Telescopic Listening

Probing layers of time with Schubert Lounge for singers and ensemble

Eivind Buene

Ever since Felix Mendelssohn reinvented J.S. Bach in 1829, Western musical culture has been obsessed with its past. In recent decades this backward gaze has also installed itself in popular music, making the music that once was the symbol of the youthful now into a feast of nostalgia.[1] But history is not a one-way street. A musical score, even from the darkest corners of history, always inscribes itself on the present through the act of interpretation. Music is always now in the sounding moment. Music is, in a sense, a history of unfinished work. It is a temporal art not only in the sense of how it unfolds in time, but also in how it gives us access to different points in history, layers of time, in the now of the sensuous experience of listening. This mode of listening, where different temporal planes coexist within the same mental image can be called a telescopic mode of listening. A good example is my favourite recording of Couperin’s Leçons des Ténèbres, where the time of François Couperin (writing the score in Paris, 1713) and the time of the recording (Alfred Deller in Utah, 1960) – and even the time of my first hearing it, after having picked it up at random in Gelbe Musik (Berlin, 1998) – are simultaneously accessible from the now of my listening moment. The New Oxford American Dictionary describes a telescope as “an optical instrument designed to make distant objects appear nearer, containing an arrangement of lenses, or of curved mirrors and lenses, by which rays of light are collected and focused and the resulting image magnified.” Telescopic listening challenges notions of authenticity that tend to privilege fixed points in history, and provides compositional strategies of manipulating temporal layers. In the following, I will describe some musical mirrors and lenses in my ongoing work Schubert Lounge, a project that was presented in its latest form at the Eclat festival, Stuttgart, in February 2019.[2] But before I discuss this work, I will make some remarks on the cultural context to which it responds.

[1] See Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (London: Faber & Faber, 2011).

[2] Eivind Buene, Schubert Lounge (Copenhagen: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 2018).


The immediate context of Schubert Lounge is current contemporary music, or new music, where the ethos of experimentation and newness is constantly in friction with a strong historical presence. The historical residue in the apparatus of production and dissemination of new music is ubiquitous, and can be found in the instrumentation, institutions, and formats of performance. It can be found in the instruments as physical objects, where violins that have seen centuries of music suddenly convey a brand-new piece of music. It is even inscribed in the bodies of the performers, whose training is predominantly focused on historical music. Certain periods in time, like post-war modernism, tried to eviscerate that residue, other periods have seen a keen interest in evoking history, for a variety of reasons. One motivation can be found in the meta-music of the last fifty years, where historical music has played a central role as composers searched for different routes of escape from the impasse that they found themselves in, using scores of old music as material for new compositions. Composers of the modernity experienced an exhaustion where material ceased to be an area of innovation and became a given, a ready-made of musical possibilities, the modern material. Turning to found objects was one way of escaping the centripetal forces that gradually closed the systems of compositional thought.


This escape has, in many cases, led to composers seeking refuge in irony or nostalgia (sometimes even both). But when history becomes a ground for scavenging scraps and bits of heterogeneous materials, that does not exclude the possibilities of engaging in a critical exploration of form. I have argued elsewhere that this presupposes an extended notion of material, where the sites, situations, and constituting energies of musical performance become material for composition alongside the traditional parameters such as pitch, duration, and timbre.[3] One early example could be Mauricio Kagel’s anti-opera Staatstheater (1967–70), where the composer’s material is not primarily the musical possibilities associated with vocal and instrumental sound production, but the opera house as such.[4] This work coincides in time with the emerging work of Asher, Buren and Broodthaers, artists who later came to represent the historical canon of “Institutional Critique” in fine arts. These artists have been interrogating the network of social and economic relationships institutions create and represent. Kagel does also use the material context to carry out investigations encompassing social and political dimensions. Institutional critique within music has nevertheless often revolved around its historical structures, which is the focus in this exposition. Indeed, any musical variant of socially engaged aesthetics would be difficult within classical institutions without some kind of reflection on the very materials of these institutions in its fabric.


There is obviously a multitude of frictions in the relation between historical material and engagement in the now. I regard this friction, this constant negotiation, as a productive force in itself, fuelling much artistic practice including my own. I have argued for a view of the symphony orchestra as an archaeological field, looking for insight in fields beyond musicology or compositional theory. In the essay “Excavation, Exhumation, Autopsy”, my approach is in the everyday-sense of the word “archaeology”: I have been digging into orchestral practices, not necessarily excavating whole “discursive formations” in a Focauldian sense, but rather allowing for a phantasmagorical enthrallment with fragments of such objects found within orchestral culture, to see how they can reveal something of the structures from which they originate and to spur the imagination to further work with these structures. This archaeological perspective has been important in working out orchestral pieces like Standing Stones (2010) and A Posthuman Guide to the Orchestra (2018).[5] I use the term “archaeology” as an approach and a mind-set offering an alternative to unilinear history, leading up to the telescopic listening I am working with in Schubert Lounge. And I take the liberty of pointing to two (admittedly Foucauldian) perspectives on archaeology: In a definition from the field of media archaeology, archaeology is “speaking to the present and critiquing the present in examining historical objects.”[6] And, in the words of Hal Foster, “[t]he purpose of any ‘archaeology’ is to ascertain what one can of the difference of the present and the potential of the past.”[7] So, while spooning up the gravel from social and historical strata of the orchestra, the composer tries to locate the timbral bodies to work with in the present. In the sedimentary layers of orchestral sound, I might be able to find the one tiny bone that triggers something in me, emotionally, technically, and intellectually, something that proliferates and becomes multiplied, setting off a whole process of speculation and creation. I like to think of this as an exhumation of the orchestral body. In reality, it is as much a question of exhuming the timbral ghosts from my own body, activating my own memory alongside the buried wishes and secret desires of the orchestral body itself.


The image of the archaeological site takes me to another discipline for which site is all-important, namely architecture. Architecture in its most sophisticated form is not about an abstract conception of space and form, but of the context of the building in its natural and cultural environment. Its place. This is the notion behind the term critical regionalism, ushered in by Kenneth Frampton with the following question: How to become modern and return to roots? How to challenge the civilising forces that threaten to obliterate all differences without regressing to nostalgia, populism or mysticism? Frampton distrusts the tabula rasa of the flattened plot, which resonates with my scepticism with regards to the view of a musical institution as some kind of white cube or neutral canvas. Instead of flattening the land, Frampton describes a process of “building the site”:


“It is possible to argue that […] the specific culture of the region – that is to say, its history in both a geological and agricultural sense – becomes inscribed into the form and realization of the work. This inscription, which arises out of ‘in-laying’ the building into the site, has many levels of significance, for it has a capacity to embody, in built form, the prehistory of the place, its archaeological past and its subsequent cultivation and trans-formation across time. Through this layering into the site the idiosyncrasies of place find their expression without falling into sentimentality.”[8]


This is obviously true for the site of music, where any institution or performance situation comes laden with specific cultures. And both in architecture and music, the question what can happen here is intertwined with another question: what has happened here. Composing in such a place is layering into the site, invoking its idiosyncrasies, re-enacting its events.


The practice of re-enactment is found both in popular culture (e.g. people dressing up as nineteenth-century soldiers for a day to re-enact the battle of, say, Gettysburg) and in fine arts, for instance in the work of British artist Jeremy Deller. His subject matter is often political events, one example is The Battle of Orgreave (2001), where he filmed a staging of a confrontation between police and miners in South Yorkshire. Deller has said about this piece that “I’ve always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post mortem,” which resonates with my own idea of exhumation.[9] The Battle of Orgreave deals with an event that took place in 1984, only seventeen years ago at the time of Deller’s work. But once a corpse is buried time becomes irrelevant, in the sense that the recently deceased are no less dead than an Egyptian mummy. And for Deller, the post mortem does not lay the past to rest but puts it into play again; it is a kind of preposterous history, in the words of Hal Foster: “‘preposterous’ because it conjures up both a before (pre) and after (post) in a way that opens up possibilities of the now.”[10]

[3] See Eivind Buene, “Excavation, Exhumation, Autopsy”,

[4] Mauricio Kagel, Staatstheater (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1971).

[5] See Eivind Buene: A Posthuman Guide to the Orchestra, (Copenhagen: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 2018). Score here.

[6] Eric Kluitenberg, “On the Archaeology of Imaginary Media” in Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, eds., Media Archaeology (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2011). 51.

[7] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse” in October 110, 2004: 20.

[8] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetical (Winnipeg: Bay Press, 1983). 26.

[10] Hal Foster, Bad New Days (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2015). 132.

Screenshot. See video here:

Deller: Battle of Orgreave (YouTube)

Screenshot. See video here:

Kagel: Staatstheater (YouTube)



In the concert hall, the sounding music is always now, and telescopic listening unites “before” and after in a preposterous moment. Listening to Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia is one example of this experience, when different temporal windows overlap in Berio’s score.[11] Sinfonia is thoroughly studied and commented, and has itself become a modern classic and a prototype for a large number of works from the last five decades, influencing different practices spanning from composed interpretations to critical deconstructivism.[12] The number of composers engaged in these practices represent a wide field of aesthetics and ethics: Donatoni, Sciarrino, Zender, Gubaidulina, Finnissy, to name but a few.


A piece like Sinfonia does not conserve the past. It transforms its matter, like the Mahler scherzo it employs in the third movement. And it does not lay Mahler to rest: The piece is a sounding manifestation of Derrida’s words that “Each grafted text continues to radiate back toward the site of its removal, transforming that, too, as it affects the new territory.”[13] After living with Berio for twenty years of my life, I cannot listen to the scherzo from Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony without also hearing Berio. In much the same way as Bach’s chorale Es ist genug is forever transformed in my ears by Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), where it plays a crucial part in the second movement. And whenever I hear Schubert’s Winterreise performed, Hans Zender’s composed interpretation of the song cycle is there, faintly in the background.[14]  


It is probably not a coincidence that the compositional genre of meta-music emerged at the same time as the early music movement came to prominence in the world of classical music. The practitioners of historically informed performance (HIP) sought to relieve pre-romantic music from layers of mannerisms, bad habits, and ahistorical modes of interpretation; the goal was to restore the music to its former colours, much like the renovation of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel had done with Michelangelo’s painting. Historical playing techniques were studied, instruments were restored after seventeenth and eighteenth century models, and the intentions of composers like Bach, Mozart, and Haydn radically rethought.[15] The result – amid endless debate on how the sources should be translated to sounding music – was a wave of new interpretations challenging mainstream classical music with a “shock of the old”, an event arguably as important as the shock of the new in post-war modernism.


Another interesting synchronicity is how the breakthrough of HIP coincides with the emergence of institutional critique within fine art, a practice I will return to in the final discussion in this exposition. HIP as a sounding critique of institutional tradition is an important background to the compositional practices of working with historical material. Indeed, early music has often engendered instances of telescopic listening by collapsing the categories of “old” and “new”.


This restorative-revolutionary movement is an important background for my Schubert Lounge project. Although I obviously do not aim for historical correctness, I probe notions of historicity, taking songs of Franz Schubert as a starting point. The work differs from Zender’s Winterreise in that it does not seek to re-install the effects Schubert’s musical material had on its first audience. Zender reformulates and orchestrates the music in order to “actualize” and renew our experience of the effective apparatus of the music.[16] I am rather using a method of critical paranoia – a term borrowed from architect Rem Koolhaas – to create a telescopic listening space where different layers of time coexist.[17] I have discussed this method extensively in Delirious Brahms” (Journal of Artistic Research, issue 4), and will let it suffice here to say that I’m looking for ways of articulating a preposterous now, where notions of before and after are conflated. The work challenges ideas of authenticity in musical performance through applying methodologies from one layer in time to materials from a different historical moment. And a significant difference from other “popularized” renderings of classical music is that I am not aiming at the contemporary now as a given, but at the present moment as already embedded in its retromaniac longing for the past. A now that has serious conflicts about how it feels about itself. This is the temporal backdrop when different modes of interpretation and creation are brought into conflict in a staged work for singers, ensemble, pianist and turntable.


The Schubert Lounge project was launched in 2012, and has in the meantime developed from a one-man performance for singing composer to its present state. It started as an experimental whim within my artistic research project Again and Again and Again: Music as site, situation and repetition (Norwegian Academy of Music, 2009–2012). The question I asked myself was: If Schubert were a singer/songwriter in the seventies, what would that sound like? Of course, to make popularized versions of classical music is not a revolutionary idea. Nor is the image of the singing composer. Chris Newman has since the early eighties been singing his own songs in almost brutally “popular” renditions, songs written for and performed within the institutions of new music. Numbers like “Good day after good orgasm” have made a lasting impression on me after first hearing it sometime in the nineties. Within popular culture proper, singers like Josephine Foster have made their own renderings of Schubert songs. And I do think that the process lends itself to a wide array of idiosyncratic expression. It is not merely a concept or an idea, the actual musical performance and “personalization” of the songs are crucial elements, in whichever musical domain you work. Again, the sensuous experience of music, the skin of time, is the vehicle for formulating the idea.


The Schubert Lounge project started almost unconsciously, as I sat at the piano and played through some of the simpler accompaniments to songs from Winterreise. And I was astonished how close it felt to the pop music that I grew up with. Schubert actually was a singer/songwriter himself, singing his songs to a circle of friends, to his own accompaniment. So I sat down with Schubert songs, sang them with my untrained voice, sometimes roughly from the score, sometimes more or less from memory after listening a couple of times to a song I wasn’t familiar with, not quite learning it, but still trying to conjure up some rendering of the song. Being neither a pianist nor a singer, I was nevertheless looking for a way of articulating these songs that somehow resonates with musical practices of our time. And I don’t mean practices of “new” or “experimental” music here, but practices emerging from and embedded in popular culture. The singing of songs.


My essay “Smart critiques. Stupid creates” was written at the outset of the project. It describes how Schubert Lounge is also a labour of love, of the liebhaber, and it reflects some of my initial motivations:


“The singer/songwriter is a posture belonging to the sixties and seventies, but the posture is ubiquitous also in post-millennial popular music. And what I want to do is to remould Schubert’s songs into the posture of the singer/songwriter. I am obviously not aiming for neither werktreue in the sense discussed by Lydia Goehr, nor a correct rendition of Schubert’s voice.[18] What did Schubert’s voice sound like? Was it strong, weak, balmy, harsh? We have no exact idea, of course. But the music critic Harold C. Schonberg asserts that he sang “with the voice of a composer”, which is all I need to know. The all-important aspect for me is the do-it-yourself quality of the first performances of the songs.”[19]


So, I took huge liberties in altering the songs at points where I felt that Schubert’s music sounded too “classical” to yield to the stylistics of the singer/songwriter. Certain harmonic and melodic figures were just too inflexible with regards to the expression I was aiming for, like for instance the relationship between tonic and dominant chords, and so in some of the songs I have recomposed large sections. In the beginning I used the German texts, but that didn’t really sound like pop music to me, so I decided to go with English, the Esperanto of popular culture. And the piano was exchanged for a Fender Rhodes, arguably the Steinway of the seventies’ singer/songwriter. When the music was ready for dissemination, I chose the house concert, as a kind of re-enactment of the context of the first performances of the songs, and the vinyl record – the main vessel of the music industry in the sixties and seventies and also in the popularization of classical music. The first concert was held with an audience of friends in my own loft, and an EP was pressed with four songs.


I had also already published a novel where Schubert’s Winterreise played an important role in the life of one of the protagonists, so in the following years I performed my Schubert at low-key venues like book launches, literary festivals, readings, and more house concerts. A turning point in the project came in 2015, when I was invited to the Spor festival in Denmark to play Schubert Lounge with a jazz band, the Peter Tinning Trans-Atlantic Trio. They added their own layer of presence to the music, the aura and time of the jazz combo. And in 2018 I performed with the festival ensemble of Risør Chamber Music festival, with my own arrangements of the songs played alongside my singing and playing. This took the work back, as it were, to its context of chamber music and classical institutions. But a more important development came in the spring of 2015, when the Baritone Halvor Festervold Melien was present at one of my house concerts, and proposed a collaboration where I would write a new piece for him, based on Schubert songs, juxtaposed with my own performance and possibly some “original” Schubert.


I took up Halvor’s challenge, and in 2018 I set out to work on Schubert Lounge in the form of a full evening performance, with ensemble, singers, a pianist and myself. Oslo Sinfonietta wanted to take part; their conductor Christian Eggen is also a pianist, and I decided to shape the music to make it possible for him to lead from the piano. Christian has also done extensive work with Schubert together with singer Tora Augestad, and proposed to bring her onboard to get yet another perspective. In the latter case, I could inscribe an already ongoing collaboration between the two in this work. In this way, we ended up with three singers on stage: my pop voice, Halvor’s trained lied-voice singing my music written for him and ensemble, and Tora’s highly personal renderings of Schubert songs, accompanied by Christian Eggen at the piano. The premiere was set for the Eclat festival 2019, and I started composing with what were now multiple strands of music and musicianship in several historical layers.


Oslo Sinfonietta, a new music ensemble, brought in a whole new layer to the project, the institution of “contemporary music” – a chamber ensemble, with diversified timbral structure, working mainly with non-tonality, noise, and phenomenological investigation of the instruments. I have a long working relationship with them, and composed the movements with baritone and ensemble to the best of my abilities as a serious contemporary composer. But the ensemble is also subjugated to methods from another layer in time, namely the cabaret-orchestra. This is found in the simple, sing-along style that governs the ensemble when accompanying my voice in the corresponding sections. This fits well with Tora’s interpretation of the songs, which is informed by her background in theatre, working with Christopher Marthaler, and in her own band specializing on Kurt Weill’s repertoire.[20] Her singing is obviously closer to the classically trained voice than mine, but still measures a certain distance from the patent lied-voice of Halvor. He, on the other hand is mainly occupied with the “contemporary” material, and is only allowed one Schubert song in its original shape, towards the end. (Except for a duet with Tora where they share “Gute Nacht” between them.)


In this part of the project, there was a turn when a sound file that had been a sort of prelude to my Schubert work resurfaced. I had made it in 2008 and shown it as part of an installation in a local art gallery. I haven’t really pursued the installation format since, and the sound file was put to rest in my archive. But in this expanded version of the work I wanted to address music history as also a history of recordings – not only a history of works. More than one hundred years of recordings has given us a rich archive of sound showing shifting practices in interpretation, but also in documentation and distribution. Musical history is documented and preserved, telling histories that sometimes diverge from the “official” histories of musical progress. One example is Stokowski’s transcriptions of Bach in the 1920s, recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra.[21] This might be far from the ideals of historically informed practices that eventually decided the “rules” in interpretations of baroque music, but is a document in its own right, a part of history, showing how Bach’s music was set to work in a certain period in time. And when the same orchestra performs the transcriptions today, a telescopic sense of time is created where Bach and Stokowski coexist in the present moment. In this light no interpretation is “wrong”; they may as well be “right” in the sense that they document a historical moment where different practices intersect. (Ironically, Stokowski’s is a variant of the practice that Mahler, the icon of the “modern” orchestra, applied when he retouched the scores of Beethoven to better suit the late romantic orchestra,changes that he explicitly hoped future conductors would apply to his own scores.[22] Of course, changing a Mahler score today would be deemed a sacrilege.)


I wanted Schubert Lounge to reflect this history of recorded sound, and the sound file, titled An die Musik, was perfect for that dimension. It is a fragment of the piano interlude in Schubert’s “An die Musik”, gradually deteriorating and taking on a shape more reminiscent of a choir of voices than the piano. The sound file was split in four, pressed on two vinyl records and played from a turntable during the performance. It could of course have been played from a laptop at the mixing desk, but I wanted the corporeality of operating the turntable on-stage, thereby linking the recorded sound material to the bodies on stage and keeping everything part of the same situation – in the same place at the same time. This has to do with boundaries; how “a boundary is not that at which something stops, but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.”[23] It also added to a temporal ambiguity that I like: Both the Rhodes and the turntable can be seen as things from the not-so distant past, but also of the contemporary moment, with our penchant for obsolete technologies and the outmoded. “Obsolescence,” according to Hal Foster, aligns with Walter Benjamin’s concept of “outmoded” in its liberating potential to offer “a point of view outside what some see as the totalizing ambitions of each new technological order.”[24]  Of course, there is a tendency of certain forms of outmodedness to transform into the stylishly retro, as is the case in wide areas of popular music. But in the Schubert Lounge project the outmoded becomes important, when I aim for what Foster describes as a synchronization of nonsynchronous forms, giving the possibility to make “a new medium out of the remnants of old forms, and to hold together the different temporal markers in a single visual space”.[25] Substituting “visual” with “aural”, the musical ambition should be clear.

[11] Luciano Berio, Sinfonia (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1969).

[12] See for instance David Osmond-Smith, Playing on Words: A guide to Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (London: Royal Music Association, 1985).

[13] Jaques Derrida, “Dissemination” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 355.

[14] Hans Zender, Schubert’s “Winterreise”: Eine Komponierte Interpretation (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1993).

[15] For an account of the early music movement, see for instance Harry Haskell, The Early Music Revival: A History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988).

[16] See Hans Zender’s liner notes to the recording: (p.18–20). Zender’s intention is not to remould the music; he doesn’t want to tell a completely new story. It is more a case of telling the underlying story to today’s audience by changing some of the musical architecture in comparison with the original material.

[17] The paranoid critical method is a concept from Salvador Dali, developed further by Rem Koolhaas. See Koolhaas, Delirious New York and Buene “Delirious Brahms”.

[18] See Lydia Goehr, Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

[19] Harold C. Schonberg: “Singing Schubert’s Praises”, New York Times, 19 March 1978. See also Eivind Buene: “Smart critiques. Stupid creates” ( Further reflections, especially regarding the voice and the aspect of amateurism, can be found in this essay. I will not go into these two categories here.

[20] Hear for instance Music for a While, Weill Variations, (Oslo: Grappa, 2007).

[21]Bach/Stokowski, Toccata and Fugue in d-minor, released on Bach-Stokowski Transcriptions (Historical Recordings 1927–1939) (Hong Kong: Naxos Historical, 2008).

 The manuscripts are accessible at the Penn Library:

[22] See Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? (New York: Anchor Books, 2011).

[23] Martin Heidegger quoted in Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism”. See Eivind Buene: Tre objekt i den nya musiken, eller: ljudets utopi in Nutida Musik 273 for more on boundaries and technology in performance situations (Swedish only).

[24] Hal Foster, in “Introduction”, October 100: 3

[25] Hal Foster, “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse”, in Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes) (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2002), 137.

Schubert Lounge at the Spor festival

Screenshot. See video here:

Berio: Sinfonia, 3rd movement (YouTube)

Screenshot. See video here:

Stokowski/Bach 2013 (YouTube)


Screenshot. See video here:

Stokowski/Bach 1927 (YouTube)


The main temporal layers in Schubert Lounge can be summarized in the following terms:


  • The context of the first performances of the songs, Vienna in the late 1820s, conveyed through the informality of the performance situation.
  • The time of the singer/songwriter, the 1960s and onwards, conveyed through vocal posture and expression, and the use of Fender Rhodes.
  • The post-war institutions of new music, the ensemble on an international festival stage.
  • The nostalgia of the present, in the form of a turntable with vinyl records on stage.


The diverging strands of music are not separate. They bleed into each other, making boundaries blurry, and it is not always obvious where Schubert ends and imagination takes over. The vinyl fragment returns in ever more twisted versions, as the sound of the accompanying piano ultimately finds a singing voice of its own. And towards the end, as boundaries dissolve, Tora and Halvor also sing a duet accompanied by the turntable.


The video on the right, made for promotional purposes, shows three of the different strands presented separately.


And finally, the whole concert performance of Schubert Lounge at Eclat, Stuttgart 06.02.2019, recorded by SWR. Score here, link to recording here.

Eivind Buene: Schubert Lounge

Eclat, Stuttgart, 06.02.2019


Fender Rhodes/Turntable/Voice: Eivind Buene

Voice: Halvor Melien Festervold

Voice: Tora Augestad

Piano/Conductor: Christian Eggen

Oslo Sinfonietta

Images from the first Schubert Lounge, in my home in Oslo

All photos: Andrea Thiis-Evensen


In Schubert Lounge, I hope some given categories are questioned in a fruitful way. For instance, in the act of juxtaposing the amateur voice with the trained classical voice, on a level playing field. Or how the god-like role of the composer is questioned when it is not really clear where composition ends and interpretation begins. I believe that the telescopic listening mode can be developed further, in the crowded field of re-enactment, radical interpretation and recomposition that has emerged over the last decades. On the one hand, there is the (re)popularization of classical music, with Max Richter’s recompositions and Deutsche Grammophon’s Yellow Lounge as examples. On the other hand, we have experimental endeavours like Simon Steen-Andersen’s concert-length show Inzenierte Nacht, a series of tableaus re-enacting historical musics with clever, sometimes high-tech means, but always in keeping with music as sensuous experience. It reflects an ability to discuss the canonical structures of Western musical thought and production from within, in other words “using the language in which you write to criticize the language in which you write.”[26] In practices like Steen-Andersen’s, the investigation is always carried out on a material level of sound production, aligned with what we have seen in later years: a willingness to open the intellectual and conceptual domain of critical composition to a wide area of sensuous imaginations of music, and to heterogeneous contexts in terms of genre, style, and ideology. And surely, as the HIP movement has proved, the notions of revisitation, recycling (and even re-enactment) are already at the core of written music, insofar as the score is a medium for distribution and repetition. The challenge is to intensify this notion and set it in motion as a defining feature of works that open up and probe the practices and traditions of this music. I have already visited fields of critical theory, archaeology, and architecture to provide wider contexts and models for dealing with these questions in music. And it should be obvious that I believe there still is potential in the practice of institutional critique, posing questions to the institutions of music (old and new alike) in order to unearth “invisible” structures in the production apparatus of music. But I believe this must be a process that starts on the inside of the institution, in a critical assessment of their inner workings, asking how the institutions produce art, what the mode of production allows for, asking if they still serve purposes of artistic expression. Not as institutional critique in the sense that claims it as something of the past, but one that tries to fend for its relevance, also in the future. Andrea Fraser shows how this, paradoxically, has been the case with proponents of the first generation of this movement; they have become paragons of the very institutions they propagated to critique. She writes about Hans Haacke that “far from trying to tear down the museum, [his] project has been an attempt to defend the institution of art from instrumentalization by political and economic interests.”[27] Fraser states that there is no such thing as an “outside the institution” for arts or artists – and that there has never been. Institutional critique has always been a part of the institution, and “[e]very time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us,’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”


There is something “preposterous” here, a conflation of “before” and “after”, latent in Fraser’s account of how this movement became instrumental in constructing its object of critique. We could also ask if critique is the right word, in the account of Haacke’s work, as we should distinguish between a critical project and a projective – or even affirmative – one.[28] We must also distinguish between different parts of the art field when we talk about the institutions; the musical institution has very different economic, social, and political conditions than the institution of fine art that Fraser describes. The ephemeral quality of the musical work resists commodification, and the political and economic interests that have to such a degree instrumentalized the art world (despite Haacke’s efforts…) do not command the world of music, whether it be classical or “new” in the same way. Still, the play between “inside” and “outside” is evident in Schubert Lounge, where my untrained voice is brought into the world of classical instruments – although as a composer, I am definitely an insider in the institutions of new music. The introduction of Tora Augestad’s voice, informed by cabaret as much as by classical training, destabilizes this binary relation with its ambiguous expression.


This exposition has shown how I have found it useful to work with old music in order to explore historical sedimentations and a telescopic listening mode. A practice that speaks to the present and critiques the present in examining historical objects. I have argued that among these objects, historical recordings play a natural role. There is an abundance of phonographic material where the performance, the recording, has achieved an iconic status separate from the works themselves, and can be examined as objects that shape history on a level with the composed work. The Schubert recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau are a good example; they had a profound influence on lied interpretation, and his sonorous baritone became iconic as the Schubert voice. When an idiosyncratic practice like this transforms into a status of “definitive”, it can be called a soft form of sampling, in the way an artistic expression is inscribed in later work. Schubert Lounge explores a whole spectrum of interpretation, recomposition and sampling, and when I use a “proper” sample of an iconic recording, it can be regarded as an intenstification of an established practice in classical music. In popular music, the culture of sampling has already for many years explored such mechanisms, not always with a conscious grasp of the critical potentiality of its juxtapositions. What the culture of sampling has thoroughly explored, are the legalistic ramifications of working with historical material. This ushers in an ethical question in dealing with copyrighted material.


In contemporary music, the re-enacted or sampled work is often in the free domain, the author having been dead for more than seventy years. However, the recordings are subject to copyright, and they need to be engaged – transformed – in the same way. They need to be given a proper post mortem and may – as the remains are examined – paradoxically come to life. Sometimes in the guise of a Frankenstein, sometimes as a Phoenix. This is an unresolved problem. Many of my colleagues deal with music this way, and we need to address the question of copyright when dealing with historical recordings. In some works, I trust that the transformations of the material render it unrecognizable as to just which recordings are employed, but all of the recordings I use are of specific importance to me. It is often the case that the performer is long dead, and the ownership of the master tapes has changed hands many times and now resides with some multinational enterprise. Here, ethical questions merge into a political one: To what extent should we feel barred from dealing with the history of music by adhering to gatekeepers that in many cases have no musical interest in their possessions? I argue with myself on this, because I believe that an artist should have the opportunity to exercise copyright over her work. And I see the necessity of a corporation having rights. But in dealing with works of art, the question is how far these rights should be asserted.


A viable road is to engage the term “fair use”. Stanford University Libraries defines the term in the following way: “In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.”[29] In Schubert Lounge I use a snippet, fifteen seconds, of a classical recording, heard once in its original form, rapidly transformed far beyond the recognizable. And the key expression here is transformative purpose, which lies at the heart of the Schubert Lounge project. I argue that transformation is carried out on several levels: on the voice, the piano, on the recorded material and on the songs themselves – even possibly transforming the “original” songs, if we believe Derrida’s words that each grafted text continues to radiate back toward the site of its removal. It would be highly unfair to exempt the history of recorded sound from the kind of artistic investigation I have described here, for legal reasons. That would effectively bar composers and musicians alike from working through and engaging with their own histories. It would also bar us from seizing a given material and using it to confront the given historical and social situation as reflected in dominant cultural practices.


This confrontation is at the core of works like Schubert Lounge. The task is to project a conceptual and aural reality that goes against the grain of the given situation; to find a place for propositions through musical form. Indeed, the forms need not be musical; in spite of differences, I believe the idea of telescopic listening can be translated into creative projects of many kinds. The expansion of the sense of place that I aim for in musical performance, the collapse of temporal frames, can relate to visual material, theatrical performance, installation etc. It is a way of questioning our ideas of temporality, a mindset that applies also outside the domain of music. Telescopic listening does not project history as the single catastrophe, piling wreckage upon wreckage, which Benjamin’s angel saw.[30] It is a mode that proposes, projects, and juxtaposes. Still it is not necessarily a history of progress. It might as well be a Kafkaesque vision where, in Giorgio Agamben’s words, the fundamental event of the human condition is perpetually taking place.[31]

[26] Brian Ferneyhough in Ribeiro, Correa, Domenici, “An Interview with Brian Ferneyhough”, in Search Yearbook Volume 1 (New York: Mellen Press, 2011).

[27] See Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique”, Artforum (Sep. 2005): 278–286.

[28] I borrow this phrase from architect Robert Somol: “We would want to maintain some degree of differentiation between a ‘critical’ project and a ‘projective’ one.” Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas, Supercritical (London: Architects Association, 2010), 52.

[30] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken books, 1969) 257.

[31] Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content, trans. G. Albert (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 114.




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