Slovenia at Frankfurt: Laibach’s Sharp-Edged ‘Alamut’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Slovenian ensemble Laibach will stage its evocation of Vladimir Bartol’s timely fable, ‘Alamut’, at Frankfurt with some 100 performers.

A performance of Laibach’s ‘Alamut’: Image: Literaturtest, Darja Stravs Tisu

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

A Concert for ‘Troubled Territories’
In its 75th year, one of Frankfurter Buchmesse‘s (October 18 to 22) most dramatic moments is likely to occur not in the halls of Messe Frankfurt or in the Agora at its center. Instead, it can be expected to arrive at 8 p.m. on Frankfurt Thursday (October 19) at the city’s domed Jahrhunderthalle, Centennial Hall.

Alamut is an original symphonic work based on the Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol’s 1938 novel of that name. It’s a concert event created by the Slovenian avant-garde ensemble Laibach, and this demanding, ambitious work has gathered a kind of drive of its own, according to Laibach’s Ivan “Jani” Novak. He told members of the news media in a press conference last week that after the group played North Korea, its current efforts to perform in Iran seemed obvious: “We like troubled territories.”

The roughly 70-minute production–staged only in the one performance in Frankfurt–is scheduled to feature the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the Iranian conductor Navid Gohari. Also onstage will be Tehran’s Human-Voice Ensemble, and the Gallina Women’s Choir. The concert’s earliest iterations were seen last year at Festival Ljubljana. Tickets to the October 19 performance of Laibach’s Alamut at Frankfurt are available here.

“We are open to many troubled territories with a lot of prejudices.”Ivan Novak, Laibach

Some will see the so-called “music-theater” context (not “musical theater”) in this work, a theatrical rendering of musical eloquence, with topical nuggets as urgently compressed as those of the auteur Martha Clarke (Vienna: Lusthaus) but at a scale as bracing as the works of Robert Wilson with Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach). Just as a fully conceived rendition of Christopher Theofanides’ The Here and Now must deliver the lyrics of Rumi with sensual impact, so must this concert-essay on the Alamut legend and its awful tale. Those who know the extraordinary difficulty of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Utrenja: The Entombment of Christ may be best prepared for the profound questions that Bartol’s work excavates from the ancient legendry attached to the fortress Alamut.

In its Frankfurt staging, Laibach’s Ivan Novak says, the work requires “more than 100 people, including technicians and two choirs.” The logistical challenge of transporting such musical forces and equipment for the show and then flying them back out, he says, “is actually more complicated than the symphony itself.”

The figure at the mythic heart of Alamut–the charismatic self-styled prophet Hassan-i Sabbāh–is reputed to have said, “The killing of this devil is the beginning of bliss.” And he spoke those words to what is known as his Order of Assassins: the followers he indoctrinated.

Here’s a video made for the Festival Ljubljana premiere of the piece in the summer of 2022:

‘Nothing Is Real; Everything Is Permitted’

Vladimir Bartol’s novel Alamut (here in Michael Biggins’ English 2004 translation for North Atlantic Books) is a treatment of the 11th-century Persian story of Hasan-i Sabbāh, leader of the Nizari Ismailis. The book reportedly has been translated into as many as 19 languages and territories.

Sabbāh is said to have been a real person who in 1090 seized and used the fortress at Alamut in a revolt against the Seljuk Turks.

In Bartol’s politically charged vision—the author would die in 1967—Sabbāh calls his strike force of elite assassins his “living daggers.” An aching parallel to some of our own era’s terrorist techniques in the radicalization of vulnerable young men, Sabbāh turns his fortress at Alamut into a sanctuary of lush gardens, gorgeous women, wine, and drugs, persuading his “daggers” to kill and be killed in order to achieve such an otherworldly paradise.

Sabbāh, in Bartol’s hands, is experimenting with how far religious devotion might be leveraged for political gain. The book is said to be an inspiration for the video game series Assassin’s Creed, published first in 2007 by Ubisoft.

What enriches the work’s political currency, however, is the fact that Bartol wrote his novel as an allegorical response to fascism in Mussolini’s Italy. The author and his family were in Trieste at the time, and our Publishing Perspectives readers in Italy will want to know that a performance of Alamut is set for October 15 in Trieste.

Over its 85 years, the book has drawn several recurrences of consumer interest, with Sabbāh’s depraved rationale becoming emblematic of the most dangerous propaganda and disinformation: Nothing is real; everything is permitted. As recently as a decade ago, such a premise might be revisited as a melodramatic catch-phrase. Today, the chill of its new relevance is palpable.

Last Tuesday’s (September 12) release in the States, for example, of Tyranny of the Minority by Harvard’s Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Penguin Random House/Crown) is a new analysis of the immediate and ongoing radicalization of the Republican Party, which has led to its “abandonment of democracy.” Levitsky and Ziblatt write, “As long as the Republican Party can hold on to power without broadening beyond its radicalized core white Christian base, it will remain prone to the kind of extremism that imperils our democracy today.”

And in Bartol’s book, the efforts of a “living dagger” and a slave girl to distance themselves from Sabbāh’s darkening nihilism plunges them into uncharted territory. It has been pointed out that William S. Burroughs in his 1959 Naked Lunch and in two other works used that nightmarish phrase that only a disinformation monger could love: Nothing is real; everything is permitted. 

Novak: ‘Not Going To Play Safe’

A performance of Laibach’s ‘Alamut’: Image: Literaturtest, Walter Leban

Laibach’s Alamut has music composed by Luka Jamnik, Idin Samimi Mofakham, and Nima A. Rowshan. The production at times mingles the cynicism of Sabbāh with the Persian poetry of Omar Khayyam and verses of Mahsati Ganjavi, its orchestration based in Iranian tradition.

Ivan Novak

And Novak makes it clear that while Laibach’s Alamut is difficult to stage and perhaps disturbing to contemplate, “We just think that we need to communicate with the entire world and the troubled territories.”

The truth on the ground, he says, “sometimes might not be exactly what we are hearing. We want to see the situations for ourselves, everywhere,” he says. “If there’s a war going on or something, it’s a bit more complicated, but we are open to many troubled territories with a lot of prejudices.”

He asks for an extra moment from the news conference’s moderator, Frankfurt Guest of Honor Slovenia’s Miha Kovač: “You know,” Novak says, “that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about. It’s not going to play safe, basically.”

Here’s a video trailer made for the production from a film produced by the funding organization A/Political and Staragara, with direction by Sašo Podgoršek:

More about politics and policy in programming at this year’s Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, in our story on plans for the Frankfurt Pavilion on the Agora.

More from Publishing Perspectives on political books and issues is here, more of our coverage of Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, and more on trade shows and book fairs is here. More on the German publishing market is here, more on the Slovenian market is here, and more on Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Guest of Honor Slovenia is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.