die toteninsel

Die Toteninsel
Lyrische Oper von Éva Polgár und Sándor Vály
Bühnendichtung von Karl Georg Zwerenz 


Arnold, ein Maler – Sándor Vály
Simeon, ein alter Fischer – J.K.Ihalainen
Phyllis, seine Tochter – Nea Lindgrén
Timäos, ein junger Fischer, deren Verlobter – Mikael Jurmu
Rufus, ein Mohr, ein Ruderknecht – Juha Valkeapää
Fischer und Mädchen – Nouk Vály und Pia Karaspuro

ektro records 2015, finland



DIE TOTENINSEL TRAILER – film by Sándor Vály

Sándor Vály

The Story of “Reconstruction” of a Lost Work

I discovered the libretto of Karl Georg Zwerenz (1874-1933) at an antiquary in Budapest. The libretto, published in 1919, tells the story of Arnold Böcklin‘s (1827 – 1901) painting of the same title, DieToteninsel [1]. Hungarian composer Jenő Zádor composed an opera on the libretto, which had its first and only performance at the Hungarian Royal Opera House in 1928. The opera score disappeared after the premiere.

The lost music and libretto woke my interest. Some years ago, I thoroughly studied the painting, Die Toteninsel.  Many legends emerged around the painting. According to one interpretation, the Pontikonisi Island served as the model for the island on the painting, which native people believed was the petrified ship of Odysseus. Based on other opinions, the St. Georg Island in the Cattaro Bay of Montenegro could have been Böcklin’s inspiration.

Marie Berna, an American widow, ordered the painting from Böcklin as a tribute to her German diplomat husband after his unexpected death. This romantic composition gained such fame that Böcklin painted five copies of it between the years of 1880 and 1886. Die Toteninsel was a favorite of Freud, Lenin, Dali, and Hitler. Hitler even purchased one of the duplicates and hung it on the wall of the shelter where he committed suicide.

The plot of the German libretto, a love triangle drama, was common to 19th-century audience taste. The misunderstanding of human feelings leads the drama uncontrollably to a tragic ending. Interestingly, the work evolved only a year after the end of World War I and in the middle of bloody revolutions sweeping through Europe. These events founded the upcoming decades and led to an even greater catastrophe.

 [1] The libretto’s original title is Die Insel der Toten. Wien, Universal Edition, 1919. I use the title of Böcklin’s painting, Die Toteninsel.

Sándor Vály

It is a question whether this work was meant to protest against these times disregarding past years’ tragedies and disdaining the spirit of the era that sent millions to death. If my hypothesis is correct, this work is a Dadaist criticism of that time foreshadowing the image of an incomparable mental hospital that inherits the weighty neurosis of one’s loss of freedom. However, I may be wrong, and Zwerenz could have been literal about his libretto.

For me, the central figure of the work is Phyllis, the daughter of Simeon, instead of Böcklin. She is the only serious character who comes to realize her tragic life situation during the story from which she is unable to escape. She lives at the beach in a small fishing village. She watches the birds, sky, sea, and sailboats by the seashore every day. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, Two Monkeys, comes to my mind. The title is misleading. Two fettered monkeys sit in a window eating walnuts. The sea, birds, and sailboats also appear in this painting behind the animals’ backs…all symbols of freedom. The main focus is not on the monkeys; they seldom cause themselves to be chained. The painting rather describes humanity that enslaves not only the animals but also its own kind with pleasure. Man has enormous ability to imprison the world while disregarding himself. Thus, the real title of the painting is Mankind (typical Brueghelian humor).

 Phyllis meditates on the images of freedom every day. The sea, the waves, the clouds, the sky, the birds, the sailboat, the light…all, all of these are symbols of freedom. Böcklin symbolizes this attribute in the play. At the other end, the life of fishermen is as being prisoners of the sea, which ties them to its shores for centuries. They are unable to free themselves from these ties. Phyllis notices how differently Böcklin looks at the view and adopts it to herself. Moreover, this knowledge infects her. The infection of freedom spreads in her veins all the way to her heart. The simple Timaios who is in love with Phyllis misunderstands her intentions and thinks she fell in love with Böcklin. But instead, Phyllis fell in love with freedom. This is the reason her character is so tragic.

Böcklin, the artist, is the key to the understanding of freedom. Simeon despises Böcklin, the representative of freedom. As a consequence of Simeon’s contempt, Phyllis’ fate is to die. Although her death is not inevitable, it results in the restitution of the order of the world. Humanity bears freedom merely as a potential opportunity. In reality, independence is dysfunctional and dangerous for the society.

Die Toteninsel, even without its missing music score, operates on multiple levels. I was interested in the idea of a musical “reconstruction” to be sung in the original language. Our prior collaborative compositions, Mondrian Variations [2012] and Gilgamesh [2014], are instrumental electroacoustic compositions. Die Toteninsel is our first work including voice. Not speaking German was a challenge for me, but my lack of knowing the language was the final motivating force pushing me toward this project.

Following the musical taste of the original piece’s era, we slowly came to a point where everything received a new meaning and value in the light of today. The interpretation of the libretto’s text reflects the depreciation of our times: misunderstandings, mishearings, accents, language distortions, etc. Thus, this work does not belong to Dadaist traditions anymore; it rather applies to the reality of our modern everyday life. Dada entered everyday life.

I was looking for collaborators for our project who were not German speakers and whose life was strongly related to arts.

These people are:

J.K. Ihalainen, poet (Simeon)
Juha Valkeapää, actor and sound artist (Rufus)
Nea Lindgrén, visual artist (Phyllis)
Mikael Jurmu, musician (Timaeos)
Pia Karaspuro, dancer
Nouk Vály, musician
and myself (Böcklin)


The piece was based on improvisation and was not rehearsed before recording sections. Éva currently lives in the United States, and we communicated via email and webcam across the ocean. I reacted to her piano improvisations with my own improvisations. We never knew how the pieces will end at their initial phases. The singers, separate from one another, also improvised their parts to these open works. They did not meet once during recording sessions. In other words, they could not know what the previous or the following singer would record before or after. This working process characterised the duets as well, where the protagonists shaped their own melody lines in different rhythm and interpretation. In the duet of Timaeos and Phyllis (Jurmu and Lindgrén), the  singers’ tempos and artistic approaches reveal a drastic contrast which demonstrates this method exceptionally well. Thanks to this diversity, the characters’ nature and temper become much more apparent. These situations determine the overall compositional development and conclusion.


Mikael Jurmu  (foto:Tekla Vály)

About the language.

The text may have caused confusion in many ways. I never introduced the libretto’s instructions to the singers during recording sessions. This way, they never knew if they had to deliver their parts softly, incensedly, sensually, frightened, or perhaps lovingly whispered. They often raised their voice where they would have had to be tender or the other way around; they suppressed their discomposure in whispering.

German language pronunciation was problematic as well. I utilized google translation. After hearing a female voice pronuncing the sentences, I wrote down and phoneticized what I heard. Mikael Jurmu used a similar technique. Phoneticizing led to a surprising revelation. After the first hearing, Mikael taking notes in Finnish and me in Hungarian, our verbalizing the text sounded dissimilar depending on our own distinct grammar rules. Juha Valkeapää had not seen the text at all before the recording. What one hears on the CD is his first reading of this role.

In summary, the listener hears a musical improvisation in German with the singers interpreting a lost large scale composition about freedom without any instruction and without the deep knowledge of the language. I think we completed our goal.

Nea Lindgrén  (foto:Tekla Vály)

Éva Polgár

Writing about the indescribable has been always a challenge for me. For this reason, I feel more confortable expressing myself through music, the spheres of unspoken words. Beyond unifying music and text, Die Toteninsel ties together many exciting artistic elements, innovative technical approaches, and unsolvable philosophical questions. In the crossing of revitalizing a forgotten opera and collaborating with artists from different disciplines, my contribution was to capture the essence of the libretto through piano improvisations. When a part of the narrative transformed into waves of sounds under my fingers, I made a recording and forwarded it to the singers who further shaped the

musical material driven by their own artistic instinct. I found Sándor’s concept of establishing the piece on my free pianistic imagination inspiring. Embrasing the idea of discovering my inner voice through improvisation, I continued to expand my potential as a musician and left playing from a written score behind. Although Gilgamesh, my second joint CD with Sándor, contained improvisatory elements in the piano part, I notated and developed those musical ideas on music staff paper most of the time. In this sense, Die Toteninsel was an entirely new experience to me. Inviting artists to join our collaboration increased the novelty and enriched the expressive value of the album. As Sándor described in his notes, I was isolated from the major part of our team in Finland because I was currently living in the United States. Each time I produced a recording with my hands, the air filled with before unknown excitement and expectation of how my colleagues would elaborate on the music. In my viewpoint, our postmodern opera interpretation demonstrates a constantly changing creative process that culminates in an astonishing musical journey. Die Toteninsel exposes both subtle beauty and provoking audacity. In this way the listener is invited to new dimensions of aural aesthetics.


Éva Polgár (foto:Tekla Vály)

Johanna Domokos

On the aesthetics of intermedial translanguaging in Toteninsel

 Sándor Vály’s Toteninsel (The Island of the Dead) is a German-language musical performance that lends itself to many different interpretations. The aesthetic cohesion of Vály’s piece is based on the interplay of acoustic and linguistic elements, which work together to reveal a unique instance of intermedial translanguaging. After providing a short introduction to my theoretical framework, which is informed by structuralist and postnationalist theorists (particularly R. Jakobson and O. García), I will investigate some of Sándor Vály’s innovative artistic techniques. By focusing onVály’s appropriation of other visual, textual, and musical works of art, I will highlight the organic process by which he weaves these elements together to form an aesthetic whole.  Sándor Vály was born in Budapest in 1968 and has been living and working in Helsinki since the 1990’s. He is known for transplanting elements of visual art, such as the paintings of Brueghel, Mondrian and Böcklin, into multimodal musical performances. In doing so, his works reveal a semiotic process first identified by Roman Jakobson as “intersemiotic translation,” but which is now more commonly  referred to as “intermedial translation”. Furthermore, by using intercultural linguistic codes in addition to both instrumental and vocal musical codes, Vály’s use of translanguaging in his present intermedial project highlights the creative border crossings between various codes and languages, which, in turn, maximizes artistic communication and aesthetic function.

Vály’s album invokes the most famous painting of the Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin, Die Toteninsel (The Isle of Dead), which was painted in six slightly different versions between 1880 and 1886. Once a wider audience gained access to Böcklin’s painting, it inspired several musical and literary works, including a number of symphonic poems by Heinrich Schlüz-Beuthen (1890), Anreas Hallén (1898), Hans Huber (1897, 1900), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1909), Felix Woyrsch (1910), Max Reger (1913), and Fritz Lubrich (1913). Over a century later, its influence continues to be felt in musical projects such as the neoclassical album Dark Age of Reason by Arcana (1996) or the minimalist composition Die Toteninsel by Harald Blüchel/Cosmis Baby (2006).  

In 1919 Karl Georg Zwerenz wrote a libretto entitled Die Insel der Toten (The Isle of Dead) for a lyric opera by Max Niederberger (1893-1941), which Sándor Vály discovered nine decades later in an antique bookstore in Budapest. Karl Georg Zwerenz (1875-1933) came from a multigenerational Viennese family of actors. His great-grandfather, Karl Ludwig Costenoble (1796-1837), as well as his grandfather Karl Zwerenz (?-?) and his father Karl Ludwig Zwerenz (1850-1925) were all successful actors in the Viennese Burgtheater. Zwerenz’s sister Mizzi (1876-1947), who was born in Bad-Pisyan, Hungary and died in Vienna, followed in their mother’s footsteps and became a famous opera singer. Several of the family’s descendants live in Vienna to this day. In addition to Karl Georg’s work for the Viennese Magistrat (municipal authority), he was active as a resuscitator, singer, and organizer of festivities. Zwerenz also wrote several romantic libretti in poetic form, such as Die Tippmamsell (The Typist, 1908), Der Goldschmied von Toledo (The Goldsmith from Toledo, 1919), and Die Liebeskutsche (The Love Coach, 1927). In Die Insel der Toten, Zwerenz creates a story with five major characters, a female side character, and a chorus of fishermen. Among the major characters we are introduced to Arnold, a painter whose name, as well as the opening lines, form a direct reference to Arnold Böcklin and his famous painting. Further enhancing the play’s connection to Böcklin, the set design of rocks and water serve as a visual background to the performance.

Mikael Jurmu (foto:Tekla Vály)

For Sándor Vály, Böcklin’s world-famous painting initially inspired a series of paintings shown in Helsinki and Tallin as part of the exhibition Die Geburt der Tragödie (2003, 2004). From then on Vály was drawn to projects with two-dimensional focal points that combined musical work and performance—for example, his Brueghel variations and Mondrian variations. For these projects Vály involved a pianist, both in the process of composing and in the performance of the work (Nikoletta Maté, but mostly Éva Polgár). When Toteninsel eventually comes to life as a video performance, it will be necessary to analyse its evolution in terms of Vály’s devotion to performing texts (e.g. based on Hans Arp’s, J.K. Ihalainen’s and other Dadaistic texts), as well as shooting black and white films.

The basic themes of Zwerenz’s libretto Die Insel der Toten coincide with the grand themes of romanticism: emotion, passion, individuality and individual experience, and the soul—especially the tortured soul. The opera, which consists of a single scene with a short intermezzo and a ballabile (dance of the souls of the dead), relates the tragedy of the young Phyllis. The story develops along two parallel lines: first, the painter Arnold arrives at the coast in order to paint the mysterious rocks on the horizon of the sea. With his donation, he is able to facilitate the marriage of Phyllis, daughter of the poor fisherman Simon, to their neighbour, the young fisherman Timäos. However, Arnold is blind to the fact that Phyllis has fallen in love with him, and their “dialogues” are fraught with continuous misunderstandings, which later lead to tragedy. This core misunderstanding is never revealed—not to Timäos, who is blinded by jealousy, nor to Simeon, who is blinded by paternal solicitude. Only Rufus, the Moorish rower, is able to clearly perceive the conflict from the very first moment. Arnold, meanwhile, obsessed by the beauty of the rocky landscape and thrilled by the adventure of in approaching it in the storm, asks Timäos to take over the rowing for him, while Rufus becomes the rower for Phyllis. In the end it is Phyllis who attempts to stop Arnold from reaching the island of misfortune, and in doing so, falls victim to the storm. And the misunderstandings that led to this tragedy are ultimately revealed to Timäos. Before Rufus arrives with the deceased Phyllis in his arms, Timäos tries to push Arnold off the rock; but Arnold instinctively turns back and shows him the medallion of his necklace, which contains a picture of his beloved wife and child.

Zwerenz’s balladic decoding of Böcklin’s painting consists of 6-8 and 8-12-syllable lines in trochaic and iambic meter (the former in Arnold’s speech; the latter in the speech of Phylllis and Timäos). This poetic diction, far removed from spoken language, reveals a romantic love for nature as well as the supernatural, mystical, and turbulent subjective feelings of the characters. Zwerenz’s poetic language culminates in the semantic double structure of equivocations, which remain tense from the first lines until the end.

Already spanning an arc from ancient philosophical traditions (Platon’s Timaeus) and Greek mythology (Phyllis) to fin de siècle visual and musical traditions, Zwerenz’s Die Insel der Toten was revived a century later by Sándor Vály, a Helsinki-based multimedia artist. Since Max Niederberger’s original notes for the opera’s 1919 staging in Budapest have been lost, Vály decided to set Zwerenz’s text to music in order to honour Böcklin’s painting once again. Yet the 1919 opera was not the only musical interpretation of Die Insel der Toten to be completed in Zwerenz’s era—Internet sources reveal that another composition was made in 1928 by Eugen Zador (1884-1977). This gives us hope that another musical treatment of Die Insel der Toten remains to be discovered.

The history of such a multifaceted work gives rise to further questions about its contemporary relevance. This study focuses on Vály’s innovative treatment of the text, particularly the ways in which the text is reinterpreted and re-voiced by his troupe. While Zwerenz’s poetic text turned the painting into a narrative, Vály employs other artistic devices in order to transform the narrative into music, thereby uncovering another fascinating way of decoding Böcklin’s painting. Although Vály has used various geometric and colour-decoding principles throughout his career in order to transfer the paintings of Brueghel and Mondrian into notes and then to music, in the present project he uses Zwerenz’s text as a bridge between Böcklin’s painting and his own musical production. A special aesthetic quality arises from the way Vály distances the listener from the language of the musical performance. For those who do not speak German, the distance is immediately felt, and the voices speak not through content of their utterances, but through a unique colouration achieved through instrumental ornamentation. It also bears pointing out that opera fans are accustomed to being unable to access the language of a performed opera; moreover, for those who are familiar with German, a reflective distance is created through Vály’s use of a special type of artistic language, defined here as ‘intercultural German’. This non-standardized usage of poetic German by non-German artists makes the text resonate with the language of 21st-century urban contexts, where people of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds meet and appropriate each other’s cultural and artistic traditions. Thus, the translingual, transcultural and transnational aspects of Vály’s works are not at all foreign to the core philosophy of art; indeed, Vály’s art has never been addressed to a particular audience on the basis of language or geographic location. Though any work of art is inevitably rooted in its immediate context, the greatest works surpass this and reach toward the universal. With his use of intermedial translanguaging in Toteninsel, Vály continues to delight and inspire his audiences by reaching new heights in this process.

Zoltán Márkus – Master of Ceremonies  (foto: Sándor Vály)

Károly ludvigh

Nothing is as everything – Rebirth from the Island of the Dead

Yma Sumac sang in a four octave range, and in many people’s opinion, she was able to extend up to five octaves (listening to YouTube video segments, this information does not seem to be overstated). A coloratura soprano becomes famous by being able to reach astonishing, almost ultrasonic, waves and heights with her bat-winged singing. On the other hand, a serious bass is barely audible to the human ear.

By contrast, in the opera, Island of the Dead, the singers don’t stretch their voices’ range to three or four octaves but roughly no more than three or perhaps four notes. Their singing is rather close spoken text. Such a type of recitativo has little to do with today’s “official” opera style in principle (not that recitativo did not exist since the 17th century, but it is a scandal to build a piece entirely on recitatives with the exclusion of melodically compelling parts of arias). The diminished diapason that is featured throughout the opera is characteristic to the punk music of our day. Thus, this music could also be called punk-opera, aka punkera.

Through this way, narrow qualities fall into an incredible spaciousness: opera and rock marry and combine previously unimaginable potential of extremes in an unbelievable harmony. We find ourselves in the space of the coordinate system of time and dimension; beyond the merge of musical extremes we speak of bonding styles and distant world perceptions in time.

In this embracing encounter of time and space, everything dissolves that we previously thought to be orderly, categorised, and placed.

Juha Valkeapää (foto:Tekla Vály)

Even in the spectrum of recitativo style, the singers seem to be insecure when keeping their pitch: they don’t have any relation to the text, they don’t know what they sing about, they don’t know the language, and they didn’t strive for learning the proper pronunciation of it. Therefore, they derive substance from linguistic rules and dramaturgical compliance. The elegant theatre attire rather swings like a costume on the singers, creating an image of a carnival scene instead of an opera performance.

Order and mastery are missing from those musical motions that should be directed to the audience. Physical motions are also limited.

That is to say nothing is placed correctly in this opera – at least not in an ordinary sense –  as we would imagine. If we were hanging onto the assumption or the thought that we see and hear an opera, we only could perceive it as nonsense or perhaps as a strange dream. Opera? You cannot do that! It is bad manners. This doesn’t answer any structured rules of opera developed throughout history. This doesn’t exist. There is not a single detail in it of what it claims to be!

However, the whole thing is still complete. Vály created a perfect work because this was exactly what he wanted. Before he introduced me to the music, he briefly spoke about the origin of the piece and about his instructions to the singers. I recorded it right away back then: “I told them to have complete free hands of what to do.”

Vály and his company had only one option: to abide by nothing while working with this piece of bygone times and out-dated styles as the actors were unfamiliar with the language of this melody-free dream scene. Had they followed any guidance, the project could have fallen apart. It would have created the impression of an unsuccessful attempt of wanting to shape the work in a certain way. On the contrary, they didn’t want to mimic something or create an act that is like something. They allowed themselves to break with all rules and to create exactly what they wanted.

Pia Karaspuro (foto:Sándor Vály)

As a result, the whole thing holds together as one entity! This is an opera that breaks with all traditions without even breaking with anything. This phrase could refer to some kind of violence or shrillness, but that is not the case. The break happens for the sake of itself, and, as in case of a break, the act in itself is more important than anything else. However, in this piece this statement is incorrect: the break is insignificant. This music ignores the want to break with something. This opera exists for itself and stands in the middle of the universe like the Island of the Dead in the middle of nowhere. Without breaking with anything, this opera is completely different from anything else.

This is a wholly new beginning. There is no break and no public annoyance. The public is not taken into account in the sense of willing to annoy it (just as the break is an irrelevant factor as well). The purpose is not the deliberate ignorance of the public in order to aggravate it. The purpose is the focus on something else.

The music.

The play.

Focus on whatever it is doing.

It is not doing things for someone or something but for itself. There is a drift in the entire piece, an inner enthusiasm and a deep motivation that places itself ahead of all assimilations. There is no assimilation or urge to assimilate but only the identity within itself.

Consequently, the main component of this music – in addition to or despite of all paradoxes – is joy. This composition has such an internal flow and such a powerful soul in an explosive state that it effects all performers regardless of their unfamiliarity with the language, their disability to sing, or their limited voice range of three notes.

An elemental birth occurs here. A child’s uninhibited happiness glows through the work who does not know traditions, etiquette, language, laws, ethics, or morality, and whose limbs are happily moving around without a reason.

Meanwhile, of course, the structure builds up from existing materials. There is no material, atom, or molecule to come alive that previously would not have existed. But out of those pre-existing materials, building blocks, and molecules – as in ethology: through unconventional use of tools – something entirely new is born. But not even that. Because it is the very own characteristic of a child’s behaviour, the perfectly free and creative utilization of something existing is not unprecedented.

This work, with its “extravagance,” brings something back from the Island of the Dead, where we adults all wander around more or less already. A creature drills himself out from the mud and emerges wet from the water and wants to sing and play music immediately as if it were the sign of his life, a sign for life.

This creature has no knowledge but instinct. With this instinct, he opens his mouth and lets go of the sound that was in his throat by then. It grabs everything that comes across him. He doesn’t use things the way his predecessors intended and creates sound from everything he encounters (this happens to be the essence of Vály’s upcoming art-music project, Dutch Futurismo – so are the productive periods of one’s life linked together). Applying this to musical instrument, it appears as if he would be drumming on the guitar, blow the piano, slam the trunk, splash the water, and ignore whether these approaches pre-existed before or not.

It is not a lack of interest, not a break with tradition, and not turning one’s back to anything. Its purpose is not to annoy but to be happy genuinely for existing and to embrace what is – an irresponsible and instinctive creation from what was given.

If we would place this punkera into a stereotype of a Hollywood video clip, we would notice that the elite audience would initially grimace, make faces, whistle and sigh, but its curiosity would be greater than its dislike (they are snobs anyway and do not really know what has true value; they come to the opera for fashion). So they wouldn’t leave. Something would glue them to their chairs in the auditorium. Their facial expression would change from disinterested to uncomprehending and angry after a short while. Soon after, we would see a slow transition, as their heads would start moving to the music’s rhythm. Then their entire body would dance, and by the end of the clip, they would burst out in a loud frenzy expression, an ecstasy, a trance, as if after a very long unexpected hopeless fight of apathy, they would suddenly find the child within themselves as an unexpected gift.

J.K.Ihalainen  (foto:Sándor Vály)

The clip would deliver beautifully the music and reveal its features to the measuring, understanding, comparing, and self-knowledgeable and identifying general audience – to an audience that it is unaware of the music’s intrinsic values. Therefore, this music can only drift and assimilate to trends and movements. But there still may be something that can swing it out from its comfort zone and make it to return to its more playful self.

In this sense, Vály’s punkera breaks with all tradition (emphasizing that the break happens without really breaking with anything) and creates something entirely new (emphasizing that this new creation builds upon pre-existing components).

Altogether, something paradigmatically new has been created. And it involves its brothers who sing the music parts on stage in this birth, too. They, at the end, participate in this birth with shared enthusiasm and with pure and playful cheer.

It is fascinating that this rebirth happens from the Island of the Dead. This rebirth happens from the same material, same past, same tradition, same decadence, same retrogression, same aging, and same destruction that merge into the Island of the Dead. One could say that all which existed before and ended up on the island of the Dead became liquefied and fragmented and was reborn through the crystallizing force of new values.

Therefore, this punkera, in comparison with the genre of the opera or another artistic activity, does not stand on its own at any level. It is not worthy of attention. However, if we let these analogies or judgments go, it captivates, inspires, makes us joyful, and brings a jubilant joy to the (opera) house.

The latter is the only viable option, because it is not a mechanical process or a soulless structure in question, but an inspired, dynamic, big-hearted, energy-saturated process instead, the existence itself.

We can experience the divine knowledge of childlike ignorance if we can free ourselves from everything we believe our lives would fall apart without.  Openness and trust: the honest question is, dear Audience (me included), how are we doing with these fashionable things?

It would not be fair to end my thoughts before mentioning that Vály’s music, the instrumental music background, stands well on its own in comparison with anything.

It would be an injustice also not to highlight Éva Polgár’s brilliant and virtuosic piano playing. The musical qualities in her part appear like an ancient musical model that may resemble the childhood of humanity to be found in most musical compositions, and that perhaps is best represented in the sitar’s sound system.

As we often see by the sitar (the origin of the word ‘guitar’) or even by the Hungarian zither, the musical establishment provides and symbolizes consistency and stability in the lower sonority. The low vibrating strings of the sitar and the zither are represented by double basses in classical music. In rock music, the sitar and zither parted into bass guitar and rhythm; in other words, solo guitars. While the solo guitar’s melodic lines fly freely in the upper registers, the bass guitar provides the stable foundation of harmonies and rhythm.

Nouk Vály  (foto:Sándor Vály)

The lower basses represent the secure stage where you can depart from and always return. Higher register melodies (higher human voice) that symbolize mankind can leave on their adventures from atop this foundation. If they were lost, they would only have to listen a bit in order to find their way home and eventually to depart again on their play or searching path.

In Vály’s opera, the bass groove vibrating in the low register is the musical foundation of the recitatives. The opera’s structure is the adventure, the singing, the voice, and the text which may lead the actors and audience members to discover insecure and unknown regions as well.

Although at the beginning I said that this opera “breaks” with every tradition, there is one it does not break with. That is its constant connection with a basic vibration. It has a furnace, a starting point, from where it leaves for its adventures and where everything returns.

In my approach, this establishment is the divine existence as well as the free, childlike movement in the superstructure. The adventure is human life.

I believe that Vály’s punkera is unlike any other versions of existence. It revives our pure, free, and freshly renewed ancient knowledge. Its main substance is the rebirth from death. Vály and his company’s punkera is a revival from the Island of the Dead.

The applause is almost unexpected at the end of the piece. It suddenly quotes an entirely different world. Still one can feel that it is not isolated and not stand-alone, but in some mysterious ways, it is part of the work: a slow polish and an anonym and homogeneous background noise that replaces the opening prelude for a while. As it would be the monotonic knocking of the rain on a roof and eaves, the arsenal of microscopic light points on the television screen during broadcast break, or merging photons’ and atomic matters’ gently sizzling deluge.

A cosmic radiation in the background.

Éva Polgár and Tuukka Tammisaari   (foto: Tekla Vály)



Die Toteninsel karaoke – Exhibition – XX. Mänttä Art Festival, 2015

Musiikki: Éva Polgár ja Sándor Vály
Libretto: Karl Georg Zwerenz
Elokuva: Sándor Vály


Die Toteninsel on kuvitteellinen rekonstruktio Jenő Zádorin (1894–1977) säveltämästä, sittemmin kadonneesta partituurista saksalaisen runoilijan Karl Georg Zwerenzin (1874–1933) librettoon. Libreton (1919) aihe perustuu sveitsiläistaitelija Arnold Böcklinin (1827–1901) Die Toteninsel -maalauksen tematiikkaan. Kyseessä on aikansa tyyliin sopiva romanttinen kolmiodraama, joka kertoo rakkaudesta, vapaudesta, taiteesta, mustasukkaisuudesta, juoneen tuo pontta joukko väärinkäsityksiä. Musiikin on säveltänyt unkarilaissyntyinen Jenő Zádor, joka muutti II maailmansodan alussa Yhdysvaltoihin. Kappale on esitetty kerran, vuonna 1927 Unkarin kuninkaallisessa oopperassa, minkä jälkeen se jäi unohduksiin.

Vuosikausien tutkimusten ja etsintöjen jälkeen näyttää siltä, että partituuri on kadonnut iäksi, emmekä saa koskaan tietää, miltä alkuperäinen musiikki kuulosti. Löydettyäni libreton sen sisältö innosti minua ”rekonstruoimaan” partituurin. Minua innosti kappaleen historia sekä se, ettei se oikein tuntunut kuuluvan aikakaudelleen, 1900-luvulle: libretto on kirjoitettu vuosi I maailmansodan jälkeen, eurooppalaisten vallankumousten keskellä, välittämättä tuolloin vallinneesta hävityksen kauhistuksesta, jolta Zwerenzkään saksalaisena ei voinut välttyä. On kuin teoksessa sittenkin olisi mukana protestihenkeä, aristokraattista pöyhkeyttä ja dadaa juuri sen vuoksi, ettei se ole aikakaudelleen uskollinen. Kappale reagoi aikansa todellisuuteen kuin tuota todellisuutta ei olisi ollut olemassakaan.

Olen työskennellyt jo vuosia pianisti Éva Polgárin kanssa (Mondrian Variations 2012 Ektro records, Gilgamesh 2014 Ektro records), ja siksi tuntui luonnolliselta jatkaa yhteistyötä myös Die Toteninsel -rekonstruktion parissa.


Koska libretto on kirjoitettu saksaksi, on luontevaa esittää se samalla kielellä. Itselleni otin yhteistyösäveltämisen ohella libretosta Arnold Böcklinin roolin, huolimatta siitä, että en puhu saksaa.

Näin syntyi ajatus, että pyydän saksan kielen taidottomia ihmisiä esittämään kappaleen. Tämä teki siitä vielä enemmän fluxus-tyyppistä. Pyysin mukaan kuvataiteilija Nea Lindgrenin, äänitaiteilija Juha Valkeapään, muusikko Mikael Jurmun, tanssitaiteilija Pia Karspuron, muusikko Nouk Vályn, runoilija J. K. Ihalaisen, sarjakuvataitelija Zoltán Márkusin ja kuvataitelija Tuukka Tammisaaren.

Levyn äänitys oli improvisaatiota alusta loppuun. Emme harjoitelleet kertaakaan, ja näin ollen teosta ei voitu äänittää yhdellä kertaa live-esityksenä. Tämä ei johtunut vain monimutkaisista musiikkiosuuksista vaan myös laulajien saksan kielen taidon puuttumisesta. Näin henkilöhahmojen keskinäiset väärinkäsitykset sulautuvat yhteen teoksen esittäjien kielellisten väärinymmärrysten, väärinlukemisten ja väärinääntämisten kanssa. En näyttänyt laulajille edes libretossa olevia ohjeita, joten he saattavat korottaa ääntään kun pitäisi puhua kuiskaten, ja kuiskata kun pitäisi huutaa tuskasta.

Äänitykset tehtiin internetin välityksellä neljässä kaupungissa kahdessa maanosassa. Éva ja minä emme pystyneet tapaamaan työn aikana kertaakaan, koska Éva asuu Yhdysvalloissa. Laulajatkaan eivät tavanneet, joten he eivät voineet tietää, kuka laulaa heidän jälkeensä tai kuinka heitä ennen laulaneet olivat suoriutuneet.

Tämän kaiken johdosta valmiiseen teokseen on kasautunut ennalta arvaamattomia kerroksia, jotka ovat paljon monimuotoisempia kuin prosessin alussa saattoi kuvitella. Esiin nousi kieleen, identiteettiin, kohtaloon, historiaan, perinteeseen eikä vähiten taiteeseen liittyviä kysymyksiä.


Vuosien varrella musiikki on saanut yhä tärkeämmän roolin audiovisuaalisissa teoksissani. Näyttelyjeni ja mykkäelokuvieni aikana yleisö on voinut soittaa tilassa olevaa pianoa. Tämä idea on synnyttänyt lisää teoksia, sillä jokainen on tehnyt oman tulkintansa elokuvasta, mikä on usein muuttanut dramaattisesti sen alkuperäistä merkitystä.

Tässä näyttelyssä yleisön käytettävissä on karaokemikrofoni.

Karaoke on mietityttänyt minua ilmiönä jo pitkään ja houkutellut minua taiteilijana etsimään vaihtoehtoisia lähestymistapoja. Kiinnostuin vähän ekstreemimmästä versiosta, klassisesta karaokesta, jossa mennään baariin, tilataan olutta ja sitten lauletaan vaikkapa Schubertin lied D439, Der Wanderer, jonka hän sävelsi Caspar David Friedrichin maalauksen innoittamana.

Ensimmäiset kokeiluni tein yhdessä Juha Valkeapään kanssa, kun lauloimme elokuvieni taustalla dadaistisia liedejä livenä esityksessä nimeltä Hans Arp Karaoke. Siitä jalostui tämänhetkisen näyttelyni formaatti, jossa yleisöllä on mahdollisuus laulaa karaokena Die Toteninsel -elokuvan yhden osan päälle vapaasti, itsensä unohtaen, leikkisästi, lapsen antaumuksella. Tietysti saksaksi!

Sándor Vály