Kunsthalle for Music

"That music must be heard is not essential—what it sounds like may not be what it is."
–Charles Ives

"I want everything I do to be presented in an art context.”
–Kanye West

Music is not necessarily what you think it is.

Can we imagine a space for music that exists outside of any media and beyond the stage? A space for unrecordable music, music of undefined duration, existing even when no audience is present? A dissolution of performer and audience, of rehearsal and performance? A music existing in the world based in a space of musical action and activity, production and performance that can be entered into and exited from at will. A space wherein the ideal listening and viewing position is determined independently by each artist, performer or visitor, not determined beforehand by a seat number on a ticket. Having an ensemble at the center of its activity carrying out or otherwise enacting the work which continues during the opening hours whether there are visitors present or not.
Music today is encountered primarily as that which we consume, through a remove, usually neatly pre-packaged, either as a recording or on a stage. And yet throughout most of its history, to experience music one had to perform it. Music was by definition: live, social and spatial. In other words also: messy, political, meta-temporal. Music was not merely in space; it was space. Music was not only social through listening; it was social in its conception. Music didn’t happen in time; it defined time.

Music is not necessarily what you think it is.

Music is inherently not about perfection or reproducibility. Music is the act of an orchestra rehearsing. Music is "John Baldessari Sings Sol LeWitt." Music is a group of people becoming a choir, or a band, whether they perform publically or not. Music is two strangers singing a duet.
In short, can we imagine contemporary music, composition, music performance as contemporary art? When did we forget that music—compositional strategies, formal structures, harmony and dissonance, orchestration, scoring, arrangement, rhythm, tempo—is at the base of it all? Music traditionally had been a driver of the contemporary; all the more striking then the situation wherein music qua music has mostly separated itself and been separated from what is considered to be contemporary art. It is in this schism that the Kunsthalle for Music operates.
So what, in this sense, would be the institution for music inside and alongside the contemporary art institution? What would be its repertoire? What kind of a school and educational attitudes would it have at its heart? How would it contemplate the state of musicians and music today? Would its ensemble include musicians and non-musicians alike? Would it have a collection, and if so how would music works enter into the market in the first place? What kind of a mythical new audience would it desire?

Artistic Director: Ari Benjamin Meyers
Founding Directors: Ari Benjamin Meyers, Defne Ayas, Mimi Brown
Team: Natasha Hoare, Christina Li, Anja Lindner, Samuel Saelemakers
Design: APFEL (A Practice for Everyday Life)

The Kunsthalle for Music is commissioned by Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam) together with Spring Workshop (Hong Kong) and will make additional appearances at locations to be announced. An exposition, not an exhibition by Ari Benjamin Meyers will unfold the Kunsthalle’s foundational themes at Spring Workshop (March 2017), followed by a congress at Witte de With (May 2017) and punctuated by an inaugural take-over, featuring a series of new commissions also at Witte de With (January 2018).
For inquiries and schedule of activities, as well as more information on the ensemble and repertoire, please write to: contact [​at​] kunsthalleformusic.org.

Uneasy Listening

Everyone will tell you that I am not a musician. That is correct.
Erik Satie

Ari Benjamin Meyers will tell you that he is not a sound artist. And that is correct. It follows that his exhibition Black Thoughts includes no sound art. There are no sculptures emitting probing beats, nor hidden speakers sending plangent echoes through the gallery. Instead we hear many notes and see many more scores, yet these are not quite traditional music either. Meyers will tell you that we understand music chiefly in terms of its content and can get too caught up in how it sounds and if it sounds new. That seems correct. We do tend to fetishise the execution and the quality of music while expecting newness from pop songs, even from interpretations of classics.

As for the works in Black Thoughts – all from 2013 – Serious Immobilities is not a recording. That is indisputable. An electric guitarist and a bass player as well as three singers enact the composition every Saturday for the duration of the gallery’s opening hours. Yet this live work is not a concert because it has no clear start and end, nor linear progression. While the composition has ten modules, each can last anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour because the players are free to decide what sections they would like to repeat and how often. It is entirely possible that they will not reach the final module on a particular Saturday, nor move beyond the first one. These decisions are made spontaneously and imparted with casual gestures, like pointing, nodding, even walking away. Each module is marked by a simple choreography, from clapping to lying down. That said, the work is not quite a performance, nor a dance because there is no clear stage, nor strict division between the players and those who come upon them. As the players move around the gallery space, the visitors may join them to shift from passive to active listening: clap, lie down, sing, hum, be nervous, tap their feet, wonder what will come next, walk away.

What about Vexations 2? That is not the original Vexations, which Satie composed in 1893 after an affair with the fellow French artist Suzanne Valadon (allegedly his first, greatest and last love). In French, “vexation” means insult and unpleasantness; humiliation and rebuff are synonyms. To make his condition even clearer, Satie instructed every future pianist to play this one-page score 840 times successively. No one knows why he chose the number 840, but the piece could last 18 to 28 hours as no tempo is indicated. Meyers followed neither Satie’s destiny, composition or instructions – at least not to a t. Instead he composed his own melody of minimalist tristesse. And instead of playing his score 840 times, he wrote it out so many times. That task is not taking 18 to 28 hours but much longer, as he can be glimpsed during the exhibition quietly penning the last dozen-odd copies at a desk set up in the gallery’s alcove.

The New Empirical is not a grand piano. It’s likely difficult to see how that could be correct. Large, looming and freshly laquered, the instrument has the appearance of a well-kept grand. In fact, it’s an Irmler, built in Leipzig in 1893 (the same year as Vexations). But Meyers had the strings radically rewired so that all of the keys play A-flat only (the one pitch that happens to be missing from Vexations). The octave changes across the keyboard, but the pitch does not, so every score would sound similar, were the piano to be played. Meyers added a special tuning fork in A-flat (which happens to measure 840 Hz, the number of times Vexations and Vexations 2 are reprised, respectively, as sound and as pencil on paper).

If all of these disclaimers are correct – no sound art, no traditional music, no recording, no concert, no performance… not even a grand piano – then who is Meyers and what the heck is he doing? Although Meyers trained as a composer and conductor, he seems closer to an ontologist. While echoing Satie, the artist wants to question what music is and could be as an experience. For the music industry and many listeners, the answer has been limited: either performances or recordings. For John Cage, the answer seemed to culminate in 4'33'' (1952), although this piece still focuses on the content of music, albeit negated to produce the newness of the occasional sounds of the audience surrounding the performers’ silence. Yet Meyers wants to explore the nature of music instead of simply writing more of it to perform and to record (or not to perform, as in Cage’s response).

Meyers’s work could be called “non-aural music”, a corollary to Marcel Duchamp’s non-retinal art, which breaks from concerts and recordings in the way that readymades departed from traditional sculpture and painting. As a mass medium, music knows few other formats than concerts and recordings, except of course for music videos and marketing. The artistry of musicians tends to be concentrated, if not restricted, to their music because, beyond the live performance, the listeners now decide how, when and where their music will be heard. With Black Thoughts, Meyers turns music into art in order to seek other methods of expression and reception.

Thus Serious Immobilities is a situational and social composition, closer to the collective, participatory role of music in oral societies, where music is fully integrated into daily life along with poems and singing – and not set apart from everyday experiences in concerts executed by specialists and listened to raptly by a politely mute audience, stifling coughs and sniffles. Note that Meyers’s singers are not classically-trained, much like many visitors, which further erodes the separation between concert and audience. Vexations 2 challenges the idea that the execution of a score lies only in its performance by musicians, over and over again. Here, the composer himself “plays” out every note in his mind and with his hand while offering another physical embodiment of the score. The New Empirical returns to the end of a century dominated by the piano, only to handicap the keyboard. Just as Meyers chooses to copy his score by hand instead of printing, photocopying and digitally sharing it, the artist frustrates the piano as yet another method of reproducing a score. On this keyboard, a pianist can still perform any score since the keys themselves have not been altered. Every score will sound different – distinct from its old original self – and yet pretty much the same as every other score played on this piano. On these keys, the history of music shifts from an endless repetition of compositions in concerts and recordings to the eternal return of music itself, which is reiterated as a pressing question in A-flat. And that is correct.

Dr. Jennifer Allen is a critic living in Berlin.

Can Music be Exhibited?
The composer Ari Benjamin Meyers exchanges the concert hall for the art gallery

Whoever managed to attend Documenta – and according to reports from Kassel it was over 860,000 people – knows the work of Ari Benjamin Meyers. And this is possibly without even realizing it. Hidden in the backyard of the “Hugenottenhaus” is an entryway to a darkened room. After entering and allowing your eyes to adjust for a few minutes, you find yourself surrounded by 20 young people who are dancing, grunting rhythmically, and singing in harmony in the darkness with so much power that you have the feeling you are either witnessing a modern day rain-dance or some kind of “finding-our-inner-voices” ritual.
The closer you looked, the harder it was to tell if the young lady who was standing behind you, whose breath you could feel on your neck, was part of the piece or just an enthralled bystander. The entire thing had the title “This Variation” and was labeled at Documenta as a work by Tino Sehgal. But without Ari Benjamin Meyers, who in the development process provided the musical counterweight to Sehgal’s choreography, it would be an entirely different work. It was he who rearranged electronic music pieces into fragments of humming and singing. And it was after all his idea that the piece should be performed not by singers, but by dancers.
When I first met Ari Benjamin Meyers, the composer, conductor, and all-around musical polymath, he told me that concerts don’t interest him anymore. They are too formal, too much concerned with an abstract idea of the perfect sound and craft made all the more absurd when one considers that a guest conductor is flown in for a concert and has time for maybe only one or two rehearsals. But then at our second meeting he told me excitedly about a concert he had been to two days previously at the Berlin Philharmonie. The pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard had performed the Piano Sonata Nr. 2 “Concord, Mass.” by the modern American composer Charles Ives. Meyers is a big Ives fan but what had impressed him so much actually took place before the concert had really begun.
The pianist, he explained, had started to play but stopped after 30 seconds, turned to the audience and stared at them sternly: “Please, no photos!” Meyers beamed: “For me it was this small moment of non-routine that completely electrified the concert. Suddenly the audience was awake: “We are here. Anything can happen.’” If there is one constant in his work, if there is one thing he wants to achieve, it is moments like this. “Because most concerts are essentially the same in their routine an audience is often not even really listening to the actual performance. The music in the hall is only a crutch, reminding them of their favorite recording at home.” Meyers has lived over 15 years in Berlin but he grew up on the American East coast and received his training there, as classical and cultured as can be imagined.
When he was not playing in one of his punk and hardcore bands, he attended the Juilliard School in New York and then later studied composition and conducting: “It was learning by doing, but also learning by terror. You’re standing in front of your fellow students, you are responsible for how they sound and you should lead them. And then the whole time your professor is behind you screaming in your ear how shitty you are.” His well-spoken, careful conductor’s German is thanks in large part to the fact that in 1996 he attended the Hanns Eisler Music Conservatory in Berlin and in the former East-German school one didn’t get far with English even in the mid-nineties. He stayed in Berlin and in order to describe what then happened one can only resort to a bit of name dropping: he worked in various state theaters as music director, composed an opera that premiered at the Semper Opera Dresden, made records with Einstürzende Neubauten. He wrote music for horror and various other films, worked together with architects, and brought DJs, who otherwise were producing delirium-inducing techno tracks, over to the experimental side.
And, at the latest, since über-curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist made him music director of his opera-like art exhibition “Il Tempo del Postino” he has become the musical authority and teacher for a number of the most famous contemporary artists in the world. For one he re-constructed a “Madame Butterfly” aria so the main voice was shared amongst six singers spread throughout the opera house; for another artist he re-arranged the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony so that the musicians could pack their instruments and leave one at a time while the music continued.
And since Meyers became aware through these excursions into the art world that his ideas were more at home there, he started working on his own as an artist. The gallery Esther Schipper, one of the most well-known and successful galleries in the capital, has taken him into their program and will give over their rooms to him next year to let him think about how to exhibit music. And perhaps also consider how to sell it as an artwork and generally explore how one can express the drastic transformation symphonic music has undergone over the last 250 years through an equally dramatic transformation of how it’s presented.
Because artists have for decades now thought about the spaces in which their work takes place Meyers believes that it is here in this field that he can best share his interest for beautiful irregularities and irritations. Because of this it still seems worthwhile to travel a long way to sit in a room with people eliciting tones from hollow chunks of wood or bent bits of metal. Here where one is used to the fact that ideas and concepts are at least as important as technical precision, Meyers feels that his convictions have a place, which he happily explains with an Ives’ quote:
“That the music is heard is not important. How it sounds does not necessarily represent what it is.” Another of Meyers’ favorite examples of where this all could lead to involved another artist, namely his Documenta colleague Sehgal. In April Meyers performed with his own ensemble Redux Orchestra his “Symphony X”, a minimal, unrelenting kick in the teeth of a symphony; he positioned himself and his musicians not on a stage but wildly spread out in a kind of gymnasium. Sometimes the lights went off, at one point the musicians’ chairs and music stands were taken away, and one couldn’t be certain if the gentlemen who was wildly dancing less than a meter away from the conductor was part of the score or not. No one had even a moment’s chance to think about how this would sound on a record. Electrifying.
FAZ am Sonntag
September 23, 2012
(translated from the original German)