a kind of amusing and playful alienation.
The black out in „A piece of coffee“ is like the closing and opening of the lens with the camera running. In the „strange“ enviroment of a live situation in a theatre it has an effect of its own due to alienation too.
The mirror sequence in „A long dress“ with only one imaginary mirror in which Marguerite is looking and moving from one side and Margherita from the other side is desived from the mirror shot of a film. And here too the transformation is an alienation and it is particulary confusing.
The further development of this work in progress existed in a permanent offering of ideas for a realisation by the co-workers. In the sense of Roland Barthes we were „arrangeur“, means in accordance to the German dictionary of foreign words Duden arranger and composer in one. The development accelerated until the day we fixed as a deadline.
I confess that I was afraid of this day. I would have delayed it infinitely. The arranged fragments were only a microscopically part of a world of meanings asking for further changes.
What if „Objects“ were not tied with „A cloth“ and „More“ but with „Mildred‘s umbrella“ or „A blue coat“? What richness of possibilities, what mouvement! What a delight to set the structures going and thereby be set going myself by the structures.
Deadline. Florence put down the needles, Mascha put down the hammer, Ulrike shut her dramaturgy book and Jasmin the score. Lesley Bollinger (Margite), Katja Beer (Marguerite) and Jaqueline Zander (Margarita) said: „It‘s over Thomas. No more new music, no more new rehearsals and no more changes“,...and I knew now it was finished.
An index carte:
„Of importance the ‚Songs without words“: instrumental intermezzi
without the three women. This is the time for the bjects becoming soloistic „narrators“ - and especially in this case the fashion.
The silent maid-servant in her clothes, only just seen in company with
the three others taken from her and given her clothes, just she was
a commodity or a minor part, but now after the three others are no longer there,
when a beautiful and slight music accompaigns the mute figure in a spot
she starts as she is draped to tell ‚her‘ own story, there in a archetypal
position, beautiful and distant in her clothes becoming more beautiful the longer
one looks at her...“
Listen to the Umbaumusik for glass harmonica, the „Musique pour Marguerite“
(shorten lecture held on April 17, 1996 at the musikwissenschaftlichen Institut of the University in Hamburg)
More Infos: STAGE WORKS "Tender Buttons - ein poetisches Musiktheater"