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AMAZONAS – A theater-music in three parts – second part

This page is a record of the opera Amazon – Music Theatre in Three Parts production process  and presents my reflection on such cross-cultural experiment.

The project had Artist’s conception of Peter Ruzicka, Peter Weibel, Laymert Garcia dos Santos; Consulting Bruce Albert, David Kopenawa, Siegfried Mauser; Initiative Joachim Bernauer, José Wagner Garcia. By SESC São Paulo, Goethe Institute, Munich Biennale (Ale), ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe (Ger), Hutukara Yanomami Association, National Theater of Sao Carlos in Lisbon (Por); 

The text presented here in brief, was published in full in Chapter 2 of the book Transcultural Amazonas: shamanism and technoscience in the opera, published in two languages by Editora n-1 in 2014, which records the process, says the show and reflects on his aesthetic and political implications more broadly.

For comments on the design of the project, the partnership with the Yanomami and conceptual discussions, click here.

AMAZONAS – A theater-music in three parts – Second Part

Having defined a general framework that provided parameters for the creators, we began dealing with the work itself, or rather, with how it was to be staged. Officially, the opera Amazonas was categorized as Theater-Music for reasons specific to the musical world of Munich, which reserves the term “opera” for a very specific segment of contemporary operatic works. Among ourselves, however, we always knew we were working on a contemporary multimedia opera called Amazonas.

In the program that accompanied the presentation of the spectacle in São Paulo, we published a Synopsis that explained the three parts of the work: TILT, The Fall of the Sky, and Amazonas Conference – In expectation of the efficiency of a rational method for a solution to the problem of climate change [1]. The Synopsis summarized the themes touched upon by each of the three acts:

[1] Since the three parts are autonomous, although interconnected, it is possible to stage them separately as well as together. Thus, TILT was presented in Rotterdam, in 2010, whereas TILT and The Fall of the Sky were staged conjointly from 25th to 27th April 2013 at Neubau, in Vienna, in the scope of Out of Control 2013 – Festival for New Music Theatre. In that occasion, Michael Scheidl introduced some changes, like the inclusion of three dancers which embodied the animal double of the three white characters going to Amazonia to explore it: the missionary, the scientist and the politician.

“Three parts, relatively independent of one another, reflecting three ways of looking at the history of Amazonia:

The View From a Distance

This is the gaze of the European, of the ‘discoverers’ and conquistadors, which at the same time is a retrospective gaze in terms of its knowledge of consequences. The libretto of this part of the work brings together fragments of a letter from Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1596, known as the Discovery Letter. The letter touches on themes such as nature and struggle – and gold, above all else. Klaus Schedl divided the libretto into three characters and set the texts in a landscape resounding with musical extremes, which, at the same time, allows a glimpse of the distance between the antique document and the present day.

The Intimate View

This is the way of seeing practiced by the Yanomami, one of the largest peoples in Amazonia, who seek to preserve their traditions and are represented by shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. The myth of creation of the Yanomami is recounted, and the listening takes place in the foreground, with a sense of central orientation. The whites appear in the triad ‘researcher, missionary and prospector’ as an incorporation of Xawara, the spirit of evil. The music, which compared to the text is always more significant, and which inserts moments of indigenous tradition at various junctures, was composed by the Brazilian Tato Taborda, who makes simultaneous use of the voices of Xawara and the Shaman as opposite poles in an enormous space of sounds and images, and invites the public to stand up and navegate individually through this land-forest.

A View to the Future

The third part of the project emerged from a multimedia project by ZKM – Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe Art Center, conceived by Peter Weibel and composed by Ludger Brümmer. This part was divided into three moments: Paradise, Conference and Entropia. From the very beginning, the principle of creating the algorithm in nature became the principal of an artistic creation that was both visual and musical, following the rules of the Game of Life invented by John Horton Conway. The next objective of the creators of the Theater-Music was to cause a commotion among the public based on rational arguments, presented in the format of a political-scientific conference, in an attempt to replace the traditional operatic method of playing on the emotions of the audience. At the final moment, the public is surprised by a self-referencing argument made up of arguments already rejected.

During a single night, three fundamentally different acts, illustrating the three dimensions of the theme, in each of which an aspect of our global future is discussed.”[2]

[2] “Sinopse” in Amazônia – Teatro música em três partes. Sesc São Paulo Pompeia between July 21 and July 25, 2010, p. 7.

Three parts, three different gazes. Each part was scheduled to last about one hour. This time frame developed in an unexpected way, however. Whereas in TILT we witness a unique moment – the moment of Raleigh’s letter to Queen Elizabeth I –, in The Fall of the Sky we confront two moments – the moment of the encounter with the shaman (xapiri thëpë) and the auxiliary spirits (xapiri pë), and the moment of confrontation between the Shaman and Xawara, which results in the fall of the sky. And finally, Part Three encompasses three moments of its own, as the synopsis points out. Thus, as the work unfurls, its parts unfold, creating complex interrelations.

Let us examine Part One, TILT, with music composed by Klaus Schedl, story and script by Roland Quitt, and director and video conceptualist Michael Scheidl.

As Roland Quitt observes, “The English word ‘tilt’ signifies the leaning over or otherwise precarious positioning of an object. Those who once spent time on the extinct art of pinball also understand the term, which comes into play when the game is shaken or twisted out of position, signalling a hostile attack to which the machine is sensitive. When a machine tilts, its lights flash, but the controls are frozen and no longer respond. Tilt means: Game Over. Tilt means: the game is over because you went too far in your attempt to manipulate the machine. Tilt means: I lost the chance but it was my own fault.” [3] In short, as they say in Portuguese: Deu tilt!”

[3] Roland Quitt, “TILT”. In Amazonas – Musiktheater in drei Teilen. Programm. 12. Münchener Biennale/Internationales Festival für neues Musiktheater. 27 April-12 May 2010, p.24. In the Brazilian version, p.30.

And as to Amazonia, when is it that the machine signals tilt? Is it the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? Is this the turning point of forest devastation, or the establishment of a logic that can only end in destruction? Returning to the past, to the times of the “discovery” of America, but with the benefit of hindsight, TILT exhumes a narrative by Sir Walter Raleigh, The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful empire of Guiana, viewing it as an inaugural and paradigmatic text that at one and the same time opens the game and announces its completion, at the very moment of its enunciation.

The document is a narrative of an expedition by Raleigh to the Orinoco Basin, a failed expedition in that the explorer never arrived in Manoa, capital of Guiana, the land the Spanish called El Dorado. It is, in this sense, the narrative of a mirage, based on the testimony of eye-witnesses. It is important to understand, however, that if on one hand the letter is a paradigm for the project of colonial occupation of the Americas, on the other hand, it relates to a region very close to Yanomami territory. In this way, Raleigh is the incarnation of the white man and becomes, in a literal sense, the interpreter of an enunciation that will lead to five centuries of occupation and conquest.

(…)

In TILT, Roland Quitt has adapted Raleigh’s text in such a way that greed, conquest and calculation become the logic of its dramatic focus. Thus, the central focus is the attraction to gold, which will motivate the Raleigh expedition and place into perspective not only what is said but also what was perceived, seen and sensed, and which will unfold in the same measure as the encounter of whites and Indians deepens and develops. The Raleigh letter is therefore transformed into an explicit formulation of the logic of gold, punctuated by contact with the land, nature and peoples of El Dorado. Is a narrative that awakens a series of responses: enchantment, wonder, fear, wild imaginings, the desire to defeat and possess the forest, the desire to cheat the Indians, to rob them, oppress them, defeat them, creating a gold rush with the fury of a conquest.

Conceived to be heard and seen as a “tilt,” the Raleigh report, in Quitt’s adaptation as staged by Michael Scheidl, puts the audience in the position of a spectator who is hearing the letter read out for the first time, as if he or shewere contemporary with its authorship. But hearing it also means seeing it, or rather, reading it, exclusively on the faces of conquistadors, on the changes which the logic of gold brings to their expressions, shaping their feelings. In fact, based on the texts and the performance of three actor-singers (Mafalda de Lemos, Moritz Eggert and Christian Kesten), the montage does not define characters or other representations, but rather uses an audiovisual device in which the performers are the operators of an acting out that reactivates the Raleigh letter with all its implications. Why two men and a woman? “Because TILT is a piece that deals with violation,” responds Roland Quitt. Not by accident, the feminine figure will take refuge in Guiana, where she will be raped by the two men and, finally, subjugated.

(…)

Together with the complexity of writing the script and the staging of TILT, the efficient scenography and minimalist costumes of Nora Scheidl blend with the music, which assumes the dual role of soundtrack and operatic composition. To that end, Klaus Schedl, creator of the group piano possibile, composed a piece that differs dramatically from the classic modes of composition. It is worthwhile to mention his words, as he introduced the piece:

“The central theme of my composition TILT, which takes up the Part One of the show, is destruction. Destruction and the mechanism that inevitably leads to it – a spiral of occupation and expropriation of lands, an unconditional belief in progress and superiority. It applies to the current deforestation of Amazonia, as well as all other forms of destroying nature, of destroying human beings and their ideas. In the first place, then, I musically represent the filth and the downward spiral of progress. This downward spiral should be sensed physically in the body of the audience, through music.”[4]

[4] Klaus Schedl. “TILT,” In Amazonas. op. cit. p. 34. Amazônia. op. cit. p. 29.

This is the first singular achievement of the music composed for TILT: It was designed to be sensed by the spectators’ bodies, at the same time as they hear the music. Since the central theme is destruction, the music is immediately felt as an aggression dislodging the passivity of the bodies, and shaking them. In order to obtain this effect, Klaus Schedl invented a method of composition that does not create destructive sounds; it rather appropriates an enormous collection of preexisting sounds, scanned and reconfigured according to an architecture that provides new meanings, without however, discarding their original meaning. On the contrary, the potential of these fragments is greatly magnified.

(…)

Also, we should not forget to mention the impeccable execution of the piano possibile, conducted by Heinz Friedl, which, together with electronic recordings, completed the music of TILT.

Finally, we must note the intelligence of Michael Scheidl’s direction, as well as the quality of the performances given by Mafalda de Lemos, Moritz Eggert and Christian Kesten. They extracted the maximum power and subtlety from their performance, exploring with great precision the affect of the white man and embodying, during the crescendo, the fury proper to civilized people, as the logic of conquest approaches its paroxysm.

***

TILT is a vision from afar of the occupation of Amazonia by the white man. The Fall of the Sky introduces a new perspective, comprising the close-up and the inward point of view. With music and sampling by Tato Taborda, a text by Roland Quitt, concepts by Tato Taborda and Roland Quitt, direction by Michael Scheidl, scenery and costumes by Nora Scheidl and the dramaturgy of Roland Quitt, the Second Part also benefited from the engagement of anthropologist Bruce Albert, whose book, La chute du ciel [The Fall of the Sky] was an important reference for the piece as well as various elements of the dramatic action.

In shifting to the close-up and the inner point of view, the operatic space is transformed. An elongated rectangle, 50 meters long, covered with red earth to evoke the ground inside a native maloca, set the scene. Installed in two sets of bleachers on the margins of the central space, the audience is sunk into darkness. Consisting, as we said, of two moments, the Second Part begins with a conversation between a shaman, a xapiri tëpë, and his auxiliary spirits, the xapiri pë. In the intimacy of darkness, we can only hear their voices, accompanied by extremely subtle sounds that evoke the forest at night.

Based in great part on the experiences of Roland Quitt in Watoriki, on his conversations with the elder Yanomami about their experiences with missionaries, scientists and prospectors, and on Davi Kopenawa’s remarks on politicians, as well as the publications of the evangelical group New Tribes Mission, the book Folk Literature of the Yanomami Indians and the manuscript of the book by Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa, La chute du ciel [5], his text, titled Death of the Shaman [6], offers the spectator a kind of poetic synthesis of the Yanomami cosmology.

[5] Bruce Albert et Davi Kopenawa. La chute du ciel [The fall of the sky]. Collection Terre Humaine. Plon, Paris, 2010.
[6] Roland Quitt. A morte do xamã. (Death of the Shaman).Translated by Roland Quitt. In SANTOS, Laymert Garcia. Transcultural Amazonas: shamanism and technoscience in the opera. Editora n-1, 2014.

(…)

Thus, the conversation of the shaman with the voices of the auxiliary spirits that inhabit him becomes a positive axis, for traditional Yanomami culture as for the “poetic license” underlying the perspective of the view from within Amazonia. The relation xapiri thëpë-xapiri pë is the common thread in the affirmation of the mode of existence of the forest and of a good and worthy people. For this reason, once broken, the spirits fall silent, the shamans enter into decline, society loses its order, nature is in agony, chaos rules the day. But the conversation is not confined to this positive axis, for since the beginning it has had the negative axis as its counterpoint: a polarized Shaman-Xawara relationship. In the mythic universe of the Yanomami, the Xawara plays a highly significant and especially complex role, as attested by the commentaries of Davi Kopenawa as gathered by Bruce Albert. What is interesting here, however, is the understanding of the negative pole used to construct the opera. And, rather than invoking the leader’s description of it, it is legitimate to invoke the words of Roland Quitt.

“In the schoolbook used in the Watoriki village one finds an image of Xawara. Xawara is the monster of white infection. In this representation, Xawara is blue, but has a white face framed by what appears to form a beard. Red scales provide the background and are easily recognized as representations of fire. Together with the arrival of metal – machetes and other industrial products – Watoriki has experienced the arrival of epidemics. Xawara is epidemic, a collective death, a smoking, cannibalistic supplement of the metal traded by the whites. In Watoriki, it is said that the whites are passionately in love with their consumer goods, which in the end bring only death, the absence of life. Xawara lives in these consumer goods. These goods rob white men of their reason, much as the Yanomami understand the nature of love for a woman. Xawara, the destruction of their culture, is everywhere now.” [7]

[7] Roland Quitt. “A Queda do Céu”. In Amazonas. op. cit. p. 29. In Amazonia. op. cit. p.41.

(…) No astute reader will fail to note that in the perspective of the Yanomami, Xawara is the embodiment of the logic of gold, a topic treated intensely in TILT. People who know the Yanomami are aware that the term Xawara can be translated as “the smoke of metal,” which emanates from gold and spreads malignantly throughout the forest as the prospector extracts it from the ground. In this sense, Xawara is the embodiment of epidemic, but also a side effect of the white man’s passion for wealth and merchandise.

During the conversation between the shaman and the xapiri pë there emerge agents sent out to propagate Xawara, its slaves and worshippers, who enter the forest and Yanomami territory. First come the evangelical missionaries, with their preaching and their desire to convert the natives. For these people, what is most important is to undermine shamanism, to break the bond xapiri thëpë-xapiri pë, to silence the voices of the spirits, substituting for them the word of Teosi, introducing sin, guilt and damnation. Arriving from outside the forest and carried by the whites, Xawara must be embodied, transformed into punishment, into divine chastisement. This, therefore, is a process of destitution by means of conquest, a transformation of free men into submissive souls.

In the wake of the missionaries come the “people of knowledge;” that is, the scientists and researchers, the whites who come to “illuminate” the forest, to unmask its secrets, to gather samples, to examine and interpret everything according to the key of knowledge. These arrive in their metal birds with their machines, their precision instruments, their collecting gear, and above all with their techniques for recording knowledge “on skins,” using writing. These are “the inhabitants of the thinking forest” who seek to understand its order by zealously breaking the whole down into its parts, which they classify and catalogue, both great and small. Here the demystification process operates through a mode of knowing, a dispossession of the memory inscribed on the body, a discarding of orality, an ignoring of direct and intuitive experience, treating the language of dream with contempt. At this point, the Xawara manifests itself as an insidious collection of the genetic heritage of the people, based on blood and skin samples that will be taken to laboratories in far-off places. Cloned and immortalized by biotechnology, the samples are located in a distant place, which makes it impossible to complete the ritual of disappearing all the remains of the dead. This results in an indescribably cruel treatment of the family and descendents of the dead. In this case, the Xawara manifests itself as this perverse impossibility of ever being able to complete the ritual that confers peace upon the dead.

And finally, the prospectors, destroying the forests, poisoning the rivers with mercury, corrupting people, taking away the gold that should have been left where it was. These are the most direct agents of the Xawara, and it would not be necessary to say more about them – such is the evidence of their evil-doing – were it not for the fact that they serve as the armed contingent of all those who scour the land in the hope of transforming its vital wealth into “assets.” From this point of view, the prospectors are the agents of the entrepreneurs and politicians, who pose as a “pro-development” political faction.

(…)

All the tension between these positive and negative axes lead to a vision of the end time, which the xapiri pë, before falling silent, reveals to the agonized gaze of the shaman. At this point, big crates situated just outside the performance space, start exhaling smoke, which begins to fill the space. The Xawara (Phil Minton) lights a cigar as the Shaman (Christian Zehnder) stands up and a powerful beat erupts from the drummers, followed by woodwinds and brass. At this moment, like bats, black, transparent screens fall over the space in no particular order, dividing the performance space as in a labyrinth. Little by little, the audience begins to realize that it is expected to abandon the bleachers and enter the tangle of this tropical forest. The second moment of The Fall of the Sky begins.

While the word served as the detonator of spectacle in TILT and the first half of The Fall of the Sky, it is now sound in itself that drives it forward. For this reason, before discussing the mise-en-scène, we should take a closer look at the work of the composer.

In his text, “On concept and music in The Fall of the Sky,” Tato Taborda writes, as an introduction to his work:

“During our first visit to Watoriki, it was immediately clear that the role of listening, as a primordial cognitive faculty, would play an important role, in contrast to the exaggerated emphasis on the visual in urban contexts, such as the largest Brazilian cities. Two aspects are immediately noticeable when one enters the forest in the company of the Yanomami. First of all, one realizes that vision is completely inadequate as a cognitive faculty. In whatever direction you look, when you inhabit the ‘inside’ perspective, your vision is limited by the density of that endless tangle of vegetation. All paths seem to be alike, or subject to very subtle (to us…) variations. Hearing, on the other hand, enables us to map our surroundings quite precisely, which under certain circumstances can be of vital use. As the Yanomami say, when you see the leopard, it is already too late… A second impression is the observation that in a highly protected environment such as this, the species who share it communicate together and have developed a sense of self-orchestration that is highly complex and sophisticated, in which every individual and species can emit their acoustic signal, occupying positions on the axes of time, frequency and space that are not superimposed on other such signals, which ensures that the message will go through, as happens in the distribution of parts to a musical group or strategies that ensure that the distinct voice will be discerned as part of different voices singing in counterpoint. Harmonizing voices or superimposing them, in this context, may mean the difference between passing along genetic material or howling at the moon the entire night. Curiously, the sonic landscape of the forest is extremely friendly to the human voice. A sonogram of this audio spectrum revealed a band of practically unoccupied frequencies between 100 Hz and 300 Hz, which correspond to the normal, comfortable range of human speech. Like a small triangle that makes itself heard over the fortissimo of the orchestra, here, the human voice propagates without effort.”[8]

[8] Tato Taborda. “Sobre conceito e música de A Queda do Céu”. In Amazonia. op. cit. p. 36-37.

The long quotation of Tato Taborda’s observation is extremely relevant. For it is by discovering the sounds of the forest and the space within which the human voice can be heard, that he will derive his music. This is a project that works with forest sounds and Indian utterances rather than reproducing them in an imitative manner. Rather than represent or illustrate them, it is an attempt to recreate them in order to discover sonorities that correspond to their specific, intrinsic, differences. On one hand, then, the composer translates the sound of the forest using six brass instruments (two trumpets, two French horns, a trombone and a tuba) along with various percussion instruments and finally, twelve flutes of different registers and made of various materials, produced especially for this spectacle and following the pattern of the Purunuma usi flutes of the Yanomami, which reproduce a natural acoustic logic. This ensemble, assembled from members of the Ensemble Moderno de Lisboa, Heinz Friedl conducting, brought the transposition of auditory experience to the audience by building an ample architectural structure that included a network of 24 loudspeakers distributed throughout the space, such that spectators would feel themselves engaged, as though they were in the rain-forest. “The concert hall” – the composer said – “should look like a labyrinth. This is the metaphor for the tropical forest and for the shaman’s brain.” More than just forest sounds, however, the composition for The Fall of the Sky also created a space for human sound, and more specifically for the sounds of the shamans. When, during an interview, Verena Hütter asked Tato if Yanomami music inspired his composition, he said: “It was not their music that inspired me, but the sound of the voices of the shamans as they emerge from their powerful throats. Sound is a key element of the Yanomami culture.”[9]

[9] http://www.goethe.de/ins/pt/lis/prj/ama/mag/mus/en5816000.htm

These are the two pillars – sound as ambient architecture and the voices of the shamans – that sustain the music written for The Fall of the Sky. This is why the voice of the shaman continues to assert itself, detaching itself from the howling of the winds, as luminous projections of digital imagery of the forest are flashed upon the screens, above the heads of the spectators. Not long thereafter, however, comes the sermons of the New Tribes, the evangelical hymns, the sound of motors. The Shaman reacts and the Xawara begins to appear. As in the first scene of the piece, a tension develops between negative and positive, a battle that will intensify until the final victory of the “smoke of metal.” These antagonistic points of view are situated in the extreme opposite corners of an immense rectangle, separated by the forest. Spectators wander through this scene. They are soon joined by the three human manifestations of the Xawara – the missionary-politician-hawk (tenor João Cipriano Martins), the scientist-ant (soprano Katia Guedes) and the politician-weasel (baritone Nuno Dias), who want to live in the jungle.

(…)

The conception, writing and direction of The Fall of the Sky are an attempt to unfold the spectacle on three levels of meaning simultaneously. On one hand there is the metaphor of the tropical rainforest, and on the other a multifacted screen on which visions, dreams and prophecies of the Shaman take form, whose song encompasses his own voice, the voice of the forest and the xapiri pë. Finally, there is Tato’s ambition to make these forces field visible as well, as a representation of the structure of the Shaman’s brain. To this end, the attention of the audience is called to an experiment in audiovisual form, since the musical evolution of the piece is synchronized with the projections that play over the screens and the actions that take place on the floor of the performance space.

Created by the multimedia artists Leandro Lima and Gisela Motta, the video projections were intended to translate, using imagery, the three planes of meaning. These are vivid images of the tropical forest, digitally treated to exhibit the movements of the xapiri pë who criss-cross the space like points of light, in tune with the modulation of the Shaman’s song. It is as though from the Shaman’s performance there emanated a living breath of air from the forest which washes over the scene, suffusing everything with clarity, freshness, power and levity, while on the other hand, it is as if this same turn of events were also the exercise of imagination as being practiced in shamanism and the abstract configuration of a network of synapses which are conforming to and transforming themselves in the brain of the Shaman throughout the piece. Notice that if the Shaman is a source of light and color, the Xawara, in its negativity, propagates shadows. When the Xavara sings, depending on how he is faring in the combat, his voice acquires the power to black out the luminosity of the forest, to spread destruction, as though the positive nature of the images were corroded by the negativity of some kind of acid, which will soon take control of everything. In this way, if he wishes to, the spectator can ignore what happens on the forest floor and fix his attention completely on the duel between what he has heard and what he has seen on the screens.

And finally, there is what comes to pass on the forest floor, among the audience. Wearing masks that nearly imperceptively evoke the animal-double of each of the human characters of the Xawara, the missionary-hawk, the scientist-ant and the politician-ferret enter the stage, dragging large boxes. But this baggage they have brought to the forest is, in fact, full of speeches. Thus, from the box of the missionary-hawk there sprout evangelical sermons and hymns, the sound of organs, the propaganda of the New Tribes, all to be used to save the souls of the Indians. The box of the scientist-ant is full of genetic material and the benefits of science in the service of humanity. The box of the politician-weasel is full of bombastic pronouncements on the need to plan and realize the occupation of Amazonia. These citations are inscribed in the modulation of the Shaman-Xawara conflict, tipping the scales ever more perceptibly in the favour of the Xawara. The representatives of the white man constantly chant the “Three Ds.” The missionary preaches D for Deo. The scientist’s song is D for DNA, while the politician preaches D for Development. The sounds of a back-hoe, boat motors, chain saws, and even pornographic sex complete the audio citations, which reinforce the interaction between them and the Xawara. For its part, the sonic universe of the Shaman is reinforced by Davi Kopenawa’ voice when he speaks Yanomami, as well as a beautiful fragment of a song by the shamans of Watoriki, mixed with the sound of the tropical storm we experienced during our visit to the village.

(…)

Prefiguring the Yanomami prophecy of the falling sky, the gaze from within culminates in a kind of apocalypse.

(…)

The Fall of the Sky sets out to stage the message of the shamans. The mythical, magical perspective deserves to be heard. This issue will be taken up in Part Three.

***

We now come to Part Three, entitled Amazonas Conference – In expectation of the efficiency of a rational method for a solution to the problem of climate change. Future-oriented, it was conceived, written and staged by Peter Weibel, with music by Ludger Brümmer, images by Bernd Lintermann, project director Christiane Riedel and project coordination by the playwright Julia Gerlach.

Before we address the creation of Part Three, however, it is necessary to try to resolve some preliminary points. It is worth underscoring that the general concept and Weibel’s staging thoroughly took into account: 1) discussion on the opera since the beginning; 2) the main topics understood as the “material” of an opera focused on Amazonia (the forest as hero, and the conference as a venue in which the relation between forest and technoscience would be treated); 3) an the desire to make Part Three assume the staging of the contact with the technocientific perspective. Thus, in my view, it would be no exaggeration to say that among the creators of the work, it was Weibel who most strongly challenged the conceptual framework of the project, and who worked most intensely on the relationship among the three parts.

An artist and director of ZKM, and a theorist of media art, Weibel did not conceive of Amazonas as a contemporary opera in the conventional or established meaning of the term. In his vision, the work was an opportunity to explore, in a radical manner, the powers that information technology and technoscientific knowledge open up for the renewal of what we used to call opera, or, if you prefer, theatre-music. To this end, Weibel begins his presentation of the Part Three as follows:

“Opera was born as a multimedia art form – a web of relations between image and movement, between theatre and music. We want to update this tradition of opera using contemporary media, to bring the art form into contemporary time. When we see new audiovisual equipment, which make possible new connections between image, music and speech, we must make use of them. This may be the very first opera performed without musicians. The computer is the universal medium of light, image and sound. Only the technologies of transmission have changed: Projector, loudspeakers, flood-lights. Before now, singers and actors functioned as the end users or as the means of transmission of sheet music, scripts, or musical or literary models. Today, projectors can take over or support the work of singers. The task of the musician may be assumed by the computer. This is probably the first opera composed entirely by computer. The music is composed with the assistance of a computer, as are the staging and the projected images.”[10]

[10] Peter Weibel. “Amazonas – Konferenz. In Erwartung der Tauglichkeit einer rationalen Methode zur Lösung des Klimaproblems”. In Amazonas. op. cit. p. 37. “Conferência Amazônia. Na expectativa da aptidão de um método racional para a solução do problema climático”. In Amazonia. op. cit. p. 48.

(…)

The introduction to this concept thus reveals that the departure point is a reconfiguration of opera as a genre and a mode of human expression, from a technoscientific perspective. Weibel had already explored some of this ground in a search for a media-driven foundation for a renewed opera and new scenic solutions. Just as the experiment in The Fall of the Sky had been preceded by the opera Im Grünewald, staged by the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham in Munich in 2006, along with his installation “Petrified Forest”, in which the problem of deforestation was addressed, Amazonas had been preceded by other multimedia operas by Weibel: Der künstliche Wille [The artificial will], in 1984; Stimmen aus dem innenraum [Voices from the Interior], in 1988; and Wagners Wahn [Wagner Madness], in 1995. But now technology and the desire to explore Amazonia from a technoscientific point of view have allowed him to go further.

(…)

As has been observed of Part One of Amazonas, it was structured around a singular moment. Part Two of the opera is structured around two moments, while Part Three presents three such moments. We now see how the latter are thought through, based on a quotation from composer Ludger Brümmer:

“In a way, the number 3 has offered itself as a structural element of this music-theatre. As a whole Amazonas consists of three acts (and perspectives) and was produced by three composers. Part Three, realized by ZKM, consists of three scenes, and the first of these has three widely divergent sections in terms of structure and harmony. The second scene has two sections, and the third encompasses a single section, which once again adds up to three. As a map of the visual and musical generative structure, a structure of 3×3 was selected. Of these 9 fields, animated according to the rules of cellular automata, all the sung parts of the first and third scenes are generated.”[11]

[11] Ludger Brümmer. “Die Musik in der Amazonas-Konferenz”. In Amazonas. op. cit. p. 40. “A música na Conferência Amazônia”. In Amazonia. op. cit. p. 52.

(…)

The first scene, titled Paradise, takes as its theme the vital cycles of the Amazon rainforest. Regarding the script of the Amazonas Conference, Julia Gerlach makes it clear that the cycles that sustain life, such as CO2 and H20, as well as their basis in molecular evolution, are approached in terms of a direct relation with the Amazonian forest. Thus, the first scene deals with two chemical processes as necessary elements of life, oriented by the manner in which natural sciences analyze a complex ecosystem using the language of mathematics. The algorithm of the Game of Life, programmed by John Convay, as a mathematical imagery of growth and decay, has become a point of reference for the mediatic plane of the opera, with its scenes, its music, its image and its text. The rules of this Game of Life are the foundation of the rhythms and a model of the music and graphic projections to which the constituent elements that constitute the text are subordinated.

The scene from Paradise takes place in a media scenario, a three-dimensional surface with nothing more than the form of an extensive staircase. “The stage – writes Bernd Lintermann – emerges from the superposition of a stairway and the image of a chessboard: an homage to the Greek amphitheatre, and linked to the Cartesian system of coordinates – the ‘rich soil’ of the Game of Life. The normal steps of the stairway are deliberately randomized along the width of the stage, 10 meters, in intervals of half a meter. The result is the design of a chessboard that looks incorrect, but which ascends toward the background, so that the Game of Life can unfold.”[12]

[12] Bernd Lintermann. “Zum Bild in der Amazonas – Konferenz”. In Amazonas. op.cit. p. 45. “Sobre a imagem na Conferência Amazônia”. In Amazonia. op. cit. p. 55.

(…)

Therefore, what the audience witnesses, in Paradise, is the simulation of the agency of the complexity of forest life, based on elemental chains of information that encompasses the organization of living being – microorganisms, plants, animals. That is to say, we witness the constitution of its mega-biodiversity, whose importance for the planet will be treated in the second scene.

Let us have a look at the staging of the Amazonas Conference. Participating in this scene are a scientist (Mafalda de Lemos), a politician (Jochen Strodthoff), an economist (Christian Kesten) and a shaman (Moritz Eggert), along with a chorus – a hybrid of the ancient Greek chorus and modern protesters (Katia Guedes, Phil Minton, Christian Zehnder, Nuno Dias and João Cipriano Martins). The characters we have seen in action during The Fall of the Sky now appear to debate the future of Amazonia, focusing the problem of deforestation. These characters interact with the multisensory table rather than with the classic data show. Animations are projected onto big screens positioned behind the stage, making their arguments explicit but also exhibiting the consequences of their discourse and their interventions regarding territory and climate change (…).

(…)

Throughout the conference, the shaman, the economist, the politician and the scientist take turns at the interactive media table, in a confrontation of the shamanic, economic, political and scientific arguments, framed according to an overdubbing of all these dimensions in the extremely complex game of private interests, controversies and viewpoints on the impact of development on the forest and its inhabitants. It should be stressed, however, that although he endorses the shaman’s argument and thus, resonating with the viewpoint developed in The Fall of the Sky, Weibel does not view the shaman as contrary to the scientist. As a matter of fact, basing his scientific argument on the analyses of Philip Fearnside, Weibel posits science as an ally of the indigenous peoples; for despite all the ontological and epistemological factors that separate the magical from the technoscientific perspectives, both warn of the imminent destruction of the forest so long as the economic and political behind the devastation continue to ignore the warning issued by the shamans and specialists. The problem, then, is time – the conference ends when the scientist is obliged to recognize: “All these agreements come too late.”

(…)

Finally, in the third scene, Entropy, Part Three and the opera as a whole begin moving toward a conclusion. As though unfolding from the dialogue of the deaf that prevented the conference from adopting effective measures for reining in the devastation, we now witness the staging of the collapse, which is, in fact, the dissolution of the order constructed in Paradise. In The Fall of the Sky the propagation of the Xawara uses its song to defeat the shamanic powers that safeguard order in the land-forest; like an acid, it corrodes the shamanic powers. Now, entropy is added to disorder, defeating the regularity and logic of life at the molecular level. Thus, the chessboard squares are rapidly deconstructed, while the music and the images that constitute them lose their balance and merge together. Immense forest fires are taking over the screens as, from the musical perspective, the isolated voices on the surface of an ascendant cluster, which revolve around one another – the effect also emerges from the madrigal – are diluted (…).

From the extinction of the music of nature, there follows a dissolution of the separation between stage and audience, an advance of the singer-actors toward the public. On the screens, some final phrases appear:

“To wait is futile.
It is insane to keep waiting.
Catastrophe is not coming. Catastrophe has already arrived.
Two centuries of capitalism destroyed the wealth of millions of years.
Our common resources: water, rivers, air, clouds, rain, forests.
The nihilism of the market is the real terrorism.”

In haste, the singer-actors begin to repeat the final phrases of Part Three as they return to the audience, with the help of “shield mirrors,” a distorted image of themselves. In effect, mirrored there are all the pre-recorded faces of various spectators; but as these faces assume the repetition of the statement, they become the criminal image of a dissidence that dares to reject the dominant discourse on climate change with its peace-making perspective.

On the whole, as Peter Weibel emphasizes, the stage comes undone just as Amazonia does, as the chorus is transformed from a commentator to a collective, active participant, infiltrating the public, reflecting it through this ingenious process, so that the audience will have, literally and metaphorically, the last word.

“The nihilism of the market is the true terrorism.” This provocative statement naturally led to controversy, both in Munich and in São Paulo. But then that was what it was intended to do. Peter Weibel wants the audience of Amazonas, as part of a collective, to break with its passivity in the face of looming tragedy and assume both agency and a sense of emergency.

***

On the day following the debut of the opera in Munich, in the best music store in the city, I found two copies of a CD titled Ancient lights and the blackcore. My attention was drawn to the disk because recordings of Yanomami shamans were associated with electronic music by such groups as Scorn and Seefeel, as well as a speech by Timothy Leary mixed by DJ Cheb I Sabbah. The CD was launched in 1995, in Brussels, by Sub Rosa Productions.

My curiosity piqued, I opened the accompanying liner notes and found myself reading a text dated to 1992, by David Toop, author of the Yanomami recordings. The title surprised me: Electric dreams: shamanism, music & intoxication – Technicians of the subworld. Here, already realized, was a relationship between shamanism and electronic music, but not only that: The author viewed the shamans as technicians of a subterranean world. The resonance of these reflections with the central theme of Amazonas was striking.

Naturally, I bought the CD. The disk contains four tracks of electronic music, a track with the recordings of the shamans, and finally, Why are you here?, with the Leary speech. This concatenation was designed to offer the first-time listener an experience in electronic music, followed by the voices of the shamans, and concluding with the Pope of Psychedelia preaching the gospel of expanded consciousness and the need for it in order to understand properly the place of the human in the cosmos. Three themes, then: music, shamanism and intoxication. For me, this approach was not exactly something new. Since the early years of the 2000s’ I closely accompanied the studies of Pedro Peixoto Ferreira, which led to a brilliant doctoral thesis: Electronic music and shamanism: Contemporary techniques of ecstasy [13]. In this work, which is based on an extensive anthropological bibliography as well as elaborate theorizing on electronic music on the dance floor, relations between shamanism and electronic music were viewed from the point of view of technicity. For this reason, David Toop’s approach was interesting for its precedence but also, and principally, because it started not with shamanism in general but specifically with the shamanism of the Yanomami.

[13] Pedro P. Ferreira. Música eletrônica e xamanismo: técnicas contemporâneas do êxtase. Tese de Doutorado em Ciências Sociais. IFCH-UNICAMP, 2006.

(…)

The interest in shamanic technologies and the encounter of these with information technology seems to come about by virtue of the perception that both parties, based on or allied with the amplification and alteration of states of consciousness, can open the door to what David Toop calls the subworld, but which we might understand more clearly as the apprehension of virtual dimension in reality, an “other existence.” It is an apprehension that is felt before it is understood, an apprehension not detectable by the analytics methods we have grown accustomed to, but rather captured and “downloaded” through a process of synesthesia. In Toop’s view, what prevents us from recognizing the importance of this mode of existence, which the shamans deal with all the time, is the fear that our society has of this process of producing images and sounds, which the author calls “transformational imagetics.”

(…)

Coming across the CD Ancient lights and the blackcore made me happy. It is quite different from our opera, Amazonas, which in my view carries forward the project of exploring the premises suggested by David Toop. It is just that here, because of the global environmental crisis, the problematic ceases to be merely metaphysical in nature. Shamanism, technoscience, and media art converge on this question, making it of vital interest. And an urgent one!

credits

Photos: Moritz Büchener; Christina Zartmann
Videos: opening by Rudá K. Andrade
The others were edited by Rafael Alves from Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) material.

This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil) Spanish

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