»Reality has overtaken the original idea«

Michael Rauter talks about the three years of work on his Pixelsinfonie

[This text has been translated electronically.] With the sounds of his 6th Symphony, the »Pastoral«, Ludwig van Beethoven brought the longing for nature, the outside, home in the form of water, weather, animals and plants. His work has taken on unexpected topicality in the spring of 2020, for the Corona pandemic has since necessitated a worldwide retreat into the private sphere. While the virus has been a weeks and months of encounter with oneself, the notion of a world that lies outside and to which we all belong at the same time gains in importance.

In the following the composer Michael Rauter reports about the creation and restructuring of his Pixel Symphony. For this the programmer Peter Ulrich created an online installation in which 32 films can be viewed simultaneously, but also individually. Once you have started the piece, you can neither forward nor backward. After a run-through you can choose a new perspective.

The project was supported by the Ruprecht Foundation and the Friends of the Ludwigsburg Festival.

The plan was to create music theatre in a hotel ...

I cut the symphony into many small fragments and put them together with my music. Concretely a total of 30 musicians were to form the minimal cast for Beethoven's Pastorale. In addition, there would have been a conductor and three performers. The musicians would have been spread out over 30 hotel rooms with open windows. These rooms could have been visited to hear the musician isolated as a soloist. At the same time the sum of the composition as an orchestral piece would have been heard outside. Half the Pastorale, half a new composition.

The whole piece was conceived as a the relationship between humans and nature. Hence the interest in the Sixth Symphony. Specifically, it was about compositional and staging confrontation with the weather. The central movement in Beethoven's Pastorale is the thunderstorm. To bring the piece to a place of maximum isolation, like a hotel room, was particularly appealing to me for this thematic confrontation.

...then followed an extreme restructuring:

The situation was quite intense, because one and a half months before the premiere - just before rehearsals began and the final details - it became clear that the project would no longer take place. Until then I had been working on it for almost three years. And suddenly it could no longer take place. But I had created an energy that I had to work through somehow. Since my piece was about isolation from the beginning, there were so many connections again that undoubtedly led to the creation of something new .

Through the prompting of social-distancing, a streaming alternative was initially discussed, which was then discarded due to technical and logistical circumstances. The result was a film project. A 100-minute performance, in which the musicians and performers stand individually in front of the camera. Finally these films were to be merged and presented as a Pixelsinfonie on a website.

The relationship between humans and nature was so clearly demonstrated in this situation that I wanted to deal with it in the same way. Since it was no longer possible to plan ahead, the project took on another Corona-like dimension. Simultaneously, time was pressing and we started to work on a lot of things parallelly. The shooting started, and at the same time I rearranged Beethoven's original, composed new music and developed the performances. The rehearsals took place over Zoom. And even though all the musicians only had two rehearsals, I was busy all day for four weeks. Since I was busy with the rehearsals, I couldn't accompany the shoot. So somehow the piece was also created in the distance and is really a product that reflects the effects of the pandemic in all its facets.

The situation becomes the content:

The current situation is the content of the project. Let's start with the spatial: The original plan was that all the musicians rehearse together and put the piece together. Now there were individual rehearsals and individual recordings. That was a total change of concept. A maximum extreme. The subject matter was already there in the hotel version. Ultimately, the pandemic shifted the focus and drastically emphasized the fragility of the relationship  between humans and nature. The virus has shown us, to the maximum, that the separation of humans and nature is an illusory notion. For me, this led to an even stronger focus on looking for nature inside and with us than outside, such as in the weather or natural phenomena.  It has rather led to the piece being a confrontation with ourselves. And that this confrontation means being dependent on oneself and being thrown back. It was about facing this fact and realising that nature is within ourselves. Only then can you sharpen your gaze, look outside again and realise something. The pandemic has strongly influenced the pixel symphony, because its creation is based on an interaction with reality.

Prospects for a new production:

There are a total of 32 films in the new version, which are made accessible on a website. There is a film about the conductor Miguel Pérez Iñesta and a film within a film produced by Ladislav Zajac, a visual artist and set designer from Berlin. Ladislav Zajac would have been responsible for the lighting in the hotel. In his original concept, the televisions in the respective rooms would have provided the lighting. Now a film has been created that in turn serves as a visual lighting factor for all the other films. In 30 other films, the instrumentalists play Beethoven's Pastorale and my composition at the same time.

Under these circumstances, the musicians' films were made as follows: A playback soundtrack was developed on which a fragmented orchestral recording of Beethoven's symphony can be heard. This is accompanied by an electronic voice that functions like a navigation system and gives concrete instructions. It tells the musicians how to move, when and how to breathe. The musicians just have to get involved, so to speak, but they also have to know their music well.

For the films, it was also important to see how the participants move. That's why we rehearsed individually. The filming of 25 musicians - members of the orchestra of the Ludwigsburg Festival and students of the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart - each 125 minutes long, took place in Ludwigsburg. Others followed in Berlin, where Christina Voigt filmed the five instrumentalists of the soloist ensemble Kaleidoskop and the conductor.

Outlook and review:

Beethoven and my composition will end up sounding completely different than expected because we were never able to rehearse together. This process clearly showed me that making music in an ensemble is not really possible digitally. Because the essential thing about making music is direct communication. So the biggest complication that arose was really distance, because you can't communicate everything you need to an ensemble via Zoom. Also, I have never worked with the medium of film before. This will be a completely new experience. That's why it was a large-scale experiment, both in terms of content and form, to deal with this situation. For us it was already an artistic research work in which the project is a document of this situation. An operation on the living body.

Watch the Pixel Symphony