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Adjusting to the Dark

The Mystery Sonatas by Rosas

Wannes Gyselinck
Reading time
15 min.

In Mystery Sonatas / for Rosa, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker plunges into the mysterious sonata cycle by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber also known as the Rosary Sonatas. A brave choice — it’s no coincidence that the cycle is rarely, if ever, performed in full. “Just like Bach’s Partitas or Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante, Biber’s Mystery Sonatas belongs to those works that explore and push the borders of what you can do on an instrument.”

The Infinity of a Gesture

In the aforementioned works of music, the connection between their physical boundary-breaking nature and striving for the religious or the transcendental seems not accidental. It is as if the music makes its appearance at the point where the domain of the human ends and another domain begins — that which escapes our knowledge and understanding. God may have been declared dead, but even more difficult to eradicate than faith is the desire for faith. So in the physical execution of the just-about-playable, we allow ourselves the temptation to hear a form of spiritual geometry: the music as a square within a circle, the contours of which can only be speculated upon.

This relationship of the finite to the infinite — the square, the circle — is probably the most concise definition of what spirituality is. It is a relationship that circumscribes our human limitations—limitations that are, above all, an excess. We as finite beings can imagine something of the infinite.

“When Amandine Beyer performs this music, the arm that performs the bow strokes is constantly executing horizontal figures of eight in the air,” says De Keersmaeker, “The symbol of the infinite. Amandine told me that. I had asked her to describe her music, and also to describe what she imagined took place in the dance, and this gave rise to a very inspiring exchange. Somewhere she writes, with reference to the Passacaglia I think, that it is music that sounds like it was already there before it began, and that continues after it ends. It feels like a tiny fragment of eternity.”

Art seems able to evoke and render tangible powers of the imagination that exceed our own finiteness. It enables the infinite to, as it were, slip in through our cracks. If the characteristic of the Romantic is that art is the last abode of the sacred in a disenchanted world, then we are almost certainly still confirmed romantics.

The circle, the infinite, has many names: God, the macrocosm, nature. All of them are total simplifications (because what is “nature”?). They are symbols that refer to something where there is nothing to be seen. Not necessarily because there is nothing there, but because it lies beyond our horizon, beyond our powers of imagination. Or because that is what we yearn for. “I come from a Catholic family. My parents were genuine tsjeven [staunch Catholics]. I very quickly lost my faith; it did not survive my puberty. What I did retain from my Catholic background is a feeling for mystery, for that which is bigger than us. For the greater whole.” You could almost call it an ecological perception: the idea that we are interconnected in a network, the limits of which we are unable to perceive. Such a perception does not have to be transcendent. It does not necessarily imply looking to the heavens in search of what surpasses us. It can remain perfectly immanent: the ecosystem, the earth, the ground beneath our feet.

© Anne Van Aerschot

Don’t Play What You Hear

De Keersmaeker’s work is always a negotiation between the micro- and the macrocosmos. The microcosmos: vibrating air molecules, the music. The Mystery Sonatas by Biber — one of the greatest violinists of his time — are, as already said, physically demanding, extremely virtuosic, and logistically complicated. Thirteen of the fifteen sonatas use the scordatura tuning technique, a strategic departure from the standard tuning that enables the instrument to produce “special effects” — harmonic and melodic twists and turns that are otherwise impossible to play, resonances that make it possible to evoke effects such as a flourish of trumpets or vibrating strings that deepen or silence the timbre.

The strange experience for the instrumentalist of this retuning is that what they play — the notes as set down on paper — are not the sounds they hear. The notation is therefore more of a choreography than a score. It records what movements the fingers must make, but not how the music itself sounds.

Dance also seems to apply that principle of décalage, or displacement: what you see is not what is shown. What you think you see or recognize — a pose, an expression, a reference to art history, a representation of a biblical story — is always also something else — a vertebral column that bends forward, a thigh that hinges downward via the knee, bodies that dance geometrically in 3D. At times there are tableaux that momentarily freeze in an iconic image, or sequences in which the writing invites you to read in just a little more. During Sonata No. 7 — The Scourging at the Pillar — a female dancer suggests the scourging or the flogging with her movement. She is both the flogger and the flogged. But also: the geometry of a body, an elbow that forms an angle, and an arm that is flung away from the body according to the diagonal lines of an invisible upright pentagram. “Since the Middle Ages the expression ‘sub rosa’ has meant concealed, beneath the surface. The rose has been a symbol of mystery since ancient times, a symbol of that which is not revealed. The choreography of the Mystery Sonatas continually plays with the border between a concealed dramaturgy and a legible narration. This was not an easy balance to achieve. We explore the limits of narration and play with a subtext that on occasion rises to the surface. As an observer you see the gesture of a narration, thus an opening in the direction of communication. You see a rhetoric at work, one that subsequently deflects attention from the narration and back to the narrators, namely the dancing bodies, the embodied abstraction of the dancers.”

An Early Baroque Multimedia Installation

Some elements in the performance are used as symbols or signs, yet at the same time surpass any unequivocal reading. Above the stage a silver-colored reflective sculpture is suspended. A solidified monolith, as solid as it is liquid, it is a constant presence above the dancers, on which beams of light are broken, diffusing the direction of the lighting. It seems as if the light is coming from everywhere, as if the performance is not illuminated but has itself become luminous. The dramaturgy of the light, as with The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, De Keersmaeker’s recent solo composition, has become an important part of the total performance. Minna Tiikkainen’s lighting design gives rhythm, disorients, is as much a shadow design as a lighting design. It cuts off dancing bodies, makes the dark darker, the light lighter. Sometimes the light overshadows the music, or makes room for the music by making room for the dark. Yin and yang.

© Anne Van Aerschot

The music does not do this alone. The Mystery Sonatas may indeed have originally been part of what we would now call a multimedia installation. Much of what we know about their production circumstances is speculation, and thus mysterious. But this we do know: the manuscript is dedicated to Biber’s employer, the Archbishop Maximilian Gandolf von Kuenberg of Salzburg, who may have been a member of the Brotherhood of the Rosary. The sonatas were probably performed around 1674 — about a decade before the birth of Bach — in the chapel of the archbishop, in support of a devotional and meditative practice, namely the reciting of the rosary. A rosary with beads of various sizes served as the physical guide for the repeated prayers: fifteen times ten Ave Marias, preceded each time by a Paternoster and followed by a Gloria Patri.

Portrayals of the fifteen Sacred Mysteries of the faith hung on the chapel walls, helping the faithful focus their devotion on key moments of the gospel. Perhaps the Rothko Chapel with music of the same name by Morton Feldman is somewhat similar, an equivalent to this back and forth between image, music and spirituality. The cycle ends with a passacaille for solo violin — a series of sixty-four variations on a repeated base line, precisely the number of prayers that a believer recites to complete the full cycle of the rosary.

Does This Make Me Dance?

The fifteen Mysteries fall into three groups, forming a dramaturgy: the Joyful Mysteries (the Annunciation or good tidings, the birth of Jesus, etc.), the Sorrowful Mysteries (Christ’s agony, the scourging, etc.), and the Glorious Mysteries (the Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension of Mary, the Coronation of Mary, etc.). This cycle is demanding not only for the performer, but also for the audience. To simply listen is, in principle, an improper use of this Gebrauchsmusik. But perhaps De Keersmaeker’s choreography nevertheless offers a contemporary subject of contemplation. “It is ultimately about universal emotions: joy, hope, pain, loss, transformation.”

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

Biber’s music can upon a first listen seem disorienting, as it is simultaneously very tumultuous and very static, both spectacular and minimalist. “I always choose music intuitively: Does it make me dance? And yes, Biber’s music connects with the old dance forms. It has an incantatory pulse. Then there is the macro-structure, the triptych, the cyclical structure, the geometry. It is from this that you build the choreography. The dramaturgy is in part concealed — sub rosa — in the music, through the varying effects that Biber attaches to the different Mysteries. He achieves this by means of a purely rational application of a rhetorical-musical system. It sounds as if it is about individual feelings, but these feelings are stylized, rendered supra-personal, and thereby attain a universal character.”

On Viruses, Ice Ages, and Violin Sound

The music may be mystical, but it is also highly material: Biber makes every effort to employ the materiality of the instruments and to realize contrasting timbres. Pure tones — timbre-less tones — are not something we hear often, except perhaps during an ear examination that uses what are known as “pure sinus tones.” Timbre is what happens when material and space start to vibrate together. Very specific overtones and undertones start to co-resonate, whereby sounds become recognizable and attain character, thus enabling us to place sounds in space and connect them to a source: the wood of the violin, the quality of the catgut (often sheep gut), the horsehair on the bow (best quality: Mongolian horses). Above all, in the timbre of a violin you hear the “here and now” of an instrument—its condition, its dryness, but also time, its age, even the climatological conditions of the period in which it was made. Everything is interconnected.

In the fifteenth century, the Spaniards first set foot in the Americas, bringing smallpox with them. Fifty million Native Americans died, and the prairies were left ungrazed and reforested, extracting so much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that a mini ice age caused Europe to cool by several degrees. Trees grew more slowly, the annual rings grew tighter, and the wood became harder, and thus more resonant. From this wood, stringed instruments were made that sounded better than ever (when Antonio Vivaldi wrote his Four Seasons, due to this ice age, the effect of the four seasons was much more pronounced). That is timbre: the sounds of the material, in the here and now, linked to the place, that has its roots in time, with connections that open up a spiral in the biosphere: colonialism, a virus, fifty million dead, climate change, resonant violins.

This is more than a digression. Timbre is about the secret balance between generality and specificity. What I hear when I recognize the timbre of a violin is the violin in general, and also always this specific violin, there, while I am listening to it here. The body also has an individual timbre. The raw material of the Mystery Sonatas / for Rosa is a mixture of De Keersmaeker’s own timbre — the wood is somewhat older, more resonant, with ingrained memories from the years of the circumscribing movement, like annual rings across the years — and that of the young dancers. They have incorporated this raw material, and thus colored it with physical individuality. The basic vocabulary originated in Goldberg, the aforementioned solo, and in Dark Red – Beyeler, the performative exhibition created for Fondation Beyeler. It is with this vocabulary that the dancing bodies engage in a pas de deux with sculptures by Auguste Rodin and Jean Arp, an investigation into the transition from the static to the dynamic, into dancing out the potential for movement locked inside a sculpture, and an investigation also into the gray zone between expression and pure abstraction, the romanticism of Rodin and the geometry of Arp.

© Anne Van Aerschot

Tuning as an Exercise in Ecology

Choreography — literally a form of script — is, as has been said, constantly achieving a balance between legibility and physical abstraction. For dancing bodies, even “abstraction” already means something extremely concrete and physical: this is my backbone, these are my limbs, now I am rotating my pelvis, I lift up a leg, now we lift a leg up together. “Dance is the most contemporary art form there is: the body is always here and now.” Although this is radically contemporary, this physical-concrete soon switches back to (or advances toward) a more universal ecce homo: see the humans in all their physical mortality.

Now the contours of a protagonist — Mary, Christ — appear, only to fade again, literally into the mist on stage. The performance takes on color: Marian blue, passion red, golden yellow, pregnant with symbolism and at the same time simply primary colors. Alchemy and physics, geometry and symbolism, pure rhetoric and speaking in tongues. The performance requires you to both read the movements and listen to how the bodies speak. This speaking — the rhetoric — is inviting, often by remaining quiet. It requires the observer to try and find an attitude, to incline toward the dance, to seek a “tuning,” to use the term applied to this attitude by the philosopher Timothy Morton.

Tuning is what we do when confronted with art. As art is by definition useless — it has no immediate practical purpose. All we can do is go sit or stand by it, direct our attention at it, tune in to it. The extreme form of tuning is also the extreme form of resonance: the singer sings, the glass resonates, the glass breaks. If we tune in to the beauty of art, says Morton, we also enter the realms of the dead. The glass that breaks — this is beauty as a homeopathic dose of death. Beauty can, according to Theodor Adorno, cause an Erschütterung, or “subject tremor,” a temporary collapse of the “I.” But equally a powerful vibration or resonance.

Morton writes this in a pamphlet titled All Art Is Ecological, because, according to him, art does precisely what is needed: it causes us to tremble so much that we are ejected from our center, from our circle. As a result of this, the circle opens up as a spiral, and we can tune in to the other-than-we. Morton believes that this attitude of tuning is an ecological attitude. It is one that we exercise in nonviolent coexistence, which is preferable to violent co-annihilation — the “slow violence” that is presently under way in the form of the climate crisis.

The Flogger and the Flogged

As I write, I notice that I would like to write in a more subdued manner, just as De Keersmaeker speaks ever more quietly as she circles back to the core of her spiral, her spiritual foundation. Spirituality readily falls within the realm of “new age”: this individualized, oven-ready, pastel-colored product that repackages the old, often imported wisdom that since the 1980s has lubricated the cogs of the neoliberal system. Mindfulness as a self-management technique, so as to be able to perform ever better in the rat race.

And yet, anyone who knows De Keersmaeker’s work perceives its wider dramaturgy: it is always the same and always different, a pentagram within a pentagram within a pentagram, annual ring around annual ring. Ultimately it is always the spiral that opens out: repetition, variation, expansion. What is striking is how De Keersmaeker’s point of departure has subtly changed color in recent decades. What was previously emphatically apolitical has now become unemphatically political. Increasingly, De Keersmaeker’s work reveals a commitment, one born out of a deep concern for the state of the world.

De Keersmaeker also asks herself questions: What does dance stand for in the middle of a global catastrophe? Why dance now? “If somebody on the street starts to dance then you see a crazy person. If a group does it, then you sense the beginning of what seems to be a revolt. Look, we live in an age of limitless material well-being, and a dire scarcity of spirituality. And by this I mean the lived experience of our connectedness.” Spirituality in the hands of De Keersmaeker is no oven-ready product. On the contrary, it is something that requires time and effort — in the case of the Mystery Sonatas / for Rosa, a full two and a half hours. In the best of cases, spirituality is not a highly individualistic experience. Theater is ultimately still a wonderful place for collective, quiet attention. (Simone Weil — a modern mystic — “absolute pure attention is prayer.”)

It is not something that can be redeemed immediately in terms of individual emotion (this can be the case, but is not the direct aim). It is rather an invitation to an experience that is supra-personal, that erschüttert (shocks) the individual subject, meaning that it can therefore make room, change direction, and seek another configuration with its surroundings. This is not always pleasant. It can feel as if you are both the flogger and the flogged.

This may sound like a poor apology for art, which may well be true. But then I think of the words of the poet William Carlos Williams, at the end of his long poem titled “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (1955): “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

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