Sound Theater. Reflections on the Work of Thomas Pernes
by Hans-Dieter Klein
Traditional music theater, namely the opera, was and is the musical version of a text. Arnold Schönberg, however, in his preface to "Erwartung" ("Expectation"), distanced himself from that concept. In its place he formulated a program "to make music with the means of the stage". That means that the elements of theater, such as language, mime, gesture, movement, and light, are organized in such a way that beyond their conventional internal order, they exhibit a specifically musical order. That, for example, is the case when materials that are not primarily musical are ordered according to the serial technique, a specifically musical form. Contemporary poetry and prose has also known such experiments by literary artists. Analogously, when the materials of the stage are joined in a specifically musical form, one can say that "music is made with the means of the stage". One is here confronted with a basic question that arose in a particularly radical form in connection with the Darmstadt experimentalists and with Cage. Is the question "What is music?" to be answered on the basis of the materials? If yes, then one could define music as art with acoustic materials. But through the above-mentioned experiments of the 1950s and ´60s and also through Schönberg, we have come to realize that music cannot be defined on the basis of materials as such. Music can, for example, also be made from light or language without sounds and noises.
Radical music has thus always, for example, in the case of Beethoven, provoked the polemic question: Is that still music? That question can only be answered when an answer is available to the more basic question: What is music in gereral? That basic question arises anew whenever musical discussion becomes serious. Whereas other composers continue the operatic tradition or the literary opera, Thomas Pernes, in his sound theater, attempts further to develop Schönberg´s concept, that is, "to make music with the means of the stage". That occurs, for example, in that the form inherent in the essence of sounds becomes visible as action. What happens on the stage is a change in space. Sound, for its part, is space-filling energy: it spreads itself out from a center, it shakes not only hearts but also the floor and rattles the glasses in the storage cabinet. In shaping the spacial dynamic inherent in sound, Pernes shows sound itself to be a theatrical participant. Thus music proves itself to be inherently theatrical, even before it is set to a stage action in a narrower sense; and vice versa, the stage reveals itself to be musically structured. By demonstrating this connection, Pernes succeeds in "making music with the means of the stage", without having to impose on the stage action an external and abstract form borrowed from music.
It is evident that in this way all elements (text, sound, melody, light, and movement) must be allowed to exhibit their own dynamic. Thus they cannot be subordinated to the action, as is the case in the opera. It is essential that all these dynamics develop autonomously. That precludes, for example, a linear synchronization of text, sung melody, and accompaniment, as occurs in the opera. The materials are not subordinated to an external unity. A unity arises rather from the freedom of each single moment, an idea reminiscent of Hegel. Hegel, with textual fragments, is drawn in as "co-librettist", to speak in defamiliarized terms. This nonexternal unity generates itself freely and spontaneously from the individual dynamic of the parts, and thus it precludes what is commonly called "style". Thomas Pernes rejects the notion of style and is in that regard also in agreement with Schönberg. In his well-known essay, "Style and Idea", Schönberg stated that the unity of the work of art is not be sought in the will to style but arises rather by itself from the thought that gives it adequate embodiment.
The impossibility of uniting artistic integrity with will to style led Thomas Pernes to break rank with the mainstream of avantgarde music at the point where it began to cultivate its own style, thereby compromising its own principles. In his sound theater, as well as in his other works, Thomas Pernes attempts to restore the spirit of new music by utilizing other approaches, such jazz or quotations of traditional gestures, and by following the individual dynamics of those approaches. Thus the string quartet "Diese zerbrochene Zeit" ("This Broken Time") is upon first hearing deceptively reminiscent of Schubert. But closer listening reveals, as substantiated also by analysis, that this music, for example in its harmony, follows laws entirely different from those of Schubert´s music. When Thomas Pernes speaks about sound theater as representation or reproduction of reality, one should think not only superficially of the everyday elements such as sound, fragments of conversation, thought, and quotation that are built into the montage. It is rather and above all the unity that arises paradoxically from disparate and divergent elements and their individual motions that corresponds in its dialectical structure to reality. As Hegel says about reality and truth, so too is the sound theater "the Baccahanalisn revel in which no member is not drunk". - Hans-Dieter Klein, Dr. phil. Translated by Beth Bjorklund