Dmitri Kourliandski on Orphic Games
Kristina Matvienko | 10 July 2018 | интервью

An interview by Kristina Matvienko

Matvienko. How did work begin on Orphic Games?

Kourliandski. Boris Yukhananov and I were already beginning this project when we started admitting students to MIR-5. Our mutual dialogue quickly gave rise to the idea of devoting the MIR-5 class to Orpheus.

Matvienko. Why?

Kourliandski. This project follows MIR-4, which focussed on The Golden Ass. I don’t remember the exact motivation, but it was a mutual decision. Boris was interested in creating a musical production, i.e., the original idea was that the performance, if not an opera proper, would be saturated with music. And we came to the idea of Orpheus. Orpheus is the earliest extant opera in the history of the European tradition, it was written in 1600 by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini. I quickly realized in this regard that we had a really large class and that we would have to put them through substantial musical training. This wasn’t so much training on musical instruments as it was in cultivating musical skills and habits, be that singing or playing an instrument. We made an effort to inculcate and reveal compositional thinking among the students. In any case, we wanted to acquaint them with principles of compositional thinking that assume a relationship toward life based on acoustic dimensions, an interaction with daily life determined by acoustic dimensions, the structuring of time and a sense for form. 

Matvienko. You worked with them on all that?

Kourliandski. Yes, that was the idea from the start. We filled the course with workshops on improvisation, and conversations with various composers. And when the work, the showings, of the “laymen” got underway with - let's call them modules - I immediately suggested calling in three more composers, Kirill Shirokov, Fyodor Sofronov and Volodya Gorlinsky. The four of us projected compositional thinking onto the work that the students were already doing in their showings.

Matvienko. Can you clarify that? Not specifically in terms of Orphic Games, but generally, in relation to the notion of awakening a composer’s consciousness in 25-to-30 year old students.

Kourliandski. It wasn’t so much to educate them, but more to show them and reveal in them those manners of cooperation that exist in us and in everyone - it’s just that we don’t always use them or focus our attention on them.

Matvienko. Is that possible if you never even studied in a music school?

Kourliandski. Yes, of course. A music school merely provides knowledge of an instrument, the concrete possession of certain skills. But here we’re talking about creative interaction with the world, and with yourself, too. You could even call it psychological, or philosophical training. What you want to do is to establish not two-dimensional hearing, which is what we’re used to in daily life - a flat, wallpaper or carpet-like hearing - but a three-dimensional hearing where you must attune your ear to “hearing in perspective.” We do that by way of structuring acoustic time, of breaking down the details of the hearing process, of applying perspective to the act of hearing. Then you start recognizing details within streams of sound. It ceases to be a monolithic, monotonous background and begins to break down into small details, within which you find connections. This is where you begin to apply creative hearing, the kind an author employs. In the arrangement of these accents, you pay attention to sound interactions in space, and you are free to use them as you will. It’s the same as if we were to look at an abstract painting in which one person sees people in a field, another sees a lawn, and another sees just a field. The same thing happens with sound, but we use it less often. In fact, this is composition. Composition is not possessing techniques of musical notation and knowledge of the history of music, but a compositional kind of hearing, the switching of plans.

Matvienko. What influences a person who has chosen to take up dramatic theatre as a profession?

Kourliandski. You’d have to talk with them, because my place, a priori, has been with sound. 

Matvienko. But you saw the results.

Kourliandski. Indeed I did. I heard sensitivity to form as well as to accents, because form is the distribution of events in time. I heard that in every work. Naturally, Boris Yukhananov’s presence as one giving structure to it all, as well as everyone else who participated in the creative sessions when these acts were made, were very important here. As for the scenes from which the acts are drawn, that is, the minimal units of this fractal, they are also musical internally. Moreover, the composers I brought in have a long, deep connection to the Electrotheatre, they are a part of it. These are people with highly developed instincts for minimal details in sound, for what we usually allow to pass by unnoticed. It is crucial that they concentrate on the slightest details, which require you to tax your sense of hearing. As a result, I personally hear the musicality of the structure, as well as their painstaking attitude to the work. Additionally, we worked a lot with texts, with readings of text.

Matvienko. What can you say about the manner of speech that we hear in the performance?

Kourliandski. The fact is, there are many types, there are lots of things in Orphic Games. At the same time, I don’t think it’s excessive, but we’ll talk about this.

As far as I have been able to discern in my time of working with theatre as a phenomenon, there are certain models of actors’ reading or intonation. They are easily identifiable. Moreover, each relates to a particular kind of theatre, after all, they still involve "audience to listener" scenes. Or, a listener, if we take, say, the school of Terzopoulos, may exist in another space. We are present at a dialogue of an actor with a meta-listener. In our discussions we paid particular attention to the registers of speech. For example, we have a lot of whispering. You can hear this when speech becomes music and functions as a rhythmic sound canvas. There are many overlapping voices and conversations. This is all perceived as a musical realm, and the creators use that. Maybe they began paying attention to this thanks to our dialogues.

Matvienko. What did you want to say about “excess”?

Kourliandski. This really is a huge project. How do you cope with it? Gorlinsky said we were dealing with the same kind of oversize structures that exist in opera. Then there is the idea of ​​the relationship between the general and the particular, of details and the entire fractal, and at what level of this fractal do we concentrate our perception. It is possible to perceive this entire six-day experience as a single experience of coexistence, because it subordinates the viewer's time to itself. If the viewer really goes for it all, he involuntarily becomes a part of the process and obeys it. You can take it in in smaller structures, by the day, for example, or by the performance. Performances, incidentally, are broken into two or three acts, and into day and evening segments. You can take in an act separately, you can divide up the act itself, for most of them are divisible, and within each one you can discern how these scenes coexist in unified time, or you can follow one after another in a chain. In general, this game with long and short time, and with micro-time, too, is what transforms the project, in my opinion, into a unified whole. Precisely when you go out for a long time, you begin perceiving the picture as a whole. Even if you look at a white sheet of paper as a whole, still, in fact, you have before you a piece of paper. But the closer you approach it, the more you see bumps, roughnesses, lines, granules, and fibers. If you come very close by employing optical equipment, you generally lose sight of the piece of paper.

Matvienko. Is that the principle by which Orphic Games is built?

Kourliandski. Absolutely. We are dealing with one large canvas, and it is a whole within its time frame. But this canvas offers the possibility of various distances, of various levels of engagement in perception. If we take, say, one long or even short sound of a single instrument, we perceive it as one sound. But if we carry out spectral analysis of this sound with the help of computer technology, we will decompose it into granules and reveal within it an infinite world of diversity; we lose the integrity of the sound. This integrity is precisely what infinite diversity is composed of. For me this large-time aspect, this large step of perceiving everything as a whole at a distance justifies the scope and the eclecticism of the project. It is an artistic gesture.

I don’t see eclecticism in this case: I see the life of microelements, nanoparticles, their diversity, of which this whole consists. For me, in principle, this is a single picture, moreover, it’s a single time frame. In general, I perceive these six days as a historical epoch, which is broken down as follows: there is a pre-history that brings it into being. As a phenomenon it has certain consequences, but within its own boundaries certain types of human relations, social structures, social relations, and political structures in historical time exhaust themselves. In my opinion, we are dealing with an epoch here. I perceive this not as a performance that might - no matter how unique and individual - fit into a great era or a certain type of theatre. Based on my modest experience, I see this as a hermetically sealed project.

Matvienko. In other words, a project that birthed itself and developed itself?

Kourliandski. That’s it. It created itself.

Matvienko. Does the spectator need to know this?

Kourliandski. Everything I’ve said up to now involved the nature of perception, the application of perspective to the act of hearing, the nature of distinguishing details and so on. That is, the general mechanisms of perception, which must be taught in the same way as flexing the ear or eye muscles. Just like all the other muscles. This is what we must nurture in an individual, not the understanding of a particular performance. Because any explanation of the specifics of a performance closes down the eyes, the ears and the ability to perceive. You must open gateways for creative interaction with what you hear and see. As soon as these gateways open up, we see the appearance of interest and immersion in, and dialogue and friction with, what you perceive. What’s most interesting is that this occurs regardless of whether you like it or not. The criterion or principle of the supermarket is atrophied, i.e., “I’ll take this, but I won’t take that, because this I love, and this doesn’t fit in my room.” These are harmful criteria in art, and not only in art - they turn a work of art into a commodity, they put it on a certain shelf in a row with other things. In my opinion, this is a matter of education and upbringing at the kindergarten level. When you are told in music lessons, "birds sing here, and the wind here whooshes,” we put a block on the individual's perception of the sound environment, on perception as creativity, because we attune this antenna to an absolutely specific area of ​​hearing. This also arises, in fact, due to a fear of individual perception and hearing. We know where that comes from.

Matvienko. The Soviet Union?

Kourliandski. Naturally. And, in principle, from any totalitarian, monarchical, or feudal thinking. Signs of totalitarian thinking still exist in our interaction with everyday reality, with each other and with society - including the way we deal with information coming from a work of art. A person who applies the aggressive attitude of “I like it, I don’t like it" to works of art, will, in life, divide everything up into “awesome” and “bullshit.” This individual will exhibit no attempt to interact in social communications, but rather a desire to isolate oneself. Recently, in  a Facebook discussion on Anton Khitrov’s timeline, I read that the sign of a hot-shit production is that the production extends my idea of ​​myself. So, I wrote back that my perception of self expands with what I don’t like. What I like tells me what already exists and encloses me in that capsule. If I don’t like something, I enter the territory of the unknown and uncomfortable, and it is there that I learn to interact with and possibly accept it. This is the territory of active presence. What I “like” is the territory of passive presence. These theses should be dealt with in kindergarten and elementary school, because later, when an individual’s criteria are fixed, their revocation might destroy someone’s life.

Matvienko. That’s very interesting. There is a problem of communication connected with this project – perhaps not so much with the audience, as with the professional community: few have been able to engage it and describe it.

Kourliandski. We need to talk not about the interaction of a particular individual with a particular theater, but about nature. There is a certain danger here, because the professional community especially defends these very criteria - without criteria it will simply fall apart.

Matvienko. So what do you do?

Kourliandski. But this is marvelous. The whole problem of our life, both professional and unprofessional, is precisely that the main thing in this scheme of association is the upholding of interests. This is a national idea, only on the micro level of a community. In Orphic Games there is an aspect not so much of the rejection of authorship, but of the dissolving of authorship in a totality. This is total authorship. Similarly, this is composing on a total scale, because it is very difficult to determine whose ideas are whose. There was a cultural forum several years ago in St. Petersburg with a round table devoted to the impossibility of an anthem representing a national idea that unites society. This is how it works out - as soon as any national idea is defined, it becomes a point of war. Why? Because society, in fact, resists unification. I hope someday this system will collapse; we are already in a difficult stage of its degeneration and we see the symptoms and consequence of this degeneration. I say this not only about Russia, but about the global political idea. The Czech composer Istvan Zelenka has compositions, very simple songs, to which a certain accompaniment is written for performance alone or in a circle of close people. This might be a hymn that would unite not a nation, but the whole of mankind in separate, given territories. It might be sung simply on the street, while sitting on a bench. The value of this intimate territory is precisely common humanity, where the schemes of political systems do not work, but which continue to try to assert themselves.

Why is Orphic Games an infinitely important project for me? I spent over two years with it, from its origin to its premiere. And it continues on. It seems to me that any spectator who makes the effort to engage the greater part of it, ultimately, will not stop. This production acts on the level of mechanisms and issues where we begin to see individual performers, their fatigue, their possibilities and impossibilities. That is very important. Seeing a person’s impossibilities is rather like confronting what you don’t like. You either break with it, or you think: oh, how interesting. Because this is an individual reality that suddenly begins to shine through, it’s not something damaged by school or filters of the craft.

Matvienko. In other words, all the possible flaws are transformed into the natural qualities of this project?

Kourliandski. Yes, definitely. You can find fault with the position that I lay out, with a perception of this kind. But there is a dialectic here: what is good, in fact - is bad, for the reason that it can be good only based on previously formed criteria. Accordingly, there is no field for self-inquiry in the good, there is no need to find a new tool for interacting with what you are dealing with. Therefore, we don’t talk about perceptions, but rather about revealing an opposite perspective. I, for example, hear a beautiful work done masterfully, but I understand internally, and I recognize that it is done in the framework of a pre-existing model. Even taking pleasure in a masterfully-made performance, one must be able to ask oneself the question - how authentic is this? To what extent does it reveal individuality, and not merely approve a ready template, no matter how good it may be?