Hearing, Seeing, Translating

For Beat Furrer

Thomas Macho


Ladies and gentlemen, deeply-admired laureate!


Let me start with a question. How do composers work? What does their activity consist in? One possible answer: they listen, then transform what they hear into something visible – a text, a score, a visual form – in order to enable a new form of hearing. They move, indeed they oscillate between listening and seeing as a translator moves between languages. Sometimes it starts with something visual, by imagining a structure as in some of Bach’s works, whose numerologically-inspired form cannot be heard, only – in a comparison and attentive observation – seen, if at all. Or recall the power of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati’s pictures, which are inadequately characterized if merely viewed within the history of graphic notation.

            Furrer relocated from Schaffhausen to Vienna at the age of 21 to study composition with Haubenstock-Ramati. In Furrer’s work everything begins with hearing, with transformation into sounds, with transitions to noises or to words; it is no coincidence that Daniel Ender’s analysis of Furrer’s œuvre, published by Bärenreiter in 2014, bears the title Metamorphosen des Klanges [Metamorphoses of Sound]. Furrer is a listener, a ‘sonic explorer’ in the best sense of the term, sometimes at the limits of audibility. In March 1985, ten years after arriving in Austria, he founded Klangforum Wien, originally under the name Société de l’Art Acoustique. From 1991 he was co-president of Klangforum together with Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, and from 1992 to 1999 Peter Oswald took over as the ensemble’s director; he passed away prematurely and unexpectedly on 3 August 2017.

            An apologia for listening: Beat Furrer’s vocal work Fama, composed in eight scenes for large ensemble, eight voices and one actress, premiered in Donaueschingen on 14 October 2005 and honoured with the Golden Lion at the 50th International Festival of New Music at the Venice Biennale in 2006, begins with a few lines from Book Six of De rerum natura, the extensive exposition of ancient atomic theory written in the first century BC by Titus Lucretius Carus.[1] These lines almost describe Mount Etna, the volcano, as a musical instrument, with air and gases in its caverns producing a fiery uproar that we hear in choral singing and orchestral textures, without having to understand the Latin text. The words merge with the musical lava: ‘I hear the fire... I hear the rain... I hear the cracking of the heavens... I hear the cries of children... I hear the ashes... I hear in my memory... I hear the silence... I hear the whispering of the leaves... I hear your breathing... I hear the rushing of the river... I hear the voice of the old man... I hear the darkness... I hear the laughter... I hear the groaning... I hear the cries of animals... I hear the rattling of scorpions... I hear your parting farewell... I hear the thunder... I hear the singing on the other riverbank... I hear the cracking of branches... I hear the bells... I hear the rhythm of the seasons... I hear your voice... I hear...’

            Who is hearing? And who is Fama? ‘Huge and horrendous, a monster whose body conceals beneath feathers / Just the same number of spying eyes (a remarkable feature), / Just the same number of tongues, and of mouths, and of ears pricked to eavesdrop’,[2] writes Virgil in Book Four of the Aeneid; she is an ambiguous goddess, a radiant monster, both the bona fama of renown and the mala fama of vicious rumours. At the centre of Beat Furrer’s Fama, however, is not an ancient demon or goddess, but rather a young woman’s monologue: Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else of 1924. In disjointed fragments of recitation, in dialogue with herself and at once with the music, Else is driven by the demand to show herself naked in order to pay her father’s debts, torn between desire and daughterly duty, the wish to be free and the longing for death, culminating in the inevitable Veronal. What we hear in the sixth scene of Fama is a visual drama of mirroring: ‘Oh, how pleasant it is to walk up and down the room, naked. Am I really as pretty as I look in that mirror? Oh, won't you come closer, pretty Fräulein? I want to kiss your blood-red lips. What a pity that the mirror comes between us. The cold mirror. How well we'd get on together. Isn't that so? We need nobody else. Perhaps there is nobody else.’[3] Else’s interior monologue turns from seeing and being seen in the mirror back towards the audible sounds with which the sixth scene of Fama ends: ‘Who’s playing the piano so beautifully down there?’[4] Schnitzler quoted the music being played in musical notation: several bars from Schumann’s Carnaval, op. 9, whose motifs Schumann had actually derived from words, for example A-E flat-C-B [A-S-C-H in German] or A flat-C-B [As-C-H in German], which was meant to refer to Asch, the place of birth of his former fiancée Ernestine von Fricken.

            Beat Furrer, who has been Professor of Composition at the Graz Academy of Music and Performing Arts since the autumn of 1991, has created an extensive œuvre encompassing solo and chamber music, works for ensemble, choir and orchestra, and also seven operas; he is currently working on his eighth – Violetter Schnee – which will be premiered in Berlin on 13 January 2019. His first opera, Die Blinden [The Blind], a one-act chamber piece using texts by Maurice Maeterlinck, Plato, Hölderlin and Rimbaud, was premiered in Vienna on 25 November 1989 (shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall), and his second opera, Narcissus – based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – in Graz on 1 October 1994. Both stories revolve around the relationship between hearing and seeing: the situation of the blind people, who are waiting for their leader on a deserted island and are given speaking parts; Ovid’s mythical tale of Narcissus, who famously became infatuated with his reflection; and Echo, who lost the gift of narration and finally, withdrawn to a cave, refused all food until she turned into pure voice.

            The third opera, Begehren [Desire], on texts by Cesare Pavese, Günter Eich, Hermann Broch, Ovid and Virgil, premiered in Graz in a concert version on 5 October 2001 (shortly after the Twin Towers fell in New York), also deals with this subject in ten scenes: the conflict between hearing and seeing, between the powerful music of the Thracian singer Orpheus, which could defeat even death, and the temptation to glance over his shoulder, which abandons Eurydice to death once again. Orpheus already seems to be resigning at the start of Scene 3 when, with a quotation from Cesare Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucò (1947), he declares: ‘I searched / when I lamented / for myself / I listened to myself / to nothing but myself.’ So Orpheus too fails, like Narcissus, for whom the blind seer Tiresias once prophesied that he would only enjoy a long life if he did not recognize himself, if he remained a stranger to himself. Not until Scene 7 does the woman who has disappeared – half Eurydice, half Echo – console the singer, now with the words of Günter Eich (from his 1950 radio play Geh nicht nach El  Kuwehd [Do Not Go to El Kuwehd]): ‘Do you hear? / I can / Speak to you / as if / you were here.’ Only one who hears can overcome separation.

            It is notable how Furrer combines the texts for his operas with the instrumental sounds and voices – as if the texts themselves were already music. ‘I always try to merge the spoken text with the instrumental sounds,’ Furrer explains in conversation with Daniel Ender. ‘For me it’s crucial to integrate the spoken sounds into the instrumental textures and to continue movements and sonorities in the instruments that are already present in the spoken words. [...] In the first scene of Begehren, the word Schatten [shadow] is really the starting sound from which the overall sound develops.’ Are not texts and writings likewise mere shadows of the voice, of sound and of music? A significant aspect of Furrer’s operas is the care with which the libretti are put together: often using only short passages which are then arranged anew, often in their original languages – whether ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish or French. ‘It’s usually the case that I already have sounds and am still looking for text’, Furrer asserted in an interview with Peter Hagmann (for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 5 July 2003, for the premiere of the opera Invocation at the Zurich Festival). Invocation uses fragments from Marguerite Duras’s novel Moderato Cantabile (1958), translated by Ilma Rakusa, and excerpts from Ovid and Pavese.

            Furrer’s work on the text follows his musical imagination, in the newer music theatre works too: Das Wüstenbuch [The Desert Book], premiered on 15 March 2010 in Basel, with texts by Händl Klaus, Ingeborg Bachmann (from Todesarten), Antonio Machado and Lucretius, as well as a section from the ancient Egyptian text The Debate Between a Man and His Soul (in Jan Assmann’s German translation), from a papyrus written around 1900 BC, or La bianca notte [The White Night], premiered in Hamburg on 10 May 2015, on fragments from Dino Campana’s Canti Orfici [Orphic Songs] of 1914. Furrer’s dramaturgy, as Peter Oswald emphasizes in his essay ‘Chiffrierte Botschaften des Lebens’ [Encoded Messages of Life], is never narrative. It refuses to follow the thread of the plot, which always degrades sound to an accompaniment, an affective illustration. We have grown used to this in films or TV series, where the music ‘is supposed to obtain the emotions’, as the director Christian Petzold once said. It is no coincidence that some film directors – such as Robert Bresson or Tarkowski, to whom Furrer dedicated Face de la chaleur in 1991 – have refused to participate in this meanwhile normal misuse of sounds. In his Notes on the Cinematograph, Bresson remarks: ‘No music at all. The noises must become music. [...] Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence.’ The thresholds of sounds – in transition to noise, in transition to silence – are something that Beat Furrer has also explored intensively.[5]  

            Hearing, seeing, translating. I have reached the end of this brief speech, and have still spoken too little about Beat Furrer’s music. But how can a text do justice to the music? Theodor W. Adorno’s correspondence with Alban Berg contains passages in which Adorno almost laments that he cannot write the way Berg composes. A translation simply does not succeed; often enough it takes the form of specialist terms that do not evoke listening. Perhaps that is why Schnitzler simply quotes from the score, as if urging his readers to hurry to the piano so that they can at least sense something of what the unfortunate Else hears? But today we will hear. And all that remains is for me to thank you for your attentiveness and to extend my warm and heartfelt congratulations to the laureate.



[1] Lucretius, De rerum natura / The Way Things Are, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington and Indianoplis: University of Indiana Press, 1969).

[2] Virgil, Aeneid, trans. Frederick Ahl (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, p. 82.

[3] Arthur Schnitzler, Fräulein Else, trans. Robert A. Simon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), pp. 105f.

[4] Ibid., p. 110.

[5] Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York Review of Books, 2016).