Steen-Andersen: Staged Night


It is customary in the theatre, and in music theatre, to update works of the past through their production on the stage. The action can be relocated to another time and place, rôles redefined, the story given a new emphasis. Spoken theatre sometimes even changes the text through cuts, reordering of scenes, insertions or parallel narratives,. Musical performance, however, has good reason to retain an authentic, historically justified performance practice.

Assuming that composers, when creating their works, were writing for a contemporary listener, and playing with the expectations and experiences of his particular time and place, we ask how the music itself could be updated to the present time, reinterpreted for the expectations and experiences of a substantially changed, developed and radically reorientated world of today.

Simon Steen-Andersen has chosen classical pieces on the theme of "night" for his staged music. The first point of contact for their manipulation and reinterpretation is the fact that the "theme" of a historical compostion tends to be lost behind the historical distance: the composer's personal style and interaction with his own time and place dominates the "themes" of Schumann's music; in Ravel's "Scarbo" we hear, today, rather the pianistic style of early twentieth-century virtuoso french piano music than a real scary and disturbing night creature; and so on. A repeated phrase in 1830 might have caused contemporary listeners to feel that time were standing still; for us today the phrase would have to be repeated many more times to induce the same emotion.

We ask, today, different questions than did previous generations. This becomes particularly clear in the context of "night". We are interested in nocturnal changed perception, how diurnal objects are now peceived differently. Simon Steen-Andersen wishes not only to clarify the aspect of historical works but, as producer, to redefine this aspect. His concept uses exclusively works of the past: some recognisable, some substantially transformed.


Johann Sebastian Bach "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" (from Cantata "Ich habe genug" BWV 82)

The three musical tendencies of this aria - firstly, falling lines and harmonies; secondly, low tessitura, reminiscent of darkness and death; thirdly, slow tempo - are gradually and subtly but finally enormously amplified. A historical recording begins familiarly but is transposed successively ever lower, becomes ever slower, ending two octaves below the start and at a quarter of the original tempo. This process begins imperceptibly and can only be ascertained, even for a trained listener, when it is already "too late". Instruments on stage, performing Bach's lines with the added slow glissando into the depths, colour the recording but begin to paint over it. While the source music inhabits its own time and the recording another, manipulated time, the live performance moves out of time into un-time, alive and breathing in profundity.

Robert Schumann "Träumerei" (from "Kinderszenen", Op.15)

The musical text is performed, almost without change, on ethereal instruments - eg. oral filtering, tuning forks - in an almost stationary tempo. The familiarity of cause and effect between action and resultant sound become unclear, dreamlike. Experienced time and elapsed time in this dream world are fluid. Asleep, we ask ourselves how much time has passed, and, what is time anyway?

Wolfgang A. Mozart "Der Hölle Rache" (from "Die Zauberflöte", K620)

The dream is rudely interrupted by a loud techno-party next door. A drag queen (or is it perverse karaoke for businessmen?) performs the famous aria of the Queen of the Night in a seedy atmosphere intended to evoke nocturnal activities of a decidedly worldly nature. Technology forces the singer into tune, relieves him from hitting the right notes.

Maurice Ravel "Scarbo" (from "Gaspard de la nuit")

The pianist performs the piece on an entirely muted piano simultaneously with his own recording of the same music on an unmuted instrument. The live sounds are immaterial, shadowy, shades of gray and black without colour. Further, a film recording of the same moment is projected onto the keyboard. Slight differences of synchronicity between the prerecording and live performance create a real ghost. The pianist stops, the ghostly hands and music continue, even after the pianist leaves the stage. Ravel himself now sits at the piano. The alarm clock ends the nightmare.

Simon Steen Andersen and ascolta: Inszenierte Nacht / Staged Night