Foto: Caterina Hess, original article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung here >>>

Mathis Nitschke, who grew up in Feldafing, wrote two works for the opera in Montpellier. One of them, “Jetzt”, will be shown next week as a film in Starnberg.

By Gerhard Summer, Starnberg

Dead water. It must feel like you’ve gotten into honey. Slowed down and trapped as if by magic. No getting away. For sailors this used to be a horror: that their ship suddenly just floundered or stopped, even though no wave was rippling on the sea. The Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen had described the phenomenon in 1893, when his ship “Fram” had come to a standstill in one of these zones.

“Dead water”, sings a soprano. “Under the motionless surface an invisible wave acts with paralyzing force.” Her voice seems to break on the walls and crumbles in the echo, is electronically doubled. In between orchestral insertions, rattling, squeaking. “All imaginable side-jumps. No getting away. Nothing helps at all.” What follows is as simple as it is impressive and determines the basic beat for an hour: the marimba begins to play eighth notes, a quiet bam-bam-bam-bam. The strings join in, the wind players interfere until the whole orchestra pushes the knocking theme into forte and fortissimo. In addition, men and women with white aprons and headscarves march up, they look like nuns. What a bizarre start!


With this prologue, an opera dominated by choral singing begins which revolves around strange phenomena and Fridtjof Nansen, but in essence it is a piece about energy, about the power plant music on which the singing is based. It is called “Jetzt” (Now), a commissioned work for the Opéra National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, commissioned in 2012, nominated as “Performance of the Year in a Critics’ Survey by Opernwelt magazine. It was directed by Urs Schönebaum, one of Europe’s most renowned lighting designers and companion of director Robert Wilson. The libretto was written by Jonas Lüscher, who soon succeeded with his novella “Spring of the Barbarians”. And the composer is Mathis Nitschke, a Munich-based conceptual artist and sound inventor at the interface between contemporary music and sound design, who spent his youth in Feldafing and went to the Tutzinger Gymnasium. Nitschke first dropped out of everything you can drop out of: school, several studies. The young man was crossing dead water again and again. A phenomenon that otherwise only occurs when glaciers melt on coasts or a river flows into the sea. Then a layer of lighter freshwater can cover the heavier salt water. And a wave invisible at the surface slows ships down.

In any case, Nitschke repeatedly came to the conclusion that this is not “life-filling” for him – the classical guitar, the art. He even threw away his composition studies in The Hague. He decided to go into advertising, and worked for Media-Markt and McDonald’s. Until he returned to Holland and graduated.

The 42-year-old’s works are extremely versatile, all this has little to do with the old-fashioned image of the composer, who day in, day out broods over scores and despairs when he has to connect an interface to the computer. Nitschke is more of a technology freak. An “infojunkie”, too, who has a preference for surround sound, which has almost disappeared again, and an old weakness for Astor Piazzolla. He knows mastering and postproduction so well because he worked as a sound engineer and sound designer for many years. He is still a product manager for “Capstan”, a software from Celemony, which compensates for synchronous fluctuations in old archive recordings. In 2012, he staged a concert for 500 managers from Linde at the Shanghai Cruise Terminal, including a lighting installation. And he wrote film and theatre music for the writer Michel Houellebecq and the director Luk Perceval.

The young family father also composed a second work for Montpellier, the song cycle “Happy Happy”, and the short opera “Viola”, which in turn plays on a dividing line between the inside and outside world: the audience sits in a pharmacy and looks at the Pasing station square, where the main character Viola appears. For the project “Vergehen”, which formerly had the working title “Kabelsteg”, he received a scholarship from the City of Munich. The project can best be imagined as a walk between the real and virtual worlds: An operatic hike along the Isar with a smartphone, where an app only plays music when a certain location has been reached. Site-specific sounds, then. Where do you get such an app? The young sound tinkerer with almost black hair and dimples in his chin programmed it himself. He started with the website technology Java script, but then ended up with the Unity 3d game engine.

The effort is great, as with almost all things Nitschke tackles. You could say: He puts a lot of energy into making projects run, works like a particle accelerator. And the more he gets involved with computer games like “Gone Home,” the more “I’m interested in the digital world”. Above all, the “narrative style that creates space, because that has to do with the installation in the visual arts”.

Nitschke was in fifth grade when he moved with his parents from Munich to Feldafing. He went to the grammar school in Tutzing. For him a “culture shock”: the project days had been invented at his previous school, the Maria-Theresia-Gymnasium, and the work of a ninth grade had fascinated and shaped him in the early eighties: an installation with 30 televisions that went on one after the other until only white noise flickered over the matte screens. After all, he met Urs Schönebaum in the fifth grade in the comparatively old-fashioned Tutzing, who later, when he was to stage an opera in Montpellier, wanted to bring a contemporary work to the stage and wanted Mathis Nitschke as a composer. The friends had already made theatre together as teenagers. With the group “Tragaudion” they released Tankred Dorst’s “Merlin oder Das wüste Land” in the old Feldafing gymnasium in 1996. Nitschke was also responsible for the music back then. At that time he wanted to become a sound engineer at all costs, even today he often sits at the mixing desk himself.

“Now” is an eclectic opera that mixes different styles – from a famous aria from Bellini’s “La Somnambula” to the hidden Radiohead motif. As a composer, he is “not at all interested in his own signature,” says Mathis Nitschke. “I invent very little, I am more of a DJ.”

Translated with