Obsessions ennakkokuva

Music theatre for all the senses 

Helsinki-based performance art company Oblivia are collaborating with Theater Bremen and Oper Wuppertal to create experimental music theatre for all the senses. Klaus Maunuksela spoke to the ensemble to find out how it’s done.    
Rooted in Helsinki but international in outlook, Oblivia has spent the past few years working on a highly distinctive new brand of music theatre. Their latest production, Obsessions, a collaboration with Theater Bremen and Oper Wuppertal, is set to receive its world premiere in Bremen, Germany in 2022. As a dramaturge and writer with a keen professional interest in new music and performance art, I was delighted and intrigued when, thanks to Covid-19, the opportunity arose to meet with members of the company to discuss their latest work. I wanted to understand what “new music theatre” means to them specifically, given that the term tends to be used in a vast number of different contexts. I also wanted to find out how this blend of music and performance art impacts on their work on a molecular, day-to-day level. 
Oblivia was first established in 2000, during Helsinki’s stint as the European Capital of Culture. Founder member Annika Tudeer was commissioned to create a series of place-specific performances to mark the occasion. The artists that worked with her on those early projects came to form a loose grouping, which ultimately evolved into Oblivia as it is today. Over the years, countless artists have contributed to Oblivia’s work. In its current guise, the collective comprises seven artists, who are also responsible for determining the company’s artistic direction.  
From its inception, Oblivia has been committed to cross-disciplinary working and eschewed labels of all kinds. This is reflected in the backgrounds of the artists involved. Of the founding members, Tudeer is a dancer and choreographer, while Timo Fredriksson is a trained pianist. From the beginning, Oblivia’s work has been international in scope, and this orientation has become an increasingly important part of the company’s work over the years. The artists contributing to the latest production are based across Belgium, Germany and Finland. 
Berlin-based, Chinese-born composer Yiran Zhao first came into contact with Oblivia while they were creating their 2020 production Verdrängen, Verdrängen, Verdrängen. It is the first instalment in a three-part series titled Politics and Emotions. It will be followed by Obsessions, while the third and concluding part, currently being developed under the working title of Pleasure, is slated for 2023.  
The trilogy marks a new era for Oblivia, reflecting a conscious commitment to exploring the relationship between music and performance art and charting what the members have sought to describe using terms like “experimental contemporary music theatre” and “conceptual opera”. 
Music theatre engages all levels of the senses,” Tudeer wrote in a blog post discussing their latest project. “Music theatre for me is about extremes, excess and the unknown,” Oblivia’s costume designer Tua Helve says in it. 

Collaboratively intertwined 

Extreme emotions and sensuality also preoccupied Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work highlights the role of music in ancient Greek drama. In Das griechische Musikdrama, a lecture he gave at the Museum of Basel in 1870, he offered a critique his contemporaries’ views on Greek tragedy, and their tendency to view Aeschylus and Sophocles primarily as librettists, when only fragments of the music that played such a central role in their work survives. 
Nietzsche argues that ancient Greek drama cannot be fully understood without accounting for the sensual and emotional power that the tragedies seek to evoke. It was the music they contained, he says, that along with rhythmic dancing, that was responsible for engendering the emotions that are central to tragedy as a form expression. Viewed from today’s vantage point, there’s something familiar about what Nietzsche describes. In the new music theatre, as speech, music and dance intertwine, the poet and the composer must become a creative choreographer capable of reflecting on the embodied existence on all its levels. 
It is an ideal central to much of Western music history to retain a clear distinction between artistic disciplines. In fact, there has been a concerted effort to liberate music from the accompanying and narrative-supporting role it traditionally played in older genres like opera. The “new music theatre” of the 1950s and 1960s sought to question this quest for purity. The composers associated with the movement inspired contemporary theatre and performance ensembles, like the Living Theatre company that toured Europe at the time, which invited viewers to consider the performing body and the moment of reception in a new way. Composers took a playful approach to utilising the dramatic potential offered by the musical dimension. In Mauricio Kagel’s String Quartet II from 1967, the cellist creates sounds by blowing into the instrument’s various apertures as if attempting to clean it, while in another the cellist holds their instrument upside down to play it. For musicologist Björn Heile this represents an absurdist reference to the expansion of the acceptable range of playing techniques. 
In the new music theatre, as speech, music and dance intertwine, the poet and the composer must become a creative choreographer capable of reflecting on the embodied existence on all its levels. 
When I interviewed Annika Tudeer, Timo Fredriksson, Yiran Zhao and Tua Helve about Obsessions, it quickly became apparent how their working methods differ from the performative experimentation seen during the modernist period. While the radical and even silly gestures that characterised the latter tended to be introduced at the say-so of a single artist, Oblivia foreground collective working in all that they do. In practice, this means that they generate the bulk of the material for their productions together, but their commitment to collaboration is broader than that, encompassing a sense of ethics where listening, caring for one another and the sharing of ideas are central to everything they do. 
As Oblivia, we’ve always been interested in investigating how we can work together in a non-hierarchical way. Diversity matters too. In the manifesto we wrote early on in our collaboration, we also made clear that no one works for free – all contributors must be remunerated for their input. We’ve also wanted to retain a sort of light-touch approach, we want to keep things experimental, and we want to laugh a lot,” Tudeer says. 
Similarly to many of their other works, Obsessions takes its cue from a, here eponymous, concept. Collaborative working – and indeed the finished work itself – is defined as the ongoing inclusion of new perspectives for joint consideration. This approach reminds me of the way an essay comes together. The word “essay” comes from the French essayer meaning “to try” or “to experiment”. As with the literary essay, collaborative working is less about achieving a neatly finished product or invoking an unbeatable argument and more about a commitment to continually shifting perspectives and points of view. The whole is a sum of its parts, the parts being a multitude of quotations, excerpts and voices, the gaps and differences between them going unsmoothed. 

Connections, not differences 

The conceptual approach can also act as a mediator between different working methods and aesthetics. The core themes determine the means. This serves to establish a working culture, where the traditional roles assigned to theatre and music respectively are not allowed to dictate the process. Rather, their roles are determined by the needs of the artwork itself. 
The work on Obsessions began with the collective coming together to generate fresh, new material. Fredriksson recalls a “do what you see” exercise, during which the participants were asked to write down words associated with their chosen theme. They then handed over what they had written for other participants to read and one person was allocated a few minutes to prepare a “prototype” using their chosen words before performing it for the others. 
That performance can be anything at all, anything that comes to mind in that moment. The others watch, and, after three minutes, the next person is up. Their task is to create an as faithful a facsimile of what they’ve just seen as possible. They are then followed by a third person, who again will attempt to create another facsimile of the facsimile, as faithfully as possible.” 
During the process, the exercise evolved, turning into a “do what you hear” instead. The sessions began to yield material that the collective are now working on together. Although each of the members will later assume independent responsibility of an aspect of the performance, every element from the script to the sound is created and edited together. 
We want to transmit this feeling of togetherness, even if our stage presence is different; we’re maybe more looking for the connections than the differences.
With Oblivia’s latest work delivered as a collaboration with Theater Bremen and Oper Wuppertal, the collective’s working methods are, perhaps for the first time, being applied in a more formal, establishment setting. The early-stage workshops with the opera performers had to be rescheduled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and other plans have also had to be changed, often at little or no notice. I asked Tudeer, Fredriksson and Zhao how Oblivia’s experimental working methods fitted into the context of working with such a venerable institution. I also wanted to hear about how they see the relationship between the professional singers and musicians and Oblivia cast members, like Tudeer, Fredriksson and Alice Ferl. 
One of our aims is to see how we can create a feeling of togetherness on stage despite our differences and lack of time to really have a deep process together”, Tudeer explained. “We want to transmit this feeling of togetherness, even if our stage presence is different; we’re maybe more looking for the connections than the differences.” Is music an element that makes these connections possible, I asked them. “Yes, but also the movements make connection. And the vocal fragments, I mean not only the singing vocal material but also the whispering and talking materials are also there”, Zhao said. The musicians make their entrance midway through the performance, meaning that the entire cast will be on stage at the same time. 
Sound and movement connect the bodies on stage, irrespective of the technical prowess they contribute, the embodied histories they carry or the gazes they attract. As I listen to the members of the collective, I cannot help but think that this dream of bringing all the senses together, this celebration of all things sensual, is as fundamental to the pursuit of art as the quest to discover the most distinctive, the most characteristic form of expression for whichever artistic form one pursues. On the other hand, perhaps it is precisely in the gift of the collaborative nature of this production to bring out the quintessence in them all – music’s very musicality contrasting with the moving, performing corporeal body, and both finding their fullest, most potent expression in the space created for them by music and sound? 
Concluding his lecture in Basel, Nietzsche notes that ancient music drama is characterised by “a diversity and simultaneously a unity, many arts working at their highest level and yet one single artwork”. This new contemporary music theatre is not that far removed from its ancient forebear. Nietzsche writes: “this artwork of the future is by no means a gleaming, yet deceptive, mirage: what we hope for the future is something that was once reality – in a past of more than thousand years”. 
Perhaps instead of branding something as “new” we could just refer to it as music theatre. Or, simply, performance art. As far as Oblivia is concerned, new definitions seem far less relevant than new combinations and new forms. As Zhao has it, what Oblivia have set out to do is to revolutionise themselves: “we try to do something new that we never did together”. 
Klaus Maunuksela 
Nietzsche, Friedrich: Das griechische Musikdrama; The Greek Music Drama. Translated by Paul Bishop. Contra Mundum Press, 2013. 
Heile, Björn: New music theatre and embodied cognition, in New Music Theatre in Europe; Transformations between 1955-1975, ed. Robert Adlington. Routledge, 2019. 
Oblivia: Collective introduction to the blog theme ‘music theatre’. www.oblivia.fi/blog/obsessions/ 9.4.2021.
Translation: Liisa Muinonen-Martin. Photo credit: Saara Autere

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