When Peter Sellars called photographer David Michalek to talk about his staging of György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, he described the world that singer Dawn Upshaw and violinist Geoff Nuttall would inhabit during their hour-long performance of the hermetic composer’s settings of Kafka’s text.
Sellars and Upshaw “felt there was something extraordinary in this piece but it needed to be contextualized differently so that people could find a way in.” Changing the context meant taking the work out of the concert hall and putting it on stage, with the performers assuming roles, and the theater providing both props and sets. It would be up to Michalek to provide the sets, in the form of a video projected on a screen behind the singer.
To compose Kafka Fragments, Kurtág had selected 40 fragments from the German-speaking Czech writer’s journals and letters; Kurtág’s settings are short and often identifiably descriptive of the words. The first fragment reads “The good march in step. Unaware of them, the others dance around them the dances of time.” The violin begins with two-notes unrelentingly swaying back and forth, conjuring the image of the trudging march of the good. That motif transforms throughout the piece, becoming a metaphor for the human march through life as well as the clicking measure of time passing. Geoff Nuttall, the first violinist of the St Lawrence String Quartet, uses his achingly brilliant technique to follow the composer’s tightly fashioned score.
The music is far from being a simple mirroring of the words. It is complex, intensely distilled and startling in its pitches and rhythms. According to Nuttall, “Two or three numbers push the boundaries of violin technique.” Even so, he finds “the difficulties are meaningful … I don’t feel that he [Kurtág] could have simplified this and made it just as good.” Both he and Upshaw find the music “magnificent.”
Using the visual precision suggested by the music, Director Peter Sellars imagined a woman—sung by Upshaw, whose pure-toned sound and sensitive musicianship are crucial to the piece—within the confines of a house where she would “do all the things that one does in a home: wash dishes, sweep, sleep clean.” The textual fragments became thoughts that enter her consciousness and that she then reacts to while doing her daily chores.
Michalek’s black-and-white stills, which are projected throughout the piece, also follow Kafka’s text. They alternate with shadowy figurings of Upshaw on stage, which are assembled by lighting designer James F. Ingalls.
Michalek spent a few weekends with a family, who were his and his wife’s friends, photographing their home, the people and objects within it, in attempt to create the “home” of Sellar’s version of Kafka Fragments, but had been unhappy with the results. At the same time, however, he was an artist-in-residence at The Bridge, a day home for adults with severe and debilitating mental illness. Although some of his family photos are used in Kafka Fragments, the majority of the photos were developed within the Bridge’s poetry workshops, and most are photographed on site with members of the Bridge’s community.
When Allen Granville, one of the Bridge’s poetry group, went into the hospital to have his lung surgery, Michalek found an unexpected solution to a fragment he had been puzzling over: “My ear felt fresh to the touch, rough, cool, juicy, like a leaf.” Michalek recalls, “I walked into the room, and the nurse came in and she went over to the bed and took his pulse … And I watched her take a single finger and push some hair behind his ear … It took on a resonance.” Patient, nurse, and photographer restaged the act, and the photos became part of the final production.
Through their collaboration, the artists of Kafka Fragments have developed an intricate and intensely moving work of successive layers, each evoking a dreamlike response to Kurtág’s music. Michalek sees it as an elaboration of the relationship between the text and music, in which the violinist in relation to the singer becomes a kind of metaphor for the human interior life. “It becomes yet another reflection of what might be happening at some subtler psychological level where we’re all fighting with our own demons and being soothed by our own angels.”
“All of those things,” he continues, “that exist on stage spatially and structurally really do exist in the music. It … opens up to the audience in a way that is so extraordinary.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Piedmont Post.