PRINT December 1998


Hermann Nitsch

THE STUNNING SCHEDULE of events for Hermann Nitsch’s Six-Day-Play, a happening held last August at his Schloss, in Prinzendorf, Austria, reads like a cross between death-metal theatrics and harmonic-convergence hippiedom. The day begins, “5:32 AM: Sunrise. Slaughter and disembowelment of a bull.” This kicks off a tight lineup: Primal Excess, Primal Beginnings, Matricide, Patricide, Fratricide, the Murder on the Cross, and the Fall. There’s a lunch break—nothing like fratricide to work up an appetite—followed by “Partial mounting of the mythical leitmotif,” with a unison hooting of all the assembled orchestras and brass bands. The next day’s events begin at sunrise. At 9 AM, brass bands walk around the castle in opposite directions; at 10, in the granary, Nitsch and some actors in the play make paintings by dripping blood onto white surfaces. Lunch again, followed by the blinding of Oedipus, ritual castration and regicide, and the crucifixion of Christ. And so on, until the end, when, under a rising sun, “the participants kiss and hug one another.”

No one has ever accused the veteran of Viennese Aktionismus of underdoing it. A multimedia artist (painter, composer, dramatist) whose work alternately directs reverence and violence toward the big Catholic totems, Nitsch is just as much a Fitzcarraldo-like obsessive about documentation. Since the early ’60s he has filmed and photographed the productions of his “Orgies Mysteries Theater,” but sound is as important a component as visuals in these Gesamtkunstwerks. Nitsch has said that the form of the symphony lies underneath the six-day play, and has gone so far as to call the third day a “scherzo.” He cites the nineteenth-century composers Scriabin and particularly Wagner rather than any visual artists as inspirations. But while his drawings and paintings have been shown extensively in the context of Aktionismus, his caterwauling music has only recently received much of a separate hearing.

What’s made the difference is the patronage of Gary Todd’s Organ of Corti label, in Malibu, California, which has also brought out the work of various minimalists and maximalists like Terry Riley, Derek Bailey, and the Los Angeles Free Music Society. Nitsch’s four-disc Island: Eine Sinfonie in 10 Sätzen, recorded in 1980 in Iceland and originally put out by Dieter Roth Verlag, is now being issued by a record label with an extra-art world identity; the result is that Nitsch’s work has been pushed toward the noise-loving wing of the contemporary-music audience, rather than its European Conceptual-art counterpart.

Island is titanic, and intermittently powerful. In Nitsch’s scores (Island is for a smallish orchestra), his instructions to the musicians are general, and pitch is largely undefined. The production’s most rousing, over the top moments are probably also its weakest; not only does the sound begin to break up at extreme moments on the recordings, but the chaos dulls the music’s transfixing edge. Still, when each of its movements begins, with the dronelike rising and falling of organs, wind instruments, and voices gradually becoming an immense hive of action—or when the score suddenly silences the massive scrabbling to reveal lone piano chords—one senses the ambition at work. Though it’s never good counsel to judge a work of art by its intentions, Nitsch may be an exception. As he struggled to transcend painting with his blood-smeared canvases, he is similarly trying to get beyond the language of music. His ’symphony" is as symbolic as his crucifixions; you feel that he has so much admiration for and fear of the idea of the actual symphonic tradition that he has declined to pursue it and instead has staged an immense homemade imitation of it.

The sensational goriness of the visuals from Nitsch’s work (which can be viewed online at, the artist’s website) can steal the attention from the Six-Day Play’s beautiful touches, which include such delights around the castle’s grounds as wine-pressing, strolls in the flower gardens, and a kind of Willy Wonka magic factory of taste-and-smell motifs. Nitsch is a product of the ’60s, not the Middle Ages, and there is (sometimes surprisingly) a softy underneath the blood-stained surfaces of his work today. Though the artist used the punk group PVC to jack up the feeling of dislocation on the 1978 recording of “Musik der 60. Aktion,” there is beauty in the slow-developing music of the Island symphony. We’re also talking about a growth period of two years between these works—and that was two decades ago. Not having personally been in attendance at the Six-Day-Play, it’s hard to say exactly what his music is like now.

With luck, we’ll know soon enough. In Todd, Nitsch may have met his equal when it comes to the business of largeness: Organ of Corti hopes sometime next year to release the entire Six-Day-Play sound track as a thirty-CD box set.

Ben Ratliff writes on music for the New York Times.