Hermann Nitsch's carefully choreographed performance art frequently involves cacophonous noise, buckets of blood and animal dismemberment, turning gory excess into ritualistic spectacle. This review originally appeared in The Wire 198 (August 2000).
Das 6-Tage-Spiel Des Orgien Mysterien Theaters Day 5
CORTICAL FOUNDATION ORGAN OF CORTI17 8XCD
Hermann Nitsch is perhaps the best known of the notorious Vienna Actionists. His carefully choreographed performance art frequently involves cacophonous noise, buckets of blood and animal dismemberment, turning gory excess into ritualistic spectacle. Nitsch's undoubted Gesamtkunstwerk is his Des Orgien Mysterien Theaters, a six-day 'play' that was first performed in its entirety in 1998 at the artist's Prinzendorf Castle, in his native Austria. The performance alternated periods of contemplative quiet with bellowing hullabaloo, and if listening to an eight CD recording from a single day is something of an endurance test, imagine how intensely exhausting the full event must have been. The OM Theater draws on a number of motifs from mythology, although on the pictorial evidence in this box, the crucifixion of Christ is a major reference. The set as a whole is an excellent production, with brief excerpts from the 300-odd page score, gloriously colourful photos (mostly bright red, inevitably, but some of flowers or tomatoes, not just blood), manifestos, a layout plan for the performance and what I assume is an incense stick.
Day five begins at the unsociable hour of 5am, with cosmically shuddering cymbals soon augmented by church bells, large gongs, cowbells, drums, rattles and whistles. Eventually, a soft drone helps weave it all together, and my wincing ears begin to feel slightly more cheerful. Further relief comes in the form of some Gregorian chant, which again is ultimately overtaken by a rich drone texture. Moments like this show Nitsch's talents to lie in more than just visceral excess, and there are many of them. Later in the morning, as brass bands tootle merrily, the rumbling entrance of a military tank shows Nitsch is not short on ambition. The music moves on through blood-curdling trombones into huge fog clouds of blaring noise, and eventually some unsettling choral wailing. There's little in the way of subtlety, but Nitsch's music is often impressively dense and beautiful.
Most of the day builds on these ingredients, heading towards a cathartic climax in late afternoon. In the response it provokes, I'm oddly reminded of minimalist music, in that only prolonged exposure and repetition really allows the mind to perceive things in a new way. Derangement and enlightenment is certainly Nitsch's aim.
Some of the noise that he generates is as much an aural blast-cleaner as the likes of Merzbow or The New Blockaders. More often though, his string, wind, brass and percussion orchestras (and 90 voice chorus) create reasonably sophisticated dissonance not unlike the music of Cornelius Cardew or other post-indeterminate avant garde composers. Some violently twisty-turny string instrument contortions during an 'action in the stable' would certainly do the likes of Ligeti or Penderecki proud. This ability to switch between deafening torrents of sound, pointillistic hooting and gorgeous choral chants produces a very diverse and fertile experience. As the piece gradually develops towards the climax, a great sense of restraint is applied. It takes two or three discs to document this period, and although it's tough to sit through it all at once, it's an energising, moving experience. In one section, an expectant drone provides the backdrop while horns and drums generate tension. In the next, Ligeti-like strings add an anxious edge, but it's some time before things get really tumultuous and unbearable. Even then, there are breaks and changes in the cacophony, and once it's all over the incongruous brass band returns to provide post-orgasmic relief.
Much of the album resembles an ethnographic field recording, with the music occasionally receding to leave the sounds of the spectators, farmyard animals, or people in the distance protesting against the whole bloody enterprise. Occasionally, the results are unfocused and fairly pointless, but generally the documentary approach adds considerably to the recording's appeal, and the recording quality is consistently excellent.
Shortly after lunchtime, the contrast between measured chanting, geese honking, snatches of speech, and what at first sounds like a protester's airhorn, undoubtedly adds a sense of occasion to an otherwise fairly bland section. In the early evening, birdsong and the background laughter of spectators provide an interesting accompaniment to yet more Gregorian chant. After midnight, while the participants drink wine in the castle's gardens and fields, conversation and insect chittering overlap with stark, icy slabs of string quintet drone. This provides some of the best music of the album, a shrill presence that's simply overpowering. Nitsch's notoriety and the extremity of his vision tend to obscure the reality of his work. He's undoubtedly searching for mystical and psychological transformation, for ways to use art and performance to explore ritual, sacrifice and Bacchanalian celebration in the modern world. But it's possible (and, with an audio-only documentary such as this, unavoidable) to separate the actuality of his work from the rhetoric and intention. This excellently packaged recording deserves a wider audience ‹ perhaps people can begin to ignore the gore, forget the notoriety and evaluate Nitsch alongside other outsider figures of the 20th century such as Harry Partch. Day 5 is a valuable chance to hear in depth the work of a unique artist.