From demagogue, via narcissist, to the post-human condition
The simplest answer to why I, as a composer, have often ended up on stage, as some kind of performer or speaker, in my own pieces – and a reason I suspect several of my colleagues would share – is that it is practical, it is effective in a stressed rehearsal process, it is cheap, it saves an amount of ”conceptual explanation” and one doesn’t have to convince a musician or actor to believe in ”the project”. Also, the necessarily added trashy and amateurish elements are most often viewed as an exotic surplus.
Hordes of artists and composers (at least from around 2000) stood ready to regain the limelight, to reload the works with authenticity and autobiographical aura
But, the idea to put the composer on stage of course also has some deeper artistic implications. The whole listener/viewer “contract” with the audience is set into play, where the remains of the classic autonomous work of (absolute) music are the first victims. Already my first (was it the first? I don’t remember) appearance as ”Author” from within the piece itself was exactly in the guise of ”Authority”. A cascade of pre-recorded utterances by the composer was triggered by the percussionist’s midi drum that together formed a kind of official programme note or manifesto or curator’s statement. The piece itself started to speak and explain, and indulge in a self-criticism which soon transformed into an existential combat with the medium-specific deadlock of the genre of contemporary modernist music not longer able to contain the pressing issues that the composer eagerly wanted to express (Now we have to GET OUT OF MUSIC!”). In stark contrast to the claim of Roland Barthes in 1967 that ”the author is dead”, where the ”text” is a closed world of immanence (in the words of Wikipedia: »Barthes' essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated«), art and music are again connected to both a referent at the beginning and a reference, in form of a concrete reality, at the end of it. Even music (belatedly) followed suit. Hordes of artists and composers (at least from around 2000) stood ready to regain the limelight, to reload the works with authenticity and autobiographical aura. Also, a new artistic medium had for several years been introduced into the ”de-materialized” art scene: performance. You no longer had to be a professional actor to stand in front of an audience: it is (sometimes) enough to perform certain tasks and be willing to invest your body in the cause.
Composed music has it’s own strong tradition of the performing author: that of the composer-conductor in the form of Mahler or Boulez, or the technology guru pilot behind the mixing board of which Karlheinz Stockhausen is the exemplary model. Both positions are safely in the tradition of the paternal leader and guarantee of control and leadership. To pose as a Composer (with a capital C) on stage today, as me and others sometimes do, is necessarily an, at least, half ironic gesture. Instead of the baton of the old masters, the microphone became my preferred attribute (certainly with a similar phallic symbolism). In several pieces I took the role as a lecturer, sometimes with a touch of aggression, with the aim to tell the audience in clear words EXACTLY WHAT THE PIECE IS ABOUT (sometimes from bar to bar). You had your fun in the hippie 60s with your experiments of interactivity, the collective creations, the reader being the “real” writer of the text and the ambiguous work open for multitudes of interpretation. »Contemporary music again needed clear statements, projects, concepts, positions«, was my feeling (»Make Contemporary Music great again« could have been another slogan for that period. But, such an attitude is obviously no longer the Zeitgeist of today’s world).
The Composer on Stage, in all its operatic megalomaniac dimensions, had died
In 2009, I founded my own opera house. It was situated in my living room and I myself was the opera director, composer, Heldentenor, orchestra, set designer, light designer, special effects master, restaurant chef, head of the Theory and Propaganda Department, web designer, cleaning lady and ticket master. The name of the institution is The Norwegian Opra and as all major opera reformators, the first opera (or rather: “opra”, which is a potentially completely new artistic genre) was Orpheus. The aim of the institution (that was formed after something like ten years of compositional activity inspired by the “institutional critique” of the 60s and directed towards a deconstruction of Contemporary Music) was to construct a utopian space to gain “total artistic freedom”, where all outer distractions, institutional irritations, sources of critique and aesthetic counterarguments (in short: other people) are cancelled out. There were no responsibilities in terms of length of the work, quality, amount of boredom, the urge to entertain musicians or singers or that the art should “function” in any kind of minimal way. I started off on a zero budget, so money and production balance was not a factor eithe. I also reduced the audience to a small group of well-meaning insider friends to further increase the semi-incestuous centripetal gravity. After several masterpieces like The Apocalypse and Utopia, the first era of the opera house’s history came to an end with Narcissus, where, as we all remember from the myth, the main protagonist (which is also a metaphor for the The Norwegian Opra institution itself) drowns while desiring his own image mirrored in the pool of mud in an egotistical self absorbed auto-erotic suicide. The touching final act was staged in the opera director’s bedroom where the opera director/Narcissus lay dead in his bed, with a narcissus flower growing out of his head. All ego had vanished. From now on The Norwegian Opra will live as a plant, without self-interest or vanity, offering itself to giving beauty to the world.
The Composer on Stage, in all its operatic megalomaniac dimensions, had died.
As the Antropocene is nearing its end, the Composer is no more a relevant element of Art and we certainly don’t want to see her on stage anymore
In 2015, The Norwegian Opra bought a new opera house in Olsäter in the Swedish countryside. It is an old, big red villa that will gradually be transformed into a large opera set or installation. On the outer wall there is a large logo with the name of the institution. Starting in the cellar of this building, a new (infinite) series of operatic episodes will be created. The name of the series is “Ø”. This is the mathematical notation for the Empty Set, but in Norwegian also the word for “island”. At the time of writing, 8 episodes have been released and the narrative is centred round a kind of cult or political-aesthetical-esoteric post-human community that has isolated itself from The Outside. They indulge in experiments of Communism and Art, and are slowly preparing for “The Event”, an absolute World-Changing-Act.
The composer is nowhere to be seen. Maybe there is no composer. Actually, the rumour is that this whole new opera series is algorithmically composed by an artificial intelligent robot Internet chip, maybe situated somewhere on the Chinese tundra. As the Antropocene is nearing its end, the Composer is no more a relevant element of Art and we certainly don’t want to see her on stage anymore.