PATHOS AND EMBARRASSMENT
– on Niels Rønholdt’s song cycle Me Quitte by Sanne Krogh Groth
“In Me Quitte I make a complete fool of myself. I was certain that this would be the last work I would ever compose. Making these songs is in itself embarrasing and going just too far, even if they are so definitively cast in a conceptual construct. But the actual material, it’s just so...”
(Niels Rønsholdt, March 2016)
In Me Quitte (2012-13) Niels Rønsholdt has taken his starting point in Jacques Brel’s (1929‑78) chanson Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me) 1959. Jacques Brel was a Belgian-French singer-songwriter, later actor and director, especially well known for his chansons. Brel’s songs are political and humorous but also, like the best known of his chansons, Ne Me Quitte Pas, romantic and lyrical. The songs have been performed by artistes all over the world in both translated and French versions, but Brel’s own performances of the songs remain unique. In his version of Ne Me Quitte Pas we sense behind the words and notes a longing and desperation in the performance. Brel’s sobbing voice is so credible that the listener finds it hard not to empathize with the heart-rending performance. But at the same time, the performance, for all its gripping French pathos, becomes a cliché, dripping with sentimentality, unrequited love and -red-checked -Parisian tablecloths.
In Me Quitte Rønsholdt has found the inspiration for his concept and his material in this French chanson. “Love is beautiful – obviously,” says Rønsholdt; “but it also leaves destructive tracks in our lives. And it is the source of as much strife and unhappiness as of the good. But in popular culture, and perhaps as a legacy of Christian religiosity, only the person who speaks through love is considered good. In any given ‘now’, we are perhaps either just before or just after finding the ‘one and only’. But when we achieve love, it is as if we enter a paradisiac state where everything is happiness. I am very much of the opinion that the way we associate love so strongly with happiness is established in popular culture. And for me its breeding-ground is to be found in the chanson; it contains all of it – Paris, romance, ideal love etc. That is why I take that music, but turn it around so that in a way you see it inverted, in the magician’s dis-torting mirror: love as a kind of demonic power that seduces with a beautiful exterior, but turns out to involve the opposite, destruction. Just as the Antichrist is the inversion of the good, this in a way is the opposite of the love song, the chanson. That’s why the title, too, is a kind of inversion, only the negation is removed. And that’s why I sing myself – my powerlessness on the stage is an inversion of the crooner’s engaging virtuosity.”
Rønsholdt – as he himself puts it – has composed “the best songs I possibly could – sort of without distance. They aren’t just pastiches. They have to be devoid of irony – I wanted to get as close to the material as possible.” The close relationship with the material is to be found not only in the composition process, but also in the performance of the work: “I see it rather as a kind of method acting – that is, I have taken on a role as crooner and chanson composer. Minimizing the distance to the material creates a situation where the identification becomes so strong that the separation between what is me and what is the role is effaced.”
Rønsholdt’s text consists of the words of Ne Me Quitte Pas, but in Me Quitte they are scattered in fragments over all ten songs. The frag-ments are unrecognizable, since they are sung backwards. As part of the preparation and rehearsal process, Rønsholdt recorded his own tunes, played them back back-wards and transcribed them. Then he added text fragments to these -inverted tunes. He recorded these inverted songs and afterwards -reversed the recording again and arrived at the desired result: -Rønsholdt’s lyrical tunes with Brel’s fragmented text – sung back-wards.
This final recording became a tool with three purposes: to draft the score, to rehearse the nonsense text, and to study and transfer ‘the sound of back-wards’. By doing so, the initial -attack of the sounds is removed so that they appear instead as in small ‘crescendos’. Rønsholdt transfers the manipulated sounds to his composition for acoustic voices and instruments. All that remains of electronic manipulation is the backward piano at the beginning of the work. However, the specific concrete sound continues in the instrumentation, where it lives in the form of instrumental vinyl noise – the clattering sounds of ‘prepared piano’, bows on violin cases, knocking on guitar cases and scraping on drum skins. In the singing voices, too, a concrete sound aesthetic is established in the form of harshness in the tone and brittleness in the phrasing. One especially hears this concrete sound aesthetic in the composer’s own voice, which is neither taught nor trained as convention normally demands.
At the same time, the music is performed as if it is an abstraction in itself, with pathos-soaked instrumentations, yearning melodies, dramatic dynamics, and fervent phrasing. This expression contrasts with the concrete sound universe that lurks both rhythmically and tonally in and behind the lyrical, seductive verses.
The contrast is strongest in the last song, where a drum intervenes with powerful beats in the campfire-like idyll that the two singers, one now with a guitar, try to establish. “It’s a massacre of the phenomenon ‘a song’ and the demonic is formulated quite unmistakably,” Rønsholdt says..
Rønsholdt uses this contrast to present two concepts in the music. On the one hand, he turns imaginary Hollywood love inside out. On the other hand, the music itself is subjected to powerful resistance.
In this approach lies what Rønsholdt himself has identified as the core of his work: “My whole practice is in many ways to get to the essence of things. This is driven by a critique of contemporary music, which, as I experience it, is characterized by a layer of distance; for example a distance in the craftsmanship through an excessive focus on structures, in the way the music is performed, and a distance from any content. But then what is actually the content of music?”
For Rønsholdt the exploration of this issue becomes a search for a mode of expression that does not hide behind too many layers and which appeals directly to the audience. By cultivating a pathos bordering on the expressively banal in works that are relatively simply composed, he embarks on a journey where the exploration of limits is not only of musical forms but also of the actual situation in which they are performed. In this process, the relationship with the audience comes to play a special role.
In his effort to establish a situation where a closeness to the audience can potentially arise, ‘the embarrassing’ comes to play a central role: “When something feels embarrassing, it’s because it’s true. At the moment when an embarrassing situa-tion arises between two people, it’s because there’s some truth that they realize: ‘This just won’t work,’ for example. For example, if we are on a blind date and there’s an embarrassing silence, that moment contains a truth. It’s embarrassing because it’s true. And it’s true because we both know that nothing will come of this.”
On the new experimental music scenes, people like to imagine that anything goes, but there, too, conventions prevail that can be transgressed, so that the embar-rassing can be provoked. For example, it’s embarrassing when somebody takes over the stage because they have the power to do so, but perhaps lack the ability. It is therefore embarrassing that Rønsholdt as a composer insists on performing his own work, even though he is an amateur singer, while the rest of the ensemble (and the culture in general) consists of professionally trained musicians. It is also embarrassing to introduce pathos and fervency on a stage where intellect, subtlety and intertextuality are the prevailing forms of language. And it is embarrassing when for example in the one-man opera Word for Word Rønsholdt chooses to be staged in nylon stockings, tied to a chair.
As a member of the audience I have experienced embarrassment on his behalf, and have, as a consequence, not felt entirely comfortable in the situation. Why does Rønsholdt, for instance, go for banal music when there are a wealth of other ways to go? Why does he take off his shirt when I’m sitting only a metre from him? Why does he bring a submissive, half-naked, young woman on to the stage with him and thus directly provoke the feminist in me? Why does he have to go so far? But amidst all this embarrassment I feel surrounded by a framework that doesn’t let the embarrassment develop into panic. The resis-tance in the captivating melodies, the clear formal musical devices, and Rønsholdt’s insistent performance make me want to stay and experience the embarrassment with him. To feel my way towards it, to explore it, and listen to it, and to find out where it takes me. This is precisely where Rønsholdt differs from Brel.
With Rønsholdt we are not to be seduced by emotional dreams of the unattai-nable. Instead, there is a shuddering clarity in the situation itself that we feel in our bodies – whether it is the awkward format of the concert, the problematic abstrac-tion of the music, or the hopeless -human relations that form the conceptual focus of the work.
“Embarrassment is a sincere feeling. If we feel something we have arrived at something.”
Sanne Krogh Groth is Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Copenhagen (2010). She is currently affiliated at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, conducting the research project “Composers on Stage” concerning 21st century composers. She is also, since 2011, editor-in-chief of the online journal Seismograf.org.
Me Quitte is published by Edition·S and is available in versions for either ensemble or orchestra. It can be performed as a full cycle or in smaller sets of songs.