Beat Furrer
© Didi Sattmann

Rückenwind alter Geschichten Etwas über Beat Furrers Umgang mit den Mythen — Uwe Kolbe

Beat Furrer’s musical oeuvre derives from two points of origin; it is part of them, encompasses them and keeps returning to them, over and over again. It has two pivotal points – in spatial terms: one to the left and one to the right, or: an eastern and a western point. Seen from up close, as far as possible from within, it is perhaps more of an up and down. If this text confines itself to positing this fact – to paraphrase these two and nothing else – it does so under the cover of the following explanation. This explanation has the character of a punch-line. It should be followed by silence or by music, either – or; music as silence, silence as music, which would in essence also represent the two sides of Furrer’s coin, and thus everything this essay might be aiming at. However, the eloquence of its author doesn’t come to an end where the explanation ends. This is it: “… hence language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, can never by any means disclose the innermost heart of music; language, in its attempt to imitate it, can only be in superficial  contact with music; while all the eloquence of lyric poetry cannot bring the deepest significance of the latter one step nearer to us.” Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. Bearing this sceptical opinion in mind, the subject here is Beat Furrer and his approach to myth and language.

He is the person taking possession of the poetry, who seizes poem and poet, their location, their constellation, who reads verse, biography and novella, and over and over again, it seems,  the epics, conceiving of them as plays – musical plays, that goes without saying – and who makes these dramas resound from the stage; who transforms the stage into a melting pot and a place of origin of sound from this side, the right-hand side – and into a place of death, music’s place on the far side of the boundary, the left-hand side. There is a reason, as far as I can see, as to how he is able to achieve this and why. In particular, Beat Furrer does not eschew myth, which is the foundation of anything that is great in literature and art, provided it’s real. This means that he employs the kind of force which, since time immemorial, has ripped open the surface of the arts just like the stony geosphere bursts when its hot core starts moving. It seems he also works with it – with the help of this deliberate and consequential connection.

Anybody who has ever caught a sound, a sound bit by Beat Furrer, who has heard and fully grasped it, knows that we are not talking here of classicism, nor of an –ism or neo-ism of any kind. This man is free. This independence, this openness has its own tradition, especially in new music (if this old term is still being used). Let’s call as witness György Ligeti. Between the life of this composer, who died in Vienna in 2006, and Beat Furrer’s biography there are a handful of chance parallels: they are both Austrians by choice, composers as well as teaching composition, both “naturally” living in Vienna. And last but not least, they both received the Grand Austrian State Prize. The music journalist Eckhard Roelcke once asked Ligeti: “Is there a basic attitude that you have taught your students?” To which the latter replied: “There is just one basic attitude: freedom. Everyone should do what they want, and not copy anybody else… I am all for complete independence and originality. But also for mastering the skills.” The freedom of which Ligeti speaks is the first thing one discovers upon listening to Beat Furrer’s music. As if each time he was discarding anything that he had previously done. For each piece – and the diversity of the genres speaks for itself – he finds a new approach, creates a new space and lets it resound. The works’ titles, the characters he takes up, refer, it seems, to more varied lineages, to further points of origin than his ever changing, varying approaches. Here, in these old tales and their characters that he invokes, this composer’s freedom shows its pagan-occidental foundation. Thought, always fresh, highly productive, which substantially fuels this oeuvre, has its roots in two kinds of myth. Without acknowledging this fact, it would be impossible to understand this great and persistent body of work.

Let’s start by turning east, together – and by no means accidentally – with Ovid, whose Metamorphoses offer an inexhaustible plethora of Latino-Grecian myth, to get to the place “in the middle of the world’s space, between sea and earth and sky”, where something takes place which must needs move every musician: “Here, every sound reaches the listening ears”. In the CD booklet of Fama, Ovid is quoted extensively.  What is described here is a house which has most special properties in that it accumulates anything from the outside world that people say. Whenever a word is uttered in this world – no matter where or whether it was shouted, whispered, moaned or hardly breathed – here it is washed ashore. Beat Furrer has reconstructed and invented this house on the edge of the sea of words as a space, a musical space; he has put it on the stage for all to hear and see – first of all in Donaueschigen (2005), adding further texts than just the ones from the inspiring Roman – above all from Arthur Schnitzler’s play “Fräulein Else”. In particular this desperate Fräulein he put into the scenery of sounds that is Fama’s house. How could he not? Is she not the one who dies of rumours even before they have started? Is she not subjected, in the midst of her young life, to the falsification of her biography, her own parents the perpetrators, and has to pay by selling her innocence? Inescapable. Still a rumour, already fate, doom. But it is also the hotel, any hotel; it is the tenement block somewhere, it is also life in the city or being the subject of village gossip, it is life in the plural, omnipotence of voices, knowing, semi-conscious, unconscious, violent for those who are its subject, and  who listen.

But this choric aspect, the polyphony of myth, not only pervades this major work; it is also present in the shorter piece lotófagos. As legend has it, Odysseus was barely able to persuade those of his men back on board of his ship, who had, however briefly, participated in the life of the Lotus-eaters. Anybody listening to this piece will have a very similar experience. They might want to exclaim: “please, don’t stop, you enticing soprano-echoes! Please continue, o bass, to burrow like a fog-horn into my addicted brain stem!” It is this lure, pulling us towards a comfortable life, no longer autonomous – a metaphor which is barely elaborated in Homer but which has a very direct impact here, as music. Seemingly to arrive on this swift path, sacrificing the mind to opportunity, neglecting any goal, simply chilling out – who wouldn’t be tempted every now and then? Only an Odysseus is not to be deterred and so reaches Ithaca.

One of the points of origin, therefore, to which this music repeatedly returns, the eastern, right-hand, upper one, is the point of manifold sounds and also volumes. Here lies the pole of this sound-world which is created by languages – following both the example of the myth as well as thought and realisation in Furrer’s oeuvre with its multi-language references; in addition to German also in Italian, Spanish, French… Let’s call it tentatively the social myth. Fama is a monster, omnipresent because we all are constantly talking to each other, even if we try to disguise it as discourse or some such thing. Fama is the opposite of silence. Fama is a monster, plumed in many colours, but colourless, soundless sounds; it is already perching on the ridge of the roof whilst we still imagine ourselves safe within meaning. Fama is the black variant of the antique choir as it operates at the source of the tragedy that Nietzsche addressed – eerie and inescapable, carrying everything with it, all and anyone who might not even consider themselves to be part of it, imagining themselves to be uninvolved, and who would love nothing better than being independent individuals, but who, in this very moment, simply aren’t.

And so Fama, the audio-drama, besieges our hearing; it is heart-listening, evil listening… Despite the spoken, clearly understandable text of the Fräulein, this isn’t about semantics, nor is it about the meaning of that which man expresses; not about the references in all the texts which Furrer uses, here and elsewhere, in his vocal works.  Music’s grasp is a punch directly to the pit of the stomach, to the convulsing larynx of the listener and, as we said before, into the bleeding heart. Why?

Because Beat Furrer takes us close to the common source of language and music. How can he do such a thing in the midst of a cruelly amplified public space, where, as he himself said in an interview, music was no longer even necessary? I suggest:  he does it with the seriousness that he possesses. Which is also present when he speaks; when he says the simple sentence about the silence which pervades a well-built concert venue. Because he is no gambler where the substance, the material is concerned. Because, if I understand this music correctly, it is written by a human being who is fully awake and full of sensitivity.

We are lucky in that there exist people throughout the history of music, of poetry, of the visual arts, who know what this is all about, who never simply make do. They develop standards and are not to be deterred. This man is one of them.  Some wear themselves out in the process and go astray. Fortunately, he is not one of those. Where exactly do they go and why? Why do some penetrate so deeply and go so far where others shine with cheap coinage? Because they have to. There is no other reason. Beat Furrer is one of those who, in their art, do not make any allowances. Needless to say that here we are not referring to the much-travelled conductor, the successful founder of ensembles, nor the teaching mediator. In these roles he follows his professional self-understanding; all in healthy measure, we may hope on his behalf.

One poet, whom the composer invokes as a prominent witness, is Virgil. Not Dante’s Virgil, although this might suggest itself on such a journey. What Beat Furrer implies here and what he works on, suggests that he has advanced far into the depths. There, in these sombre and paradoxically fruitful depths, another man has been successful long before his time, whose name we will evoke here because it is held sacred by us as well as by the composer.

We are now reaching the other pole. We listen to Begehren, to the Canti della tenebra from the Orphic hymns of Dino Campana. We are venturing into the other country, we reach the other end, the west or perhaps the north-west, in Homer it is the land of the Cimmerians, the left-hand side of this sojourn on earth, what is – even in Christianity’s portrayals of Judgement Day (referring, albeit briefly, to monotheism) – depicted as going downwards into the underworld.  There we meet the other hero who has inspired the composer’s oeuvre time and again, albeit with greater vehemence and in the longer run. Not only by means of the subject matter does he associate himself with the greatest tradition. Music and poetry are on the same level here. We know the topic of the first surviving operas in music history, the love between the first amongst the bards and his wife, surmounting death with the help of song, followed by the frailty of mortal Orpheus. So much for the general part of the relay race which has for centuries moved through all the arts.

Our attention should be directed towards something else, something to which Beat Furrer returns regularly in order to make it anew his point of departure. It is silence, in this case the silence at the most important moment of the ascent, the return from the underworld: “Meanwhile his sight would race ahead just like a dog…// but his hearing, like a scent, would stay behind. / At times it seemed to him as though it reached / back to the footsteps of those other two, / who were to follow him in this long ascent. / And then again it was just the echo of his steps / and the wind inside his cloak that followed behind. / He told himself that they must be on their way; / said it aloud and heard himself fade away.” These other two, that the ascending bard knows are following in his footstep, are his dead wife Eurydice and the god Hermes guiding her.  Everyone knows what preceded this moment, which Rilke’s poem Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes describes: the bard’s concert in front of death’s throne, before King Hades and his Queen Persephone. The greatest triumph ever of music and poetry, combined in the form of song. The greatest moment in the history of music, the creation of the mysterium, in which the listeners participate to the present day; always, when music touches us, always, when music is true, when a voice, the stroke of the bow, the roughness, the key stroke attain the greatest depth, the biological being which participates in the tragedy of the divine on entering the realm of listening.

The scene which follows is the one which matters, the silent tread leading upwards, the most silent path which was ever trod – nothing for the rough ear. Rilke’s Orpheus “said it aloud and heard himself fade away.” We know of a much later poet’s speculations that the bard’s success did not in fact accomplish Eurydice’s return. The goddess of the underworld herself had fallen for him, overwhelmed by his music. By what else? And doesn’t it sound – doesn’t that sound – incredibly plausible? Does this not also explain the prohibition against turning back much simpler than any other reasoning? What would it have mattered if the man Orpheus had beheld his wife as a shadow? But Persephone herself – he might never have reached daylight again, might not have been capable or may not have wanted to? His song, the prayer addressed to the White Goddess, would have been answered; his career would have reached its final goal: union with the goddess who on the one hand is heiress to the realm of fecundity, but at the same time, as ruler of the underworld, the personification of unfulfillable longing. We are now at the other pole of the work, its mythical retrospective dependence, the justification of its violence, the reason why we want to hear it.

Music overcomes death, that’s easily said in the tailwind of an ancient story. The bard’s song entices black, empty, stony hearts to beat as if they were moved by the blood of life. Fair enough. The second pole of this musical work, however, is, as we said, silence, the pause, tonal nothingness, like the Tao of the ancient Chinese which gives birth to sound. Without drawing breath, without the fading away of the previous sound, of the word, without the ebbing away of the oldest litany, without this silence between one and the other there is nothing new. Without this pause there is no expression, without the moment before the entry there is no music. Even if anechoic space is an illusion, true silence also just a myth, apart from its presence in outer space. But for which ear? Because the ear is listening, when everything else falls silent, to the sounds of the body. True silence as a true point of departure has only a single location: the underworld, death, the silence beyond the gate – abandon all hope! – the silence residing above the workings of Charon, the soundlessness of the pale blooms of asphodels, the omnipotent quietness on the river Lethe, the silence of forgetting which, this should be noted, is the precondition for rebirth, for the continuing participation in the circle of life, of listening.

Why does Beat Furrer venture there, taking the listeners along to such a faraway point which is only rarely, not anytime, reached – even with the help of music? I would prefer to say that I don’t know. I simply state the fact and the amazement it arouses. Does everybody accept it without protest? Do we all simply accept it? Anybody who listens to Beat Furrer’s opera La bianca notte must necessarily have already accepted the following:

“… your unknown poem of pleasure and pain, you pale child of the sounds in the circle of the curved lips, painted with blood,  queen of music, but for the chaste, the tilted head I keep watch, you poet, consecrated to the night, above the bright stars in the oceans of the skies, I… for your falling silent.” And further on: “The white cliffs, the voiceless source of the winds and the stars…, which stand without motion…” Here the listeners are also exposed to the cry and the silence.

Beat Furrer discloses to us the fate of the poet Dino Campana, whose main work are the Canti orfici, the Orphic songs, from which we quoted here, and that of the poetess Sibilla Aleramo; but then again he doesn’t. What he certainly does is to bring us close to the initiation that Orpheus himself once experienced when he ascended, or rather, only after he had returned. The bard turned priest and from his mysteries stemmed poetry – the Orphic tradition which was named after him.

The composer leads us into a sonorous landscape where the noise of the ordinary doesn’t exist. He poses such a serious question that silence can be the only answer – or a song, that’s to say: poetry and music. He takes us anew to where he already ventured with his music in Narcissus and with the great musical drama Begehren, to where he always returns – to the source. The social pole of the myth, that of Fama, has its opposite in love and renunciation, in solitude, in the proverbial whistling in the woods, which is also a very accurate, that’s to say useful, music. Questions and answers, to himself as well as to Narcissus, to the beloved opposite just as to Orpheus, taking every risk. To turn around and lose the beloved opposite just like once before – we mustn’t forget that this repeats itself.

Whereto does the composer return, when triumph and failure lie so close together, as the myth shows, because it is also the case in real life? He returns to his work. And because he is very serious, success is certain.