A look back at an insightful take on Beat Furrer's "Fama"
The Beat goes on by Andy Hamilton from an archival Wire article.
Fama, goddess of Rumour, is described at the beginning of Book XII of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as living at the world’s centre – for the Greeks this was a flat Earth of course – at a place “where every voice reaches listening ears”.
At this global clearing house for the dissemination of hearsay, there are “repeating voices, doubling what it hears... no peace... And yet no noise, but muted murmurings like waves of some far distant sea”.
Her eerie world of murmuring voices is the leitmotif of Fama, Vienna based composer Beat Furrer’s latest avant garde music theatre project. In the foreground is the trauma of Frääulein Else, the Speaker whose inner monologue we hear – this is the character from Viennese playwright Artur Schnitzler’s Frääulein Else, “an unflinching examination of an individual in crisis”.
Else is victim of a society in which all areas of life have become a commercial product, Furrer explains over the phone from Vienna, in a brief stopover between engagements.
Born in Switzerland in 1954, Furrer is one of Europe’s leading composers of the modernist avant garde, yet his music has been little heard in the UK. As a student, Furrer moved to Vienna to study with Roman Haubenstock-Ramati – a fairly accidental move which turned out very happily. “The most important thing I learned from him is not to search for the new in the quality of the material, but in a new way of thinking – to search for new forms, mobile forms, for instance,” Furrer explains.
This was a way of rediscovering the sounds of traditional instruments: “Composers use instruments that we did not invent – I did not invent the cello, or the piano – but each of us has to rediscover these sounds. This was very important for Haubenstock-Ramati.”
At that time the scene in Vienna was very conservative. Ironically, given its status as the centre of modernism, by the 1980s only Haubenstock
Ramati and Friedrich Cerha – the composer who had completed Berg’s opera Lulu – represented the avant garde. “The music of Scelsi, Xenakis, Morton Feldman – who was also very important for me – Lachenmann, Nono, was not performed at all. There was an ensemble called Die Reihe, founded by Cerha, but he stopped around this time,” says Furrer.
In response, in 1985 he founded the New Music ensemble Klangforum Wien, now one of the Europe’s leading avant garde chamber ensembles – they appear with Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart in the Kairos recording of Fama. “In the early 90s the atmosphere in Vienna changed a lot,” Furrer comments. “Now it’s very lively, there are composers like Bernhard Lang, Georg-Friedrich Haas, Olga Neuwirth, HK Gruber, Wolfgang Mitterer...”
Furrer, however, is clear that he’s a modernist, at least in the sense that he rejects the postmodernist assumption that modernism is something in the past. But he disagrees with the modernist idea of technological progress. “In art there is no progress,” he asserts. “Art has to say something about our time, our world. It’s impossible to write today in the style of Mahler – yet if you listen to Mahler today, you see how modern he still is.”
Fama shows Furrer’s growing interest in spatial diffusion, which comes from Italian modernist Luigi Nono more than from Stockhausen, he argues: “I created the expression Höör-Theatre – ‘listening theatre’ – where the sound itself is part of the experience.
Till recently I worked in my music theatre mostly with amplification. Then I wanted to work without – not because of ideological mistrust, but I think very often we use amplification if the acoustic is not perfect, but we should use amplification, microphones and loudspeakers more like instruments.” The very refined and subtle soundworld which he creates in Fama is enhanced by a unique auditorium with contrasting reflecting and absorbent surfaces.
“With an architect I tried to construct a flexible space, without amplification or electronics, where it is possible to have a full sound of the small orchestra, and also keep the energy of intimate sounds of solo instruments,” Furrer explains.
In the recording on Kairos, he concedes, it’s very difficult to get the difference between very distant and very near sounds. He thinks they did a good job, using Kunstkopf microphones, a recording system originally designed for headphone listening but which never caught on commercially.
I ask how the concept behind Fama connects with Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of the ‘acousmatic’ – of experiencing sounds as divorced from their physical causes. “I have to say I’m not so familiar with his ideas,” he says. “But of course this idea of musique concrèète is important, especially when developed later in Helmut Lachenmann’s musique concrèète instrumentale.”
In these works Furrer makes the voice central in a very particular way. “I always ask, ‘How is it possible to move from the spoken voice, and its sound quality, to singing?’” he concludes. “ That’s why I use different languages – and in Fama, I never used German for the singers, German is always spoken. I always start from the sound of the spoken language.”