By Nick Ostrum
“Hermann Nitsch, the notorious Austrian performance artist whose elaborate and grisly ‘actions,’ as they were called, often involved slaughtered and disemboweled animals, blood, feces and viscera and evoked Christian and pagan rituals...” So begins the New York Times obituary of Nitsch, who died in April of this year.
Fortunately, Weinviertel Symphonie, disaggregated from a physical “action” like those described above, spares the weak-stomached listener (such as myself) the gristle and gore and shock of some of Nitsch’s performance pieces and visual artworks. That said, knowing a little about Nitsch’s other artistic pursuits may help one get a better sense at the primal-numinous-ecstatic boundary that he dedicated his artistic life to exploring.
Weinviertel Symphonie was performed by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna in the able hands of conductor Michael Mautner in August of last year. It is reminiscent of other of Nitsch’s works – Albertina Quartet, Orgelkonzert – in musical devices: long plangent overlain drones that send the listener into a trance always skirting the line between a constructive examination of the inner, atavistic regions of the self and a bad trip. These commonalities may be part of the point, as the ritual is essential to the experience of Nitsch’s music. And as much as rituals require repetition, that repetition is never perfect and necessarily changes in presentation and precise meaning over time, while retaining some core practice and theme.
In several of the movements of this symphony, an entire string orchestra plays the role of a droning organ. The first two consist of finely hewed and glimmering extended crescendo falls into dramatic emphatic, overlain tones. This sounds like menacing and unadorned devotional music. The third movement, however, breaks the tension with a surprisingly sprightly (for Nitsch) though sharp series of glissando, followed by an onslaught of alternately shrieking, cutting and humming strings. The fourth further develops this non-melodic taste on sacred music with softer, floating lines that evolve into a chord that is both sinister and triumphant before retreating to more striated and discordant lines. The fuller tones inevitably follow, in a tug of war between dread, acceptance and redemption. Movement five begins with a jaunty dance, clapping and all, that would be fitting in the stuffiest of debutante socials, but is quickly overtaken by those same foreboding, at times almost lurid, tones. It seems redemption, or even a brief escape into the trappings of celebration, must be short-lived. It inevitably gets pummeled by an overwhelming wave of sound. The dance survives and returns, but at that point it is entangled with the resurging dark wave in an almost Hitchcockian sequence of delirium. The final movement starts dark and ascends from there, elongated tone by elongated tone, until it reaches lighter, softer and more hopeful territory.
This dark journey means something. Maybe it was ultimately edifying, even if it feels oppressive and even violent. There is some light or respite or something at the end of the ritual. Doubtlessly there is something deeply human about all these drones and shrieks and this ambivalence. Whether I can put my secular finger on it or not, there is something to this music. There is actually a lot to it. Moving and disturbing, which are part and parcel of the liminal spaces squeezed between the sacred and the profane, the primeval and the present, with which Nitsch engages.
Weinviertel Simphonie is available as a download: https://nitsch.bandcamp.com/album/weinviertel-sinfonie
A very good review, Nick, I read it with pleasure. I have always liked Nitsch's art rituals that lasted hours to days, his processions and crucifixions, the choreographed intertwining of living and dead flesh, the smearing of naked bodies with blood and entrails, accompanied by his overwhelming music that combined oratorios with jazz and dissonant sound painting. Nitsch was inspired by Sigmund Freud and de Sade at the same time, he created his own rituals that demanded purification through acquaintance with the extreme. You described the music beautifully. Thanks.
Thanks, Martin! I appreciate the kind words.
I have been alternately fascinated and put off by what I have read about the rituals/performances. I am still not sure where exactly I land and I guess it is not worth weighing in on much further without having experienced them myself. And they certainly do sound like an experience.
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