Listen with your eyes

Sound design at the 2019 Ruhrtriennale festival

From 21 August to 29 September, the Ruhrtriennale festival hosted 35 productions and projects at 14 locations in the Ruhr area of Germany. The second cycle under the directorship of Stefanie Carp, this year’s edition was by no means received with unanimous enthusiasm. But among the many examples of work blending art and technology, two outstanding productions were shown in Bochum that made enduring impressions – not only with their acoustic concepts – and deserve closer consideration.

The opening premiere of this year’s Ruhrtriennale festival, “Nach den letzten Tagen.

Ein Spätabend”, directed by Christoph Marthaler, staged an imaginary parliament. The members repeated speeches from the past (from the time before the First World War) and recently held speeches as well as giving speeches of an imagined near future. Musically, the evening was dedicated to Jewish composers from the Czech Republic, Poland and Austria. Some of the pieces were performed or composed in Theresienstadt concentration camp. Ulrich Fussenegger adapted the pieces and orchestrated them anew to highlight the disparate situation in Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The first part of the production is taken up with the staged speeches, full of antisemitic and racist ideology; the second part focuses on the music. Marthaler chose the main lecture hall of the Ruhr University, Bochum, as his venue. Built in the 1970s, its open, circular shape was conceived to create a common public space with no hierarchy. In 1998, a Klais concert organ was inaugurated here. The round of the risers was interrupted to install it, and the space divided into a stage area and an auditorium. Visitors usually sit facing the organ. Marthaler created an ingenious spatial installation by placing the audience in the semi-circle around the organ facing what are commonly thought to be the best seats, in Block A. In addition, he changed the access to the hall. Instead of approaching via the grand staircase in the foyer, the audience entered from the ground-floor side corridors, level with the performance area.

The lecture hall has 1750 seats. The set was designed to ensure that any additional technology or fittings were not visible. Benjamin Zurheide, the festival’s technical director, told us that the initial plan had been to build a seating riser in the central area, as the performers would operate in opposite seating blocks and their performance needed to bridge the 40 m between the blocks. To ensure presence across this distance, sound designer Thomas Wegner paid special attention to the positioning the acoustic signals, digitally adjusting the time correction levels to the speakers. The acoustic situation was further complicated by the audience sitting in a semi-circular, concave arrangement while the stage platform is used in a convex arrangement. An oval of trusses provided the only suspension points. In this situation, the speakers needed to be positioned so that the acoustic signals could be located almost equally well from all the seats, and the acoustic location is constant at the various listening points.

More speakers were hidden in the seating rows. This enabled the audience to identify who was talking even in scenes where several people speak. The voices and instruments were all electro-acoustically amplified. Wegner’s aim was to have artificial acoustics where you could not detect the speakers. That meant not only emitting the level, panorama and delay of the acoustic signals via the speakers so that they are plausibly perceptible at the listening locations but creating the illusion that the signal is not coming from the speaker at the same time.

To achieve this, Wegner drew on psychoacoustic research, taking not only the acoustic source, transmission and listening location into consideration but also the contexts of the acoustic signals. Some switched-off microphones are used as props. The mere gesture of speaking into the microphone makes it clear who is speaking and that it is loud. Whispering, which would otherwise not be noticed, is perceived by the audience as whispering because of the gesture or the context of the scene.

Evolution as a circular process

“Evolution”, by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and his independent theatre and production ensemble Proton Theater, was staged in Bochum’s Jahrhunderthalle, a disused industrial plant. This production combined the past, present and future in a fearsome triptych.

In the first part of “Evolution”, we see a proscenium stage equipped like a gas chamber. Three men are cleaning it – in vain – while a requiem plays, composed by György Ligeti in 1965 for soloists, choir and orchestra. At the end of the first part, we suddenly hear a baby crying. The men find the baby under the floor of the gas chamber, take her into their midst, and are framed by three arches of water shooting out of the floor. The baby is Eva, born in Auschwitz. In the second part, we see her in her kitchen in Budapest – later flooded by a deluge of water – in dialogue with her daughter Lena. This scene takes place behind half-closed blinds but is filmed and projected in close-up to the right and left of the stage. In the third part we see Jonas, Lena’s son and Eva’s grandson. He is thumbing his smartphone; the thread of the chat is projected on to the stage. The youngsters’ exchange culminates in antisemitic codes such as Pinocchio images and train metaphors. In the end, the stage space opens to reveal the entire length of the hall. Here, projected laser beams create an approach through which the choir walks forward before eventually disappearing through the laser walls at the sides. All that remains in the middle at the front is a revolving globe, blue with white clouds.

Zurheide says that Mundruczó wanted to avoid a classic orchestra-pit-and-stage situation at all costs. The solution was to perform throughout the hall, which required rethinking the entire interplay between art, technology and safety. When the Jahrhunderthalle was converted into a venue for the Ruhrtriennale in 2002, it was divided into three halls, separated by variable walls. For “Evolution”, Mundroczó chose hall 3 for the stage and seating risers and took hall 2 and part of hall 3 on the right for the orchestra and choir. A 3m-high platform built for the choir created a shell or amphitheatre-like arrangement, which focused the sound towards the audience and stage space.

The biggest challenge was agreeing between the coproducing teams of the Proton Theater, the Bochum Symphony Orchestra and Ruhrtriennale festival if and how the choir should move and when the music should be live and when it should be pre-recorded. This of course led to questions about the acoustic setup, since the choir and orchestra could clearly be heard live from the right in the first and second parts while the pre-recordings came from the PA at the front.

Here, again, it is interesting how Wegner, the sound designer, and sound engineer Sandro Grizzo combined physical and psycho-acoustic aspects with directing considerations. In the second scene, the chamber drama involving mother and daughter is shown as a film. We see the kitchen with a radio in it while a recording of the requiem comes out of the speakers. The scene’s plausibility, which stems from the coincidence of images and sound at the beginning of the scene, carries the entire second part so that the change between frontally emitted recordings and live music played at the side does not leave the audience confused about where the sound is coming from.

The third part opens the stage set, built of lasers and dry ice, on to the entire depth of the hall. The choir walks forwards through it. It would not normally be audible from its starting distance, but the audience nevertheless hears singing. Thanks to the successful sound concept, the audience is not confused but accept what they hear as the sound of the approaching choir.

The list of equipment for this production is long. Not only the sound concept was complex, elaborate stage and riser structures were required as well as remote-controlled smartphones and iPads, a deluge of water to destroy the set at the end of the second part, and laser installations for the finale. Yet all this technical effort was not at all noticeable to the audience.


BTR Ausgabe 5 2019
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 116
von Antje Grajetzky