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Death and Masochism

Efterskrift enjoy the discomfort of pleasure postponed or expressed through the pain of the feeling of something missing. At the new festival MINU, the Aarhus-based ensemble will perform a concert with a simple message: everything good is allowed to die.
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4. november 2022
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The masochist says to the sadist, »hit me«. And the sadist says, »no«. This little joke sums up the philosopher, Gilles Deleuze’s theory of masochism. He argues that masochists and sadists don’t actually relate to one another. Sadists just enjoy hurting people, so the kind of pleasure through pain that the masochist is after isn’t of interest to them. When a masochist asks someone to inflict pain on them the inflictor enters a masochistic relationship in which submission and domination are relative to the level at which you understand the interaction. There is an ethical power exchange going on that is never fully settled, which allows everyone to explore. 

Masochism comes up a few times when Efterskrift discusses the motivation behind their project. The group is made up of composer/performers, Niklas Brandenhoff (b. 2000) and Sebastian Brix (b. 1997), and guitarist/performer, August Frey Lydersen Bjerregaard (b. 1998), all of whom study at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Aarhus. They started working together on projects in late 2020 and this year took the step of giving themselves a name to hone their focus. Efterskrift translates into English as the literary device called an afterword; a text that expands on the main work but cannot stand in for it like an introduction or summary. With this name, they are pointing to the central conceptual theme of the ensemble, to make work that produces an expansive absence. But this isn’t meant in a sombre way. Rather, like masochists, they enjoy the discomfort of pleasure postponed or expressed through the pain of the feeling of something missing.

»I think I may have made some enemies«

Dark or uncomfortable themes

The group started because they wanted a space to explore themes and concepts many would consider dark or uncomfortable by pushing the experimental means of contemporary composition. Bjerregaard captures the difficulty of finding such a community to work with on this kind of material, let alone an audience for it. He remarks »I think I may have made some enemies. After inviting people to our concert, I have had some people say they’re never going to take a recommendation from me again.« 

But the groups seem to revel in this hard-to-like quality of their work. For the composers, Brandenhoff and Brix, the theme that unites their practice is the removal of that which makes musical experience make the kind of common sense that make it conventionally enjoyable. 

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For Brandenhoff, this is about creating absences. For example by creating the piece, Sechs bagatellen für streichquartet, opus neun, von Anton Webern by removing the accidentals from scores by the serialist composer, Webern, thus transforming harshly dissonant pieces of modernist music into works confusingly diatonic harmony. For Brix, it is not so much about the absence but the act of taking something that seemed essential away from an experience. In his piece »How sweet it is to bask in sunlight«, he attempts to do this to the pleasure found in beauty by composing twenty-four very similar guitar chords with fifteen-second spaces in between them. Over time, the slowness and repetition gradually removes the initial enjoyment of these luscious sounds and hopefully causes the audience to feel the beauty they had experienced disappear not only from what they are listening to but also as an essential and timeless category. 

Fragility and impermanence

Here there is another major theme of the ensemble, fragility and impermanence. The suite of music they will perform at MINU is titled after one of Brix’s compositions »Alt godt må dø«. In translation, there is a little ambiguity here. It can be read as Everything Good May Die, Everything Good Must Die, or Everything Good is Allowed to Die. The fact that everything will die and so it must is a bare fact that we, often, don’t really take too seriously on its own. So, it’s the last version, in the context of the others, that Efterskrift finds the most interesting; everything good is allowed to die. This interpretation describes a way of relating to the world that is very hard to achieve. It means letting go of the vain attempt to control reality as if it were stable, (of your identity as part of a community of similarly fixed entities like parents, friends, lovers) and realising that because it will end, it has to be ok if it one day does so. This is a kind of masochist ethics of mortality; to accept the importance of things and the inevitability of pain as the conditions for pleasure, joy and beauty.

So rather than simply serialising some sound, Brandenhoff serialises himself

The piece »Alt godt må dø« features Brandenhoff sitting in a chair in the dark in a state of undress, surrounded by projections as painful statements are flung at him. Here the repetition of Brix’s composition is not only to strip away beauty from the beautiful but to remove the potency of everything as it becomes relative when drawn out over time against the only constant that is death. Brandenhoff’s body is the centre of his own piece in the suite too, »Total serialisation study 1a«, a largely silent video piece composed of close-up photographs of his flesh. Drawing on Pierre Boulez’s compositional philosophy and referring to his piece »Structure 1a«, Brandenhoff is committed to the sustained questioning of the modernist impulse to attain perfection or immortality through an inhuman system. So rather than simply serialising some sound, Brandenhoff serialises himself. But at the same time, he’s not there. He’s absent both through the abstracting medium of photography and the alienation of the body that comes from carving it up into close-ups. 

Trying to deal with these difficult themes in a way that might open up for them to be understood differently – like seeing absence as a thrilling mystery or death as something that drags beauty away in such a way that witnessing beauty as it fades becomes more precious – requires a lot from an audience. Back on the point about masochism, after Efterskrift invites the audience into their conceptual world, the audience has to be willing to let themselves be inflicted by something. As Brix puts it;

»I think inflict is a very good word here. I don’t mean this to be malicious. But I think this kind of profound experience can’t be given, it can only be inflicted. So I try to create a performance situation where I can subject the audience to something. And that too is a violent thing to inflict on an audience. But I do it because I think this removal produces something beautiful. But it has to be an infliction. So it is important that I perform it. Because using myself as the subject is illustrative of what is at stake.« 

Efterskrift are planning a concert of only the saddest music they can make

»Maybe there will be love again«

Brix goes on to describe a new piece called »Maybe there will be love again«. It features footage of the composer passing out on sleeping pills. Brix mentions this to illustrate how he may be doing something arguably violent to the audience but he only does so because he thinks it shares something important enough about the boundary of states of life to put himself on the line. He inflicts this upon the audience, not as a sadist, but as a masochist looking for those who would accept his invitation to discover the beauty in pain together. And what is mostly inflicted is knowledge of the actuality of death. As Brandenhoff; »I think I think a lot about death. Not only in a dark way but it’s there. The art sort of becomes a confrontation by working with pieces by other people who are now dead. And then focusing on that. Not pretending it revives them, no. But instead to explore the gap between me and the dead. For me, it is not settled.«

After the performance of »Alt godt må dø« at MINU, Efterskrift are planning a concert of only the saddest music they can make for a concert in Aarhus in February, the saddest of all the months according to the ensemble. »Monumentally« sad as Brix put it. More than anything, it seems that what they want to achieve with this is to share something that the group have found through working with difficult themes together; a sense of safety and security to sit with the sadness. Because sadness alone can’t hurt you. It will pass, just as you one day will. And so, of course, at one point, Efterskrift will pass on, though there are no plans to end the project any time soon. That said, Brandenhoff can’t help but think there would be something wonderful about ending the project before this interview is published; »We should almost do that though and then the interview will be like an afterword.«

 

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