Antjie in Berlin takes the audience on an aural journey based on a number of letters written by Antjie Krog while on a residency in Berlin and included in her recent book Begging to be Black.
Part sound installation, part concert performance, the composition builds on the music concealed within the spoken word, creating a space for reflection within a landscape of loudspeakers that take on a nearly sculptural aspect. The layout of the city provides a template for the seating arrangement and organization of the performance space.
Recordings of Antjie Krog reading aloud the letters originally written to her mother, form the main point of departure for the piece. The letters themselves cover topics from simple descriptions of daily life in a foreign town to deeper reflections on global issues and moral questions. It is however the particular quality of Antjie Krog’s specifically South African voice that plays a crucial role in the composition. How much atmosphere does a voice carry with it and what kind of melodies does it contain? What kind of music could it lead to?
The speech melodies and rhythms of Antjie’s distinctive readings are transformed into piano music, unfolded and commented on within a sound environment based on field recordings made in Berlin. Vocal fragments migrate from one end of the space to the other, bringing her voice close to the listeners and providing a counterpart to the piano performance – an exploration of the sense of both presence and distance that can characterize communication over long distances, of the movement between inner and outer worlds.
Antjie in Berlin comprises of seven sections – one for each of the letters selected from Begging to be Black1, unfolded in chronological order – from her arrival in Berlin early October until a letter written late December:
Disbelief! Total disbelief about where I am. Up until now, every visit to Europe has simply confirmed alienation, an irrefutable Africanness and, above all else, my Third World-ness. Until now. Poring for long hours over small scaffoldings of words seldom results in being wanted for nine months at a place like this, where one is supported by thirty other fellows, maintained, fed AND set free to do what one does best.
Spinning through my head is the word ‘trust’: I have never been so trusted and am battling to get rid of my South African habit of thinking like a criminal to pre-empt. E.g., the library is open twenty-four hours a day. One takes out a book by signing a card. Don’t they realize how much one could steal? How family and friends could secretly live here in the library for many months on fruit and drink from the small coffee area, even reading news papers and the London Review of Books. In fact, one could bring all the squatters from Cape Town and say, Go for it here!, and lots of everything would still be left in Berlin.
2. Autumn Strategy
Did you know that the Berlin municipality actually has an ‘Autumn strategy’! As Berlin is the city with the most trees in Europe – 400 000 deciduous trees, spread over an area of 890 square kilometres – the city has 1000 ‘leaf workers’, each with a broom, working double shifts until December to gather the leaves ‘as quickly as possible’(!). First the main arteries are cleaned, then the rest. People in orange overalls collect 100 000 square metres of leaves and fill the municipality’s 350 vehicles with 2600 loads of potential compost. Special attention is given to mothinfested trees: they are cleaned thoroughly (one sees people shaking trees, using ladders and special sucking pipes), taking care that the contaminated leaves do not stay behind to spread the infection. This, yes, is where I am living.
I am quite a phenomenon in the German class for speaking long fluid comprehensible sentences (based on Afrikaans vocabulary and word order) but with every single word wrong in terms of gender, tense and case-ending. Cannot help wondering what effect such a complex structured language has on a child’s IQ. Read yesterday a sentence in a newspaper consisting of seven sub-clauses. Quite normal, says the German teacher. One can do it because the gender, tense and case throw up little red flags in every clause to indicate time, gender and subject. Many of these sentences would not be possible in English, and my Afrikaans translation ground to a halt when I reached about the third sub clause. But it is such a beautiful language. I made a literal translation of what you once described to me as probably the best-known poem in German: ‘Autumn Day’ by Rainer Maria Rilke:
God: it is time. The summer was enormous.
Lay down your shadows on the sunhours (sundial),
And on the plains, let the winds run loose.
Whoever has no house will not build one any more.
Whoever is alone now will stay alone for long,
Will wait, read, write endless letters
And will wander through the streets
Restlessly, as the dry leaves are driven.
I saw part of this poem in a newspaper advertisement for home loans. Do we have any poem in South Africa that would speak to all of us about houses? Would any advertisement use good poetry?
4. Kennst du das Land
If only you could have been here last night. Or rather: if you could have been my German teacher again and read to us in that dusty classroom with enormous clouds gathering far out over the plains: ‘Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn’: I remember how strange your mouth became when forming the words ‘Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn.’ I can still hear the strong aspiration of the h-sound in your throat: ‘Die Myrthe still und hoch der Lorbeer steht?’ But it was when you read ‘Es schwindelt mir, es brennt / Mein Eingeweide. Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, / weiß, was ich leide!’ that something else, something unbestimmt entered your voice, something that made my body, as young as I was, turn cold, a sound that I never heard from you ever again, but maybe am spending a lifetime now finding its source for you. Your daughter.
5. Die Zeit
When I have my four o’clock coffee, it is pitch-dark outside. One starts to appreciate the rituals that Europeans have created to make their long, dark winters bearable.
Last week, after Berlin opened its impressive museums for free one night, historian Philipp Blom pointed out that Western culture has entered a phase in which it honours the old simply because it is old. Earlier, he wrote in Die Zeit, museums were places where one could go for the new and the strange, from exotic animals to dragons and scientific discoveries.
But from the nineteenth century museums became obsessed with classification. Curators were appointed and everything had to be classified and labelled. The wonderful, the inexplicable, was banned. ‘We have lost our borderless belief in culture and soul. It was effectively murdered in Auschwitz, the Gulag, in Vietnam,’ Blom writes. ‘We no longer believe in the reign of the soul or in beauty. The middle classes have triumphed, a class without end.’ The word ‘antique’ entered the German language only during the middle of the nineteenth century, and the desire to display the uncategorized was lost. ‘We are anxious about climate change and see in every old soup ladle the imprint of an intact world,’ Blom says. While rainforests disappear, walls of the Renaissance are restored.’We would not ask Frank Gehry to build a computer generated steel facade for the Cathedral of Chartres … No, we stand like the team of worried scientists around Lenin’s embalmed body: this mummy, all covered in make-up and pumped up with chemicals, is our proof that our genial epoch did exist once upon a time.’
Even in the Louvre, Blom says, one finds helpful directions towards the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo; the rest of the artworks are mere background to the way of salvation. ‘It would make more sense to take the Mona Lisa directly to the Disney World in Paris and save the many tourists the troublesome detour.’ He begs Berliners to rediscover the link between creativity and mortality.
Imagine, dear Mother, such an article over three pages in the Sunday Times!
6. Northern Sotho
Did you know that the biggest Northern Sotho department in world is at Humboldt University in Berlin and run by a beautiful young Afrikaner woman? I attended an event at the modern South African embassy where her students did a presentation of their research visit to Northern Sotho regions. Blond, energetic, innovative, fluent in Northern Sotho, they showed films, sang songs, danced. The black man next to me whispered: What on earth do they think they can do with this language? When asked this during interval, the students looked surprised: Research, translation; did we not know that an exceptionally large collection of documents by Northern Sotho missionaries is here in Berlin, still to be properly looked at and digitalized? The Lesotho ambassador was also there and invited me to a reception for the Basoto Queen ‘Masenate Seeiso, the wife of King Letsie III.
7. The German Painter
I suddenly remember the majestic thin-nosed face on the painting against your wall. You told me that it was a self-portrait made by a German painter while he was interned during the Second World War. It would have been his task after the war to make important looking paintings of the new Afrikaner leaders freed from British rule by a victorious Germany.
For a time he hid down at the river on your farm. Every second day, you were sent on your horse to take him food and paint. When he was later caught and interned, he sent you this self-portrait, with one eye blue and one green, as well as a small painting of the river that now hangs in my house in Cape Town.
The letters in Gothic script in your bottom drawer - did he write them? The poems? Is this how your extensive German library, collected over many years in our godforsaken town, started? Is that why you studied German at university?
I don’t know how to ask you how you bring together in your mind this beloved German waiting in the veld, and the Jewish record dealer in town phoning to say that ‘etwas neu’ had arrived. And then you would go to his shop and he would play for you your first Schubert lieder, Schumann, Wagner, pointing out what to listen for. Sometimes he was moved, you said. What did he make of this seventeen-year-old Afrikaner girl who was his only client listening to and buying German Lieder? This we do not talk about, nor about the language in which the longings of both these men, one in hope, one in despair, were lodged thousands of kilometres away from Germany.
P.S. The Christmas light tubes on Unter den Linden run parallel with the branches, emphasizing stem not bulk.
Review – Taking your mind for a walk
Review – Joint efforts end in rich pickings
Article – Immersive (online)
Article – Immersive (PDF)
Article – Sounds of a City
Behind the scenes, preparations and performances: Antjie in Berlin and Without Time & Place at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.