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Stefan PRINS (b. 1979)
Generation Kill (2012) [26:03]
Mirror Box Extensions (2014/2015) [36:02]
Piano Hero #1-4 (2011-2017) [59:57]
Third Space (2016-2018) [80:55]
Not I (2007/2018) [17:53]
Third Space (2016-2018) [42:15]
Infiltrationen 3.0 (2009/2016) [20:10]
Yaron Deutsch (electric guitar), Stefan Prins (live electronics), Stephane Ginsbergh (piano and keyboards), Nadar Ensemble, Klangforum Wien / Bas Wieger, Hiatus (dancers) choreographed by Daniel Linehan
rec. 2014/2018
KAIROS 0015044KAI [DVD: 203 mins & CD: 80:18]

Stefan Prins is a forty years old Belgian who over the last decade has been the recipient of several awards across Europe and was recently appointed professor of composition and director of the electronic studio at the Carl Maria von Weber College of Music in Dresden. His music has previously featured on compilations taken from the Donaueschingen and Darmstadt festivals, but this handsome Kairos package seems to be the first widely available release dedicated exclusively to his work. Prins’ music without question projects uniquely visual, theatrical elements, hence the inclusion of a DVD (in two-channel sound as far as I can surmise) of some three and a half hours duration as well as an 80 minute CD. The package as a whole is an attractively presented calling card, for sure.

In Generation Kill, the audience is positioned behind four seated ‘players’, who in turn face four large screens. Behind each screen is a musician whose instrument is miked up. The four ’players’ operate PlayStation gamepads to determine whether we see the musician through the screen performing live, or a pre-filmed ‘version’ of the instrumentalist; these operators can thus decide to speed up, slow down, pause or delete the sounds and visuals, or bring them back to real ‘life’ and real time. From time to time we see on the screen drone or CCTV footage drawn from theatres of conflict, presumably by the American military. The facial expressions of the ‘players’ are earnest and focused, they wave their gamepads around as though they’re playing Stradivariuses. The music that emerges alternates between harsh granulation, amplified electronic pips, radio interference or communications and raw noise.

I last encountered the pianist Stephane Ginsburgh’s superhuman levels of courage and resilience a couple of years back when he selflessly navigated the uncharted waters of Anthony Burgess’s terminally dreary Bad Tempered Electronic Keyboard cycle (review); here he is again in Stefan Prins’ eponymous Piano Hero – a cycle of four extended pieces for piano, MIDI keyboard and electronics. These pieces were apparently inspired by John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. In each case we see Ginsburgh seated at the junction between the two instruments, in front of a screen which flits between images of the live performance, pre-recorded elements, distorted visualisations and most disconcertingly pre-recorded samples of another player operating the strings and mechanisms from inside the instrument. The speeds of these images are again manipulated; what one hears rarely corresponds to what one sees. One senses playfulness at every turn in this Piano Hero cycle – a discernible glint in Ginsburgh’s eye is never too far away. Some of the music is actually danceable – but it might also be eerie, psychedelic, or, as appears to be Prins’ trademark confrontational and discomfiting. Sporadically we see the pianist tapping out notes, clusters and sequences yet no sound emerges; for the benefit of readers of a certain vintage, Joseph Cooper’s dummy keyboard this aint. But these four pieces do provide the most approachable music in this conspectus.

Mirror Box Extensions alludes to the use of mirrors to aid the rehabilitation of stroke victims among others. We witness a throng of happy concertgoers, milling about outside a performance space (it looks like a converted church). They take their seats. The stage is a kind of ‘hall of mirrors’; an ensemble of six or seven musicians line up on stage, their instruments in some cases heavily adapted. ‘Versions’ of themselves may be projected on to the scrims that fill the stage, and thus the players at times appear to morph into each other. The audience play a part in the theatrics, they are filmed filming the performance on tablets or telephones; many of them are smiling widely. Given the sounds that emerge from the stage are, shall we say ‘challenging’, this audience reaction prompted a memory I had of a public performance of John Cage’s ‘Water Music’ which I attended at Chethams’ School in Manchester during the late 1970s. The atmosphere was heavy with the feeling that the audience felt ‘laughing’ during the performance would be hugely inappropriate – this was a formal ‘classical’ recital after all. So when the performer adhered to Cage’s requirement for a duck-whistle to be blown through a glass of water, the omnipresent air of suppression led me to believe that my fellow attendees would literally explode. Thankfully audiences, Belgian ones at least, seem to have moved on. However, no matter how interesting the visuals that accompany Mirror Box Extensions may be, Prins’ primitive, antagonistic music is harsh and cacophonous.

Third Space is an eighty minute theatre piece for dancers and ensemble, commissioned by the City of Munich for its 2018 Music Theatre Biennale. There’s a lot of silence at the beginning, dimmed images of individuals, a luminous pair of trainers, crossed palms. A low, electronically processed and distorted drone emerges as we see the conductor, Bas Wiegers, facing us , in front of a scrim which projects (or conceals) the action, or inaction of dancers; there are hints of hands, limbs or faces; sometimes twitching, more often barely moving. The drone evolves into a mesh of distortion; instrumental textures can be perceived, animal-like noises materialise. There is a stop/start vibe to the din – and it is a din. The camera focuses on the conductor. At one point Wiegers stands motionless, yet the ensemble still produces sound. This notion of confounding the basic expectations of an audience seems absolutely central to Prins’ aesthetic. At around a third the way through Third Space an electronic halo accompanies the curtain as it opens to reveal the conductor, some players, some dancers and apparently an audience (not necessarily THE audience). One of the performers goes into THE audience and invites individuals to join them on stage – at this point the division between spectator and performer becomes irretrievably blurred. After a long hiatus we now see the dancers and musicians moving and playing. Essentially what follows musically is an extended repetition of the content already heard, though I suspect many listeners won’t realise (I certainly didn’t).

The booklet provides the odd clue; the choreographer, Daniel Linehan “is intent on softly obscuring the line that separates dance from everything else“. Furthermore, he states ”(I)…began to understand (Prins’) music as essentially infusing the space of the theatre with multiple levels of vibration. I essentially created a choreography in which vibration never ceases.” Presumably then, the slightest movement or sound might be pregnant with significance. Or not. By the halfway point, the stage action does incorporate movements which most of us might recognise as ‘dance’. Although Prins’ music continues to seem so free, random and spontaneous to my ears as to be utterly incomprehensible. Long silences inhibit and ultimately kill off any chance of coherent appreciation. The booklet is crammed with philosophical and conceptual justifications for Third Space, many of which border on the pretentious and consequently fly way over my head. After an hour the dancers (I think) march purposefully (?) around the stage – who knows what’s going to happen? Who cares? There’s some clapping at the end, and the performers take a bow. In what I found to be the most expressively explicit gesture in the entire ‘show’ one member of the (on stage) audience seemingly can’t get out of the auditorium quickly enough. So much for the DVD.

As well as a forty minute “version” of the music Prins has devised (written?) for Third Space, the CD includes two more pieces. The original Not I was Samuel Beckett’s celebrated 1973 monologue for Billie Whitelaw; the only thing one can see illuminated on stage is the actor’s mouth; she manically reflects upon four discrete events which either did or didn’t happen to her, seemingly convinced that by doing so she will reveal the source of her uneasy sense of having something she needs to confess. Prins’ eponymous work alludes to this conceit; mediating between the guitarist (the extraordinary Yaron Deutsch, a Kairos regular) and his amp the composer operates a digital processor which ‘confuses’ the audience – the sound that emerges again does not necessarily seem to correspond to the movements of the player. As this account of Not I is projected in sound only I cannot confirm whether the ‘illusion’ is convincing or not; Prins’ music, however is no more or less confrontational than the music on the DVD. It’s rich in percussiveness, distortion, echo and feedback; any fleeting, incidental beauties are I suspect irrelevant to the composer. Not I seems disjointed, incoherent and at times rather threatening to my ears, alas.

But it is balmy and consolatory compared to the opening minute of Infiltrationen 3.0, the final work on this near five hour Prins extravaganza. This is scored for what is effectively an amplified string quartet, pedals and live electronics. As the title suggests, it is the third incarnation of a work originally written for other forces (four electric guitars et al). Listeners whose auditory capacities survive the ear-bleeding hell of its opening can expect a further, seemingly random selection of processed noise courtesy of people doing things with their stringed instruments for which they aren’t necessarily designed. Again there are occasional, extremely brief, completely unexpected and presumably unintended moments of strange beauty. But these are rapidly obliterated by music of relentless ugliness.

As an unabashed and long standing aficionado of contemporary music I fully recognise that in many cases there is a correlation between the level of concentration the listener affords a new work and the quantity (or quality) of the aesthetic pay-off. I certainly wouldn’t expect listeners to Prins’ work to treat it as background music (or sound, or noise), and the expressions of earnestness and focus on performers’ faces across all four works on the DVD certainly imply that that’s not an option. The problem is, that once one has got over the original novelty or shock presented by the visual or sonic ‘language’ of a particular piece, a reverent focus becomes almost impossible to maintain. Not least because responses such as enjoyment, refreshment, or consolation, (to name three which immediately spring to mind) seem to be anathema to Prins on the evidence of this portrait. I’m truly curious to discover exactly what this composer is seeking from his audience. Too often in this music I found myself stumbling upon the law of diminishing returns and resorting to familiar questions; was I approaching the music in the right way? Should I be letting these sounds wash over me? Was there some key socio-political or philosophical point that I’m missing?

The intrepid musicians of Prins’ own Nadar Ensemble are responsible for most of the performances here – they offer huge levels of energy, focus and commitment, as do the members of Klangforum Wien in Third Space. The dancers in this piece most certainly seem to live it – they are all smiles at its conclusion (even if Daniel Linehan’s choreography doesn’t represent ‘Dance’ as I have always comprehended the term). Kairos’ production values are of a high order right across the whole package. Doubtless Prins will have fervent admirers and I am certain they will already have snapped up these discs. This may well be a valid direction for new music; for myself alas, as a lifelong advocate of old hat conservatives such as Ferneyhough, Xenakis and Nono, it might be time to get off the bus.

Richard Hanlon

Recording details
Generation Kill recorded 2 June 2014 at Theater Studio, deSingel International arts Campus, Antwerp, Belgium
Mirror Box Extensions and Piano Hero #1 -#4 recorded August 2018 at Concert Hall, Muziekcentrum de Bijloke, Gent, Belgium
Third Space (DVD and CD versions) recorded June 2018 at Carl Orff Saal, Gasteig, Munich
Not I recorded November 2018 at Studio Entropya, Perugia, Italy
Infiltrationen 3.0 recorded September 2018 at Studio Champ d’Action, Antwerp, Belgium

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