From nothing, a process of making
This project began some time in Spring 2016 as a way to seriously think through Helmut Lachenmann’s work Dal niente, one of the landmark pieces by German composer and theorist written in 1970 and from which our ensemble derives its name. (Dal niente translates to “from nothing”, a musical direction that tells the performer to control their instrument’s sound to emerge from silence into being.) Having a secondary title Intérieur III (Interior III), he was particularly interested in externalizing an internal process, or enabling the listener an opportunity to understand how his sounds were being constructed. Revealing the man behind the curtain, Lachenmann’s Dal niente is a work that points to the instrument as a “filter for the player’s breath as controlled by the composition and its interpretation.” In this work, he wanted us to hear the body before the instrument and to recognize that the sounds heard would always be different based on which body was performing them. For Lachenmann, he wanted us to recognize who that person was behind the curtain, and to allow us to always be mindful of their presence.
Drawing from this work as a point of departure, I began to consider how the breath could be activated aside from its mere recognition. I wanted the breath to have agency in a way that Lachenmann’s gestures of reveal couldn’t and to enable the breath as having its own theoretical potential. I didn’t just want to point to it – I wanted it to drive how new work could be made and to allow the breath to unfold processes of exchange embedded within the physiology of our collective bodies. The breath needed to take up space in ways that hadn’t yet been acknowledged. In this process, I wanted the breath to be a material and a metaphor, a poetic ephemeral thing that foregrounded process as an ongoing (though limited) method for making. Merely audible, yet immediately intimate, the sound of the breath was a way that enabled a strategy to open different situations of proximity and relation. Presence has been reestablished in its hearing, and in that hearing, we have begun to materialize the ongoing process of being, of becoming, and of sustaining.
Here, the embedded exchange inherent in the breath became a way of working and developing new work with the aid of another. Apart from musical models of commissioning, this project was an attempt to rupture the dichotomy of performer and composer and to restructure relationships in a truly collaborative fashion. The artists I chose to work with were invited into a collaboration that enabled us the space to build and develop different and unique ways of working. We were charged to make different works that catered to our mutual interests and initiate something that was in many ways shared but emerged from our own individual practices. While my own history as a clarinet player highly influenced the initiation of this project, specifically as I worked through Lachenmann’s Dal niente, there were no limitations as to how these works could be materialized, performed, or executed. With the audible breath featured prominently in all of these works performed tonight, the physiological form of gaseous exchange (aka, the breath) allowed for the acknowledgement and necessity of another in a process of making ephemeral experiences.
Thinking of breathing as formalized in this project was a reminder that my body (our bodies) is nourished from that which is external to me. Breathing became a bodily function that acknowledged the need for many others to be with me in order for me to survive. To draw on Charlotte Sáenz’s writing, she asks “How do I learn to We and how [can I] (re)build a We with You in it?” In the scope of this project, We became a poetic device that acknowledged a need to develop a communal space - a political potential that envelops us in the same space that is inclusive of You in it. Intentionally diverse, the artists I chose to work with offered different perspectives and analyses of making that laid a foundation for this new working process of collaboration that I am committing myself towards as a musician and performer. Thinking through these relationships in making and the necessity of many others to formalize this project, the breath became an ideal metaphor as an ephemeral and intangible thing that gives presence to that which has historically been invisible or taken for granted.
In acknowledging the many others that inhabit and enable the air I breathe, I am profoundly indebted to my collaborators Soheila, Jason, and Jenna who so willingly and excitedly took on this project and process and am grateful for the work we have begun together. I also wish to thank Joseph Ravens and the Defibrillator staff for their incredible hospitality and for enabling this work to come to fruition and to my musical family in Ensemble Dal Niente that have enabled me to present this work without hesitation. To my dear partner Rob for whom none of this work would be possible, to the incredible cohort of Chicago artists, thinkers, and cultural producers who cultivate a supportive space for this type of work to exist, and to You, the audience, that are willing to take a risk in being here. Thank you for your presence, for your breath, and your being.
Alejandro T. Acierto