So, last night to the Royal Opera House, to see a performance of Kafka Fragments, by György Kurtág, with Peter Manning on violin and Claire Bloom soprano, the piece staged by Netia Jones.
It is a strange piece (and how could it not be?), that takes 40 short passages from Kafka and makes of them what you might call a song cycle, though you would be hard pushed to find any kind of narrative or development, as you might in Die Shöne Müllerin or Winterreise, for example
One or two pieces are repeated, in altered settings. Perhaps that is the closest you get to some kind of inner structure.
The settings are at once virtuosic and disjointed, as if to show that these texts demand a supreme and indeed extreme effort in order to find in them, catch and then hold onto a single clear meaning.
The music – violin and voice – jumps about like a landed fish.
The shortest pieces last mere seconds – the very shortest consists of a single word, “Ruhelos” (restless) repeated twice. It made me think a little of Napalm Death, the thrash metal band known for the brevity and intensity of their songs, especially as on the second ‘Ruhelos’ Bloom collapses to the floor.
The stage is bare, but for two chairs and – at the front, house right – Manning’s little lit corner, with music stand and violin cases (he had two violins, or a violin and viola, that he swapped between. why?) and – on the other side, hidden in the shadows – Jones, sat at her MacBook, controlling her projections.
The projections give us the text, and some imagery, abstract, geometric, figurative, sent behind or onto Bloom.
The whole thing is monochrome, very austere. Far more restrained than some of the other settings I have seen written about or on YouTube.
For some reason I had assumed that the texts would be from the collection of fragments that I have in a book called The Zürau Aphorisms (Harvill, Secker 1996, translated by Michael Hofmann), but they weren’t – only eight of them were, though including the most famous (“In the struggle between you and the world, back the world”, “Leopards break into the temple…”)
Other texts are taken from Kafka’s diaries and letters. Including some I recognised, such as ‘Scene in a Tram’. And some I didn’t: for example, the fabulous
The onlookers freeze as the train goes past.
Which reminds me of something that came to me, once, long ago, stood on the platform at Balham train station, as I watched my reflection jump and jerk about as a train sped past: that this image – of the reflection stuttering and flickering (the word today would be glitching) though the subject remains motionless – is the urban, semi-alienated equivalent of the road movie trope, where the subject, motionless in the car, moves through the landscape.
The performance made clear to me one thing: how little I understand the violin – as an instrument, or a solo instrument at any rate. I know what it does as part of a string section, where the many instruments blend into one, but the sounds a single violin makes are unclassifiable, protean, slippery. So much is going on in terms of bowing, fingering, harmonics, that is just beyond my ken, whereas I would think that I can look at someone playing, say, a woodwind instrument, and know what they are doing. So different from the many instruments in which the pitch of the note is fixed, caught, and so rationalised. There is something irrational about the nature of sound produced from it.
I often can’t tell if a violin is being played well or not.
Bloom suddenly turns sexy in the ‘Scene in a Tram’, impersonating, one assumes, the dancer Eduardova, who “travels in the tram, as everywhere else, in the company of two vigorous violinists whom she makes play often”. She takes off her tailored jacket and moves across the whole stage – the piece lasts four minutes or so – making some assertive, almost flamenco-like dance moves.
Things get weirder still in the final piece, which starts “The moonlit night dazzled us” and ends “We crawled through the dust, a pair of snakes.” In fact, Bloom sings the whole piece as she slides across the stage on her belly. At over six minutes it is one of only four pieces from the cycle longer than three minutes. She ends up at the feet of Manning, almost twirled around him, as he finishes the piece, looking up at him rather as the snake in the Garden of Eden might look if it had entered the body of a child. Seeing as the singer and violinist had scarcely interacted with each other over the whole performance – Manning occasionally ended a piece with a flourish of the bow or violin towards Bloom – it made for a very disturbing ending. (“Everybody finds it improper” – ‘Scene in a Tram’) I would have been very disturbed, were I he, to have this woman looking up at me like this.
There is something very sexual about any kind of performance, artistic or even perhaps athletic, any demonstration of virtuosity. Bloom’s dance and her slither are only the clearest manifestation of this. I don’t mean that it is like a dance of seduction, as Salome to King Herod, but rather that I imagine the performer doing it for their lover, in the bedroom, naked, why not? as a kind of erotic gift, a performance of whatever comes after seduction, when the moment of seduction is past. It might come after sex, rather than before it.
Perhaps I don’t mean sexual, perhaps I mean erotic. In the sense that what is erotic is freely given. There is something about the virtuoso performance, as we saw from both Manning and Bloom tonight, that is freely given to us (once we have paid our entrance, of course). If they give it freely to the audience, then I would want, I would desire – were I Bloom’s lover, or Manning’s – I would want them to give it freely to me, too, and seeing as the bedroom is where – ideally – things are most freely given and taken in a relationship, that is where I would want the performance to be… where I would want to give my performance, had I one to give.