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Actual Friends, Making New Maps from the Future

How do you make sense in a world filled with tragedy, grief and institutional control? In their work for MINU festival composer Conor McLean and performer Nikolaus von Bemberg turn to Charlie Kaufman’s film, »Synechdoche, New York« for answers.
4. november 2022
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»The initial idea was, what if we conceptualised the piece as this huge gesamtkunstwerk that’s so massive you couldn’t ever make it, but that we pretend has been made, but we have access only to parts of it,« composer Conor McLean (b. 1996) tells me. His collaborator, the pianist Nikolaus von Bemberg (b. 1991), clarifies further in a way that temporally complicates things »we thought, what if we find a piece in the future but only parts of it because it came to us in a mysterious way. So these are its fragments.« 

When they started working on the piece more than two years ago, it was the depth of the covid lockdowns that had put an end to the vast majority of live performances and also all that made them thrilling; the feeling of being there, with people, sharing something. At that moment, they wanted to project themselves into the future. And they may have even done so in some way because the piece they’ve called Fragments is comprised of the extracted modules of a work yet to be written. This tension in time and expression is central to what these musicians really want to explore, how to make sense of it all in a way that also gives us some insight into the most practical of matters. 

»What should you do to actually feel alive and joyful?« 

For both McLean as a composer and Bemberg as a performer, the question is of what it makes sense to do in a world filled with tragedy, pain, grief and institutional control. More specifically, what should you do in such a world to feel you are actually part of it; to actually feel alive and joyful? 

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Fun to make art with a friend

This quest may also haunt viewers of Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film, Synechdoche, New York, a reference that McLean brings up as being a personal influence on him. The film is about Caden, a theatre director whose pretentious but well-received revivals of Theatre classics earn him a MacArthur genius grant. He resolves to use it to make something true and revealing about life, a genuine artistic statement. In the process, he becomes unbearable to be around through both the hurt inflicted on him by those he loves and the neglect he shows to them. All the while the clock is ticking.

Years pass and Caden’s health begins to fail him. The piece is becoming ever more unwieldy. What started out as an immersive staging of a New York neighbourhood in a massive warehouse ends up with a warehouse within a warehouse within a warehouse all staging a play about making an immersive theatre experience about a neighbourhood. One of the main themes of the film is that life is just too full of pleasure, pain and paradoxes to be fully captured in art. All attempts to map it for yourself eventually fail. 

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Caden’s increasingly tortured refrain in the film, »I know how to do the play now« comes after each moment of uncomfortable revelation, hard won by personal suffering. McLean unconsciously paraphrased it several times during the process of producing Fragments, but the setting was more joyful. Bemberg recalls how, on a number of occasions, they would be hanging out in someone’s apartment smoking something at the window, when McLean would suddenly declare that he knew how to compose the piece now! 

»I told Niko one night in this process, 'Niko you’re actually my friend'«

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Composer Conor McLean and pianist Nikolaus von Bemberg. © PR

Into the future

For both McLean and Bemberg, the shining products of their formal conservatory education, both of whom are now working towards the soloist level in composition and piano respectively, this way of shifting art-making into a more casual and intimate realm has been a revelation. For Bemberg, it has been about escaping the pressure to be turned into some kind of high-functioning piano/human hybrid fit only for the reproduction of scores as sound. While for McLean, it marks a return to an earlier form of music-making. The kind of thing he’d do as a teenager, writing songs with friends and letting life bleed into it. But more than anything, the main reason they were making this work was that it was fun to make art with a friend. As McLean put it: 

»I think it is also about trying to find a more meaningful way of making music. Because for me being in these institutions for so long… I don’t remember choosing that, I just remember thinking when I was 18 that that was the way to go. I went into that as deeply as I could and now I’m 25 and think wait what is this? This is not how I remember making music. I remember it being fun and with people rather than trying to control people while not being a part of it yourself. I told Niko one night in this process, ‘Niko you’re actually my friend’. It just takes so long to break down that composer/ pianist gap.«

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With Fragments Bemberg and McLean interrogate the institutional discourse they have been immersed in for years by means of a good time. They are scouring the future archive of the academy and conservatory for those significant modules of a much too grand, unfinished work to perform in the present and so, playfully, drag us into the future. Some of these are video fragments, like a snippet that opens with Bemberg and McLean in suits, cut together in shot reverse shot, communicating through animated gestures and foley audio. In the next scene, we are introduced to the object of their discussion, the renowned composer of exquisite, painful excess, James Black, in a basement, fettering around, stumbling across something he should not have done before being hunted himself and disappearing into a pair of shoes. 

The isolated nature of this fragment is disorienting and yet the certainty of the actions and precision of the foley sound effects gestures toward a larger structure in which it would make sense. It just doesn’t exist yet and it may never.

»I’m afraid of remapping. It's why I’m so dreamy«

Joy in a crumbling world

McLean and Bemerg are trying to compose and perform the future together. This is not the future as some overwrought, avant-garde modernist cliché, however. But actually, just the future in which the sorrows of the present can give way to joy. Both of these musicians have dealt with grief in their lives. And while not as painful for them, the covid lockdowns – which closed off many of the joys one can find in the present – bore a certain similarity to how loss makes life make less sense. McLean talks about it producing an ambivalent imperative to remap one's world:

»In my own experience, death is strange because it's always present, but you build your world around certain constants. Then when they go away you have to remap things. And it's this remapping of things that’s at stake. You just have to rebuild because no one has any answers and there’s not much else you can do.«

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And for Bemberg this painful process is even more troubling but opens up new avenues to creatively dwell between worlds: 

»I’m afraid of remapping. It's why I’m so dreamy. I like to live in memory where things don’t have to change. But of course, they do. It’s true, you can’t go back. And that’s what’s appealing about this surreal state where you find a little peace but it’s not real.«

The incompleteness of Fragments would seem to be about coming to terms with the incompleteness of all of our maps of this world-too-full-to-capture. As they both want to keep working together, McLean and Bemberg joke about how maybe the unfinished piece from the future is what they will always be working on. And it will probably remain unfinished even if they do so just as one never reaches the future. That is what this project is about, coming to accept the thing that Caden in Synedoche New York could not. Joy can be found even when the world, or perhaps just your world, is crumbling by working with friends to fail at making sense of it. 


The article is in collaboration with MINU festival in Copenhagen 9-13 November.