Claus Guth expanded the “Schwanengesang” songs by Franz Schubert into the large-scale music theatre piece “Doppelgänger” at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, with tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch as protagonists. I was invited to contribute music and soundscapes that take up the harmonic thread of one song and transfer it into that of the next. In this way, a large long musical arc emerged from a loose sequence of short songs.

Fotos: Monika Rittershaus

Franz Schubert’s “Swan Song” is a collection of songs written in 1828 – the year of the composer’s death. The starting point of our narrative is a military hospital where men stand between life and death, as if caught in a time loop. Jonas Kaufmann, one of the men, experiences an emotional journey through moments of happiness and disappointment during this stagnant time. At first, he finds comfort in memories of his lover and nature, but in the second half of the evening he sinks more and more into pain and loss, expressed in songs like the one about the “unhappy Atlas.” He encounters himself shortly before his death, in a final moment of shock and realization.

As material for my soundscapes, I used almost exclusively piano sounds: fragments from Schubert’s music that I slowed down a hundred times to generate floating tonal pads, short sound snippets that become haunting drones via granular synthesis, prepared piano samples that sound like bomb impacts in this context, or concrete noises like respiratory machines that I reverberated with the grand piano with the sustain pedal depressed and thus “pianoised”. “It’s like crawling into Helmut Deutsch’s grand piano and taking a journey,” I tell the Süddeutsche Zeitung in an interview.

The interludes always put Helmut Deutsch at the piano in the foreground: with virtuoso arrangements of Schubert’s piano accompaniments as solistic appearances, with inside-piano playing and notes that start or end recorded soundscapes, and with dialogue-like question/answer games with distant sounds coming from the surround speakers, he always keeps the lead and thus becomes the centre of the evening, not only visually.

“Mathis Nitschke’s evocative soundscapes suggest both the hospital room and the battlefield. Dancers, portraying nurses and soldiers, contribute to Nitschke’s sound-world, beating their hospital beds in triplet rhythms as Deutsch repeats fragments of Schubert’s songs in an obsessive, hallucinatory loop. This most interesting part of Guth’s vision allows him to shape the silences between the songs and keeping the audience in a state of heightened anticipation — a refreshing change from the usual coughing and rustling of programmes in a standard lieder recital.” (Financial Times)

“Does the theatrical conceit serve Schubert’s songs? In the hands of Kaufmann and Deutsch, who have long worked together, yes — and it reignites the master’s music in a fresh, intelligent setting without sacrificing the duo’s artistry as classical performers.” (New York Times)

“a rare treat … the theatrical ingenuity and visceral force was so strong that the audience let out an audible gasp of shock. When was the last time you heard something like that in a classical concert hall?” (New York Times)

“Doppelganger is awesome experimental theater on a grand scale … There’s really nothing like it in New York right now.” (TheaterMania)

“Doppelganger” is the result of a wonderfully constructive collaborative effort by:
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann
Pianist Helmut Deutsch
Direction Claus Guth
Original Music and Sound Composition Mathis Nitschke
Set Design Michael Levine
Costume Design Constance Hoffman
Lighting Design Urs Schönebaum
Sound Design Mark Grey
Video Design rocafilm
Movement Direction Sommer Ulrickson
Dramaturgy Yvonne Gebauer
Assistant Direction Juana Inés Cano Restrepo, Dylan Evans
u/s Voice Ilker Arcayürek
Rehearsal Piano Michał Biel

Related work:

As a directing composer (or composing director) I produce my own music theatre projects, such as MAYA (2017) or VIOLA (2015).

Together with director and lighting designer Urs Schönbaum, I premiered as composer the “grand” operas JETZT (2012) and HAPPY HAPPY (2014) at the National Opera of Montpellier.

I experiment with new technologies on new music experience formats, such as with the app “The Planets“, a collaboration with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.