Friday, 23 March 2018

Berlin Umbrella : how it happened

As the launch of this Poetry/Sound collaboration 'aural walk' approaches, (June 3rd, 10th and 17th June, 2018 in Berlin (see previous post), here is my diary notes on our research and development during  2 weeks in July 2015:

A Sound Artist's work was completely new to me, so it was with great excitement that I accepted my friend Sonja Heyer's invitation to collaborate on a poetry/sound project.   Sonja's suggestion for the topic we would explore was Water. Wonderful! Already I could envisage imaginative possibilities.

 Sonja has an archive of water sounds from different sources and has already devised many aural walks using text but she had never used poetry before.  Recently she had been invited to Taiwan to visit the city's water sources in the hills, make recordings and devise a water installation.  The experience was hugely exciting and I watched a vimeo she had made of the trip, the aural walk she had devised collaborating with Taiwanese performers.

 Using transparent plastic umbrellas, the curved ones that form an enclosure around the user, a sound world is created with recordings played through tiny loudspeakers inside the umbrella - where the handle meets the spokes. Participants go on an aural walk, listening to the umbrella recordings on a self-directed route.

Although Sonja has used text inside her umbrellas before - most recently a quotation from Luther about death, (for his centenary year at Wittenburg) she has never used poetry before.  So this was to be a new experience for her too.

So our subject was to be Berlin Water. More detail as to content could wait. First we were more concerned to establish the poetic form or approach that would work with Sonja's water sounds. I had already done some preparation by reading a few river or water-inspired collections  and  had brought along Alice Oswald's 'Dart' .  Sonja loved the flowing nature of this epic-length poem of mini-narrations with a variety of voices: the river itself, people who have river-related jobs, fishermen, poachers, the drowned, supernatural creatures etc.

But Sonja also liked the haiku I brought along, and the idea of  very small poems that could be read in any order. This was so that the participants could swop umbrellas mid-walk and so create different sequences, in a sense make their own poems. Of course, Sonja as a sound artiste was interested in effects achieved by playing around with different sonic patterns, vibrations, rhythms.  But how would it work for words and any linear thought? It seemed quite a challenge to my usual approach. But hey! No harm being shaken out of my comfort zone and I was excited to try a new way of thinking. For this to work, I felt, it meant a series of both haiku-like, imagistic poems, and a series of fragments developing links like rhyzomes.  Connected, then disconnected, reforming, looping, like memory, unrolling like film....already ideas beginning to rise.

So from the start, we had in mind small poems of intense images, like water drops, and other more flowing pieces of watery subject matter and how to achieve both was the challenge for me.

Right, so now we moved on to discuss the subject matter in more depth. What would we cover? The Spree, the river which flows through Berlin of course but what aspect and what other watery subjects?   River-related history?  Ecological aspects? The nature of water?

Googling Berlin +Water I  discovered the existence of an old Waterworks Museum, called Friedrichshagen (every other place or building is Friedrich-something in Berlin, after the Prussian leader)  by the Muggelsee - an inland lake and part of the river Spree.  It was a very hot day - and the thought of trip out of the sultry city to the countryside, a bit of research followed by a boat trip round the lake seemed ideal.  We took the S-Bahn down - about half an hour, then the bus to the Waterworks.

Friedrichshagn Waterworks, in the Brandenburg Marcher Lords style - Gothic/Baronial redbrick.

It was cool and dark inside the Museum luckily.The curators were delighted to see us as they had  no other visitors, and were happy to turn on the asthmatic Old Wheezer pump for us (usually only switched on at a scheduled time which we had missed.) It was obvious how it got its name.  Sonja recorded it and it will surely go in the finished collaboration.  Perfect. Already ideas simmering as to how this might be used.

  The Museum was a fascinating record of all the issues of Berlin's water and sewage systems- from the early days, with hollowed out oaks pipes carrying water to old-fashioned street water pumps,

Water pump in grounds of Friedrichshagn. (Museum
 exhibit. )  We were  warned not to go too near as the bees
 were drinking from the stone bowl and might attack us.
and documentation of the horrific outbreaks of typhoid and cholera epidemics until right up until the discovery  in the 19th century of the cause of these diseases by an English man Jon Snow -it was water pumps infected by sewage -and this knowledge spread to the rest of Europe. Hence in the 1870's an English engineer, Henry Gill was invited to sort out Berlin's water problems. Who would have thought this could be so fascinating!  And it was a German/British collaboration! Just like Sonja's and mine. Friedrichshagn was the last of the three Berlin waterworks Gill built - and what a palace it is, almost a Cathedral to Health! No expense spared.

 At the same time, James Hobrecht, of Prussian birth, sorted out the sewage system with his Radial System of sewage pumping stations.  Co-incidentally, one of the former Radial Systems (V), is now a cutting edge arts centre which we  attended during a festival of acoustic music.

But to go back to our day out at Friedrichshagn, in the end we missed the boat trip round the Muggelsee but a different trip on offer seemed more enticing - the ferry back to the city. Much nicer than slogging back to the S-Bahn and a chance for me to observe watery images and sounds of all types - the light on water, on boats, movement of waves, the throb of the engine. I was taken by the Huckleberry Finn type rafts with sheds on top drifting by  though sadly these never ended up in the poems.


 However the party boats did.  One of these became stuck in front of our ferry and it took some time for the rather drunk but hugely apologetic crew to disentangle themselves and head out of the way. Plaintive cries of  'Enshuldigen.., Enshuldigen..' ('Sorry...Sorry...') from them faded as our ferry chugged on.

As you can see from the photo above, we were mightily pleased with our first day's research, coupled with a wonderful excuse for a trip on a river boat, a relaxing way to get a bit of a sun tan, and as we decided to sit in silence on the way back, to reflect and  to meditate  over ideas for possible poems in my case, and possible sounds for Sonja, followed by, what else, a river-bank (or rather an inlet off the Spree) open-air restaurant near Treptow.  Willows drooped in the water. It could have been Twickenham or Marlow, except for the loud music booming from a restaurant across the narrow inlet.

On another day, I made a trip up and down the Spree from the Dom (the Cathedral) round the Museum Insel (Island) then up past the Reichstag to the Tiergarten and back again which was a good introduction to the city's history. I knew I wanted to incorporate that inner-city trip but for it to be more than just a description of architecture plus facts about World War 2 destruction and the Cold War. (For instance, I learnt that the river was one of the boundaries during the Cold War.)

Stories, people connected to the city's history through its river is what I wanted to discover.  Back home,  during research into river connections with the Nazis, I came across two horrific atrocities - the first, the murder of Rosa Luxembourg, communist and critic of the Nazis, whose body was weighted and thrown into the Spree; the second atrocity happened in Hitler's last few days, when he was hiding in his bunker and heard rumours that the Russians were advancing through the underground systems. Hitler ordered the wall separating the underground from a lock on the canal that leads off the Spree to be blown up, so that the underground was flooded, drowning thousands of Berliner civilians who used the tunnels as air raid shelters, also drowning wounded troops lying in hospital carriages.

But that is to jump ahead.  To go back to my on the spot research in Berlin,  it helped to already have seen the white crosses put up in memory of those who were shot and drowned attempting to swim to freedom during the Cold War.  I knew that the giant statue, Molecule Man by Joseph Brodsky, a symbol of hope, would appear in one of my poems. The statue appears to walk on the river between the opposite banks of Friedrichshain and Kreutzberg, districts separated during the Cold War, but now united.

One warm evening, Sonja had another engagement, so I sauntered along the river to Montbijou where people were relaxing with beers sitting on deckchairs or on the grass banks around an open-air tango area. I too watched the impressive tango dancing, had a beer and a hot-dog (Sonja was horrified when I told her. That was not a German sausage) and also chatted to a few people - who mainly turned out to be tourists from other German cities, and one English couple, about what they liked about rivers/ water in cities, so some of their thoughts appear in my poems. Thanks to any of those people if you are reading this. As the sun set and the lights came on along the river banks, it was time to head back.

Not all my research was river-based. I also visited the Nikolaikirche which is now a local history museum as a graphic way of learning about Berlin's history. Also the Film Museum, because Berlin is Film and you can't not go. I'm delighted I managed to get Asta Nielson, one of the early stumm (silent) movie stars into the poems. She refused to work for propaganda films for Hitler and managed to survive. Her films were made using silver nitrate film (later discontinued since they were highly flammable) but which gave films of that era their glossy black. And what has she to do with water?  Ah, well you will have to listen to the poems.

Here is a last photo from Berlin  - the slogan reads 'Berlin du bist so wunderbar'. Indeed.

Sonja and I then left Berlin to travel to her country cottage in Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, near the Baltic sea (and yes, we did manage a dip, and no, it was not as 'baltic' as I feared) but mainly a few days' retreat for me to work on the first drafts of the poems - whilst Sonja worked on her marble sculpture (she is a sculptor as well as musician/sound artiste)- and then for Sonja to comment on my drafts, so that we were both happy with how it was going and I had enough ideas to develop back home.  Sonja would never say what the content should be - she was only interested in structure - all she would say was 'I want to be surprised!'

In my next blog, I will hand over to Sonja to talk about the water sounds, her trips to make these recordings and the thinking behind the melding of poetry and sound in the finished work.

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