Everyday actions become existential events

Of the many interesting things in Kurtag’s fragment cycles, perhaps the most signal is the removal of certain types of contrast. In an opera aria (a comparable genre) the material induces the audience to perceive and mimetically participate in some sort of dialectical and cumulative structure. Seven minutes of push and pull and repetition and development ensures this. In Kurtag, in, say, the Kafka Fragments, we have, instead, moments. Even the longer pieces of the cycle, those at three minutes, shatter into a disunity, or strain during a unity. Yet that momentary dynamic opens up a space of stark clarity. The moment is a cleansing one in these works.

In Peter Sellars’ staging of the work the aesthetic of the mundane, appositely for Kafka, is made the scene of revelatory shock. As it was put in a New York Times review of an earlier performance of this production at the Lincoln Centre, ‘everyday actions become existential events’ in this cycle. As such Sellars’ staging is all the more penetrating for so sensitively designing a context sympathetic to the minutiae of the work. It presents a site of the everyday where Upshaw’s existentially troubled housewife can, with the benefit of photographic and projected textual enrichments, think out her situation in a heightened setting congenial to the mundane vividity of Kafka’s texts, and Kurtag’s contexts. Drabness and acid sit alongside each other in this staging, making a peculiar coincidence for the similar admixture shared between text and music.

Each song fragment, some seconds long, some a few minutes, distinct from each other musically and emotionally yet conjoined by an infinite and piercing light, coheres around, in the director’s words, ‘a crystalline and blazing moment’. The moment is dense and condensed, sharply-hewed and gypsy-intense – the gypsy aspect shorn up by the stark instrumentation of violin and voice, and by the musical enhancements taken from its idiom. Yet we never gain purchase on these motifs as pastiche or homage. This music does not permit much purchase on anything at all, at least in the expected way, and that is its point.

The fragments are excised of growth, contrast, crescendo, and decay. Everything colludes to the sharpened flash of recognition, to the flicker of life.


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