Kafka, Kurtag, Dunlop and existence in every word, every note: An interview with soprano Stacie Dunlop

Stacie Dunlop’s ongoing crusade for the composition and public performance of contemporary vocal music hits Toronto on Saturday, May 10 with Gyorgy Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments at Toronto’s Gallery 345. Ms. Dunlop’s longstanding intention is to challenge her listener’s multisensory being and to take her audience’s musical limitations for a long walk into new realms of existentially-rooted sound. It’s a tough task, since we live in a self-restricting world of popular music that does bonehead, volume, cliché, attitude –and often little else- to the max. The real stuff happens in that unpredictable place where a singer’s being is realized in voice that, through performance of exploratory music, achieves the singer’s existential meaning. This interview took place in April, 2014.

James Strecker: Stacie, let’s dive in deep. How naked do you find yourself when you sing your chosen modern repertoire? I ask that because the Kafka Fragments suggests, to me, both the dread of being completely exposed and, on the other hand, a rushing to and hungering for the complete nakedness it dreads. This paradox isn’t easy stuff to live in. So what happens to you as you sing it?

Stacie Dunlop: I don’t know if naked is the way to describe the way I feel when performing this work -or any contemporary work for that matter- but in a sense you do “bare all” in front of the audience. Perhaps “vulnerable” is a better way to put it, because the work requires extreme virtuosity of both the physical and dynamic range of the voice combined with complete mental concentration and emotional commitment. If you don’t have this all lined up and in focus during the performance, the possibilities of becoming unglued and falling off the rails is very possible, and this can make one feel extremely exposed. Luckily, I have an amazing collaborating partner, Andrea Neumann, and we have had the advantage of putting in many hours together in preparation for these performances of the Kafka Fragments, which I believe helps us to both to feel more “clothed”, and yet no less vulnerable, perhaps in fact maybe even more so.

JS: Let’s try this: I’m going to quote some of Kafka’s words that you’ll be performing on May 10 in Kafka Fragments and I’d like you to tell me what it’s like to enter this special author’s world and mind through each quotation.  Given that translation is an inherently inadequate art,  here are the quotes anyway, and please say a sentence or two about each one.

-“Once I broke my leg: it was the most wonderful experience of my life.”

SD: Pleasure in pain: there is something about Kafka’s fascination with all things painful, both on an emotional and a physical level, that speaks to me in this fragment. It seemed he relished in extreme experiences, particularly at the end of his life when he was dying a terrible death of tuberculosis of the throat. It was at this time when he appeared to be the most connected to his emotional state, as if only through this suffering could he have had this deep understanding into what pain truly was.

-“From a certain point on, there is no going back. That is the point to reach.”

SD: This is the fragment that speaks to me the most out of the 40, thus the title of our show: “No Going Back.” For me, in life, I feel that once you decide to go down a certain path, you must keep up this intention of forward movement, no matter what happens along the way. The path may take different turns and side roads along the journey, but it is the realization and embracing of the idea that once you start, you can’t turn back, that life is forever changed from the decisions you have made, and that’s what I find so powerful. Kafka was committed to staying the path, particularly in his writing and definitely in his love life, even if the prospect terrified him, which it often did especially when it came to the idea of perfection in love.

-“There is no ‘to have’, only a ‘to be’, a ‘to be’ longing for the last breath, for suffocation.”

SD: We are all in a constant state of suffering, as to live is to suffer and we need “to live” in the moment (“to be” in the moment). We can’t “have” the moment, we just have to be, but in this being we are suffering -and thus we are longing for the suffering to be over.

-“Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.”

SD: Kafka had this thing about sex. He both craved it and despised it, and despised himself for wanting it. He believed in love as a pure thing, and sex as something dirty, so to have a sexual relationship with someone he was in love with, or shared happiness with, was in fact marring the sanctity of this relationship.

-“I am dirty, Milena, endlessly dirty, that is why I make such a fuss about cleanliness. None sings as purely as those in deepest hell; it is their singing that we take for the singing of angels.”

SD: Kafka was tormented by the need to be pure. He went to all lengths to keep his body pure by eating a simple vegetarian diet, supplemented with copious amounts of milk, especially when he was ill. He was obsessed with the idea of purity in love, spending sometimes years in a chaste relationship to preserve this state of being and yet, at the same time, he had cravings of the body, which made him “dirty”. His carnal desires were satisfied by visits to brothels and this struggle between his desire and his idealistic view of what love should be was a never ending torment for him. He was living a double standard, but to the outside world he was seen as an angel.

JS: I’ve been following the score of Kafka Fragments on the internet, one that has an audio performance track synchronized with it and, as a result, I can try to read it as I hear it. Tell us how you figured out what exactly Kurtag wanted of you throughout this very complex and demanding score and how did he make each wish explicitly known?

SD: It’s funny because during the process of working on this piece during a residency at The Banff Centre, Andrea and I had the opportunity to work with Marco Blauww, a wonderful trumpet player, famous for his performances of Stockhausen’s music, who has spent quite a lot of time with Kurtág and knows his music well. We were working on a particularly challenging passage in the final fragment that called for mordents and other musical indications which I hadn’t had much experience using in the past, and I was feeling really at ends with the score. Marco’s suggestion was to look at the text, find the meaning behind it, and through that we would figure out what Kurtág was really trying to indicate with his notation. He told us that what was notated in the score was not what Kurtág wanted, but he had no other means to express his desires to the performers. So that is how we have worked through the piece, by looking at the meaning of the text, and making sure this meaning is being described in our interpretation of the musical gesture notated in the score.

JS: What was your first reaction to the work as a combination of writings and sound, and how did you change as a person and as an artist in order to develop the work to the state for performance it is in now?

SD: my first reaction was and sometimes my reaction still is: “OMG, what the hell have I gotten myself into, why torture myself with all of this work, is it really worth it?!” And then we perform it, and the audience is touched by this extraordinary piece, and it makes all the hours of toil 100% worth it. Have I changed as a person? Perhaps. I think I know myself better, and also how to communicate on a different level than I did before this undertaking. This is something I owe a huge part of to my collaborating partner because she has taught me so much during this adventure.

JS: How exactly does Kafka’s writing affect Kurtág’s music?

SD: Kurtág understood Kafka. Reactions we have had from the audience, especially from those familiar with Kafka’s writing, are that his music has deepened their understanding of Kafka’s text, even going as far to say that it has embodied the text and brought it to life.

JS: Are the vocal challenges –and pleasures- of Kafka Fragments different from those of others modern vocal works you’ve performed, say, Pierrot Lunaire? How did you prepare to perform this work?

SD: Everything in the Kafka Fragments is a vocal challenge, but the most interesting thing about the work is how it focuses and almost restricts the voice, due largely to the extreme dynamic range, but especially in the pianissimo. The pleasure is the vocal acrobatics required throughout the piece. I’ve always loved the circus and gymnastics and performing this piece is my own personal experience of a really great tumbling routine! It is different from any other vocal work because of two things: the collaborating instrument is a violin and the duration in performance is almost 70 minutes, so it is an endurance feat for mind and body of both performers. We prepare this work by many hours of practice, both on our own and together. We take sections apart, put them back together, use repetition and then run through things to make sure we have the whole picture. Then after each performance, we debrief, talk it through and make a game plan for the following rehearsal…it is never ending.

JS: What did you learn of Mr. Kafka from reading and singing these selections of his?

SD: I actually learned more by researching Kafka outside of the work, as these fragments are only a brief opening into his mind and not easily interpreted. But by learning about him as a person though the writing’s of others, I believe I do have a better understanding as to who he was. Franz Kafka was sensitive, passionate, neurotic, obsessive, intense, committed and definitely a little bit crazy. Let’s just say he was very easy to identify with.

JS: From the clips I’ve seen, Kafka Fragments needs to be experienced live and in person, rather one to one. Certainly, it’s an alien vocabulary to many classical music lovers, one of serious, unsettling exploration. I remember something Charles Wuorinen said to me, that the little old ladies who only come to Mozart concerts and can’t understand Wuorinen music, don’t understand Mozart either. So what do we have to know in order to understand first Mr. Kurtag and second Mr. Kafka.

SD: One thing: nothing. My friend brought a young student who had never been to a “contemporary” music concert before to our performance in Calgary. They were a bit antsy in the first part of the concert, but when the Kafka Fragments started, he sat there almost unmoving for the entire 70 minutes and afterwards leaned over to my friend and said “that was cool”. For some reason this is a work that takes you in and captivates the listener, no matter what your musical understanding or education. But I would agree, it is the live element that is part of the effect.

JS: The Fragments number 40 and take over an hour of linear time to perform. Apparently, Kurtág was quite systematic in creating this complexity of music over two years or so, and every page was carefully dated initially and then on revision. In turn, it seems that not one note or word takes a breather here and every passage is compact, unrelenting and driven. How do you, as the performer hold this very intense and uncompromisingly segmented work all together in your mind as a manageable entity of some kind? Or do you feel easy among all these fragments in an apparently anchorless world?

SD: Easy? Definitely not. It is, as I said before, a journey, one which Andrea and I undertake and support each other through from beginning to end. The pacing is informed by the nature of each fragment and we move forward in a way that has grown over time since we first undertook this project. There is now an ease that we feel when immersed in the performance, but easy is still not a word that I equate with this work.

JS: These fragments from Kafka originate in the writer’s diaries and letters that he wished to be destroyed after his death. His wishes were famously disregarded by Max Brod and I wonder how you feel about such invasion of privacy.

SD: I feel that it is not an invasion of privacy. Kafka was a public figure who had a great gift and he chose to share this gift with others through his novels and plays. While the fragments were taken from journals and letters from his “private” thoughts, they were also his art as I think you cannot separate the two. Not sharing this gift of his with the world would be a great shame.

JS: You’re an active influence in the creation of new music, having commissioned works from Canadian composers R. Murray Schafer, Harry Freedman, Juhan Puhm, Clark Ross, Scott Godin, Tawnie Olson and British composers Sam Hayden and Paul Whitty. What drives you to follow this road of choice, what’s at stake, and what do you achieve?

SD: I love to be the first voice of a new work and to sometimes even be the inspiration as to how a composer will set a work so that is specifically composed for what I can do with my voice. What’s at stake is that it becomes very personal and if the new work is not what I expect it to be, there can be issues between the composer and the performer and that can be very hard. But when it’s right, and communication is open and ideas flow, there can be some pretty amazing magic created. Musical creation is an incredible entity, not really comparable to any other art form, and it is such an honor to be the voice that brings a new work to life.

JS: You often wear the garb of a multidisciplinary artist who incorporates both theatre and visual arts into your productions. Am I accurate in assuming that this is because the modern vocal music you choose to sing is so conducive to a visual, physical element?

SD: Well, there are a few reasons to incorporate both theatre and visual arts into my productions. In the case of the Kafka Fragments, it is not a staged work, and yet somehow still a work of theatre. There is no story, but a journey is undertaken throughout the duration of the piece. As for visuals, like my last show, Rêve doux-amer, there are translations projected to assist the audience as the Kafka text is in German. It is also to help us get a visceral connection to Kafka, as these specific visuals, designed by Also Collective, use actual manuscripts of some of the fragments from Kafka’s journals and writings for the background images to the translations. It is not necessarily because it is “modern” music, that I am inspired to create a visual or theatrical element in my productions, as my last show had works on it of Debussy, rather I am hoping that the elements I choose will help make the works more accessible to the audience no matter what era they come from, and yet at the same time not be a distraction to overshadow them.

JS: What do you ask of your audience as they watch you perform this challenging and exciting  Kurtag-Kafka work?

SD: Again: Nothing. We invite them to come experience this music with us…that is all.

JS: What’s next for you?

SD: Ah, that is a multidimensional answer. Let’s just say that there are many pots cooking on the stove, and keep an eye on my website www.staciedunlop.com for upcoming performances and projects. In the short term however, I have my official premiere with Thin Edge New Music Collective on June 13th in Toronto’s Array space, performing 2 new works by Canadian composers, and then head to Montreal for a week of new works and premieres directly after that performance.

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