The journey that has led me to my work between classical music and jazz, between the Romantic Kunstlied and the jazz standard, and subsequently to this research began in 2011, when I made the acquaintance of mathias rüegg, a composer, arranger and pianist, and the founder and leader of the jazz big band Vienna Art Orchestra. At that time, I was studying voice in Vienna and rüegg was writing music for the Big Apple Circus in New York, for which he was re-arranging lieder by Franz Schubert. He asked me if I could sing these arrangements via Skype for the director of the circus. I happily agreed, not knowing that this would be the beginning of my artistic journey between musical genres – between lied and song. As I sang Der Lindenbaum and Wegweiser via Skype, the idea of adapting and transferring Schubert’s cycle of songs Winterreise into a different musical context was born. I crossed over into a very different practice, approaching the lied as I would approach jazz songs, while at the same time pushing my limits as a jazz interpreter as I immersed myself in the Winterreise. Through this repertoire and the process of discovering my artistic identity between classical and jazz ideals, I was constantly challenged: as a singer, performer and as an individual.
“Though it's just a simple melody,
With nothing fancy, nothing much
You could turn it to a symphony
A Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch”
The lyrics of the song Prelude to a kiss* inspired me throughout the process, encouraging me to interpret a lied as a song, between different sound ideals, genres and their practices. When George Gershwin met Alban Berg in Vienna in 1928, they each played their works for each other. According to Alex Ross, confronted with the difference between their musical styles, Berg would have said to Gershwin, that "music is music“, in spite of what Ross describes as the emergence in the twentieth century of an "enormous variety of genres, cultures and subcultures [...], each of them carrying their own rules, sound ideals and practices."* Berg reminds me that regardless of genre, practices or sound ideals, that music itself, a simple melody notated in signs and symbols, is the common ground, that connects us as musicians coming from different musical backgrounds.
Nevertheless, it was not easy for me to find my way amongst different sound ideals, rules, aesthetics, modes of presentation, the social codes on and off stage, like the audience ordering drinks or food during a concert in a jazz club, whereas background noise in a classical concert is minimized as much as possible, or in a rehearsal in a jazz context in which it is common to 'count in' to set the tempo for the piece of music, which in a rehearsal of a classical music setting would be indicated through looking at eachother or breathing; there are different ways of agreeing on and expecting pre-set ideals regarding interpretations, for example, in the classical context this might be mirrored in approaching a piece of music under the premise of “Werktreue” whereas in a jazz context, improvisation using specific scales and phrasing might be the way of approaching the piece; or clapping rules, for instance, an audience in a jazz club is used to clap after a solo during a song, which would be considered disturbing in a classical concert. In a classical Liederabend setting, the audience would not expect the singer to share personal anecdotes between lieder; in a jazz concert, however, the audience would want them to.
It dawned on me that performing across musical genres means so much more than just interpreting the lieder/songs*. It also means combining, enacting and re-enacting ways of being and behaving considered typical within these different genres. I always repeat and perform more than the repertoire I chose.
Through performing music, the chosen body of work, we are not only repeating and interpreting the music but repeating and interpreting ways of performing it.
This photo was taken by Robert Ragan at Porgy & Bess, Jazz & Music Club in Vienna during the concert of The Schumann Song Book
This photo was taken by Michael Göd at Philharmonie in Cologne during the concert of Dichterliebe Extended
This got me thinking about the way in which I am shaped by the repertoire that I perform, but also about the way I can expand the way I perform it through the way I am and behave on stage. Approaching lieder with the background as a jazz interpreter, has challenged me to find, not only, my interpretation of the lieder/songs but to rethink my role(s) as the singer on stage between classical music and jazz scenes. More and more I found myself wanting to stretch the boundaries of genre-specific structures by creating moments of connection and relationships with the audience, my fellow musicians and myself during the performance regardless of genre-specific ideals and expectations.
My process of adapting, interpreting 55 Kunstlieder by Schubert, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms resulted in a trilogy called The Great European Song Book released by Lotus Records in 2020 and is composed of A Winter's Journey (2017), The Schumann Song Book (2017) and The Brahms Song Book (2019). Over the past years, this process has given rise to questions and experiences that now follow me wherever I go. For instance, in the concerts of The Great European Song Book, there were these moments on stage when, before or after a song or lied, I shared personal stories, experiences, thoughts. Every once in a while, such moments would lead to a heightened awareness for the audience, a moment of connection between the audience and I. What happens in these moments? What stories did I tell and how did I tell them? How did these stories relate to the performance of the music? What do I communicate with, through, in - and outside of the lied, the song, the piece of music. Is the audience listening to the chosen body of work or to what I want to communicate through it?
In this research I introduce the The Great European Song Book, briefly describing the processes leading to the creation of the project, and then discussing in a second chapter, what it means to interpret and perform within and beyond a musical genre. In other words, focusing on the role of the singer, in particular on the moments on stage between the songs – the open space between one piece of music and another – I reconsider notions of interpretation and performance, which acquire new meaning when embedded in the context of a crossover repertoire between classical music and jazz performance. Among other questions, I look at what it can possibly mean to interpret pieces of music within a changing context and how interpretation is always connected to an act of repetition. I take a look at different ways of performing Schubert's Winterreise including examples, that have inspired me to find my interpretation regarding the way of performing this repertoire. With it I want to lead the focus to being on stage and on ways of performing the moments between the songs to the moments when I’m not singing. To investigate this further, I analyze myself performing talking on stage between the songs in a performance of The Great European Songbook in Ljubjana in November 2021. Through this analysis I became aware of the constant commentary running through my mind on as well as off stage, this layer of self-consciousness that keeps creating narratives around and of my behavior, my life and my self on stage. To conclude, I integrate my reflections and this inner voice into an autobiographical piece of creative writing, in which I explore the boundaries and ambiguities of being myself and performing myself on stage.