»My biggest worry at the moment is that things might get boring.« But honestly, Alexander Schubert – you’re teasing us, right? How can the project that the Hamburg composer is currently planning at Bille Power Station possibly be boring? His project »Genesis« gives people the opportunity to play at being God, to immerse themselves in a kind of reality computer game where anything can happen: there are four players, and each of them steers an avatar online, a graphic representation of the user, through a space that is completely empty at the outset.
They can obtain and work on different materials, create a world, destroy things they have already built; they can cooperate or fight each other, they can make dreams come true or shatter them. The users see and hear what their avatar sees and hears. And they can tell it what to do next: »Fetch a chainsaw, a vase, a candle and a mouth organ!« »I need that big cloth and the long pole. And then ask the other woman if she can help you put up the tent.« Or maybe: »Sit in the middle of the room and watch what the others are doing.« In that case, things might get boring after all.
But the chance of that is pretty small. And the fascination of virtual worlds is huge. Performances like the one that Schubert is working on are nothing new: the group machina ex, for instance, developed several stage plays that work like walk-in computer games, where the audience itself decides what happens, tearing down the famous »fourth wall« that separates the auditorium from the stage and participating in the action on stage.
Schubert approaches the subject from a more artistic angle than machina ex, whose »theatre games« transfer a computer game one-to-one into the real world. »Genesis« wants to explore social tendencies – and at the same time give the object of its research the chance to take active part.
This is an excerpt from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (1/2018).Order the current issue
We are interested in the social interaction between the people who are steering the avatars.
THE FULL IMPACT OF THE COMPUTER
Strictly speaking, at the age of 40 Schubert was born a bit too early to pass as a true digital native. But he refers to himself as one. Compared with the next generation, the computer only came into his life later on; but then it did so with full impact. »I approached everything through the digital interface«, he says. As if it was only thanks to the computer that he was able to connect his own being to the outside world. At that time he used the computer mainly for music: electronica, hardcore, free jazz, sound collages, samples, techno – many names for the different types of computer-generated sounds.
Schubert went on to study neuro-information science and cognitive science in Leipzig. An appropriate choice. But music remained in his life, and after Leipzig he took a master’s degree in multimedia composition at the Hamburg College of Music & Drama. For 15 years now this has been the one and only course of study in Germany for anyone who wants to make music with the computer instead of with real instruments.
In this period Schubert focused his attention first and foremost on the people who perform music, with the people on stage. What does it mean to make music yourself? What role do concert formats play? Can a percussionist make music without percussion, using only sensors fixed to his limbs? Spoiler: he can. Clear evidence can be found online in videos of the piece »Laplace Tiger« (2009).
The works thus produced were very intensive – Schubert likes strong stimuli. He prefers to have everything happening at the same time, garnished with flashlights so that the optic nerve doesn’t get bored. What other people might find aggressive and threatening means freedom to him – the freedom to let himself go, to abandon himself.
For all that, Schubert has not turned into some kind of nerd who defends his digital god at all costs. He does see that there are dangers involved in the way digitalisation is increasing its hold on society. »But I definitely tend to see the advantages: the simplification of democratic processes, making it easier for people to understand complex situations … I prefer to see the upsides rather than focusing on the ways digital technology can manipulate and deceive us.«
BODIES IN A VIRTUAL SPACE
But what really fascinates him is the freedom to link cause and effect. He wants to find out what consequences a virtual space can have where the connection between cause and effect is either suspended or completely redefined. How much physicality do we still need then? Or do we want to abandon as much physicality as possible in order to facilitate escape? And might this escape also entail the experience of coming to oneself?
Many questions to be sure, and interesting questions that Schubert doesn’t just want to answer for himself, but for everyone else as well. And that is the moment when his works »spill down from the stage«, as he describes it, placing the users in the limelight. »I don’t want to just represent, illustrate and get stuck in the narrative with my pieces; I want people to experience and feel them directly.«
One can tell that it wasn’t easy for Schubert to gradually give up the strong stimuli in the process of developing »Genesis« that are normally so important to him. In earlier pieces with a similar structure, there were more rules and more intervention from the outside. And now? »We are interested in the social interaction between the people who are steering the avatars. That’s why we decided to interfere as little as possible from outside, and kept on reducing the whole setting at each rehearsal.« But wait a minute! How do you rehearse something like this? And who is »we« in this case?
The Decoder Ensemble: a group of people, Schubert among them, who decided in 2011 to focus their attention exclusively on contemporary compositions. The group includes three composers, but all six regular members of the ensemble are keen to play an active creative role here. Experimental performances, multimedia set-ups, musical concept art – nothing can scare these artists. On the contrary. And of course they rehearse – even something like »Genesis«.
I investigate what digitalisation does to people.
WHAT RULES MAKE SENSE?
For this project the ensemble has grown to five times its normal size: more than 30 people join forces with Alexander Schubert, Heinrich Horwitz (dramaturgy) and Carl-John Hoffmann (technical) to create and realise the game.
In rehearsal they check what rules make sense and which ones don’t. Which materials should be included among the props, which ones shouldn’t. What is the ideal length of a time slot from the user’s point of view, and how long can the avatars keep going? And the upshot here was that less is more. There will be a lot of liberties in »Genesis« – this might be the reason for Schubert’s fear that things might get boring. One thing that isn’t rehearsed is the music itself. »I haven’t written a single note«, he says, bringing up the obvious question of why a chamber-music ensemble plays something like »Genesis« if music doesn’t actually play any role.
Of course, there is no satisfactory answer to this question. Artistic freedom implies that the artist doesn’t always have to provide answers. »I investigate what digitalisation does to people.« The jury is still out on whether or not music plays a role here. But the group definitely supplies musical instruments in this virtual space of a different kind.
Text: Renske Steen, last amended: 27.3.2020