door Wynold Verweij
Hide to Show by German composer Michael Beil is the opening of the annual Transit festival in Leuven. In it, the Nadar Ensemble explores internet culture through live video, isolation and the limits of hyper-reality. A conversation with the composer about the grey area between music and theatre and what remains of the concept of reality. And: he likes hyper pop more than classical.
Michael Beil: “I want to stay in the concert setting, but go as far as possible towards the theatre setting, so together with instrumentalists, no actors or singers. That does give the piece charm but there is also a lack because the audience expects actors and singers based on the line-up, but there are none. So some people find that weird, but that’s my intention with this play.
In 2021, we were very well prepared. We had long rehearsals. We met three times, twice for five days and once for three days. This cycle culminated in a form of co-composition with the musicians. I didn’t even have to write down most of the adaptations. I could work with the musicians that way. We could come up with solutions along the way. And that was a dream come true. That was a great experience. Then we made five performances in Essen, at a festival for game-related art. So all kinds of digital and video and this was a fun experience with a young audience, not the typical contemporary music audience, but very open people.
Are you composing differently to reach young people?
“Hide to Show is like a musical, so not a long piece. I don’t follow the dramaturgy of a classical composer, but that of an entertaining composer. I write short pieces. Maybe this way of working is not so appreciated in the classical world. But I wanted to go for it because it is very much related to the internet and social media. Everything that comes up there is short and young people are no longer used to listening to long things. Sometimes they can listen to drone music for a long time with some smoke beforehand, but actually they prefer 3-minute pieces of music. Admittedly, this project was a bit risky, but I think I did well in the end.”.
Does the rehearsal process play an important role in the composition process?
“In my profession, you have to do a lot more than play notes. This can be very embarrassing with classical musicians because many musicians don’t know how to walk or move. Then they feel embarrassed, which is also uncomfortable for the audience. Musicians make many movements on stage, such as coming, going, sitting, standing up, moving with their instruments. Musicians naturally make a lot of gestures when they talk about music. Everyone dances and sings. Actually, I only do things that musicians would normally do at home or on stage. I concentrate on movements that musicians do on stage, nothing more. They can do that, but it’s hard for them because they feel a bit lost if they don’t hold on to their instruments. So there’s always half I have to encourage and the other half I have to hold back. But in this case, it’s mostly about privacy. It’s about what people do at home, filming themselves and then showing it to the public. But when the audience sees that, they no longer see them as real people, but as a representation, like the internet, like TikTok.”.
Does the play show hyper-reality or is it hyper-reality itself?
“I would say both. The play shows of the process of hyperreality. There are six parts and the parts consist of six small pieces, and in each part there is the same piece with a different aspect. There is a dance in each part, but they are six dances with different aspects of the same piece. And there is one story that runs through the piece with six small parts. That is about the folk song Ievan Polka, seen by Japanese internet sensation Hatsune Miku, a virtual person. The concert situation is hyper-reality. Because it only exists virtually on the internet, but it becomes real when a lot of real people are in the concert hall enjoying a concert. So and it’s a very special kind of reality because you have both, you still have the virtuality on stage because Miku is not there. It’s just holographic action. But the band is real and the dancers of the band are also real. In the audience, everything is real, only the performer is not real. This is very clear example of how a kind of reality can take place in music.”.
The musicians are usually separated in their cubicles, they are isolated. So how can playing together be rehearsed?
“You cannot imagine how strange the situation is for them when you are in such a box. They really play in their box and they don’t see and hear what the others are doing. The audience has the impression that they are all connected, but they can’t be. Of course, it is difficult for rhythm and intonation. So at rehearsals, they come out of their boxes and practise playing together, maintaining intonation, and then they go back into their boxes. That’s what we always do. But from the subject matter, it is very important for me to show during the performance that being together is the exception and being alone is the normality as it is in our world today.”
In some scenes, you use technology to achieve perfection. In doing so, do you not take away the personality of the musician?
“I am a controlling person. And when I started Hide to show, I told myself that this would be the first piece in which I would totally avoid control but it ended up being very controlling. That was a miss on my part. After all, the only control I actually have is what you have in every concert: the right pitch at the right time. But I also add the gestures, the gestures have to be in tune because they are recorded and played back later and they have to match the music in other parts.
I’ll give you an example. There is a section where they are all in the boxes and they sing without sound, they open their mouths, dance a little bit and there is no singing in that section. But there is other music. And the mouth movements match that song perfectly. And that for me is one of the most intense experiences of all the performances. In that other part, people have trouble seeing whether it’s projection or real, because the projectors are very good and sometimes you really have to concentrate. But then they realise that the boxes are closed. It is a live video and they are singing the song, but: how is that possible? Technology helps me bring surprise into the piece.”.
What does creativity mean to you?
“I see the process of creativity as a process of filtering. We get more and more information, from all over the world. The composer’s main task is to filter this flow in some way. Which way? That is a decision, a creative decision. And what a composer then has to do is transform. So there is a transformation process of the things people know. I would say the old way of making art is to see or hear something great and unknown that you have never experienced before. Nowadays, we see art more as something transformed from the real world, like Duchamp putting the (the appropriated – WV) urinal in the museum. And then it is no longer a urinal. But it raises a lot of questions and people are very surprised to see why that is in the museum. And that’s what I try to do with music: filter, transform and then, if I deliver good work as a composer, surprise people with new connotations for things they already know.”
What kind of compositions are typical for Michael Beil?
“My speciality is the use of live video, and live video in this complicated arrangement. I’m the only one who can do that at the moment. Because I have a lot of experience with this, I use this form of live video. I do that to play with the musical form, it is always related to music. It’s always to show something with music or the musicians, and with the video I try to get people on track so they can wonder what’s going on. So to give people something in the beginning of a piece until there comes a certain point where they think, OK, I get it, it’s boring. And then something happens that is really surprising. So if people, having heard and seen my piece, are left amazed, then I have succeeded. My music is music that questions things.”.
Will you ever write an opera?
“No. In a way, all my pieces are already operas. And if I had to do an opera, I would do an ironic non-opera without singers. Yes, because I honestly don’t like classical. I like Pop a lot. At the moment I’m listening a lot to Hyperpop, for example by British producer/singer/dj Sophie.
Besides, it’s not possible to find new ways to play violin today. Whatever you do with it, it’s still violin. And there is also currently a stagnation in the development of electronic instruments. Controllers don’t invent anything anymore. Most young composers are now mainly working with synthesisers and modules. That’s a strange situation. I let them do their thing. I am not interested in that. I am very interested in what comes after this.”.
So what comes after the violin and electronic instruments?
“We can use implants, for example, put something in our throat to be able to sing like Hatsune Miku. Just kidding: I put an implant in my arm and then I can play the piano perfectly. Still, I think that’s the future. The future is virtual glasses and implants, but classical instruments will always be there and we need orchestras, maybe a bit like we need old paintings in the museum. It’s fun. We all want that. We go to the Louvre and we see the old art and we go to the concert hall and we listen to Beethoven.”.
All your works are available for free in open source. Why are you so generous?
“That is a sign to show that my work is not a miracle coming from a divine artist. I am just a normal person who decided to specialise in music. On my website, you can download any score, all the tapes. Other composers can use my tapes and sample them and use them in their own pieces. And they have already done that. That’s how we work. You see something, we like it and then we use it. And together with other things, we also transform it and we are a community. So why should I do it differently?”
WHAT: Hide to show by Michael Beil
WHO: Nadar Ensemble
WHERE: Transit, Leuven
DATE: 20 October 2023
FOTOS: Wynold Verweij (featured image), Charlotte Triebus