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Line Tjørnhøj


Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier

In enTmenschT, Danish composer Line Tjørnhøj weaves together the interwoven words of four ill-fated lovers amidst the devastation of the two world wars. The narrative features the complex romantic entanglements of the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon and the war-traumatized, radical voice teacher Alfred Wolfsohn – and the complications following expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka’s obsessive love for the composer, writer, and socialite Alma Mahler. These tales of emotion in extremis are drawn into a modern context of environmental destruction, refugeeism, and the divide between our digital and offline selves. An exceptional exploration of the human voice as a window to the soul.

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Theathre of Voices performing enTmenschT by Line Tjørnhøj (2018) © Anders Bigum
enTmenschT is a piece that must be seen and heard. Dacapo's recording allows one to fully grasp the Theatre of Voices' amazing performance
Gianni Morelenbaum Gualberto, Disorder at the Border
The ensemble sings, sighs, moans and screams out the inhumanity - so for the listener it is both transgressive and absolutely breathtaking and (with the thought of the war in Europe) thematically relevant
Ivan Rod, Ivan Rod
A total experience of fragmented singing, speech, distortion, noise, breathing, speaking, screaming, hacking, moaning and more
Valdemar Lønsted, Information
In a natural and transparent singing, with spontaneous and direct expression, the members of the Theater of Voices cry out in anguish, whisper and moan
Carme Miró, Sonograma Magazine
Theatre of Voices sings with pathos and precision
Liam Cagney, Gramophone
Total runtime: 
60 min.

Excerpt from performance of enTmenschT by Theatre of Voices and Paul Hillier

Unknowable Selves

By Tim Rutherford-Johnson

In October 1943, the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon was deported from the south of France, where she was living in exile, and sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed by the Nazis. A highly original artist, she is best known for Leben? oder Theater?, a ‘singspiel’ of 769 autobiographical paintings collected in the form of a book. Edited, arranged narratively and overlaid with captions and other texts, as well as suggestions for musical accompaniments, Leben? oder Theater? is a massive creation – the single largest work of art created by a Jewish artist during the Holocaust. Multilayered and multi-referential, it is sometimes described as the first graphic novel and contains meditations on art, philosophy, creativity, life, death and family, as well as descriptions (in pseudonymous terms) of Salomon’s affair with the radical singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn, who numbered Salomon’s stepmother, the contralto Paulina Salomon-Lindberg, among his pupils.

Since the first publication of her work in 1963, Salomon has been a cult figure in the art world, and in recent years has been the subject of films, novels and scholarly studies. Many of the details of Salomon’s life can only be surmised from the semi-fictional pages of Leben? oder Theater?. But in 2015 a new document emerged that transformed our understanding. This was a letter to Wolfsohn – never sent – in which Salomon describes the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her grandfather, Ludwig Grünwald. Both Grünwald’s wife and two daughters (including Salomon’s mother) had died by suicide; as the journalist Toni Bentley wrote in a profile of Salomon for The New Yorker magazine in 2017, Grünwald’s abuse ‘likely spanned generations’. More shockingly still, however, Salomon’s letter also appeared to contain a confession that she had killed Grünwald, poisoning him with the barbiturate Veronal. As he died in front of her, she coolly sketched a portrait of him, writing at the same time in her letter, ‘It [the poison] is acting as I write. Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me.’

In 1914, thirty years before Salomon’s death, another tumultuous affair between two artists was coming to an end. After the death of her first husband, Gustav Mahler, in 1911, the composer, muse and socialite Alma Mahler began an affair with the Austrian expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka. Their relationship was passionate and artistically fruitful: Mahler modelled many times for Kokoschka, and his finest painting, The Bride of the Wind, is a depiction of the two of them lying together. But it was also emotionally exhausting. Kokoschka was a demanding, possessive lover (when she had an abortion after becoming pregnant by him, he never recovered emotionally). For her part, at the outbreak of the First World War she urged him to enlist in the Austro-Hungarian army, seeing in it a way to end their relationship.

When Mahler married the architect Walter Gropius in 1915, Kokoschka was distraught. Still obsessively in love, he sought an unusual and disturbing solution to his heartbreak: a life-size doll commissioned from the Munich doll maker Hermine Moos, to be made exactly in Mahler’s image, to his precise specifications. ‘If you are able to carry out this task as I would wish,’ he wrote to her, ‘to deceive me with such magic that when I see it and touch it imagine that I have the woman of my dreams in front of me, then dear Fräulein Moos, I will be eternally indebted to your skills of invention and your womanly sensitivity.’ When the doll arrived, however, it was a disaster: not nearly lifelike enough, Kokoschka viewed it as a monster. Although it served as a model for several subsequent paintings, in 1919 he beheaded it at the end of a drunken party, breaking a bottle of red wine over its head and finally severing himself from his obsession.

What emerges from both these stories of human emotion in extremis is a break between the public image of the artist – murdered Jew, expressionist master – and a disturbing private one. Drawn separately to the tales of each doomed couple, Line Tjørnhøj brought them together in her song cycle/installation/drama enTmenschT as examples of the unknowability of the authentic self. Both stories force their protagonists into situations of extreme emotional distress, out of which a surprising – and distressing – truth is uncovered. Both stories are enmeshed with the technological brutality of the early twentieth century and the two world wars, but Tjørnhøj draws them into our present times, in which environmental destruction, refugeeism and the divide between digital and offline selves present similar challenges to the recovery of our authentic humanity.

The site of that humanity, Tjørnhøj argues, is the voice. ‘The voice is a metonymy for the authentic human or authentic person’, she says. ‘There is such an evident signature in the voice. We recognise each other by the voice, and we can tell if someone is truthful or not by the sound of their voice.’ This is true, she says, even for the voices of exceptionally trained professional singers like the Theatre of Voices. Even when they sing beautifully and classically, or groan and hiss and whisper – as they often have to do in this music – their voices reflect who they are as people. The voice can also open pathways to personal or psychological truths that have otherwise been concealed. Traumatised by his experiences as a stretcher-bearer in the First World War, Wolfsohn developed methods of singing and vocalisation as a form of psychotherapy. His students were encouraged to extend the range and expression of their voices in every possible way – including screaming – as a means to access and heal their own traumas.

Only one voice in enTmenschT does not offer such a pathway, and deliberately so: the voice of Tjørnhøj herself, projected through texts that are read by a digital computer voice. In its occasionally awkward rhythms and strangely soporific intonation, this voice is clearly unnatural: but it represents the perspective of the contemporary artist participating with and alongside the historical stories. In the stage version of enTmenschT, Tjørnhøj was further present – as both artist and character – in a series of sculptures by the artist Signe Klejs that were installed on stage with the singers. For Tjørnhøj these were not only visual counterparts to the sung music, but in modelling for Klejs as Mahler would have done for Kokoschka, they offered a way for her to understand a little of their relationship. While Tjørnhøj was not present through her voice, then, she was through her direct experience of being the model for an artwork.

enTmenschT is not a narrative drama in any typical sense but rather reorganises moments from the two couples’ biographies along an emotional timeline. The work’s libretto – apart from the two computer speeches – is derived from the words of the four doomed lovers themselves, including the two fateful letters written by Salomon to Wolfsohn and by Kokoschka to Moos. Two early scenes, #suicidal and #puppetry, establish the crux of each story: in the first, accompanied by her grandmother (depressed and burdened with guilt) and her grandfather (misogynistic and hypocritical), Salomon considers killing her abuser; in the second, Kokoschka specifies to Hermine Moos the materials to be used in making the Mahler-doll. In both, the sung voice is paramount, whether the model is opera (in the case of the first scene) or madrigal (in the case of the second). After a computer-narrated #explanation, however, the integrity of the voice begins to collapse in #ifwarisanindustryhowcantherebepeace. Made up as a collage of fragmented texts and raw expressive sounds, this movement bears resemblance to the Dadaistic sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters, as well as recalling Wolfsohn’s experiments in psychotherapeutic vocalisation. As a non-singing performer, Theater of Voices’ conductor Paul Hillier is required to bark instructions (somewhat in Wolfsohn’s manner, one imagines) for how the others should sing: ‘Listen! Attack! Scream!’.

In the gentler duo #thebeastinside, mezzo and tenor sing words from Salomon and Wolfsohn’s letters to each other. It is remarkable, Tjørnhøj notes, that they often used the same words even in different letters. In this way, they become like one voice, a fact that the composer emphasises by braiding their musical lines together at those points when they echo each other, and teasing them apart when they don’t. The singers are mostly still ‘singing’ in the classical sense, but already their voices are becoming torn open into pants and groans at the ends of phrases. As the story enters its final phase, however, ‘classical’ singing increasingly gives way to more elemental vocal sounds – and so the authentic voices of the singers, and the characters they play – come increasingly to the fore.

#joy is a melody of ecstatic breathing; #licht fractures the voices into a crystalline structure of interlocking noises: hisses, overtones, isolated phonemes. In #throwbacks, the most complex movement of the piece, texts from Salomon and Wolfsohn’s letters return – articulated now in the form of hand drawn graphic scores in pen and thick charcoal whose crude and wandering lines resemble the painted lettering of Leben? oder Theater?, or Kokoschka’s expressionistic fantasies. These are followed by whispered words by Kokoschka and Mahler from the end of their relationship. Hillier returns in a speaking role, performing the graphic scores in partnership with the baritone (ending with a clinical reading of the titles of some of Kokoschka’s paintings: The Doll, The Beloved, The Fetish, The Silent Woman) before reciting a final, ironic German children’s rhyme: ‘Oh dear, it’s over, the end, finished, oh dear, get your handkerchiefs out.’ With the #lament with which the work ends, the voices are finally reduced to a tapestry of sighs and whistles. As their song dissolves into little more than the passing of air through a throat, we catch a glimpse, perhaps, of their humanity at its most exposed.

Release date: 
May 2023
Cat. No.: 
Track count: 


Recorded at Trinitatis Kirke, Copenhagen, on 15–18 August 2022
Original tracks for #lament and #licht recorded by Morten Olsen, 2018

Recording producer: Preben Iwan
Engineering, editing, mixing and mastering: Preben Iwan

℗ & © 2023 Dacapo Records, Copenhagen

Unknowable Selves, by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, translated from the English by Jakob Levinsen
Proofreaders: Jens Fink-Jensen, Hayden Jones
Cover sculpture and installation © Signe Klejs
Cover photo © Kåre Viemose

Publisher: Edition·S,

enTmenschTis dedicated to Theatre of Voices and Paul Hillier.

Theatre of Voices is supported by the Danish Arts Foundation and Holbæk Municipality,

With support from Augustinus Fonden and Solistforeningen af 1921