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Encounters

Ari Benjamin Meyers makes the Paris Opera dance

A new space for new music — By Solène Souriau

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 composer.


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 alone.

Symphony X, 2012. K21, Düsseldorf, 2014
Symphony X, 2012. K21, Düsseldorf, 2014 © Esther Schipper Gallery, Berlin

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?

In 2007, I was musical director for Il Tempo del Postino, a work combining music and fine arts, with director Hans Ulrich Obrist and artist Philippe Parreno. They asked various artists like Olafur Eliasson, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Pierre Huyghe and Tino Sehgal to think about a new form of exhibition freed from the traditional museum and art gallery framework. I learnt a lot from that experience. Contemporary artists have invented some extraordinary spaces whilst composers remain blocked and don’t seem able to go beyond the concert framework. Music has always been remote from contemporary art's reflections. The very idea that a piece of music could be presented and exposed somewhere is something radical. More often than not, music is mediated by other arts like video.
Symphony X, 2012. KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2014
Symphony X, 2012. KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2014 © Esther Schipper Gallery, Berlin

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

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