The Sound Artist: Hans Peter Kuhn

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix)  1991

The room is dark and narrow. Tree bark covers the walls. The wind howls. I hear whispering voices, and strange, mysterious sounds — clicking and dripping and scraping and flowing — and all kinds of birds, singing and calling in the dark night air. Everywhere I stand it sounds different.

I’m in The Forest — the entrance or prologue to Robert Wilson’s Vision, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, organized by curator Trevor Fairbrother. It’s an eerie, magical landscape, and part of what makes it so magical is Hans Peter Kuhn‘s sound.

Hans Peter Kuhn, a German sound artist who has worked with Robert Wilson on more than 20 productions, created a 30-speaker sound environment for Robert Wilson’s Vision — a collage of passages of sound from Wilson’s plays and operas, brilliantly spliced and recombined to echo the different moods of each room in the exhibition. Kuhn’s “Score for Robert Wilson’s Vision,” on compact disc, comes with the hardcover version of the catalogue. Kuhn also created the sound environment for Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, in the winter of  1991, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.

Rebecca Nemser: How do you make all those amazing sounds?

Hans Peter Kuhn: I have a file of sounds, a library of sounds. I start with something I have, and check it out, then I process something which is in that mood. I collect sounds, and then I manipulate them to make them more un-real or sur-real. I have all kinds of sounds — slide projector sounds, natural sounds, like wind. I’m always trying things out. I hear something and I can pick it up and react in minutes. I’m interested in everything that makes a noise. All my sounds are all of natural origin, but then I use electronics to alter them. Computers and samplers and filters and mixers. Sure, I use high tech. If you have a piano, you do it on the piano. If you have a brush — you do it with the brush. It’s so much easier to

R: What’s it like to work with Robert Wilson?

HPK: I’ve worked with Wilson since 1978. I was on the staff of a small theater in Berlin when Death, Destruction and Detroit was being staged, and after working with Bob I couldn’t go back to the old theater. I quit my job and went freelance to work with him. He has a different style of theater to anybody else. Everything about it is different — not just the process of fabricating and engineering it.

R: How is it different?

HPK: Bob gives me the chance to invent new ideas and create pieces of my own. There’s simply space for it. Germany has a great tradition in the theater. Every city has its own theater, and it’s a socially accepted art form, and very well-funded. So theater in Germany is pretty intellectual — it’s based on texts, with the actors interpreting the texts. Bob’s work is completely different from that. Music, sound and light are much more important. The actors are not the center. The text is not the center. You don’t start with the text.

R: Where do you start?

HPK: We just start. We start bringing ideas together. It’s a collaborative process. Bob’s of course the master mind, but nothing is pre-determined at the beginning. It’s a Process.

R: How do you decide which sounds to use?

HPK: It’s completely improvisational. I watch the play, and when the actors are playing, I look for sounds which fit to my associations and fit to my mood. So, for example, When We Dead Awaken is about love and all that, and there’s a spa situation. So at the beginning, I put a big surf — a big wave. But it’s not illustration — it’s not naturalistic or realistic or anything like that. It’s just a big sound — like a big spot of light, or a big splash of paint.

R: Tell me about the sound environment you designed for Robert Wilson’s Vision.

HPK: Most of it — except for the spaceship at the end —  is made from pieces from theater productions we worked on together. The same sounds that were in the play, but arranged and connected now in a completely different set-up. There are 30 speakers, all playing different sounds, so it’s a many, many layered work. You hear a different sound depending on where you are standing. But it’s not loud. It’s soft and level. I don’t want to be loud. If I wanted to be loud, I’d make rock and roll. So you have to concentrate a little to hear.

R: What about The Forest? The water, the bird sounds?

HPK: The whispered voices and the screaming birds — it’s not really birds. It’s the very famous German actress Jutta Lampe — that’s from Orlando. And the water flowing and water dropping — that’s from Death, Destruction, and Detroit 2. The wind effect is from the Civil WarS. That far distant piano playing in the next room — that was the dance class for rehearsals for Civil WarS in Rome.  Then there’s a tinkling sound of cobblestones — that’s from Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. It’s the sound they make when they hammer down the cobblstones in Berlin. It’s a very Berlin sound. Then there’s a wierd sound I can’t describe. Then there’s a harpsichord playing in six channels all around the space. Maria Callas singing Medea. Two different whistling sounds from King Lear. And finally, a short spaceship sound that moves over the space for about 20 seconds and every other kind of sound goes down. I tried to follow the mood of the room.

R: Is this music? Are you a musician?

HPK: No, it’s not music. Sound art is more open and much closer to life than music. Music is a filtered experience — I want to be more open to a range of possibilities. I’m not a composer. I don’t want the emotional view bound or directed in any one direction. I want to keep it open. It’s not like listening to music — it works under the skin. One of the reasons Wilson and I can work so well together is that we don’t want to be interpreting. We don’t want to be telling people what they are supposed to believe in advance. Everything is relative — maybe that’s the message. Just listen. Just pay a little attention. You cannot be wrong. I think that’s a great release. It makes me feel free. I’m always trying things out. I hear something and I can pick it up and react in minutes. I’m interested in everything that makes a noise.

From a Performance by Sasha Waltz and Hans Peter Kuhn, Costumes by Bernd Skodzig, at the MAXXI Rome Museo nazionale delle arti XXI secolo, November 21, 2009.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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