Kafka Fragments: 'The perfect marriage of text and music'
Director Netia Jones and soprano Claire Booth on Kurtág’s song-cycle.
A new staging of György Kurtág’s song-cycle Kafka Fragments premieres in the Linbury Studio Theatre this week. Performed by soprano Claire Booth and violinist Peter Manning, the song-cycle will be brought to life in an imaginative new staging by video artist Netia Jones. We caught up with Netia and Claire during rehearsals to find out more:
Is Kafka Fragments only for fans of Kafka’s work?
Netia: Not at all. One of the reasons why Franz Kafka is one of the great authors is not just the brilliance of his writing and observation, but that the themes that he tackles are timeless. These feeling of confusion, alienation and fear are things that just don’t change; they are easy to understand from any point of view or perspective. In our production, we are trying to create something that is timeless.
Claire: The song cycle is so idiosyncratic that it is accessible for those who feel they know nothing about Kurtág and Kafka.
The piece is composed of 40 miniature works that range in length from 12 seconds to four minutes. Does the cycle work as a unified whole?
Netia: It’s actually very important to me that it’s not a unified whole. Although there is a structure to it, there isn’t a narrative. What Kurtág and Kafka offer is an open-ended question – something unfinished that you can explore. There’s not a solution there, but a space for the question itself. It’s a very beautiful piece of music.
Kafka’s characters often show aspects of his own personality, and Kafka Fragments is composed from his diaries and letters. Do you think the song cycle offers insights into the writer himself?
Netia: We’re not exploring anything biographical, but rather the essence of Kafka’s thinking and his approach to life. Because these fragments are so concentrated and so crystalline, you find themes that are recurrent in Kafka’s work.
Netia, you work a lot with visual projections and video. How are you using projected media in this production?
Netia: We are presenting projected translations of the text all the way through. You have to be able to read and understand the actual fragments to grasp their many layers and to know why Kurtág has set them the way he has. The projections also offer moments of illumination. It’s not just about casting light in a physical sense, but offering visual guidance to enable us to grasp the meaning better: fleeting moments when something is illuminated before the light goes off.
Kafka’s texts are often difficult to translate into English. How do you think they translate to music?
Netia: Kurtág brings Kafka’s texts to life in musical form to reveal the real essence of their author. It’s not often that you see such a perfect marriage of music and text.
In some ways, the translation of the spirit of Kafka into music is easier than into the English language.”
Claire: Kafka Fragments works because it is the meeting of two men who, though seemingly unrelated in every way, have so much in common. Both said that their work is about their own experiences of life and, in particular, both distil what they do to its most concentrated form so that every utterance has an intensity, and layers of meaning. The cycle is a real pinnacle of vocal writing in the modern age and so it’s an amazing piece to work on. It demands a lot in regards to performance, but I like a challenge.