Ø – Episode 6
- Trond Reinholdtsen
with obbligato “Liberté” cries and occasional inaudible contemporary music ensemble, simultaneous live hermeneutic analysis by Opera Director and unexpected Breaking-of-Fourth-Wall-Post-Performance
Ø is the mathematical notation for an “empty set.” Since 2009 I have been the dictatorial opera director of The Norwegian Opra (www.thenorwegianopra.no, a kind of private Bayreuth situated in my own living room), serving as composer, director, scenographer, ticketmaster, restaurant chef, Workers’ Union Leader, and so forth. The aim was, through a radical minimising of the format, and following Marx’s ideal of “total control over the means of production,” to seek a more open and flexible music dramatic genre, freed of pragmatic and institutional worries. The Norwegian Opra indulged in a deep-felt investigation of the question: What is artistic freedom?
In 2015, the institution relocated to a villa in Sweden for a more radical disconnection from the System and there, in the cellar, began a potentially infinite operatic narrative under the name Ø, which will be continued until the death of the composer (or longer). The house will be part of a gradually evolving scenography where smashing holes through the floors and the building of installations on the roof is part of the ongoing artistic development. The sixth episode was premiered in Donaueschinger Musiktage 2015. It is a celebration and a critical investigation of the theories of freedom of the nineteenth-century French utopian socialist Charles Fourier.
Simultaneously with the opera film an ensemble piece with an unknown name will be played. The style is “mainstream contemporary music.” The piece is possibly written by the three half-posthuman protagonists of Ø, which could explain its dubious artistic quality (where the hypothesis is that the one with the purple head wrote the algorithmically composed Liberté beginning, the one with the pink head wrote the esoteric Inaudible Music parts, and the one with the yellow head wrote the overly emotional Grosse crescendi), but this is just speculation.
A demiurge against his will
Trond Reinholdtsen is not concerned with music understood as the creation of original, refined, or meaningful compositions. His works cannot be experienced based on aesthetic interest in the succession of notes. On that level, Reinholdtsen practices pastiche, stylisation, variation, and superimposed repetitions, mutually amplified and looped ad absurdum; or more simply, nonsense. His music always sounds “as if,” in a spiral of successive roles and references, parodistic quotes and deconstructions. Besides extensive costumes and scenographies, visual installations, video and PowerPoint presentations, and the absorbing stage presence of Reinholdtsen himself, the succession of sounds constitutes merely one of the work’s elements—actually not the most important one.
His music is also not exclusively about embodying extramusical concepts, although Reinholdtsen does that with panache. The combination of his considerable erudition, academic training, and wit triggers a veritable conceptual centrifuge. Philosophical projects, sociological diagnoses, and political manifestos spin alongside personal insights into music and art history, autobiographical confessions, and ruthless analysis of the relationships between the event’s participants, Marx, Fourier, Husserl, Badiou, Debord, and Fukuyama are quoted with full conviction; yet subsequent attempts at applying the arguments and postulates of that criticism of the modern economic and political order in Reinholdtsen’s creative practice turn out to be consistent—if amusing—failures. Driven by the composer’s continuous need for critical autoreection, the whirl of ideas, associations, jokes and declarations, as entertaining as they are, does not fully justify Reinholdtsen’s undertakings. Their impetus would seem to escape the elevated machinery of academic scrutiny. Yet there is method in that madness, revealing, in the eye of the storm, the true topic of Reinholdtsen’s music. Indeed, he is concerned with music as an occupation, a process, an action de ned artistically and assessed by the social, cultural, and political system. His works are primarily performances: events in which the breakneck process of music making is revealed, in the sense of performing a determined composition, establishing the relationships between participants of the process, and more importantly, assigning importance and value to those actions. Despite all his efforts of erudite direction and autocritical obsession, Reinholdtsen’s successive compositions appear to blindly run to the limit, where it turns out that within music understood as a practice and a system in its current shape, the final authority to determine the meaning and value of actions, however anachronic that may seem, is the composer’s authority as Creator and his/her capacity to operate the process of meaning attribution. Perhaps Reinholdtsen’s most interesting achievement is therefore his use of music, and especially the position it bestows upon the composer, to turn the critical blade towards the moving narratives and scholarly interpretations, caught in flagranti.
Despite the irony of his references to Richard Wagner and the joke of his modern rescaling of the Bayreuth project into his own “Norwegian Opra,” it is precisely the Romantic notion of genius composer that lies at the heart of Trond Reinholdtsen’s creative quest. The fundamental tension or even drama driving his work exists between the heightened consciousness of subjectivity in crisis, or more broadly, the anthropocentric paradigm, and the paradoxical recognition of the composer’s own role—or perhaps vocation—in the character of the charismatic lunatic, the demiurge able to disclose the true nature of things and lead his accolites to the liberating Change. In addressing the issues of creative freedom and potential, artistic authority, the right to speak and participate in the public space, and finally, distinguishing one’s own will and the possibility of imposing it on others, Reinholdtsen triggers the kaleidoscope of Romantic irony, which endlessly reiterates mirror images of prank and deadly seriousness, play and horror, usurpation and responsibility. As a result, the need to escape from the System, take over full control over the means and processes of production, initiate a revolutionary fervor of work, so often declared by Reinholdtsen and embodied in The Norwegian Opra project, can be reduced to the fundamental question of the composer’s right to a superhuman condition despite the collapse of the vision of Progress and Liberation.
I suggest, in a spirit close to Reinholdtsen’s ludic play, to look at his work as a critical identification of current reality. Postmodernism and late capitalism, within the cosy enclaves of academia and the scientific system, have enabled us to develop a full panoply of competing cognitive concepts and strategies, loop ourselves in selfcriticism, make ourselves at home in di used subjectivity. On the other hand, the crisis has revealed the superficiality and helplessness of our intellectual adventure, facing us with an o -criticised political, social, and cultural model for which we have still developed no alternative. As Trond Reinholdtsen points out, the only plausible strategy for acting and actively aiming for change in these circumstances is believing in the power of genius, with full acknowledgement of the resulting ridicule.
Reinholdtsen masks his genius game with stage amboyance, the lightness and brio of the situations he depicts, his dramaturgic bravura and cruel autoirony. At first sight, his works are messy wundercameras built from the simplest blocks, dazzling cabinets of curiosities full of striking anecdotes and surprising references, whose effectiveness, however, collapses as soon as they are presented. The ammassed material, narratives, concepts and sound constructions, social relationships, and even the physical presence of performers, appear mortally redundant. It is only the composer’s inexorable stage activity that infects them with energy, pushes to action, triggers a dazzling light, which however crumbles again and drops dead. The realities and worlds created by Reinholdtsen implode, but the composer appears to be oblivious of his successive fiascos. On the contrary, he announces with the same optimism: “ The next episode will be much easier to understand, more jolly and with higher artistic quality.”1
Since 2015, the work of Reinholdtsen and The Norwegian Opra he founded focus on the Ø project, an opera cycle that transcends both Wagner and Stockhausen in the audacity of its premise. So far, fifteen episodes have been created, with the last three premiered at this year’s Munich Biennale. Successive episodes are meticulously edited video recordings, presenting the actions of Reinholdtsen and a small group of his collaborators (including Snorre Hvamen, Øystein Hvamen Rasmussen, Sofia Jarnberg, and Tobias Schülke), undertaken in a small Swedish provincial town. Some are in stage or concert form, presented at festivals as video projections with the participation of musicians, the composer, a sound and lights director, scenography and costumes, as in the case of Ø – Episode 6. Other episodes are merely videos of a few minutes, published on YouTube. In Ø, Reinholdtsen develops a cosmogonic drama of emerging existence, consciousness, will, and creative power. We follow the destinies of three characters identified by huge polyurethane foam masks. Using this foam, as well as earth, water, fire, and living plants, Reinholdtsen crafts the closed world of Ø, which the large-headed protagonists gradually modify and extend. The original emptiness and endlessness successively morph into a wild jungle, garden, desert, and when his protagonists gain consciousness and creative characteristics, they discover a phantasmagoric blue tunnel, leading from the black chamber of existence to another room: a blindingly white lab. The protagonists’ action are driven by a desire to learn the rules governing their world, and when they become aware of its limitations and closedness, they rush to find a way of opening it. The most promising road toward Change appears to be, of course, artistic creation and the organisation of an event that will finally liberate them from the black and white rooms, connected with the fantasy umbilical cord of the blue tunnel. Can they ever succeed? We shall see: Reinholdtsen announces that the cycle “will be continued until the death of the composer (or longer).”
1 Trond Reinholdtsen, Ø Episode 11, see http://www.thenorwegianopra.no/.