The Second Sexing Sound Symposium (SSSS!), a series of public events in Chicago dedicated to ideas, research, performance, and conversation surrounding female and trans-identifying practitioners in and around the sonic arts (sponsored by the Goethe-Institut Chicago), took place on Dec. 2-4, 2017. Among the featured artists was German composer-performer Neo Hülcker, whose work Crackles was premiered by Mocrep at the 2016 Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music in Germany, and performed in Chicago as part of SSSS!. Here is my interview with Neo about their practice and philosophy, originally published in Cacophony Magazine on January 22, 2018.
1) I’m curious about your background, as a person who studied composition in Germany with at least two people who I would identify as IMPORTANT GERMAN COMPOSERS (Dieter Mack and Manos Tsangaris), but whose work really does legitimately push the boundaries (“boundary-pushing” is a catch-phrase in the US for art that, unlike yours, isn’t) of what we consider a “musical composition.” I think this question has two parts:
a) what process did you undergo philosophically or psychologically or spiritually or economically or educationally to arrive at a place where you self-identify as a “composer-performer” but write music like Crackles, which is mostly movement-based on the part of the performers; or, maybe more simply put: why is important to you to call yourself a “composer”?
It all began when I was a kid: When I was 9 I found out that my cassette recorder had a recording function and so I started to record my whole life with it. I recorded at home, at school, when I was playing with my friends...I also invented acoustical situations and radioplays for this cassette recorder and became more and more obsessed with sounds. And also with performances and little theatre plays I invented for my friends and me. When I was 12, I started to learn the piano and compose for instruments. Later, when I studied composition, I got more and more interested in all these performative aspects on stage. I began to invent sound installations and performances and got a lot of inspiration by fine arts and performance art.
I've also always been interested in the whole frame of a concert, in the situation on stage itself, in the bodies we are observing on stage, in all the different perspectives that are taking place during a moment we call performance. (At the same time I also love to observe all these not-staged performances during our everyday lives.)
I also like to compose with very different materials that don’t need to be sounds but that I can form in a musical way. And I prefer to work with reduction: with these simple things that shape a situation on stage: the presence of bodies, movements, lights, sounds, bowing... There is so much that is going on and I like to focus on these little basic elements that each contain a whole world in themselves.
Another thing is that I like to push our modes of perception: what if I perceive this or that as music ? How will my mode of listening change? How will my thinking about music change? What if I perceive something as music without hearing anything through my ears?
b) how is working in the US different in this regard? For all the similarities of German and US arts scenes, there are substantial contextual and historical differences, and slightly different conversations those cultures are having. How does Crackles fit into those conversations differently?
It’s not so easy for me to answer this question as there are so many different aesthetics and movements in both countries. And I think I would need to know more about the different cultural conversations.
What I can see is that there is an international circle of composer performers, like Mocrep for example, who are very open for any kind of ideas, collaborations and working processes. Who play objects and their bodies as instruments as well or even more as their traditional instruments and who are honestly interested in experimenting.
Someone once said that Mocrep, Bastard Assignments from London and some other composer performers who all have worked together could form into an international supergroup. That’s so nice: that we support each other, work together and build a community.
One thing that seems different to me between Germany and the US is the financial support: In Germany it's relatively easy to find funding for projects while it seems to be more difficult in the US. I see people having several money-jobs and I have the impression that teaching at a university almost seems like the only option if you don’t want to do another non-musical job. In Germany I see more people who can survive just by composing, performing or curating.
So, working with Mocrep on Crackles in Darmstadt in 2016, then having it performed by them again in Chicago a year and a half later on the SSSS! (and by others in the intervening time)... what was this work to you at the time of its creation, and how has that changed? To what extent is it Mocrep’s work, rather than, or as much as, yours?
When I wrote the piece for Mocrep I was curious to try out something new for me, I wasn’t sure how things would work out on stage. After the first performance I got the feeling that I wanted to work more in this direction and it actually inspired me so much for other pieces I composed later. I felt that there was a path that I wanted to figure out more for my artistic work. And it’s still like that: after the last performance of Crackles I had so many new ideas for a next piece that will be different but related to Crackles in many ways, I can’t wait to work on these ideas.
The first version of the piece was for 9 performers on stage, after that I made a version for 3 performers. It was quite interesting how different things worked with these shifting numbers of performers.
I wrote the piece for Mocrep, so I had these people and bodies in my mind when I was composing it. I also asked them to make videos for me during the working process: I gave them instructions for different movements, like for example to stand in a row and bend up and down as slowly as possible...so I could get a feeling for them. We also changed and added things together during the rehearsals and for that it was really helpful to practice the piece for a longer period of time and work on it together.
Along those lines, it seems to me that questions of power, on many levels, are key to any understanding of music’s history and affect. Surely one of the main questions regards the power dynamic between composer and performer; in traditional (“classical music”) settings, the composer is literally ordering a performer’s muscles to execute a series of actions, controlling the performer’s body in a substantial sense. While this doesn’t have to be read, necessarily, as violent, it sometimes (or often) can be. So, in that you subtitle Crackles “for bodies on stage” you appear to be exhibiting a sensitivity to this dynamic—almost drawing attention to how fundamental it is to music. How, though, when writing such music, do you avoid an even more explicitly controlling power dynamic? To ask in a different way: what is the power-sharing arrangement between you and Mocrep? or in any work for “bodies on stage” that you might make?
I think bodies on stage always have a meaning and are not exchangeable without implications. Very often it seems like the performers bodies don't matter at all in contemporary music or in classical music in general. You get the feeling that the idea is that they all disappear behind the music, but I don’t think it’s working like that. Bodies on stage are so present and they come with a whole history of representation: of performing a certain role in society, with a history of oppression or of privilege.
The power-sharing arrangement of Mocrep and me is a playful one: I wrote a piece with explicit instructions and I even give some of these instructions during the piece with my voice. They are executing what I'm telling them live, so it’s an exaggerated, exhibited situation of these arrangements between composers and performers. Crackles is an agreement to perform these roles in the frame of the piece, it's a performed top-bottom-situation that might remind on other power relations in reality.
What do you think of Chicago? I’ll leave this question intentionally vague so you can say really whatever you feel like saying.
I love Chicago! Such a wild mixture of different scenes and cultures. Lots of new music and art is going on and people were so welcoming and open minded. I felt that there was a real interest in exchanging artistic (and other) ideas. And I also liked that the people I met were so educated and sensitive about queer topics. Oh and I love the lake.
Guess who can’t wait to come back to Chicago :-)
What does your first name mean? It has recently changed, yes? If so, why the change?
I’m trans and wanted to have a more gender neutral name. I wanted it to be short, start with an "n“ and sound nice, so I came up with "Neo“. That "Neo“ is the latin translation of „new“ was a happy accident. Also people told me that the guy from Matrix is named „Neo“ which I wasn’t aware before I chose the name which is a bit funny.
I started to use it in summer 2016, so it’s not super recent.