The Magic behind the Madness

24 07 2008
Interview with Walter Nussbaum, head of the Heidelberg Prinzhorn Composition Project
What prompted the idea to commission musical settings of texts from the Prinzhorn Collection?

The Prinzhorn Museum approached us and asked whether we could provide the music for the opening of the museum in 2001. We thought it would be a good idea to perform works inspired by the Prinzhorn Collection. The result was so encouraging that we decided to try and make more out of it. Subsequently we commissioned 25 compositions. The project ends next year. Hessian Radio has recorded all the works and we want to issue them in CD form. At present we’re looking for a label.

How did the composers respond to the suggestion of setting artworks from the Prinzhorn Collection to music?

They were very responsive. Most of them realised that these pictures and texts are highly suggestive. There was no question of investigating the illness involved. Only the texts were important and the composers were deeply affected by them. One composer hesitated because he felt it might be indiscreet to approach the works in this way, but he quickly realised that only the texts were important for the composition, not the course of the illness or the tragic fate of the individual artist.

Where do you see the specific stimulus in artistic adaptations or settings of this kind?

First in the chain of associations set off by the texts and the pictures, which are highly stimulating in themselves. Then in the fact that here one is dealing with texts that are not seamlessly logical but refracted and fragmented. The question then is what does a composer make of it? When he sets a normal poem he has a formal structure to engage with, which he can either reflect or explode. But the Prinzhorn texts confront him with the task of finding a new form that does not fit in with a logical structure and hence dismantles it in a different sense. The results have been highly intriguing and the composers differ in their approaches. Steffen Schleiermacher uses a prepared piano and five voices to create a highly personal sonic world that is both fascinating and unnerving. Caspar Johannes Walter uses musical glasses and electronic devices to create a sound world that consummately matches the texts. He would not have composed in that way if he had been setting an ordinary text. In the fantastic world that takes shape in this way he attempts to find congenial expression for the text without just tracing its course musically.

Do the settings have anything in common with one another?

The responses are highly individual, some composers have been inspired by the pictures, though most of them have responded to the texts. One composer uses only the numbers produced by one of the Prinzhorn artists.

In Germany the project has achieved recognition not least through the participation of the radio and the festival in Witten. Has there been any international response?

We performed Schleiermacher’s Prinzhorn setting in South Korea and we are hoping that the Flanders Festival will feature some of the works. We are very happy to have been able to come such a long way and to bring this project to fruition.

How was the project financed?

Partly by the Federal Culture Foundation, the New Chamber Music Festival in Witten also made a contribution, the Prinzhorn Collection itself funded one of the commissions and the City of Heidelberg has been generous with its support. The next thing we’re planning is a madrigal project due to begin next year and also involving commissions for new works.
Rainer Köhl
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