Richard Barrett: Opening of the Mouth
Basle, 7-11 March 2007
You enter the old station café of the Gare du Nord that is now Basle’s dedicated venue for contemporary music. The composer Richard Barrett is at a computer desk in one corner of the room, generating sounds from two loudspeakers placed on a stage in the opposite corner. Gradually it becomes clear that this is introductory material for the piece you are about to hear – which, after all, is hardly a conventional concert experience – but at first you feel you have intruded, on the end of a rehearsal or on Barrett testing the electronic set-up. The performers, nine instrumentalists and two singers, enter and take their places on the stage between the loudspeakers, and, seated at one of the café tables provided for the audience, you turn to face that stage. But as the live performers begin to play, an old man mounts a platform in the middle of the other side of the room, and for a while you are not sure which way to look.
Intrusion and displacement are intrinsic to the subject matter of this work, a meditation on (more than a setting of) poetry by Paul Celan: poetry haunted by experiences which have threatened to ‘close the mouth’, to shut off language as a means of communicating significant experience. The old man himself is a dumb poet, you realise as he sits down at his desk and takes out a notebook in which he tries, and fails, to write. He seems a too obvious symbol, but you also feel strangely close to this solitary, disturbed old man: as if he were your grandfather, perhaps, even though he looks like a man bound up in a particular and quite different past from yours, his age, his manner and his dress suggesting that he, like Celan, may be a central European survivor of the horrors of the Second World War – which says something about how the particular can come to stand for the universal. In the middle of the piece, the instrumental music grinds slowly to a halt and the lights go down on the players’ stage, the loudspeakers explode and crackle frighteningly, and one of the two female singers approaches the old man and begins to remove his ‘tongue’ (a long stream of fabric) from his mouth. Theatrically it is absurd, almost ridiculous, and you know this; but it also brings tears to your eyes. After the electronic interlude, as the music regains pitch definition, the old man performs a strange, silent waltz with the other singer and then looks on horrified as she falls to the ground, stabbed in the chest. It is inexplicable, and intensely moving.
This nameless character (the actor Ueli Jäggi, silent until late in Opening of the Mouth’s 75-minute duration yet a marvel of expressivity throughout) is not part of Barrett’s plan for the work, which was originally performed in 1997 in the large rooms and spaces of a disused factory in Perth, Australia, with troubling installations by the artist Richard Crow evoking the Holocaust through sight and putrid smell. But Ensemble Phoenix Basel’s intimate, chamber-scale production is an exemplary demonstration of how the music’s fragile, contorted expressivity can be inflected rather than diminished by a different presentation. Locating the piece’s overt subject matter in the silent presence of an actor-poet on one stage has the paradoxical effect of dimming the focus on the actual Celan texts which thread through the music, yet at the same time makes only more evident the durability and expressive reach of Barrett’s overall conception.
Although several of its component sections can also be performed separately, the work in its entirety – like many of Barrett’s larger projects – has until now always been given by the ensemble for whom it was written, his regular collaborators ELISION (their studio recording, on the Australian label ABC Classics, urgently needs to receive a full UK release). But these Swiss-based performers too are impressive and committed exponents, in ensemble work as much as in the exposed soloistic contributions of Daniel Buess (percussion) at the beginning and Beat Schneider (cello) towards the end. Carl Rosman, an ELISION stalwart guesting here in Basle, has lived with this music for more than a decade, appearing in all three runs of complete performances to date as well as taking its two ‘detachable’ clarinet solos into his repertoire. Most impressive of all is the sense that the work itself, now ten years old, is still near the beginning of a long life of its own.
© 2007 John Fallas