Art

Dieter Roth’s Chaotic and Cacophonous Gesamtkunstwerk

“Selten gehörte Musik, Abschöpfsymphonie. Die Abschöpfung, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus” (3.2.1979) unter Verwendung eines Fotos von Roland Fischer, Dieter Roth Foundation, Hamburg © Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth (lt. Zug Website)
Performance of Dieter Roth’s “Abschöpfsymphonie” in Munich, 1979 (photo by Roland Fischer, Dieter Roth Foundation, Hamburg, © Dieter Roth Estate, courtesy Hauser & Wirth)

BERLIN — In 1977, Friedhelm Döhl, director of the Basel Music Academy, described Dieter Roth as “an amateur who can say something to musicians on the subject of music, non-music, not-yet-music, no-longer-music and so on, from which musicians can perhaps learn to ‘speak’ musically, to make something out of nothing, to turn something into something different, something personal, in this case something Dieter-Roth-ish.” This process is now underway, and to facilitate it, Edizioni Periferia recently released a comprehensive one-off (edition of 300) box set that holds the catalogue raisonné of Dieter Roth’s work as musician and music publisher. Roth recorded durational sound pieces and edited many records, including those by Hermann Nitsch and André Thomkins. The box-set includes Roth’s clownish “Disklavier” (1992) piano improvisation and the rambunctious Basel Music Academy piece “Quadruple concerto” (1977), released in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin for the first time.

The exhibition And away with the minutes spins like a rococo confection around the prolific noise music projects of this legendary and influential German-born Swiss artist (born Karl-Dietrich Roth but also known as Dieter Rot and Diter Rot). It is a seductive presentation of Roth’s wistfully perverse and reclusive sound art, gathered comprehensively for the first time here by curator Matthias Haldemann. The exhibit focuses on the performative impulse at the heart of Roth’s oeuvre, stressing his stage performances (he once staged a concert of howling dogs).

“Keller-Duo” (1980–1989) built with Bjoern Roth. Kisten mit Klappdeckeln, Trinkutensilien, Audiokassetten, Radiogeräten, Aufnahmegeräten, Lautsprechern, Öl, Acryl, Marker, Elektro-Klaviere, Violine, Kabel u.a.m. Dieter Roth, Foundation, Hamburg Foto: Florian Holzherr, © Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Installation view of Dieter Roth’s “Keller-Duo” (1980–1989) built with Bjoern Roth (© Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth)

Surprisingly, Roth commonly took up classical forms and genres such as the quartet and the sonata, and reinvented them. Examples of such are presented in a sumptuous archive assembled by curator Ursula Block that was previously shown in an exhibition of artists’ records that she presented with Michael Glasmeier in 1989 in Berlin under the title Broken Music. There are primordial, passionate, chaotic, chthonic, and creative cassette audio works here by Roth and others, such as his enchantingly meandering piano solo “Lorelei, die Langstreckensonate” (Lorelei, The Long-distance Sonata) (1978).

I recall that there was none of this cacophonous work in his 2004 show Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective at MoMA / P.S. 1, although it was impressive. The osmotic fusion Roth demonstrated there, and now here, is usually set within the context of the post-war avant-garde scene that included Joseph Beuys, Wolf Vostell, Yves Klein, Takis, Lucio Fontana, Robert Filliou, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman — but situating him in such a context is merely a convenience. Like Moorman, for Roth, music was of great consequence (his favorite composers being Schubert, Brahms, and Schönberg) and he was a unique composer of eccentric noise music who built both his own recording studio and many outlandish musical instruments, like the wonderfully messy “Keller-Duo” (1980–1989).

Roth’s instruments revolved around a central concept of art-music-life as utterly indivisible — a single enterprise that is emotional and sensual. Roth was not an artist who accepted formal restrictions. Indeed, he embraced Duchampian chance and accumulated objects in his works often inviting the natural world to have its way by using unstable fruit, chocolate, and sugar. Neither did he care so much for asserting his own authorship, regularly collaborating with others, including his own son Björn Roth.

In her essay “Film and Theater,” Susan Sontag identified this Roth-like, all-embracing tendency as a “breaking down of the distinction between artistic genres,” and, as such, as one of the two major radical positions of early (mid-1960s) Post-Modern art (the other trend stridently maintaining those distinctions). This all-embracing gesamtkunstwerk ideal, which Sontag goes on to identify as a desire for a “vast behavioral magma,” is typical of Roth’s work when he churns musical instruments into visual art. Of course he was far from alone, as this gesamtkunstwerk ideal of breaking down distinctions is clearly detectable in some aspects of Fluxus, Actionism, and the “expanded arts” scene that flourished throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. Roth’s link to Fluxus involved, among other things, his interest in music/sound, in ephemeral materials, and in an anarchic, prankster humor. Like many then, Roth was a sculptor (albeit often using fugitive materials like baked dough, chocolate, mayonnaise, and rabbit shit), painter (at times incorporating used tablecloths), skilled printmaker, collagist, poet, video diarist, elegant draftsman, publisher (in 1975 he founded Zeitschrift fur Alles, a journal that published anything submitted to it), and noise musician. Specifically, Roth generally tried to blur the boundaries between performance and sculpture, theater and visual art, high and low culture (a goal, one must admit now, that has ended up being merely mostly low). Yet And away with the minutes succeeds as art in a Dionysian sense — as Wagner, the theoretician of the gesamtkunstwerk, explained in Art and Revolution, Dionysian ritual invites the community into a fusion of the arts by embodying a singular ideological purpose. Wagner perceived this Greek unity as the ideal, or to put it succinctly, unity is the ideal born out in Roth’s clusterfuck work.

“Triptychon” (1979-1981) Privatsammlung Schweiz Ausstellungsansicht, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart Berlin © Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Foto: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Thomas Bruns
Installation view of Dieter Roth’s “Triptychon” (1979–1981) (© Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Foto: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Thomas Bruns)

Though Swiss, I was not surprised to find Roth in Berlin, as he was a regular presence here both as an artist and as a musician. In the 1970s — jointly with his Vienna artist friends Gerhard Rühm, Hermann Nitsch, and Günter Brus — he organized the Berlin Dichterworkshops (Poetry Workshops) and gave several concerts in the Selten gehörte Musik series, whose title was coined by Oswald Wiener of the Wiener Gruppe (Roth performed with Gerhard Rühm and Wiener on “Berliner Dichterworkshop” in 1973). Alongside such documentation are early works on paper, like the Cubist-influenced “Ohne Titel” (1950), and combined music objects like the striking installations “Bar 1 (lautloses Bild mit Bar)” (Silent Picture with Bar) (1983–1997) and “Bar 2” (1983–1997). Interactive cassette pieces, such as “Triptychon” (1979-1981), allowed a very simple but always pleasurable experience of overlapping channels of Roth’s sounds, dictated by the punch of buttons.

In the course of the research for this show — carried out jointly by Kunsthaus Zug, the Hochschule für Musik / Musik-Akademie Basel, and Edizioni Periferia over a period of several years — a large amount of unpublished material has been brought to light from the artist’s archives in Iceland, Hamburg, and Basel. This material includes numerous audio and video recordings such as the dramatic “Münchner Konzert” (1974) (the first of the Selten gehörte Musik concerts) that was performed in Munich’s Lenbachhaus, and Roth’s solo “Quadrupelkonzert” (Quadruple Concerto) (1977), performed at the Basel Music Academy. As part of this research project, 25 hours of interviews with Roth’s co-musicians were recorded under the title “Selten gehörte Gespräche” (Rarely Heard Conversations). They can be heard in the exhibition and online.

Dieter_Roth_“Bar 2” (1983–1997)
Installation view of Dieter Roth’s “Bar 2” (1983–1997) (© Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Foto: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Thomas Bruns)

When in a tipsy disposition I particularly admire Roth’s woozy brass arrangement “Abschopf Symphonie” (1979) and the virtuosic “November Symphonie” (1974). They both burst with a dark undertone that separated him from many of the more jocular and conceptual Fluxus artists. Similarly, “Bar 2” (1983–1997) is a frantically handmade arrangement which displays an obsession with life as art as sound as sinister humor. One easily thinks of Friedrich Nietzsche’s brilliant Genealogy of Morals where he writes of a fundamental shift in gesamtkunstwerk as defined by Wagner: the concept expanded and took on new meanings as the idea took on a broader, less formal, and more chaotic sense of unity.

Roth’s apparent concept of the total artwork takes on two meanings which need be differentiated, as I wish to stress one sense (the less Wagnerian sense) of this concept and not the exact, precise sense which Wagner intended. Rather, I am interested in using the more generalized sense of the concept in discussing Roth’s work — the notion attained as it circulated and mutated throughout Europe and the Americas. This version can be best explained through Roth’s “Bar 2,” where the stress lays less on the fusion of normally discrete art forms and more on the totalizing, harmonizing, and engulfing, immersive effect of the art experience. Indeed, with “Bar 2,” Roth demonstrates this extended, comprehensive sense of the idea, attained in Adrian Henri’s significant book Total Art, a book which concerns Environmental and Kinetic Art, performance, and some “happenings” of the 1960s and early ‘70s. In his book, Henri adapts the term gesamtkunstwerk by describing a stream of art of the 1960s and early ’70s in terms that aptly apply to Roth’s work as well: it “sets out to dominate, even overwhelm; flooding the spectator/hearer with sensory impressions of different kinds. It is not meant as information but as experience.”

And away with the minutes: Dieter Roth and Music continues at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum (Invalidenstraße 50-51, Berlin) through August 16. 

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