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Melbourne International Arts Festival

Hearing voices

Keith Gallasch talks to Erich Sleichim

Muziektheater Transparant, Men in Tribulation Muziektheater Transparant, Men in Tribulation
photo Herman Sorgeloos
In its enquiring and provocative 2004 program the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts (MIAF) focuses on voice in performance. The apotheosis of this exploration is most likely embodied in Men in Tribulation—A Story of Artaud. Not only does the audience enter the mind of the defeated genius in his last hour (the work’s duration) but Men in Tribulation can lay claim to the realisation of an Artaud dream, a theatre of the voice, of sonic experimentation, with all the ‘cruel’ immediacy he dreamt of for the theatre. Composer and director of Men in Tribulation, Eric Sleichim, spoke to me by phone from Belgium about his creation for innovative opera and music theatre producers Muziektheater Transparant.

I asked Sleichim to what extent the audience enters the mind of Artaud in his production and what role sound and music play in it. Sleichim responded by describing most theatre as illusion, a place where music for example is not perceived directly, but as background, at a distance. For Sleichim, the audience entering the theatre must encounter a totally alien space—”they shouldn’t be able to recognise it, even if they know it.”

To this end the venue is filled with smoke (not recommended for claustrophobes or those with certain medical conditions, Sleichim says) with visibility of no more than 3 metres for the first 20 minutes of the show. “This is alienated space. Like Artaud you are locked up in an asylum; it feels very immediate, fragile and dangerous.” The audience moves about the space, “eyes and bodies adjusting, becoming aware that you are not alone. There are 200 others and you are beginning to feel acquainted with the space, finding the borders of the set, realising that the 5-sided space is theatrical [created by B-architecten, the innovative design studio of Evert Crols, Dirk Engelen and Sven Grooten]. But something strange and ritualistic is happening in the middle, people touching unrecognisable objects, which are in fact the parts of saxophones.” Sleichim is the founder-director of the innovative BL!NDMAN Saxophone Quartet (a name inspired by Marcel Duchamp ‘s 1917 publication expressing the Dadaist idea of a blind guide leading the public around an art exhibition) who perform as part of Men in Tribulation.

A key challenge for Sleichim has been how to deal with the musical instrument—he speaks of alienating, mutilating and manipulating the saxophone. “I have only added electronics in the last 3 or 4 years, but the sound still must come from the body of the instrument.” He sees this as, in part, paralleling Artaud’s desire to be rid of his body. However, the mutilated music of saxophone parts is juxtaposed with a counter tenor—the young Artaud—who sings only melodies.

In devising Men in Tribulation Sleichim drew on the 300 pages of Artaud’s letters to his psychiatrist about the Tarahumaras of Mexico. Sleichim says he’s been privileged to see ethnographic film of these people whom Artaud visited and whose peyote influenced, regenerative rituals had such a profound effect on his thinking. It is the sense of ritual, of the strangeness of objects and sounds, that Sleichim aims for in Men in Tribulation. The audience has to look hard to see; it has to listen, “discovering that all these sounds are created in real time from the parts of saxophones—nothing is sampled.” Very slowly, he says, the audience come to recognise distinct characters who might materialise right next to them and then disappear.

While working on artist/director Jan Fabre’s performance installation The Angel of Death, Sleichim discovered that Fabre had written a piece about Artaud 20 years ago and was keen write a new text. Fabre created a cycle of 7 “metamorphosen” which proved perfect, says Sleichim, for the obsessiveness and sense of ritual and danger that he was seeking.

True to Artaud, the figures in Men in Tribulation represent states of being, aspects of the visionary, projections rather than literal characters. There is an old Artaud (experimental vocalist Phil Minton) and a young Artaud (counter-tenor Hagen Matzeit). The BL!NDMAN Saxophone Quartet become shamans. Sleichim describes the great actress and singer Viviane De Muynck as “playing a Tarahumaras high priest, Artaud as theatre director, as the great actor he was and as opium addict, and Artaud’s mother.” The complexities of Artaud’s relationship with women, he says, is another conversation.

Sleichim describes the experience of the work as “a quite violent hour” shaped by Artaud’s great despair at the withdrawal of his radio work To Have Done with the Judgment of God from broadcast in 1947. He died 2 weeks later. Sleichim says that such is the intensity of the work To Have Done... he can never listen to the whole 40-minutes in one sitting.

I ask Sleichim if he thinks he has realised Artaud’s project. He thinks that some of his audience “arrive at Men in Tribulation with a wish”, their own vision of Artaud. A dramaturg said the show “didn’t meet her expectations of getting further into the literature of Artaud.” Sleichim had to retort that the writing in the production was Fabre’s, not Artaud’s. Fabre has created a text inspired by the visionary’s writing and set to music by the composer. For Sleichim, his own “big starting point” was the dynamic of, on the one hand, the mysterious messianic Artaud and, on the other, the day to day requests of man in an asylum for a warm shower once a week, a shave or some chocolate. But on the bigger issue of accomplishing something Artaud could only dream of, Sleichim says, “without any pretension, I think I have, a little. The actors are not playing characters but being them. It wasn’t until the 1950s that acting schools could understand this. In Men in Tribulation the audience are near the performers, they can smell the emotion. They are surrounded by the set, the action, the totality of the sound and light. Although you can stay in the middle or at a distance, and although you can get out (it’s a very loud work sometimes), you are never only looking.”

Erwin Jans has written that in his later years Artaud was looking for “a theatre of the voice, a theatre of the acoustic space. The theatre of cruelty contemplated by him at the time was a theatre of the word made flesh, the word returned to the voice, to the tongue and to the body. Words are brought back to corporeality and urges” (Holland Festival 2004 Program). Men in Tribulation might just be that theatre of word made flesh.

Muziektheater Transparant, Men in Tribulation, Oct 11-13, Melbourne International Festival of the Arts

On page 47, Tony MacGregor talks about his libretto for the opera Cosmonaut composed by David Chesworth, to be premiered at the 2004 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 10

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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