FOR PURE LOVE
about the German-Spanish Composer Maria de Alvear, by Raoul Mörchen
"Puro Amor", "En Amor Duro" - "For Pure Love", "In Hard Love": large, white sheets of paper in oblong format, staves that end nowhere and have no dividing bar lines. On the sheets are dots and lines, a few notes, obviously written down in a hurry. No tempo is stipulated, and dynamic markings are rare. The notes on the staves for left and right hand are far apart, keep their distance from one another. Chords seldom thicken the brittle musical texture. Sometimes, the narrow range of sound is torn open by notes in extreme registers, but these cannot endanger its powerful gravitational pull. Small intervals and long, almost endless repetitions keep the music in the middle. "They look so helpless you could almost think a five-year-old had written them, someone who can’t write music", Maria de Alvear says of these scores. "But, of course, I did know how to write music. I just made a clean sweep."
Maria de Alvear has written many such pages of music. Each of these two piano pieces, which were written in 1991 in quick succession, stretches over more than an hour. The music gives no visual clues as to why this is so. Perhaps, however, one can hear why; perhaps one feels, like the composer, that the music needs precisely this amount of time. An analysis of the score would not be of much help: it would not be possible to ascertain a structural plan or logical architecture. Maria de Alvear has not constructed this music, but just written it down: "In my childhood I wrote quite a lot of automatic pieces from compulsion. But because it happened from compulsion, it was actually a lie. But then, in 1989/90 - I can still remember exactly - I sat down one afternoon and wrote a piece automatically that is in my opinion the most important work of my life: the piano piece "De Puro Amor" - "For Pure Love". And it really was written from pure love. It was the point that brought me together with my childhood. Suddenly I understood: there it was. It was a present. One afternoon I simply scribbled it down - and that was also a new beginning as far as writing music was concerned."
With "écriture automatique" or "automatic writing", Surrealism - as represented by André Breton - wanted to gain access to the Ich. This technical device was to be used to break through the blockade of the rational intellect and penetrate the subconscious in order to "express the real function of thinking" (Breton). Maria de Alvear’s technique of automatic writing, which she has used for a large number of pieces, is not intended to go more deeply into the Ich, but, instead, to emerge from it. She explains that her form of automatic writing takes place in a non-thinking state, and says it can be compared with the way a monkey plays by picking things up, looking at and examining them, before turning to so - either through boredom or because something new has attracted its attention. In automatic writing, the concentration wanders from one thing to another, without intent and without direction. Maria de Alvear says that automatic writing creates a free space far from any constraints or goals, far from society, and far from one’s own emotions. In this free space, the concentration is focused solely on musical energy and experiencing the present, and in this way it becomes open for spiritual experiences.
Spiritual experiences are the soil in which Maria de Alvear's work takes root: spirituality permeates her art both as personal experience and as a message, and is defended there against the omnipotence of western rationality. "Understanding that takes place somewhere beyond our brains is not accepted as understanding, and certainly not as knowledge," criticises Maria de Alvear. "It isn’t even perceived as being knowledge. This is the problem. There is a lot of knowledge which people don’t know they have - because their brain doesn’t accept it as knowledge. The yardstick they always use is that of rational intelligence. But there are completely different forms of knowledge: there is also spiritual understanding. But this can only be learnt through spiritual experience, and, of course, remains incomprehensible to people that don’t have this spiritual experience. It could be compared with bodily experiences, which are not transmissible. Here we’re dealing with areas for which our civilisation does not have any tradition of interpretation. We don’t have any science of the soul except for psychology, which, however, as "psycho - logy" - is rational and therefore contradictory. There is no "escuola del alma" or "escuola del espirito."
Maria de Alvear is both Spanish and German, not half-Spanish and half-German. It is not at all surprising that she doesn’t want to decide for one country or the other, being an artist whose art is committed to - national and cultural boundaries, aesthetic boundaries, and boundaries of knowledge. Her mother comes from Germany, the country where Maria de Alvear herself has been living for 20 years. However, she was born in 1960 in Spain, her father’s country. Her mother, an enthusiastic art collector who has one of the most important private collections in the country, introduced her to the German musical tradition, while her father, a respected architect, opened the door to Iberian culture. The parental home offered important protection from the social, artistic and political restraints of the Franco regime: artists like Miró, Tàpies and Rivera gathered in the Alvears’ well-appointed house in Madrid, and, at the age of only eight, Maria de Alvear began piano lessons with the composer Eduardo Pollonio, a friend and colleague of Luis de Pablo. Later, she also received instruction in organ, harpsichord and composition.
After completing her schooling at the German School in Madrid, she attended a course in composition given by Mauricio Kagel in Mainz. Maria de Alvear decided to remain in Germany. In 1980 she started studying in Kagel’s course "New Music Theatre" at the Cologne Musikhochschule. In doing so, she started a new chapter in her life, both professionally and personally. "I grew up in a little box. I just had to get out. The Franco era had a very restrictive influence on my childhood. These restrictions were somewhat mitigated by my father’s imagination, who was a great dreamer, and by my mother, who never came to terms with the intellectual, political, pseudo-Catholic stupidity of Spain under Franco; it caused her much suffering. I experienced how two people fought for their own freedom, for individual freedom, in a very difficult situation, politically as well. This left its mark on me. It was a matter of the creation and extension of [free] spaces."
This is still an important theme for her today, and one that constantly crops up in her work. Her radio play "Il segreto del circulo" (1997) discovers an allegory for this subject that is both simple yet extremely poetically executed, following Alvin Lucier’s "I am sitting in a room". In it, a flower is taken from an open space to an enclosed one. Because this does not suit it, it starts to stink. So it is taken out into the open again. "It’s a game with spaces - that’s all."
The notion of space occurs as a central theme throughout Maria de Alvear’s life and work. The fact that she felt more at home in Kagel’s course on New Music Theatre than in a traditional composition course probably also has something to do with her sensitivity for spaces and spatial situations, a sensitivity that Kagel used to encourage and work on in his students. Maria de Alvear remembers that Kagel taught her how the eye and the ear are connected, how the right hand always knows what the left is doing, and how the ear cannot ignore what the eye sees. The situation and the space in which a work of art takes place thus themselves become part of the work. Art never stands alone - part of whoever perceives it at first always remains outside the work of art in the midst of his or her everyday reality. Most art fights against this reality, excluding the outside world as being inartistic. But art does not have to do this. New music theatre in Kagel’s tradition shows ways of not only integrating art - as space-defined - into the world, but also integrating the world into art.
On the basis of all this, Maria de Alvear came to the conclusion that composition should not allow itself to be limited, not even to the area of aesthetics where its validity is traditionally recognised. For she believes the artist accepts responsibility along with freedom: responsibility for art and for life. Taking the ideas of new music theatre to their logical extreme, she even subjects new music theatre itself to a fundamental criticism: "There is no stage. I don’t create theatre. What happens there is real. These are events that can’t be repeated, not theatre."
Thus, the concept of "space" in the thought and works of Maria de Alvear does not mean real, architectonic space, and certainly not just the stage area: it goes beyond factual space to denote the intellectual, spiritual location where each person is situated. With such ideas she has left her teacher Kagel behind her once and for all. Other teachers, according to her the most important ones in her life, helped her to understand the meaning of space in a larger and more universal sense, and at the same time aided her in finding a way out of a difficult life crisis: her encounter with Rahkweeskeh and M.A. RuizRazo "Tsolagiu", a medicine man and medicine woman of the Cherokee people, brought a decisive change. A long and close friendship arose between the two Native Americans and this German-Spanish composer. According to her, she owes her friends profound insights into the possibility of spiritual experience and the attainment of knowledge beyond the limits of western science and rationality. Using this position as a basis, Maria de Alvear was able to place her work on a new, solid footing.
In the shamanistic tradition, music has always played an important role as mediator between different spaces, between the space of the profane and the space of the divine, between this life and the life beyond. Shamans, who have attained transcendental insights through an existential and mostly life-threatening experience, use musical energy in their rituals. If one understands this tradition and takes it seriously, the background to Maria de Alvear’s new approach also discloses itself: her expansive, mostly hour-long works - which she from this point on calls ceremonies, not just compositions - arise from the need to place her personally experienced spiritual knowledge in the context of the western intellectual and artistic tradition in order to enrich a culture that has lost its balance and long since forgotten its spiritual roots. Her music is meant to mediate between the worlds in the shamanistic tradition, between soul and intellect, between body and mind, between spirituality and science. According to Maria de Alvear, music creates spaces in which this mediation can take place.
The hope that understanding the ideas of a foreign culture will lead to a better understanding of one’s own culture has always accompanied the human search for knowledge. It also accompanied Maria de Alvear on her travels to visit indigenous peoples in Finland, Norway, Siberia and North America. She emphasises that her interest in the spiritual tradition of archaic cultures looks forward, not backwards. She does not want to glorify the mythos of a lost past, but to explore possibilities of human existence for the present and future - and not for a life distant both geographically and intellectually, but for a life here: on the soil of our western civilisation.
It is no coincidence that much of what Maria de Alvear says and produces reminds one of the ideas and works of Joseph Beuys. Beuys is one of her most important artistic links. There are many parallels between the two, including their general interest in the artistic exploitation of archaic cultures and their shamanistic traditions, the idea of an "extended concept of art" that rejects the division between artistic and everyday creativity, and a concept of energy going far beyond that of science. "A piece of mine is a moment in which a lot of energy gathers: musicians, my music, the audience, the lighting, the time in which we live, the cars outside and so on... all this is the concentration of energy in a single point. The music doesn’tjust absorb this energy, but influences it as well. It’s like a satellite dish that collects energy and transforms it. And I try to use this energy in such a way as to reinforce the principle of life."
Another point of connection with Joseph Beuys is the way Maria de Alvear’s music often summons up and focuses this universal energy in rigid, ritual forms, with the composer herself as the main protagonist in the role of shaman. Thus, for example, "Mar", for three voices and percussion, composed in 1998, reveals itself over large stretches to be an incantatory, ceremonial ritual about the element water. "Raices IV", written in 1992, on the other hand, suggests a ritual sacrifice with its use of a deer carcass and its choice of a medieval church as performance venue. (It should be noted that the ritual involved in this piece, which met with uncomprehending criticism on the part of animal rights campaigners, is actually intended to free the deer from its traditional, but misunderstood role as victim. In "Raices IV", the animal does not even end up in the bellies of its hunters. Its important role in the ceremony and its huntsman’s burial give it back the natural dignity it had long since lost as a mere unheeded link in the food chain.)
The work "Hoja" is a rite of initiation - and a particularly obvious reference to Beuys as a model. "Hoja" (Leaf) is an act of consecration for a small oak tree. At the first performance in the Antoniterkirche in Cologne in 1997, the composer placed an energy ring of lumps of salt around the tree as a protection, something she otherwise only did for her musicians. In a performance lasting around half an hour, the young tree was circled by expansive, iridescent melismas, which, over a droning cluster from the organ, seemed to take off in powerful flight again and again. The oak tree, connected to the organ by golden threads, stood there like a small child waiting for its first communion. After the ceremony, the tree was sent out into life. Maria de Alvear planted it in a Cologne park and had a basalt stele put up next to it, making the similarity to Beuys’ Oak Action in Kassel [‘7,000 Eichen’, Documenta 7, Kassel 1982 (until 1987)] complete.
The influence of the fine arts on Maria de Alvear’s work, however, neither begins nor ends with Joseph Beuys. It should be pointed out anyway that the points of contact between her music and the fine arts are more numerous and important than those with music of the present or past. In her most recent works, it can even be observed that there is a tendency to completely avoid any reminiscences of traditional musical models, figurations and idioms. If music history has always limited itself to subjecting musical material to a hierarchical control, as the American composer Morton Feldman already suspected, Maria de Alvear is now trying very specifically to find an alternative to the structuralism that has come down to us with all its ideological implications. Particularly her latest works, like the piano concerto "World" (1996) or the work for ensemble "Sexo Puro" (1998), do not correspond to the traditional idea of a musical composition in two regards. Firstly, the material she uses is neither hierarchical nor structured at all: to be precise, not even composed. In these pieces, we do not have before us a musical edifice built from separate components, but an attempt at presenting an experience in the form of a monolithic whole. And secondly - closely connected to the first point - these works, like earlier ones, completely lack the character of objects. If listeners place themselves in front of the music as if before an art "object", intending to take it in as mere observers, they miss its peculiar character. Instead of keeping at a distance, they have to enter into the music and let themselves be surrounded and enclosed by it.
There is one more cross-reference to the fine arts that underlines the way Maria de Alvear’s works are firmly imbedded in occidental art and cultural history - the aesthetics of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, whose colour-field paintings pursue very similar goals: they are also intended to draw viewers into their world, the world of art, and overcome them there. The radical anti-formalism and large formats of the paintings are meant to make it impossible for the viewer to remain outside the picture; they are there to pull him or her away from mere observation into a complete experience. The aesthetic of the so-called "all-over" leads back to the concept of the sublime. In this context, Robert Rosenblum, the art historian, refers to Caspar David Friedrich’s painting "A Monk at the Sea" and the way the standpoint of the viewer later changed position: while in the case of Friedrich’s painting the viewer sees a monk seized by sublime emotion in the face of the endlessness and formlessness of nature, anyone looking at Newman’s or Rothko’s paintings stands in the picture themselves, exactly where the monk stood earlier. The work of art, on the other hand, takes over the role of nature. The work of art is now the place where the absolute is revealed. [Robert Rosenblum, ‘The Abstract Sublime’. In ARTnews 59, No. 10 (February 1961).]
From here it is not very far to Maria de Alvear’s concept of art. Anti-formalism, large formats, energy fields, immersion instead of keeping at a distance, experiencing instead of analysing: the similarity of the artistic means and aims is clear to see. The comparison gains even more strength if one considers the historical background of colour-field painting: as part of Abstract Expressionism this has its roots both in Surrealism and automatic writing as well as in so-called primitivism and its rediscovery in Native American art.
In trying to create spaces in which people can recognise their distance to themselves and to nature, and perhaps learn from the experience, Maria de Alvear’s works persistently deal with the universal theme of nature. Almost all her works in past years refer to it even in their titles, having names like "Calor" - warmth, "Soles" - sun, "Raices" - roots, or "Luces" - lights. Other works have love and sexuality as their theme. In doing so, they do not diverge from the central theme of nature, but deal with a specific aspect of it.
Directly after her large-scale diptych for piano, "De Puro Amor" and "En Amor Duro", and her first visit to the Cherokee Indians, Maria de Alvear wrote another pair of works at the start of the nineties in which she comes to terms with some both painful and happy experiences, giving them a universal validity. These are the compositions "Sexo" and "Vagina", both for chamber ensemble, and, as so often, with the composer as solo singer.
While "Vagina" relates the story of a deeply understood and profoundly felt sexuality as a parable about animals, in "Sexo" a woman experiences sexuality with all its dark sides. "Sexo" is a dark metamorphosis of love and sexuality from death and destruction, revenge and fury, to hoping for a form of love and sexuality based on responsibility and respect. "Sexo" takes the same path as Maria de Alvear - it refers to wounds received, but finally also shows the way beyond them to a wise world that no longer knows such suffering: "Sexuality is the key to respecting nature and life."
This is the text of a radio broadcast made for German Radio, Cologne (first broadcast 19.6.99), and extended for Hessian Radio (first broadcast 21.9.99). It is presented here in the slightly revised version that appeared in ‘MusikTexte’, No. 80, August 1999, pp. 4-9. The author reserves all rights.