Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

IRENE REVELL

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It is one of those close, grey-scale summer evenings in London and suddenly I feel nervous. In advance, and in the abstract, this project has all the tenets of something I will love: the collapse of ‘normal’ distinctions between composer, artist, performer, audience; a dance between precise structure and improvisation. Now I ask myself more pressingly: am I interested in Opera, or just people, and is that enough? I feel the kind of nerves before the kind of party where one won’t know anyone. Should I use some of the same questions in all my encounters, a methodology, or should these be organic exchanges, am I overthinking this? Most urgently: who is even performing for whom here? A conversation is necessarily an exchange; as the caller here, a total immersion (in at the deep end). I can’t help feeling I would be less nervous if I were on the other end of the calls, in my element talking about my own work. We are informed at the menu stage that these conversation may be recorded, not for the usual “training and monitoring purposes” but for documentation. This knowledge only heightens this sense of performance, a frisson of excitement biting into the nerves.

I choose Puccini’s Le Bohème to begin, with which I have some childhood familiarity, yet the least proximity now. I am reminded in this first conversation of a school language exchange, earnestness on both sides, the possibility of common ground driving the dialogue, sometimes faltering. As it progresses I experience the best kind of mingling small talk, no assumptions, no goals. I wonder though, what am I learning? About two new cats, Merlin and Mimi, eight weeks old and spending only the second day in their new home to which I am calling. The Wuppertaler Bühnen have some form of co-operative structure, ninety percent publicly funded, ninety orchestra members and two-hundred of everything else. M, a member of the chorus, does not ask me anything about myself: I read this as non-intrusive politeness, or a generosity in his own sharing. I think I feel his voice warming over our conversation, perhaps even some camp flourishes, though it is hard to read such a thing in less familiar accents; everyone I speak to tonight is not speaking to me in their first language.

After we hang up I feel a rush of excitement, I can do this all over again. For my part, I have received a partial slither of a stranger’s life, to which I have attempted to listen, bear witness, affective labour in both directions. This is the welcome re-dress for all the recent Zoom times where we have suddenly become almost always passive consumers in an array of not-before-possible contexts, an artist’s talk in ‘New York’, a weekend-long opening at ZKM, ‘Karlsruhe’, a discussion between Harney & Moten in ‘California’ etc etc. I also clock that I have been pre-occupied by words: what about the textures of other audio, the qualities of the recording itself over the phone line, I didn’t really listen out for these?

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The infrastructure of the work itself becomes more apparent this second time round. The jolly female voice that guides you through the menu, more like the Tannoy in an actual theatre than the uncanny AI speech of contemporary call centres, “[w]elcome to this evening’s performance!” Underscoring again that we are now already in this very performance, all of us, not only talking about ones that might have been. Alluded to in its contrary title, the project has emerged out of these moments of turbulence early on in the global pandemic, the vacuum of cancellations as much as the new possibilities. Much of the cultural production in this new era is inevitably a refraction of existing work via these new platforms, Zoom, Facebook Live, etc, less an interrogation of form than a migration of content. Yet this is no refraction, rather this ‘found’ format – call centre technology – brings into question the limits of this new proliferation. The result, a kaleidoscopic diffraction pattern opening outwards to the possibilities of multiple autonomous encounters, where the operatic recordings serve more as ‘props’ in this inherently indeterminate live exchange.

Now I feel the need to choose something that might share some references with my current world. F, an assistant stage director for The Airport Society’s production Symphony of Expectation answers. She describes Schönberg’s Erwartung, based on the poem of Marie Pappenheim and here re-worked through the prism of the latter’s writing. She says their interpretation is “feministic”, a word that should surely enter more common usage. They were at the point of their final dress rehearsal when the Lockdown fell in Belgium. We speak for a while about our respective contexts, government support for the pandemic, before F says, “oh, but you must want to hear the recordings?” Though offering the recording is one of the few scripted or given elements, still I fear she has grown bored and wants to move the conversation on; of course our pre-existing social anxieties, ticks seep into the work as its social material. She has three recordings and I chose her favourite. The poor quality of the line is distracting and I hit ‘speaker phone’ to experience this in the same way as so much trebly hold music is experienced; imagining joyfully if call centres were to use ‘feministic’ interpretations of Schönberg.

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K is a costume designer in the Staatsoper in Hannover where they have just suffered a local outbreak, one hundred and fifty cases. She tells of their recent rehearsals preparing for a second go at a premiere which has now been cancelled again. For four weeks they rehearsed in PPE; the leads wearing special thin masks with mics underneath; the strangeness of their familiar amplified voices emerging in such abnormal conditions; costume-fittings whilst wearing gloves herself nearly not possible. She says they lost all energy when the local government shut them down for the second time, so difficult to keep on working. I was drawn to this option by the fact of a new commission, The Murder of Halit Yozgat, by a young composer Ben Frost whose name I didn’t know. She describes the story: the NSU, German far-right, have committed a string of murders, this one, of a young Turkish man in his parents’ internet café in nearby Kassel. I realise I know this story already: the opera is based on the work of Research Architecture, the London research group that investigated this case in forensic detail, resulting in the only prosecution amongst the ten murders. Which in turn produced the artwork that I had seen at Documenta 14, the contemporary art festival that occurs every five years in Kassel itself. K emphasises that this has been an exceptional experience, as it is “not only art”, the trial is ongoing. They were concerned that NSU supporters may attend and disrupt the thwarted premiere(s). We talk about her work with the costumes, her original ideas abandoned on hearing sketches of the score, frightening sounds.

Now I am listening to the recording, I clutch this one close to my ear. A nervy string undercurrent, the interference in the line is most pronounced, or maybe this is the music the least suited to the telephonic medium. A pitch shift and English suddenly creeps in, “I’m not wasting a shot on that”.  And it feels aptly sombre to end with this piece: this project happens not only in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic but just days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd’s murder directly at the hands of US Police; Halit Yozgat’s, the one murder of ten to be prosecuted by German Police though only after external investigation; different but not so dissimilar contexts for institutional racism, the harboring of white supremacy.

Later on I come to remember the experience of encountering the Research Architecture installation in Kassel, the overwhelm of the art biennial that so often leaves one without the concentration a topic such as this deserves; my very recent conversation conducted in such contrasting conditions, from a restful spot at home. Finally I think more about the conventions of conversation itself – how much these three were plays between script and improvisation – how much they share in this sense with any other form of conversation. I feel quite exhausted by these two hours on the phone but not at all lonely.

  1. My title warmly cites Aretha Franklin whose song (and album) title seems to be a prescient anticipation of the now ubiquitous brand of video conferencing software, though originally about the ‘encounter’ and desire, topics as much at stake in any remote exchange.
  2. A loose genealogy springs to mind, works that also employ mass communication formats to explore the possibilities of performance, composition: Mieko Shiomi’s Spatial Poem (1965-75) that sought to achieve simultaneous remote performances through the postal medium with written exchange; Robert Ashley’s Music With Roots in the Aether, literally subtitled “opera for television” that used this medium for a different kind of spoken exchanges, and portraiture.