Karawane has been jointly commissioned by Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic / Alan Gilbert, Music Director with the generous support of Marie-Josée Kravis, Bamberger Symphoniker and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
When it became clear that the first performance of the new piece would take place in Zurich I felt that I’d like to find a connection to the 20th century cultural history of the city, and decided to study the Dada movement which was born in Zurich 1916. Soon I settled for perhaps the best known Dada poem (or “Lautpoesie”, “Sound Poetry” as it was called) by Hugo Ball, the founder of Dada, author of the Dada Manifesto, and the central figure in all the activities of Cabaret Voltaire, the first forum of the early dadaists.
Karawane is a short poem, consisting of 17 lines of synthetic language. I say “language” despite the fact that from a strict point of view of linguistics it cannot be described as such as it lacks the most important element of a language: the process of semiosis to relate signs with particular meanings. Yet, Ball’s Sound Poetry is capable of evoking vivid images - intended by the author or not. In his own words: “I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows . . . Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn't let too many words out.”
What makes the case of “Karawane” intriguing is that in the miniature novel Tenderenda der Phantast (published posthumously 1967) Ball describes the poem as “Schilderung einer Elefantenkarawane aus dem weltberüchtigten Zyklus “gadij beri bimba” (Description of a convoy of elephants), whereas at the time of the original Dada Manifesto (1916) no reference to any “meaning” occurred. Again as Ball puts it: “I don't want words that other people have invented. All the words are other people's inventions.”
Here I must deviate a bit and mention that in “Tenderenda”, just before Karawane is presented, a highly bizarre gestalt appears: Der Verwesungsdirigent, conductor of decay, a decomposer. A distant colleague, I imagine.
I found the idea of a convoy of heavy animals, jolifants - a travelling circus most likely - oddly fascinating. I started to imagine a circus lost in time and space, in endless slow motion through strange landscapes towards the next performance with or without audience, no purpose other than keeping moving. (I believe most musicians after some decades on the road can relate to the idea.)
Therefore, the form and narrative of Karawane are cyclical, a bit like climbing up a mountain where you see the same landscape again after every rotation, but from a different angle and distance. Familiar but not identical shapes. In this case, the mountain slope could be something like the stairs in Escher’s lithograph Ascending and Descending, where people are doomed to walking endlessly going neither up or down - or both at the same time.
Karawane consists of two parts, which start almost identically: a crowd speaking or whispering lines of the poem, stopping and starting again until words become music. This is another Swiss homage in the piece: memory of a collaboration with Cristoph Marthaler some years ago in Salzburg.
From time to time this massive cortège gains momentum, but mostly the kinetic energy and pulse dissolve after a while into something more diffuse, quiet and dreamy. I’m mostly using the poem as phonetic material, sounds without a particular semantic content, but there are episodes where the choir sings entire lines of Ball’s text as a chant, a simple melodic line rotating slowly around a few small intervals. Sometimes the choir sings long phrases on single vowels, thus becoming instruments of the orchestra.
Here is a simple road map for the journey:
1) Very low sounds. Chorus speaks lines frm Karawane. I wrote the following instruction in the score: An illusion of a distant mass of people. A circus audience perhaps? Pizzicato chords interrupt the rumble, music gains speed until we hear the word “Karawane” sung for the first time.
2) Pizzicati solidify into a walking bass figure upon which a chant-like rendering of the first half of the entire poem is heard.
3) Regular pulse melts away. A dreamy, cloud-like episode starts. If there can be a pastoral in the 21st century, this could be one. The movement accelerates very gradually into a virtuosic fast section. The choir writing resembles scat style. It stops very abruptly
4) as a rhythmic unisono section starts. It is obvious, but I will say it here nevertheless: this music is heavily influenced by the Balinese Ramayana Monkey Chant, better known as Kecak. This very complex and irregular rhythm becomes simpler and regular in the next section
5) where the chorus sings the second half of the poem. Same music as in no. 2, but faster and more evolved. The 1st part culminates on words “kusa gauma” and “ba-umf” after which the chorus remains silent until the end of the movement. The orchestra takes over with a massive brass chorale, which extinguishes itself quickly to make room for
6) a long, melancholy cello solo. All movement slows down to a stasis. At the end we hear a lonely, sad piccolo fragment. Night.
1) New beginning. The crowd is back, this time whispering. Music gains energy gradually through accelerandi and tempo modulations until
2) a stable fast tempo has been reached. Sopranos and altos produce loud shrieks on the word “hej” (Swedish?) accompanied by a police whistle. A crazy, semi-chaotic circus atmosphere. The chorus chants the entire poem from beginning to end for the first and only time in the piece accompanied by a manic drum set.
3) A sudden, complete change of temperature. The light pizzicato rhythms of the beginning have become heavy and full. A feeling of some kind of ritual in slow motion. Out of it grows
4) a second Kecak, longer and more evolved than the first one. The men of the choir are shouting in the beginning. The piece reaches its maximum speed and volume.
5) A slow melody, already familiar from before, is heard fortissimo above a hammering trochee rhythm. Tempo slows down further.
6) The choir sings the word “Karawane” two more times. The piece ends jubilantly.
I will give the last word to Hugo Ball himself: How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada.
Los Angeles, August 2014
Hugo Ball: Karawane (Lautgedicht)
jolifanto bambla ô falli bambla
großiga m'pfa habla horem
higo bloiko russula huju
ü üü ü
schampa wulla wussa ólobo
hej tatta gôrem
wulubu ssubudu uluw ssubudu
tumba ba- umf
ba - umf