The event has been announced as a “Metzgete”, named after Switzerland’s traditional meat-eating celebration held during the annual autumn slaughtering season. And since the first three rows of the audience have been given butcher’s aprons, the audience is naturally in a state of some trepidation that blood might truly flow today. Even the stage setup suggests that the participants will be pitted against each other instead of working in harmony. To the right on the semicircular stage of the Gare du Nord in Basel, there stand a harpsichord and four music stands, waiting for the musicians of the local Baroque orchestra, La Cetra. To the left, heavy steel spirals hang from the ceiling; beneath them stands a bucket of debris and, behind it, a laptop. That’s the workplace of the sound artist FM Einheit from Dortmund (real name: Frank-Martin Strauss). Between these two poles, a lonely microphone awaits Erika Stucky. This 55-year-old singer, with roots in both San Francisco and Canton Valais, is the instigator-cum-mediator of this clash of sound-worlds.
Noise and music
There were certainly times when her own initial euphoria gave her cause for alarm, says Stucky during a conversation before the opening night of this “downsized” version of Papito (it was performed last summer featuring the countertenor Andreas Scholl and a bigger ensemble). After all, it’s only really during the rehearsals that you find out if such a daring combination can work on stage. But she never doubted for a second that she’d find a common denominator with FM Einheit. He’s four years her elder, and made his name in the 1980s as a member of the industrial-avant-garde ensemble “Einstürzende Neubauten” that explored the boundaries between noise and music. He agrees with her, adding “We understand each other intuitively. We don’t have to talk everything to death”.
An angelic chorus and a rubber hammer
The Gare du Nord is sold out tonight. And the opening number already offers the audience a taste of how the wordless dialogue is going to play out between these two highly expressive artists. Stucky demonstrates the equanimity of a great jazz singer in the eight strophes of the lullaby Hush little baby, don't say a word, sung with her back to the audience; and during this, FM Einheit maltreats his assorted utensils with a cordless drill. Sometimes he strikes the bigger of the two spirals with a rubber hammer, and the whole hall seems to tremble. But this man in black with the snow-white hair isn’t just an expert in musical gross motor skills, as it were – he is also responsible for the harmonic sound fields heard in this opening piece. They are controlled from his computer, and they oscillate between the sounds of angelic choruses and a synthesizer. The “real” strings of La Cetra are barely noticeable as yet; the four musicians only slowly work their way into the sound cosmos currently dominated by Erika Stucky and FM Einheit.
Childhood memories and daydreams
In Stucky’s own composition Flamingo Town, the cello (Bernadette Köbele) takes on the bass role. Unlike the version on the album, this setting of childhood memories isn’t at all elegiac in performance, but lascivious and bluesy instead. The violins (Lathika Vithanage and Christoph Rudolf) nestle into chords that are no less colourful for being merely sketched out. Stucky’s voice strolls through the 90-minute programme like an amazed visitor in an exotic garden, and briefly threatens to overwhelm the muted string instruments. But it is precisely at moments like these that a kind of frictional heat seems to emerge between the sounds we hear, and this brings the programme down to earth from its occasionally all-too dreamy reverie.
When the sparkling harpsichord (Johannes Keller) comes up against the seething industrial bubbling in Randy Newman’s Marie, these instruments – divided by centuries of music history – circle each other and then ultimately unite. Erika Stucky’s experiment has truly come off. Now this artist (the designation “singer” is inadequate in view of her theatrical abilities) only has to establish the link to her father, to whom the work is dedicated.
Butchery and politics
In this, the crown that Stucky is wearing offers a starting point – it’s made of dried pigs’ ears. Her father Bruno was a butcher – but a high-class butcher, she insists, far removed from any whiff of the slaughterhouse. Her piece has no political intentions, she says, even though she knows full well that it’s “not hip at all any more” to eat meat. But then, with a conspiratorial glance, she says: “You know, I just love a good steak”.
On stage, she links her father’s sausage production to the gut strings of the Baroque instruments, and announces: “That all makes sense to me; I’m delighted if you can keep up with the half of it”. To be sure, Papito is so packed full of information that it’s impossible to grasp every subtlety in this mixture of singing, sound effects and ensemble work. What’s more, videos are running continuously (a collection of Barbies, then an old family video and even, once, the heart of an animal), and Stucky skilfully uses the projector to transform her own silhouette into fairy-tale shadow figures.
Mountain landscapes and the big city
It’s only in the encores that the mists of melancholy lift, when Stucky takes to the accordion, yodelling as she does so. One might see this as a concession to functioning traditions, but it is in fact a nod to the audience, who have been following this restless artist for more than 30 years, regardless of the idiosyncrasy of the terrain she traverses. And while Erika Stucky and La Cetra let the mountain landscapes of the Valais resound – now reinforced by the spirited singing of the conductor and arranger Knut Jensen – FM Einheit brings big-city walls tumbling down in a dusty tumult. But this somehow fits too.