In this BLOG, the Writing Workshop of the Darmstadt Summer Course, directed by Anne Hilde

Neset, Peter Meanwell and Stefan Fricke, is publishing texts and audio reviews during the festival.
The articles represent the opinion of the respective author.






Pianist Stèphane Ginsburgh steps onstage the second evening of the Darmstadt Fereinkurse to perform one of the first concerts of the festival calendar. The three completed works of Stefan Prins' Piano Hero (2011-2016), an ongoing cycle of works for keyboardist, live electronics, and video, unfold in a deeply paranoid reflection on surveillance and the extension of the performer through media technology. Prins' work joins the stream of socially critical events programmed for this year's 70th anniversary Ferienkurse.


Social theorist Jeremy Bentham first coined the term "panopticon" in the late 18th century. The "panopticon" originally described a circular structure such as a prison, but also a school, hospital, daycare, etc., with an observation post at its center enabling 360-degree surveillance of all inhabitants, an all-seeing eye. Today, the term has become synonymous with the surveillance state and Big Brother.

Indeed, the looking glass serves as one overarching theme of the 70th Anniversary Darmstadt Ferienkurse. The festival calls its retrospective concert series, "Seven Works from Seven Decades," a Rückspiegel—a rearview mirror—and the Ferienkurse begins its gaze into its past with Belgian composer Stefan Prins' (b. 1979) Piano Hero.A onemanshow for MIDI and electroacoustic piano with live and prerecorded video. Piano Hero (2011-2016), an ongoing cycle currently comprising three works, incorporates its video technology to reflect a remarkable commentary on themes of observation and surveillance. In the age of big data and digital information-gathering in which we grow ever more distant from the paranoia once yoked to surveillance, Prins' cycle invites us to reconsider the ever-present watchful eye upon us.

In three pieces simply entitled Piano Hero #1, #2, and #3, Pianist Stèphane Ginsburgh brings to life what the program guide calls a "digitally splintered avatar." Ginsburgh begins right away, unleashing a stream of footage showing artist Frederik Crone attacking a deconstructed piano: smacking the soundboard, dropping objects onto exposed and rusted strings, scraping, twanging and scratching all surfaces of the instrument's guts, turned out for all to see on screen. It's primitive and brutal stuff in contrast to the technology onstage, yet the rapidfire cuts in the succession of footage and sound with each keypress lend to the piece's sound an unmistakably digital glare.
Prins plays at the boundary between the live action of the stage and the digital world of the video, bleeding one into the other. Ginsburgh explores the resonances of the acoustic instrument when called for: silently holding down keys at specific moments, he lets the ghosts of the recorded cacophony vibrate in the body of the live instrument. These first two pieces also feature a live-stream of a camera directly behind Ginsburgh's bench, with Ginsburgh becoming absorbed into the digitally mediated video-world that he presides over from the keyboard—again puncturing the border where the virtual and the live meet.

Piano Hero #2 runs with the video manipulations of #1, but splits the screen into four separate feeds. You can't help but look at the four-way split screen and see security camera surveillance footage. And this is what makes the piece so compelling in relation to the live video projection of Ginsburgh's onstage body. It is as though Ginsburgh—arms outstretched between the two keyboards like a master puppeteer—himself becomes imprisoned in video feed. Ginsburgh appears to cast himself in two roles: sovereign manipulator/overseer and target of surveillance.


Piano Hero #3 makes a departure from the two pieces preceding it and eschews the video component entirely. Ginsburgh takes an e-bow to the strings of his instrument, as well as a number of other objects to produce an utterly different sound world, dominated at first by softly sustained drones, and then by larger resonances from a speaker underneath the instrument. Though it emphasizes the acoustic piano to a far greater extent than the preceding two pieces, the piece perhaps recalls the early days of electronic music. In contrast to the aggressive, violent sounds (including recordings of a pneumatic drill) of the first two pieces, the third evokes long sine wave tones, and the buzzing hum of analog synthesizers. But snippets of recorded voice enter here for the first time, too: dialogue? An Interrogation?

Far longer than the previous two pieces, it is also the most furtive. With no video feed, the piece seems to abandon live witness to the performer's hands. But this lack of footage plants the audience into the role of surveillance operator, which Ginsburgh has now abdicated. We absorb that position along with its attendant paranoia as he reaches into the piano beyond the horizon of sight. How is he making that drone? What extended technique is he performing here? What exactly is he doing with his hands? We strain our eyes to try and hear.

In a Ferienkurse program marked by efforts toward social critique and socially engaged musical practices, Prins becomes a mirror for Theodor Adorno, the philosopher and critical theorist whose appearances at earlier Darmstadt summer courses shaped a generation of musical thought and continues to loom over the festival proceedings. In Adornian fashion, Piano Hero would seem to propose that the technology that we use to try and master the world snakes back around to swallow us up in a sort of cannibalistic act.

Despite the meandering and sometimes unmotivated sonic trajectories of each individual piece, it feels silly to bring questions of form to this piece in too stern a manner. Prins summons a critique not only of what the proper performing instrument and body are especially in the light of digital technologies (we have been doing this in philosophy for a long time, after all), but also critiquing the romantic-pianist-as-hero trope. Ginsburgh graciously acts out two rather counter-heroic roles: head seer of the panopticon, and target of paranoid surveillance. The heroism of Prins' pianist lies in transforming from the former to the far less exalted latter.

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By Andrew Chung