»You have to be a bit crazy to square up to this monster!«
An interview with Sarah Maria Sun
“New Wunderhorn” (9 April, Halle 02) is an experiment. What happens when you set new song-texts in the tradition of Knaben Wunderhorn to contemporary music? Voice (Sarah Maria Sun) and percussion (Johannes Fischer) are the entire line-up. The soprano is one of the leading vocalists for contemporary and experimental music. She is not only a singer but also a first-rate voice actress and stage presence. We asked her about her attitude to the art-song and the Wunderhorn programme.
Sarah Maria Sun, first performances are more or less your daily bread. Is there such a category as “Lied” in experimental music?
Yes, indeed. Apart from the traditional piano songs by Wolfgang Rihm or Aribert Reimann, there are all kinds of experimental variations. Just think of the tremendous work “Got Lost” by Helmut Lachenmann. It’s for soprano and piano, but it takes place on three levels, in three languages and in three striking modes of expression. The piano is used as a percussion instrument, then its wires are plucked, and it gets played “normally”. Composers of the younger generation also write piano songs that take an experimental approach to the resources available. They are also interested in combining the voice with other instruments. There are songs with clarinet, percussion, electronics, cello etc. In this repertory you get every kind of sound you can produce with voice plus instrument and formally the sky’s the limit as well.
To over-simplify: singing tunes is over. What does the singing voice have to be able to do today?
Today you have to sing melodies with an incredible range. The musical lines are very demanding. Then you have allusions to beat-boxing, multiphonics, overtone or undertone singing and various other techniques. In addition, there is the whole gamut of “psychic” sounds: sighing, screaming, sobbing, panic breathing, laughing, giggling, gargling. In material terms, the voice is the most versatile instrument of them all (flesh, tissue, mucous membranes), so the expressive palette is the widest as well – and the psychological imagination of the performer is stretched to the limits. I love it!
How would you describe the relation between text and music in newest contemporary music? What tendencies are discernible?
Some composers dissect the text into individual components like syllables, consonants, vowels. Others use it as proper text but set it very fast or very, very slow. Others nail different texts together, like the work by Lachenmann I referred to earlier. The idea is to use the musical setting to get to the bottom of texts and their content.
Voice and percussion: Where’s the kick?
Percussion is not an instrument, it’s a many-headed monster. You have to be a bit crazy to square up to it! Percussionists play drums, kettledrums, vibraphone, gongs and myriads of other sound-sources. They’re probably the hardest-working performers of all! So when we commission “songs with percussion”, it means you’ll have all kinds of different combinations and the only constant factor is the voice. Exciting prospects!
What do songs mean to you?
At its best, a song is something condensed, distilled. A song comes straight to the point, it gives you a concise take on a feeling or a state of mind. And if you can “infect” an audience into communing with those sounds, ideas and feelings, you’ve achieved something really special.