BE: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to help inspire more people to discover and love the arts. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're looking back into our archive to February 2017 and rediscovering an interview with Danish band, Efterklang. In 2012, the band's album Pyramidia dazzled our ears and minds with its exploration of an Arctic ghost town. And it was four years later, they reemerged with something that I don't think anybody was expecting an opera.
In the lonely corridors of a Cold War bunker, we can hear echoes of music, of voices and song in Leaves: The Colour of Falling.
LB: Of course, it was a challenge to enter music far from Wagner and Ricard Strauss and Verdi for example.
CC: You can say the title of it for me sets the scene quite well. I mean when falling in love you can say you're also falling - and beauty has both beauty but also death to it in some sort of way.
BE: Danish pop experimentalists Efterklang and composer Karsten Fundal's radical take on the opera was conceived and staged in a nuclear basement of the former Copenhagen municipal hospital. A year after its birth, they rewired this work for the Barbican, and other European stages. To help guide us through the labyrinth of their ideas. I spoke to Casper Clausen singer, musician and one third of Efterklang, and was also joined by legendary 70 year old Danish soprano Lisbeth Balslev. We spoke at different times a few weeks before the concert, I joined the two together with the help of the album of the opera. First to Casper,
CC: Before we even wrote the music of Leaves, we knew where the music would be performed. The opera location, which was this emergency hospital in Copenhagen, kind of had like a visual imprint underneath the ground and in this big, mysterious hospital, emergency hospital with big metal doors and kind of a strange nightwatch kind of life to it. I think it's sort of like infected, definitely, infected the music and we all love that place. We were sort of scouting for places to gather with the team around the opera.
I mean, we've always liked to work in, you know, making music in art spaces I think, you know, obviously, there's some, some kind of this place just seemed to fit. Like, you know, we were also looking at church rooms and so many different kind of places, but it seemed to be like the kind of darkness of, of the music in the first sketches that Karsten already had presented for us and you mean this opera sort of started also a little bit from the initiative of Karsten Fundal who asked us whether we wanted to be part of the making of an opera. So it's like a long process of many different people and to get to the point where we had, even before we were down in the basement, it was sort of like when we were there, boom, it was like wow, this is an incredible place.
LB: I had just retired from my professional job. It was a surprise so suddenly, out of nothing to be offered this job. Karsten Fundal had not even finished the composing. But listening to examples of his music was a pleasure. So it was easy for me to accept. Of course, it was a challenge to enter music far from Wagner and Ricard Strauss and Verdi for example. But I like it - once Fundal's and also Efterklang's beautiful mix of classical and modern rhythmical music.
BE: And Casper, what's your role within the production? Are you a character?
CC: We're very much like equal characters as the other, I mean, for instance, for me, we are like six singers. You can say five opera singers, like a contra tenor, an amazing voice and a contra bass singer who's like this very tall guy, even taller than me. Very, very, very, very deep, deep voice but again, a very classical voice. And we have two sopranos, a legend, Lisbeth Balslev, who's been singing a lot of Wagner. And is now 70 years old and Katinka who's been touring with Efterklang, she also sings you can say, she's been singing in both like in you could say normal ways like I do. But also she has a classical training and so in this case, she's singing proper opera. And then there's me so and then from the musical instrumentation like with the Rasmussen Mess 10-piece. So we tried to sort of just be part of it, play within the band, sort of creating a, you could say an opera band in a way.
LB: Allow me to quote one of the critics and he wrote, 'In another room you meet a soprano, wonderfully played by Lisbeth Balslev - yeah, he did, he wrote that - 'Who sings while cutting firewood. As you pass the room. She stands up right before you and looks firmly into your eyes. Look at me, she sings for you did this. Her look is both tired and painful. She holds the axe in her hand. I returned the look while she sings, I am the lover who left her as youngster and who she has never forgiven'. That tells us a lot of the role of who old Isolde is. She sings, 'Now I will flow into nature's circuit, drop by drop I will be drained of me, be no longer me'.
CC: It's a form of music that we actually don't know much about, to be honest.
LB: Well, their opera is much more present, than what I have experienced before.
CC: I personally have a lot of fascination of especially someone like Wagner, you know, you know, these like massive pieces of work, the Gesamtkunstwerk, and this like, you have this feeling that people have been spending their whole life on - and in his case he kind of did. You can say sort of like movies before movies were even made. I think we went into it with a kind of pretty blank page. I mean, there's a duality to it because we've worked on this piece with Karsten Fundal who comes with much more knowledge and in a way, you know, he had you can say maybe too much knowledge of opera. In a way, from our side we had to be honest and it's quite a naive approach to it and I think we would not have been able to pull that off unless we had someone like Karsten. The two of us together, I think that makes it balance.
BE: Lisbeth, when working with Christian, the director, what guidance did he give you in regards to the role?
LB: We didn't speak very much before we started the rehearsals. I had learned from the artistic director Harry Kupfer, who came from the Felsenstein School in Berlin, and here you have to go full power in your role. It's actually a sort of brainwashing. 'Oh, I would love to see Lisbeth crawl on her knees with the axe in her hand through the whole of her solo. So I crawled. And this is the solo which we call, 'No Longer Me'...
I told him before, I wouldn't go on the stage naked, and that's actually all I said. No, I think you have to try. And if it works, you will do it. If it doesn't work, I actually I have always done what they asked me for because I could do the moving and the singing together.
CC: Anyone who's been listening to this, either whether you're an opera expert or are new to it, it's you can probably hear that it's not normal opera, like it's not a classic opera. And I think Lisbeth, that's kind of where Lisbeth is coming from. But what she added to this opera was just this kind of intensity, like you just don't, you just don't go and buy that. It's like it's just there, you know, you have to learn it from years and years and years, the intensity of her look and her voice when she's singing. This, like falling moments, I think this just was such a incredible gift to have someone like her in the team. We're all kind of the same age, which is a funny thing as well, except for her. So she, she adds this sort of natural differences, just that she's kind of like a different age. And at the same time, she has this critical curiosity which is very admirable. For her it's, I think like, that she is just curious about being part of what we are doing. And also during the course of when we were rehearsing this opera, she just got, she sort of like opened more.
LB: So I was very glad to join the team, the very young team, where I could have been mother and nearly grandmother to my dear colleagues of singers and orchestra members. We had so much fun working together.
BE: Could you describe this work as a song cycle, each song taking a different viewpoint?
CC: I think that's kind of like, that makes sense because that's also how we write songs when we write songs for albums. In comparison to what we've been working on before, even those operas many times even myself I have difficulty hearing what the lyrics actually about I mean, this vibrato of the opera is very distinct and it's all the songs been caught out of this massive piece of lyrics. It's not like each song has been written lyrically, individually it's sort of like, we got this massive amount of text from the libretto and we just kind of picked out of that what we wanted. So there is of course, there's a, there's a sort of larger theme, something that combines it and I still hear that in the record, but it's very true that each song has been sort of crafted on their own
BE: The theme of loss of identity is there alongside the idea of love as well. The things we value most as humans?
CC: I think you can say the title of it for me sets the scene quite well. I mean, when falling in love, you can say you're also falling and beauty has both beauty but also death to it in some sort of way. It's been something that we've also worked at a little bit with in terms of how we created the music, you sort of constantly throughout the record, you will recognise this glissando or these falling tones, which is something that became a kind of musical theme and also something that is definitely highlighted within the lyrics. I mean, this is sort of desperation, admiration for like love and beauty somehow dies and that is what makes them what they are. They cannot be preserved in a way and I think there's a certain preservation like something that we worked with in terms of direction when we were - and the beauty of it is difficult thing to deal with that these things are just disappearing, falling out. They're like going through the house, you know that they don't stay. They don't articulate themselves.
BE: Maybe the hardest question, how are you going to take something very site specific and bring it to the different stages?
CC: That's a very good question. I don't know yet. We took the chance because we thought it sort of started when we had done the performance in the basement, we already knew that we really liked the music a lot. And even though even though it wasn't performed to start with just a music as a listening experience, it sort of felt like something special. So we wanted to document that and that ended up being the recording of the album that came out. To take that around, we knew that quite quickly we didn't want to recreate the sort of basement vibe because it's such a specific location. So what we are trying to do is basically to focus on the music itself, music of the album and then perform that on stage in front of many more people than were present in the in the basement. So it is really music that we keep quite dear and think adding too much layers to it and specific theoretical layers to it just maybe becomes, makes it sort of... takes people away from that experience. That's what we really want. We want to talk people into the music as leaves.
LB: I haven't been in London for many many many years and I have never been on the Barbican stage but of course it's very exciting. Also to go on tour with all the young people and I know it is hard work, but I hope the acoustic is is good in the Barbican!
BE: Is this perhaps the most theatrical thing Efterlang has done?
CC: That's very true. I think you can, you can sense that in the music as well. And I think that's also our was our approach when we started working on, not to sort of have fear fo the drama in opera because that's really what I feel opera is doing. It is just a tonne of drama and too much sometimes, you know. We were kind of in the beginning of the process, we were sort of stuck with a story but we kind of we kind of let go a little bit on the story and started focusing on the music purely because that's kind of what we feel we're the best at anyway to just not, not necessarily to tell the dramatic story that a narrative that people should understand, but more to try and catch the feeling and the drama in the music and sort of let people, you know, find their own stories in it. It's very dramatic but we hope that it's not creating too much of a narrative like that's at least that's never been part of the intention behind the music.
I mean, this is the first time we kind of come out as Efterklang, after our last concert. So for us, it's a nice way to say we're still here, we're still making things. And we're not done. We're still doing all these things that we used to do with Efterklang, but a different kind of headspace and a different clearance in our mind, so who knows, maybe we'll, we'll be back with a, you could say a 'real Efterklang' album at some point, who knows.
BE: And the journey continued for Efterklang in 2019 when they released the album Altid Sammen, which my Danish speaking friend tells me means 'always together'. Efterklang have developed a special connection to the audience over the years. And no matter the language of the words, the ambition of the music, often using an orchestra or choir, they always connect straight to the heart of the listener.
I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of the podcast. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can leave us a review to help us getting the word out.