Released in a private run of 1,000 by the Naples-based art gallery Fondazione Morra, Sinfonia Punta Campanella is one of Hermann Nitsch’s most recent works and one of his most exciting. Performed for the first time under the direction of Andrea Cusamano, the symphony is named after the Naples village of Punta Campanella where it made its debut on September 22, 2004. The difference from Nitsch’s early body of work is vast. While one would be apt to compare the music of the Orgien Misterien Theater/Theater of Orgies and Mysteries (Nitsch’s performance platform since the ‘60s) to the orchestral version of Metal Machine Music, critics have described the work at Punta Campanella as positively Ivesian. Even more shocking is the disparity between this often-fragile music and the revoltingly graphic, Aktionist language Nitsch still uses to describe it. In one of the two essays included in the beautifully rendered liner notes, Nitsch speaks of the “dionysian excess [that] needs sound, wants noise,” the “tearing apart of skinned animal cadavers,” “guttural human screams,” “the noise of war and sexual craving,” finally comparing his music to “slimy, bloody, tepid, warm, soft intestines spilling out of a wound.”1
Not many people still speak of their art in this way. The idea of Gesamtkunswerk, of the total artwork that involves its audience fully and bodily, has fallen out of style in the era of postmodern distance. There’s something nostalgic in Nitsch’s words, harking back to a time when artists still thought it exciting to mutilate their bodies in a search for new depths of experience. Any mention of Nitsch immediately calls to mind his infamous aktions: orgiastic festivals where inebriated participants douse themselves in the blood of animals and re-enact crucifixions, with a band onstage producing a riotous noise that could only be measured in terms of volume and duration. Perhaps the fact that Nitsch’s music would evolve to its current sophistication is proof that the intensity of a human scream can only last for so long before drifting back to the realm of language and representation.
That isn’t to say that Nitsch’s art has weakened. Quite the contrary, it’s only gotten stronger. It has begun to store its primal rage during the music’s narrative only to release energy like bombs at crucial moments. The Sinfonia Punta Campanella begins with steadily elongated strings periodically broken by the cavernous hits of a gong. The music continues to gather force with the addition of flutes, brass, and woodwinds, surging forward with terror and majesty. A caesura opens up with the introduction of chiming percussion effects, surely meant to evoke imagery of church bells and religious ecstasy. But as the strings continue to well in the background, the suite reaches levels of near-impenetrability as the entire Orchestra Xenarmonica del Conservatoria hits the peak of their crescendo. Everything suddenly halts to make way for a group of sinister sounding tubas. Then, almost laughably, Nitsch introduces a sprightly theme straight out of a European marching band. Percussion continues to flail in the background, spluttering aimlessly across floor toms and cymbals, but can’t withstand the maudlin sentimentality of this belated theme that swallows everything around it with trumpeting grandeur. Nothing like this has ever been heard before in Nitsch’s music: a coherent melodic line that is not only allowed to persist above the ensemble’s din, but even guides the piece as its major motif. We hear it in different instrumental constellations, sometimes isolated, at others played simultaneously as the performers phase in and out of tempo. It is stunningly beautiful in its simplicity, its insistent repetition.
Perhaps Nitsch had a tear in his eye as he finally suffered the indignities of premeditated and carefully rehearsed composition. But for all that the scream is still present. It is there in the yearning of the viola and the crashes of the gong. The forty-two piece ensemble seems to be calling out to the listener with bittersweet impotence. Nitsch, of course, gets his revenge. By the symphony’s third movement, the lilting theme is all but abandoned in favor of screeching whistles, dense spectralism, and chaotic masses of detuned strings. The performers seem to be gnashing the melody apart with their teeth, beating it to death with their bows, silencing it like a bad memory with each thundering bass drum. With a brief funerary oration in the fourth movement, Nitsch proclaims that Melody is dead; the allegorical aspect of his music is obvious as the rest of this hour-long suite devotes itself to elongated brass tones played at uncompromising volume, their vibrato like an elephant’s. At this point, though, the perfidious scent of culture is too strong to simply fade back to bestiality. The Sinfonia Punta Campanella is not an umediated wail borne out of animalistic spontaneity. It is the image of this wail: a masterfully composed scream, tempered by an artist’s hand. As Theodor Adorno once wrote: “Talent is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage.”2
1 Hermann Nitsch, “The O.M. Theatre’s Music,” in liner notes to Sinfonia Punta Campanella.
2 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (Verso, 2005), 109.
Hermann Nitsch - Sinfonia Punta Campanella (Fondazione Morra, 2004)
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