|Alexander Bakshi and His Mythological Theatre of Sound|
A Dialogue between Alexander Bakshi and Lyudmila Bakshi, Introduced and with Interruptions by John Freedman
Published in TheatreForum, No. 19 (Summer/Fall 2001).
Lyudmila Bakshi describes her collaboration with her husband Alexander this way: Sasha and I came together twenty years ago and we can?t seem to free ourselves of each other. His ideas completely won me over. When no one else believed in what he was doing, I did.
Lyudmila is a musicologist and a musician — a soprano whose voice can make still water shiver. Alexander is a composer who in the early 1980s scandalized an audience at the Moscow Conservatory by bringing a man out on stage to saw a block of wood during a piece he had composed for percussionists. The critics savaged him and he admits they were right: I had no business nosing my way into a place where people came to listen to Richter and Oistrakh, he now says. That is when I realized I had to create something else in another place entirely.
That other place entirely was less a location than a concept. The music Bakshi heard in his head always entailed some manner of theatrical action. He heard music in space and the sounds of that music were characters. And, since there was no place in his home of Moscow — or any other city he knew of - where he could develop his ideas, he turned to Lyudmila and experimented on her. He wrote vocal cycles and sonatas for Lyudmila in which she was both actor and vocalist, but this was still not enough. Bakshi increasingly imagined a full-fledged theatre of sound, one in which actors, props, lighting and sound would genuinely perform roles of equal significance. More than that, he would compose the sounds in such a way as to determine action, blocking, stage design and even costumes.
Theory became practice when Bakshi began collaborating with the director Valery Fokin in 1991. However, it was this duo's 1994 production of A Hotel Room in the Town of N, based on Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, which amplified Bakshi's theories to the fullest. Here, the spectators and primary actors were located together inside a large box, around, above and beneath which another half dozen actor-musicians moved constantly, playing odd instruments and singing unusual sounds. This was an extraordinary production that destroyed the traditional fourth wall and created a spatial, multi-dimensional type of theatre. (At various points during this performance, the walls, the ceiling and the floor fell away to reveal the musicians making the sounds that, until a moment before, had been drifting through the air disembodied, as though they were not being played, but merely existed in space.) A year later, Bakshi and Fokin followed with another triumph, a stunning dramatization of Kafka's The Metamorphosis in which sounds and music, once again, were the central material around which the action and set were built.
It is, perhaps, natural that the innovations wrought by Bakshi went almost unheeded — what he had envisioned and brought to fruition was so unexpected and so unusual that it did not fit the customary critical or analytical categories. Both Hotel Room and Metamorphosis have traveled the world to rave reviews, bringing just praise to the director, the performers and the set designer. Bakshi's contribution, meanwhile, has largely been overlooked. Ecstatic reviewers writing in the New York Times and Washington Post following performances of Hotel Room in 1999 in Washington, D. C. , did not even mention Bakshi. In my own articles for various Russian, American and British publications, I rarely went further than to point out the unique contributions of the extraordinary composer.
In fact, Bakshi is way out ahead of us all. He essentially has conceived a new genre of theatre, although it is not yet a done thing. His theatre-in-the-making is the meeting place of two key elements — sound and myth. To oversimplify, perhaps, myth provides the story; sound is what gives it shape.
Lyudmila Bakshi compares it to what Bartabas has done in Europe with his equestrian Zingaro Theatre. Bartabas has created a musical theatre, she says. His performances are fashioned according to a system of myths in conjunction with horses and physical theatre. He, like we, is searching for that place where music and theatre come together, although he does it with horses and we do it with sound.
Bakshi's music, like any unique work of art, is nearly impossible to describe. Ticks, tocks, clicks and clacks punctuate short swirls of string instruments that plunge into deep silence before re-emerging wrapped in the percussive explosions of booms, whaps and thwaps pierced by screams and sighs. Many of these sounds are performed on rare or makeshift instruments. Bakshi's sounds beg to be considered aural representations of people, actions, thoughts and the relationships among them. When he writes a passage for the abacus in The Metamorphosis, for example, the director is bound by the material to create a mise en scene for it. The result is an evocative scene in which the sleeping Gregor Samsa dreams of a bailiff popping out of the top of a closet, furiously ticking off accounts.
What is crucial is this: Bakshi did not write this passage to accompany or illustrate a director's or a writer's idea. He envisions sound, action and meaning as facets of a single, indivisible whole. As Lyudmila suggests in the discussion that follows, Bakshi essentially has taken on the role of the playwright, only he writes in sounds rather than words.
When I talked to the Bakshis in their Moscow apartment in July of 2000, I found it fitting that they repeatedly referred to their audience as spectators rather than listeners. For them, the notion of seeing sound — or, at least, seeing because of sound — is a foregone conclusion. If that is not yet true for the rest of us, there is still time to catch up. Bakshi's next major project — The Polyphony of the World — will premiere at the 3rd International Theatre Olympics in Moscow in May 2001.
A. B. My first theatrical composition was a piece for violin, cello and piano. A lone cellist played as if he were calling out to someone. The violinist answered off-stage then entered and the two musicians engaged in a harmonious musical exchange. Suddenly, the pianist raced in - as if he had been caught in traffic and had arrived late — and began behaving extravagantly as pianists do, say Rakhmaninov, Chopin or Liszt. His appearance interrupted the dialogue of the cellist and violinist. Eventually, the pianist left, followed by the violinist. The cellist, again, was left alone on the stage. That was my first primitive experiment, although that kind of thing did not hold my interest for long.
L. B. Next was a strange piece called Ruminations about Bach. It included music by Bach, improvisations, music by Bakshi and scenes from Beckett?s Waiting for Godot.
A. B. It was an attempt to rid myself of literary narrative in music. Paradoxically, we attempted to do that by including the spoken word. But the words meant absolutely nothing. It was an experiment in making the music the lead character.
L. B. On one hand, it was an attempt to move from music into theatre, while on the other, it was an attempt to adjust the basic theatrical laws to the needs of music, to create a new kind of performance on the boundary between music and theatre. Naturally, a lot of what we did then…
A. B. … we don?t like now. For seven years I wrote primarily for Mark Pekarsky?s Percussion Ensemble because it was the most theatrical ensemble around. Among these works was The Sidur Mystery, based on the drawings and sculptures of Vadim Sidur. Most important was not the artist Sidur, but rather the Russian myth that adheres to him.
I knew by now that everything connected with the traditional musical and theatrical genres was dead. Both were trapped hopelessly in literature. The only way to break through these limitations was to turn to the power of myth, that is, to something everyone knows. A myth is something I can retell in my own way without having to go into the details of plot. I can then stick to illuminating specific details that people have not thought as much about.
In The Sidur Mystery I was interested in the myth of the Russian artist. The genius…
L. B. …the iconoclast…
A. B. … who lives in a basement. He lived in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s and, although he was never allowed to travel, his sculptures and drawings were extremely popular in the West. He exemplified the myth of the lonely Russian artist living in isolation while the whole world strains to see what he is doing.
L. B. Then there is the social and political aspect of this myth. You must understand that a figure like this in the 1960s and 1970s was perceived as a dissident who would never stoop to compromises. This archetypal true artist must be poverty-stricken, tormented by the authorities and rejected by society.
A. B. We worked with this myth, explaining nothing to the spectator about Sidur, his sculptures or his drawings.
The show was simple. An empty basement where the sculptor actually worked was transformed into a rehearsal space for some musicians. As they rehearsed, they began sensing an aura. They discovered the sculptor's old papers, poetry and sculptures and become infected with these images.
L. B. The space came to life. The ideas to which Sidur gave form in his sculptures came to life in the form of specific musicians and their instruments. And these musicians and their instruments became tangible to us through the sounds they made.
A. B. These characters sensed a presence. Many of Sidur?s sculptures were made from old cans and rusty iron. So, in the music we hear cans rattling. Or a strange person appears, banging the floor with an iron bar. The musicians became characters of Sidur's mythology. Put crudely, I attempted to create a sculpture of sound.
J. F. Was this performance directed by anyone?
A. B. Valery Fokin.
L. B. This was our first collaboration with Fokin. He said he knew nothing about music, but we explained that we needed a director.
A. B. A director is crucial to me. I hear music in theatrical terms. That is, I hear it performed in space. It must encircle the spectator. My spectator does not merely sit and look at the stage, he is surrounded by sounds that compete for his attention. This is how it used to be in ancient ritual. One did not witness a ritual, one existed within it. You see, I include the structure of action in the sounds of my music. That is, my key concept is to avoid working with two-dimensional space. Music is usually monodirectional — it originates on the stage and moves out towards the listener. But when the performance space is broken into spheres — over here someone speaks slowly, back there someone plays something quickly, while from above other sounds are drifting down — then you have achieved polyphony in space. I always indicate exactly where the sounds should come from. I also indicate the motion of the sound — that is, the exact route that the musician must take if he is moving while playing. Because when he moves, his feet make noise and those noises are an important component of the composition. But I need a director because I do not know how it all should look.
J. F. I cannot help but compare some of your collaborations with Fokin. A Hotel Room in the Town of N and The Metamorphosis were extremely powerful. Both were performed in small, highly controlled spaces where the music could freely come in at any angle, including from beneath the floor or above the ceiling. On the other hand, I thought the dramatization of Dostoevsky?s The Brothers Karamazov, under the title of The Karamazovs and Hell, did not work at all. Not coincidentally, this show was mounted on the traditional proscenium arch stage of the Sovremennik Theatre.
A. B. You're right. Fokin and I first worked together in 1991 when he invited me to write musical accompaniment for a traditional dramatic production. I was not interested but, since he promised that our next project would be something I wanted to do - The Sidur Mystery — I consented. That was followed by Hotel Room and The Metamorphosis.
In these shows we attempted to merge two principles: Fokin's grounding in the traditional, realistic psychological theatre and my notion of a mythological theatre of sound. Fokin took on the realistic scenes of Chichikov eating or getting ready for bed, while my responsibility was to create the key scenes that set the tone of the show — the dream scenes where Chichikov encounters the dead souls.
My idea was that these dead souls would be represented by the musicians of the Mark Pekarsky Percussion Ensemble making weird noises on strange instruments. The dead, I thought, must make an unusual, enchanting music. They cannot play the music we know on our earth. My sounds were a combination of clicks and blats and thuds and ticking.
The first dream observed the dead souls coming with their strange instruments to marry Chichikov off. My priest, for example, was a strange man with a drum in place of a head. Instead of his speaking the wedding rites, he emitted strange sounds as if a lion were croaking. The second scene was Chichikov?s nightmare following the dream of the wedding. He appears to be in an underground land of the dead. Above, on the other side of the ceiling, we heard sounds of weeping and funeral dirges, giving the impression that those of us located in this room with Chichikov were in a grave beneath the earth. Chichikov raised his head and the ceiling opened — a musician walking up there tossed fistfuls of dirt down on the stage.
That was part of our attempt to combine the Stanislavskian realistic theatre and a phantasmagorical, surrealistic theatre of sound. It was similar in The Metamorphosis. Here we had an actor performing a dramatic character's actions while the music expressed his thoughts…
L. B. …which are given form on stage. You see, thoughts expressed musically or aurally are initially perceived by the spectator subconsciously. They entice, they tease. The spectator?s conscious perception of them takes place later in conjunction with the actions he witnesses.
J. F. I am reminded of the sensations I experienced at The Metamorphosis. My eyes follow the actor Konstantin Raikin as he performs Gregor Samsa transforming into an insect and yet, because of a myriad of sounds emanating from all around me, my ears seem to pull me in many different directions at once. Suddenly, the voice of Lyudmila Bakshi comes at me from behind. That is, directionally, it comes from behind, but the texture of the voice is such that it seems to be coming down on me from above. It is an amazing moment. I have not lost interest in what Raikin is doing on stage — on the contrary, I am even more intrigued now. But, at the same time, I feel as though I am being pulled from behind. My perceptions and awareness of spatial relationships has suddenly increased manifold.
A. B. This is an extremely important point. What has the function of music always been in theatre? To illustrate what happens on stage.
L. B. Music traditionally is used to push on the spectator?s emotional buttons.
A. B. I realized long ago that we had to break this vicious circle. Music must have its own role in the theatre. It must not accompany or illustrate. If it does not have its own role, then it is not necessary at all. I create music to develop the complex relationship between what we see and what we hear. A new significance arises in the overlap of those two sensory perceptions. When Fokin and I were able to exploit this new relationship, our shows worked. When we were not, they failed. The Karamazovs and Hell failed for many reasons. There were too many words. The auditorium was too big. There was no way to surround it with music.
J. F. Does that mean that the music you hear in your head can only be realized in small, controllable spaces?
A. B. No. I am currently working with Kama Ginkas on a big production called The Polyphony of the World for the International Theatre Olympics in May 2001.
L. B. Before that, in 1998, you did Hamlet is Dying in a large space.
A. B. Yes, we did Hamlet is Dying with the great violinist Gidon Kremer in a 2,500-seat church in Lokkenhaus, Austria. I broke Kremer?s Kremerata Baltica ensemble into four independent groups that moved around the church.
L. B. In one procession all the musicians entered a door on one side and traversed the entire length of the church.
A. B. This involved one of the images of the production — Hamlet?s grave in the form of a double bass. Three musicians carried it on their shoulders. Rather than play the strings with their bows, they beat a funeral rhythm with the bows and plucked the strings with their fingers. One musician kept loosening the keys, so that the plucked strings made a low, flat, bending thud. While the grave was being transported through the church, it was as if we were hearing memories of Hamlet?s life. When the grave disappeared, those memories were gone.
The Polyphony of the World will have some sixty participants, not counting the choruses. They will include an orchestra, a percussion ensemble, performers of traditional music, vocalists from Asia, a Siberian shaman, a Greek actor and other musicians from the Middle East, Australia, France, Russia, Armenia, Germany and the United States.
This will be a spectacle about the equality of voices from various cultures. I believe the age-old ideal of harmonious unification has given way to the notion of polyphony. I do not mean that in a political sense where the equality of all voices represents the equality of all before God. I mean the equal significance of diverse voices from all cultures. They are all different and they are all equal. The question is, how do they co-exist? Polyphony without a unifying center is gibberish…
L. B. …cacophony.
A. B. Cacophony. Where do we find the model for this idea? The answer is as old as the world — go into the woods and open your ears. The sun is shining and birds are singing in different rhythms. Each sings its own song in its own voice. We do not perceive that as a battle of voices. We perceive it as happiness. Why? Because of the context and the atmosphere in which we hear the sounds.
The polyphony of cultures I am talking about is possible in the proper atmosphere. In the 20th century we began to sense that the world was small. What happened in Vietnam or Chernobyl or the Amazon rain forests affected everyone because, really, we all are next-door neighbors.
That is where the idea for this production, this mystery, comes from. It is a mythological tale about a person who is born on earth and sound appeared with him. He is a future musician. The first thing that existed in this world was sound. For sound is the movement of air. Every sound is bound up in air, and air is what we breathe. Breathing, in turn, is one of the basic life functions.
Different cultures arise out of these sounds and they find it difficult — impossible — to co-exist. The Polyphony of the World will explore how difficult it is to overcome these differences and, at the same time, how they can be overcome.
J. F. You apparently reached a dead end in your collaborations with Fokin. How are you doing with Ginkas?
L. B. The problem was not with Fokin, but with the idea of the realistic, psychological theatre that arose at the beginning of the 20th century. It brought us much good. But, like any old idea, it has waned. We concluded that it is pointless to continue on with the theatre of literature. The word has lost its significance. We no longer trust it. We cease to perceive art when someone stands on a stage and pronounces long speeches. We wanted to seek out something new through living sounds.
Fokin had a great quality. When he saw something new, he was not afraid to pursue it. He allowed music and sound to assume an independent role in his theatre. He gave Bakshi the opportunity to create the dramatic line, that is, to replace the playwright. That is what happened in Hotel Room and The Metamorphosis. Fokin gave us the opportunity to have actors and not only musicians work with sound.
There is a scene in The Metamorphosis when Gregor Samsa falls asleep and other actors appear holding musical instruments. This is the principle of Alexander Bakshi?s theatre of sound, where action and blocking are determined by music and sound. Gregor falls asleep and dreams how his sister will study the violin in the conservatory. At the same time, the harsh sounds of daily life — represented by Gregor?s father sawing crudely on a cello — attack the caressing, harmonious sounds Gregor associates with his sister.
A. B. This is crucial. Gregor?s sister was capable of making harmonious sounds everywhere — I had strings strung in hidden places so that even when she appeared to be drawing her bow across empty air behind a chair or bed, she was evoking beautiful sounds. Their father, on the contrary, had a real instrument in his hands but he created awful sounds.
However, Fokin's and my attempt to conjoin realistic, Stanislavskian theatre with the theatre of sound exhausted itself. In all, we collaborated on something like fifteen shows in various countries. Our final show was the world-premiere of the forgotten Chekhov piece Tatyana Repina. But, by this time, I had lost my enthusiasm. Our wheels were spinning. I realized I needed a new approach.
That was when I came up with the idea for The Polyphony of the World and suggested Ginkas do it with me. I consider Ginkas Russia's leading director today. I very much liked the fact that he has no grounding in music. He has no understanding of it at all. That means he has an unprejudiced, naive approach to music. For him, a musician is no different from any other actor.
On the other hand, I find it hard to communicate with Ginkas. Fokin and I worked together for years. I only had to say we?d have some panting here, some squeaks there and some scritches over there and he knew just what I meant. Kama has no conception of what I mean. He says, Write it down for me and I?ll make sense of it. But I can't write anything down before I begin working with the actual musicians who will perform.
J. F. This may sound banal, but the conclusion is obvious: You need your own theatre. I can already see the problems that will arise in your collaboration with Ginkas.
A. B. I can too.
J. F. Ginkas is a director of total control who will use your ideas for his own purposes. Those purposes may — and probably will — be brilliantly achieved, but they will be his and not yours. This must be frustrating.
L. B. It is not as dramatic as you make it sound. All of our synthetic experiments with collaborators are crucial because they give us the opportunity to test our ideas.
A. B. I have a running argument with my friend, the composer Vladimir Martynov. Basically, we are saying the same thing, although our conclusions are vastly different. We heartily agree that the tradition of academism is dead, that the notion of narrative music such as the symphony and sonata, is hopelessly outdated.
But Martynov goes on to say that since dramatic narrative in music is no longer a viable option, all that is left is a sacred space. That is, he believes the composer's only choice is to compose spiritual music rather than secular music.
My opinion is that the death of the narrative, dramatic, academic musical tradition does not require us to reject the tradition outright. It merely means we need a new approach.
Let's say that the kind of drama Shakespeare wrote has lost its impact today. But Shakespeare's plays still exist; they form the basis of a whole mythology crucial to our perceptions of ourselves. You can't just throw him out! Nor can you say, Let's toss out a whole musical tradition and make nothing but sacred music!
I believe there is an element of hypocrisy in that: How can you have true sacred music in a theatre? I don't believe that. If your music is sacred, then take it to the church. Be consistent. If you reject the theatricality of music, then leave the theatre.
J. F. One of Martynov's best known works for the theatre is The Lamentations of Jeremiah, based on the book of the Bible, which was staged by Anatoly Vasilyev at the School of Dramatic Art.
A. B. I could not accept The Lamentations of Jeremiah. That was an attempt to create the Anatoly Vasilyev auteur church, a perverted development of the notion of auteur theatre. When I see people pretending to observe ancient religious rituals in a modern theatre — I say, that is a lie!
Of course, this is the development of an old Russian idea — to make the theatre into a cathedral. The phrase is that the theatre is a cathedral of art.
The notion of theatre can never die, for myth gives rise to theatre. Any myth at all. We have television, we have the internet. But theatre has not died. Why? Because it encompasses a basic human need — to see, once again, the familiar myths. We need it to remind ourselves that the world exists. Humans cannot live in an environment where there is no up and down nor good and evil. Myths give us a system of coordinates that allow us to orient ourselves in the world. Maybe the myth is old and hackneyed: Hamlet kills Polonius and behaves badly with Ophelia. But we cannot live without it.
Every culture has it. Civilized people go to the theatre as uncivilized people take part in their rituals. It is identical. Only we don't think about that. We think it is some mere cultural activity. But it is not cultural, it is physiological.
So I reject Martynov's contention that the only space left for music is a sacred space. I love Martynov. I once wrote music with him. I have often worked with his wife and partner, the violinist Tatyana Grindenko. Nevertheless, there is a constant internal conflict between us. For me it is a useful conflict. It urges me to prove that my notion of the theatre of sound is possible.
Alexander Bakshi was born in 1952 and lives in Moscow, Russia. He is the author of numerous works for what he calls the theatre of sound. Many have premiered outside of Russia, including Games in Installations (Rome, 1993), Winter in Moscow. Icy Roads… (Ivrea, Italy, 1994), A Scene for Tatyana Grindenko and Violin (New York, 1995), He and She. A Play for Two Violinists (Lokkenhaus, Austria, 1997) and A Call that was Never Answered, for soloist with telephone and orchestra (Tokyo, 1999). He has written music for over 30 dramatic productions. Although he considers the one-dimensional quality of recorded music the bane of his existence, he recently released a CD entitled Hamlet is Dying (Long Arms Records and IMA-Press, 2000).
Lyudmila Bakshi holds a Ph. D. in musicology from the Institute of Art Research in Moscow and has published numerous articles about contemporary music. As a musician, she has performed in Europe, Japan and the United States. She has staged a dozen musical-theatrical productions in Russia, Poland and other countries. She compiled and published the scores for Alexander Bakshi's A Hotel Room in the Town of N and The Metamorphosis in the book Scores for Two Plays (Moscow: Vsevolod Meyerhold Arts Center, 1999).
John Freedman is currently collaborating with Kama Ginkas on a book about directing and is compiling an anthology of Russian drama for the Glas New Russian Writing series.
John Freedman, 2001