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INTERVIEW: Mozart vs Machine
The Quietus , September 26th, 2017 12:18

Dominic Robertson and Vicki Bennett discuss the time-skipping, mind-bending new opera Mozart vs Machine, which comes to London this week

This Thursday (September 28), The Yard in East London will host a performance of Mozart vs Machine, a new mash-up of opera and audio-visual electronic madness from the mind of the mighty Dominic Robertson, the artist formerly known as Ergo Phizmiz, and now as Ergo Phizmiz PLC, and staged by the Mahogany Opera Group.

A curious, time-travelling tale of history’s greatest artists brought together in a theatrical sci-fi gameshow, blurring the lines between opera and performance art, the show explores themes of art and ownership before culminating in a surreal, vaudevillian show trial.

Ahead of the London show, Vicki Bennett, the acclaimed audiovisual artist also known as People Like Us, spoke to Robertson to go deeper into the bizarre background of his new opera, discussing the Mahogany Opera Group, the nature of experimentation, and the values of their respective pseudonyms along the way.

Vicki Bennett, People Like Us: So how did your relationship with Mahogany Opera Group begin?

Dominic Robertson, Ergo Phizmiz PLC: I've been working with them for about 5 years. This project started out as a residency with them and Sound & Music, and luckily they were happy for it to continue into a fully-formed stage piece – it's been in a 30 minute form, then a 45 minute form, then eventually it hit an hour and a half with a choir of twelve old ladies, and Bob's your uncle.

VB: Wow. I see it was performed at Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh the other day (at HighTide Festival) – that's a fancy venue.

DR: Oh yes – many Benjamin Britten operas and such things opened there – we were hanging out with people who refer to him as 'Ben', we were given a private tour of the Britten was all very exciting, being the toast of Aldeburgh for one night only, and I made the most of it. I wore a Gregg’s Bakery T-shirt for the curtain call.

VB: Looking at the cast of the opera, they're playing people like Raymond Scott, John Cage, Mozart, J.S. Bach...quite an across-the-board range of people conducting various forms of experimentation with music.

DR: Yes, it's a little snapshot-journey through music history, finding all these weird associations and connections between them. The root of it was a story that when Antonin Artaud was in a psychiatric institution, a friend sent him a letter with a commission to make a French translation of Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky'. Artaud returned the letter with his translation of the first verse, but he said “I'm not going any further than that, thank you very much, because the man who wrote this is an absolute charlatan with no poetic sensibility. I've done my best to correct him here, but let me tell categorically that Lewis Carroll did NOT write the original version of 'Jabberwocky' – the original version is MY version and Lewis Carroll has stolen it from me via time travel, and then made his bastardisation of it from this time travel theft ”.

Then I was reading an annotated version of Alice In Wonderland, and I found a footnote saying that Lewis Carroll thought he'd discovered a mechanism for reversing time by winding a paper piano roll through a music box backwards, which proved to me that Carroll did have an active interest in time travel, and made me think that maybe Antonin Artaud was telling the truth. So basically the storyline of 'Mozart vs Machine' concerns this mechanism - Mozart is put on trial for going through time and stealing music, and basically everything that is presumed to be melodically or structurally derived from him is proven to be stolen from other people in the future.

VB: A lot of people who don't know about opera might have a preconceived idea about it – we all know about the stereotyping of every kind of music, but it seems particularly so with opera. I think you are breaking the limits of what it could be. How would you explain what opera is?

DR: I think that now, opera is any kind of presentation where the words, music, visual media etc weave a storyline, or express even an abstract feeling, and the combination of all those things in presentation create the image. That's separately defined from, say, a musical, where the story is propelled by people talking to each other, and then they sing a long song that stops the storyline and talks about how much they love each other. I think 21st Century opera is the cross of various media on a stage, also possibly on film, to express an idea or a narrative.

VB: You've been making opera since a very young age, haven't you?

DR: I was twelve years old when I started making opera. I was the kind of kid who got obsessed with one thing for a long time...whatever I became interested in, that's what my world was - so when it was sailors, I was a sailor for a couple of years and lived entirely in that world. When I was twelve I was taken to see a brass band production of The Pirates Of Penzance in a park somewhere in the north-east, and for some reason all the oompahs and verbal wordplay made me want to become an opera composer. I started doing my hair like Arthur Sullivan, and wanted to wear glasses because Arthur Sullivan wore glasses in a picture of him I saw...I ended up having to wear glasses anyway, so you do sometimes get what you want.

From then I wrote operas for four or five years, until I decided I didn't want to do music anymore when I was sixteen or so and threw out all my tapes, which I really regret because I'd recorded midi versions of all these operas only to flagrantly chuck them all out. Years later, when I was in my late-twenties, Peter Fengler asked me if I could stage some these teenage operas in Rotterdam, to which I replied that no, I couldn't, because they don't exist anymore. He said 'Oh well, can you just write us a new one?', so I wrote the opera 'The Mourning Show' about the radio DJ Chris Evans having his sanity stolen away by three malevolent callers, and from then I rediscovered that I absolutely love doing it, and haven't stopped since.

VB: I know your productions are all different, but what might an audience expect from going to see Mozart vs Machine?

I accidentally invented a genre called 'The Excessive Entertainment' a few years back with a piece called Gargantua, where the idea was this assault of information that was extremely entertaining, to the point where it was almost agonising. Mozart vs Machine is very much in that tradition - hardcore, super-media entertainment...which I think is what opera can be redefined as, actually.

VB: You are often at the bleeding edge with what you do – not just you, but anyone who is pushing at the limits of an existing, highbrow definition of what something might be. Even with experimental music, there is this tradition of what constitutes 'contemporary' that isn't contemporary or experimental anymore because it's been defined. How do you feel about the idea that you're part of an avant-garde that's going to get shot down?

DR: I welcome all attempts to shoot me down – but they will fail, terribly! I think we're at a point where the excitement of the internet as a place with the potential to collapse the music industry has kind of been stolen away from us – remember when the internet felt like that? For those of us working outside of industries that sense of opportunity has been lost to a large extent, so there are a lot of people trying to find new places to do interesting things. It gets more and more difficult because of the lack of interested venues, or places that are part of the 'established' so-called avant-garde, as you said, but I'm very happy to be a footsoldier in trying to make new things happen.

VB: I've always found that when you're experimenting it's good to frame it in a way that makes people think they already know what it is.

DR: Yeah. And certainly opera is a good place to do that – but the danger, and what's been my problem before, is that by framing it as an 'opera', a lot of people who would like it don't come, and a lot of people who definitely won't like it do come. But the planning for this tour has been great, because generally it's doing generally more electronic music kind of places, and although this didn't strike me until it started touring, it is taking opera to a different audience than it usually reaches, which is marvellous.

VB: A lot of what you're doing is either on a low or pretty restrictive budget. What would your dream be if you had the budget and space to realise it?

DR: I kind of don't have one because I tend to just go from thing to thing, but I've always had an ambition to make an immense opera in the shape of something like Aida, with hundreds of people onstage and exquisite baroque music, but for it also to be a piece of hardcore live pornography – very porcelain whites, opera singing, flesh, blood and harpsichords, that kind of thing. But also I think if I had loads of money I would just continue with what I do, because I don't really want to make one masterpiece, rather lots and lots of pieces, but I wouldn't have to cut as many corners as I currently cut, which is almost every corner.

VB: What you were just saying, about the immense hardcore porn spectacle, that could be done in a theatrical setting, but I also immediately thought of a Ken Russell movie.

DR: Yes definitely – you know how Ken Russell lost all his sense of taste and decorum as he went on? I think that's inevitably going to happen with me. It's only going to get worse from here.

VB: And what are your thoughts on doing all this in a live context, rather than time-based media?

DR: Oh that's just a personal preference – I love these kind of performance that integrate singing and electronic sound and things being thrown onto the stage, it always feels like it's hanging by a thread, and that the slightest thing could make it all collapse. Also, particularly in small venues, when you have people onstage screaming in the audience's faces, and they are in the space while it's happening, they can't press pause or anything like that...I am very interested in working with time-based media, I do a lot of radio plays, but I definitely like very much the idea of making large, funny, entertaining assaults on a bunch of people in a room.

VB: You retired the Ergo Phizmiz moniker for a couple of years, only to now bring it back in the form of 'Ergo Phizmiz PLC' (c/o a rebaptising ritual on Aldeburgh beach). Thank goodness for that!

DR: Suddenly loads of people were saying 'Where've you gone?' - you didn't give a shit when I was there, did you?

VB: That will be the name of the Ergo comeback album, I guess! So it was just a phase you were going through, was it?

DR: Yes, it was necessary though. I think for the operas and things I will use my real name, and for playing noisy, silly music I will use my Public Limited Company.

VB: I get that, I use both People Like Us and my real name. They kind of present themselves as useful in different ways, so it's nice to have both.

DR: Mozart... has been getting good reviews, but if it had been credited as Ergo Phizmiz it would have blurred people's vision from the outset as something not to be taken seriously, I think.

To find out more about Mozart vs Machine and book tickets, click here