Timely Resonance at Frankfurt: Slovenia’s ‘Laibach: Alamut’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘Laibach: Alamut’ – staged as part of Frankfurt’s Guest of Honor Slovenia program – is a concert Ivan Novak says still is evolving.

From the ‘War’ movement of the ‘Laibach: Alamut’ production premiered at the Ljubljana Festival. Image: Laibach

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

Ivan Novak: ‘By Definition a Multimedia Project’
Art has a way of catching up with life. And as current events have unfolded, a tale of radicalized young men operating as a terrorist strike force of ‘living daggers’ now has newly darkening resonance.

Many Frankfurter Buchmesse trade visitors and exhibitors will see one of the Guest of Honor Slovenia program’s most opulent, challenging, and expensive elements: A single performance of an extensively produced concert piece created by the Slovenian avant-garde ensemble Laibach.

The work, Laibach: Alamut, is based on Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol’s 1938 novel, Alamut, and will be staged at 8 p.m. Thursday (October 19) at the city’s domed Jahrhunderthalle, Centennial Hall.

The essence of the tale—used by Bartol as an allegory of fascism—is 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 aware vision, Sabbāh calls his strike force of elite assassins his “living daggers.” An acute parallel to some of our own era’s terrorist techniques in recruiting vulnerable youths, 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 a paradisial afterlife.

With more than 100 musicians and singers (in two choirs) onstage–and in some performances musicians moving through the audience as they play–the production is a complex amalgam of sight and often very assaultive sound.

The brutality of the ancient story and the authoritarian, propagandist core of the work is reflected in frequent crashes of percussion, brass, and vocals amid a storm of lighting effects. Hot wires of illumination strafe the stage and its symphonic artists as large figures—something between humanoids and idolatrous sculptures—amass on screens overhead.

Publishing Perspectives asked Laibach’s Ivan Novak in an interview how the concept and the delivery of the visual elements are designed to support the story—what the key visual signals being sent to the audience may be.

“We’ve always combined several media in Laibach productions,” Novak says, “and in this sense we are by definition a multimedia project.  Some critics see Alamut as a real Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk,” the term derived from the “complete work of art” that Richard Wagner was credited with attempting for his operatic spectacles, every aspect of a production required to contribute to a cohesive, aesthetic whole.

Alamut is a symphony in nine pictures or movements,” Novak says, “and each movement is accompanied by a certain visual associative set, which—sometimes more, sometimes less abstractly—relates to the content of the movements themselves.

“In any case,” he says, “these are not merely illustrative visuals attempting to translate the music into a picture, but added content that extends the narrative, at least for those who might want something more.”

In the development of the Alamut construct, the projections, Novak says, “are created by our visual-production team–Akaša Bojić and Luka Umek,” who are based at their Berlin studio, Komposter.si. “They usually get some basic instructions from us,” he says, “and then they develop them further in their own way. So these visuals are created in close collaboration with Laibach.”

A Work in Bombastic Progress

Instrumentalists in the ‘Laibach: Alamut’ production onstage below projected Perso-Arabic text. The RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra is joined by two choirs during the course of the performance. Image: Laibach, Nika Hölcl Praper

Novak concedes that the work—in rolling development as it’s performed in various countries and venues—is evolving, which can require adjustment and adaptation of production values.

Ivan Novak

The basis is more or less the same for all the shows,” he says, “but the visuals are always adapted to the space and stage and the possibilities available—time, production budget, etc. We’ll have had two more concerts with this production before Frankfurt—in Ljubljana and Trieste, the latter city being the book’s author Bartol’s boyhood home. “And there, we’ll continue to work on projected visuals. It’s possible that by Frankfurt there will be quite a lot of new elements included.

“Some of the visuals are fixed, but some of them are actually reacting to the sound and are—although pre-produced—manipulated live in real time. And as we know, these concerts by definition, can’t be exactly the same.”

Followers of the work and its growing portfolio of performance permutations will be glad to know that an album from the Ljubljana concert soon is to be released on Mute Artists Ltd. A Blu-ray recording of the entire show, with all the projected visuals, will be released as a bundle.

‘The Right Distance Toward the Show’

Several singers, members of two choirs onstage in the ‘Laibach: Alamut’ production, which is played in nine movements. Image: Laibach, Nika Hölcl Praper

And Novak and his team—working to handle the logistical challenges of getting the production onto its feet for the Frankfurt production, says that at this point in the show’s development, it’s too early to assess what may be the most successful combination of effects, visual and sonic, in the 2022 piece.

“Some of the visuals are fixed, but some of them are actually reacting to the sound and are manipulated live in real time.Ivan Novak, Laibach

“These are usually the most challenging questions,” he says, “like asking parents which of their children really represents the exact narrative they would expect from their children.”

Some will see the so-called “music-theater” context (not “musical theater”) in this work, a theatrical rendering of musical eloquence, with topical anchors 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 delivers 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 ancient legendry.

Ivan Novak asks for a bit more time and experience with the work. “We’ll have to make the concert a few more times before we’ll be able to say for sure what really works well and what could be improved.

“At the moment we still don’t have the right distance toward the show yet.”

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 Gohari’s Human-Voice Ensemble, and the Gallina Women’s Choir. The concert’s earliest iterations were seen last year at Festival Ljubljana. Tickets, at €61.70, for the October 19 performance of Laibach’s Alamut at Frankfurt are available here.

The production is scheduled then to staged at Zagreb’s Vatroslav Lisinski concert hall on October 22.

A follow-spot operator onstage in a production of the ‘Laibach: Alamut’ concert work trains his beam on musicians moving through the audience. Image: Laibach, Nika Hölcl Praper

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.com, 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.