Linzer Festival Concluded Brilliantly with a Gesamtkunstwerk of Music by Philip Glass and Images by Cori Olan
An audiovisual Gesamtkunstwerk set amidst the industrial ambience of Linz’s PostCity brought the 2017 Ars Electronica Festival to a close on Monday evening. In this marathon performance of all 20 etudes by Philip Glass, pianist Maki Namekawa’s interpretations were accompanied by Austrian video artist Cori Olan’s visuals. This duo, which also staged this project’s world premiere in New York, conjured up a hypnotic experiment for the senses.
It is Linz’s great good fortune to be Namekawa’s new home-of-choice. A world-class specialist in Glass’ music and wife of Linz’s former general music director Dennis Russell Davies—whose 50th birthday Glass himself celebrated by writing some of the etudes—she has already performed several of the composer’s works, including the 20 etudes in 2014.
Between 1991 and 2012
They were created in phases between 1991 and 2012, whereby Glass initially wrote these exercises for himself but then composed increasingly advanced pieces for other artists of the keyboard. Thus, star pianist Vikingur Olafsson recently celebrated his Deutsche Grammophon debut with the etudes, some of which the composer had derived from other works.
Namakawa configured her interpretation somewhat less mechanically than her Icelandic colleague. She sometimes seems to flee from the melody line, only to abruptly return to it, whereby the fundamental theme of the interpretation as a whole remains high. At times, the Japanese woman cedes dominance to the left hand, shifts accents and rhythms, smoothes edges, underplays.
The interpreter understands that one cannot shuffle along in the cuddly flow of the repetition of these minimalistic works; rather, one must preserve the biting potency and the wealth of contrasts if one is to resist drifting off into arbitrariness. Glass creates a music that gyrates on the spot. Mostly, it does not move forward insistently, but rather lets the moment persist. It is a music that succeeds, if not in making time as such stand still, than at least making its passage a rather pleasant sojourn.
Cori Olan’s work superbly complements these sounds. Since Disney’s megalomaniacal “Fantasia,” visual artists have sought ways to translate instrumental music into images, and only a scant few have succeeded as paradigmatically as this Austrian. His visuals never insinuate themselves into the foreground or just react all too mechanically to the music; instead, they constitute the transposition of one world into the other. Three jumbo-format screens transformed the huge Gleishalle into an arc of imagery. Olan makes musical movements dance, expands a record album into a three-dimensional object and clockwork, dispatches blocks on their way into the endless expanses of perspective, and endows shingles with tiny feet so they can compete in a race.
Much of it corresponds to the associations immediately evoked by Glass’s always highly visual music—images such as fluid motions, water and wind. Often, though, these presumably organic forms also intentionally put their digital makeup on display and permit a glimpse of the grid behind the scenes. Here, like the etudes, one definitive creative signature cannot be ascribed to all the visuals. High-definition swaths of color are juxtaposed to graphics evoking the style of the 1980s, film sequences to abstraction, monochromes to colorful excesses. The spectator is occasionally reminded of the screen savers that used to pop up on monitors back in the old days, only to be overwhelmed once again by the plasticity of what is on display here, imagery coordinated to the music with consummate precision.
The only thing to pan about this evening was the audience itself. It would be impossible to imagine less suitable listeners for these fragile piano pieces than some of the festivalgoers who gathered in this jam-packed venue. Your run-of-the-mill digital artist obviously isn’t well enough acquainted with instrumental music to know to show up on time and not leave before it’s over, to keep the chatter down and refrain from noisily stomping about during the performance. They’re a shoo-in for the Prix Ars Electronica in the Most Ignorant Concert Audience category.
Nevertheless, after five etudes, even the rudest offenders had settled down. And finally, the evening—and, with it, this year’s Ars Electronica Festival—ended peacefully with the long 20th Etude and a red thread dancing for the sake of its own life. This was a worthy conclusion to this year’s event, which attracted 100,000 visitors.
(APA, September 12, 2017)