For his first production at
the Paris Opera, the artist-choreographer Tino Sehgal has collaborated with the
composer Ari Benjamin Meyers whose original music for eight musicians was
created for this occasion. An eclectic figure on the contemporary music
scene, equally at home in opera houses
and on the Berlin club scene, Ari Benjamin Meyers has no hesitation in defying
convention and, like Tino Sehgal, offers here a new kind of artistic
experience. In the pit, electric guitars and basses shake the walls of the
Palais Garnier alongside cellos and percussion. Encounter with a new breed of
How was the project born?
I’ve been a friend of Tino Sehgal’s for eighteen years. I’ve composed for his choreographic pieces just as he has collaborated in the conception of several of my projects, notably Symphony X. When he suggested I wrote something for a new production at the Paris Opera, veritable temple of classical dance, I admit I was rather surprised. We have both worked a lot outside the establishment. Today I see this project as a comeback. At this point in our careers it is interesting to return and work in places that are bastions of tradition and with such strong social and historical associations. The experience has turned out to be really interesting: there is a new generation at the Paris Opera who are shaking things up.
So it was the meeting between the artist and the opera house that prompted you to compose for this work?
Tino Sehgal is an artist
who flouts codes and conventions. Inviting him to an institution that is such
an eternal symbol of those conventions and traditions is in itself a way of
challenging them. I took his proposition very seriously. Together we thought
about what ballet means today, for ourselves and for the public. I share Tino
Sehgal’s conception: we have both tried to create new spaces and to break
through the frontiers separating the spectator and the performer and offer a
new way of listening to music. The force of the project lies in the encounter
between the work and the place. That’s why I chose to mix classical instruments
and recorded material, to adopt scoring halfway between rock group and chamber
orchestra and to use highly technological equipment. The sight of that
equipment in the pit of the Opera Garnier creates a powerful contrast. We are
not used to hearing that at the Opera, in terms of volume and amplification
You have a fairly atypical background. Your name is almost better known in the field of fine arts; you have a contract with an art gallery (Esther Schipper, the same gallery as Tino Sehgal) and your works are performed more often in museums than in concert halls. However, you have also been invited to some prestigious opera houses and you have written three operas. Where does it come from, this diversity that is at the heart of your work?
Opera remains for me the most accomplished musical form for a composer, even today. In one sense, it is even the most social. It is the only form capable of creating its own universe, a universe where people can sing and not speak to each other. I’m struggling to rehabilitate opera as the ultimate contemporary art form. The same goes for ballet. There is nothing purer than the universe engendered by ballet: a universe in which movement is the sole mode of expression. What could be more authentic and primitive in the noble sense of the term? On the other hand, I enjoy questioning the institutions, the places that house these forms. It is indispensable to question what those monuments signify for us today. What are we doing today in these structures? You can create the most revolutionary, the most radical piece in the world, but in a place like the Paris Opera, it will still be regulated by a series of coded, ritualised actions that maintain established frontiers and separate the interpreter from the spectator. In such a situation, how far are we capable of creating an innovative project? In my view, new music cannot exist without new spaces to engender new audiences and perhaps even a new musician. The architect Cedric Price talked about Fun Palace. I also like the term Kunsthalle which would refer to a centre for contemporary art in which the exits and entrances, the movement of the public, would be freer and more fluid.
Did the idea of creating a new space for music come from your association with fine arts and your work on “new” objects with contemporary artists?
How does writing for the opera differ from writing for the ballet?
The composition of an opera
is a much more personal and intimate activity. You can work with your
collaborators but an opera remains an autonomous and independent work. On the
other hand, scores for contemporary dance can be very open and flexible. They
can be transformed in the course of performance, and improvisation plays a very
important role in the creation of the music. The composition of (sans titre) (2016) is situated between
these two processes. I began by proposing musical sequences and he came back to
me with suggestions. We continued this exchange regularly during rehearsals. In
a sense, our collaboration back and forth, remains very classical.
What were Tino Sehgal’s intentions? Did he guide you by giving you themes or directions to explore?
It’s less a question of
themes than of concepts. For us, the piece had to question the relationship
between people and technology, the machine and the individual. We live in a
hyper-connected world and we wanted to give the ballet a strongly technological
dimension, not only as regards choreography but also in its musical treatment.
We also worked on the idea of a remix, the idea of an original version which
had been altered, modified over time. What does that produce and how do you
make something new with pre-existing material? Isn’t that what we’re doing at
the Paris Opera: with the classical dancers of the Ballet and the opera singers
with the repertoire?
Interviewed by Solène Souriau
Translated from the french by Richard Neel