Italian by birth and Berlin by adoption, Munsha is a multifaceted artist, who works as a singer, cellist, composer and performer. She works and writes for the theater and does not disdain forays into video art. It is difficult to define her according to precise roles or insert her into a pre-established genre: Thanks to her academic background and an irreverent punk spirit, she moves with feline nonchalance between genres, instruments and media: her artistic practice is multimedia in the truest sense of the word. With constant presence on the stages of the German capital, she is at home in off-premises as well as in more traditional locations, accompanied by her trusty cello or an electronic set up. As she herself will have the opportunity to learn more in the course of this interview, Munsha moves in balance – or perhaps in delicate imbalance – on four axes: body and voice, music and movement. As well as on stage and between the notes, the Berlin musician is also at ease in words; so, without further preamble, I hand her the virtual microphone for a chat about her artistic career, the relationship between music and corporeality and some observations on the affinities and differences between the entertainment industry in Italy and Germany.
This interview was first published in Italian at the webzine Kathodik.
Let’s start with a biographical note, starting right from the beginning of your career: You studied piano from the age of 8 and then enrolled in singing and cello at Salerno Conservatory. You graduated in opera singing and multimedia composition and after continuing your vocal training in Milan you moved to Berlin. What prompted you to make this choice?
My path is the result of circumstances, encounters, coincidences and, as I believe for many, of the consequent personal as well as musical growth. Over the years I have dealt with different musical contexts, playing the most disparate genres and handling various other instruments besides the cello, such as the electric bass, the accordion, the frame drums; tools that, unfortunately, have not found a real place, neither logistic nor temporal in my daily life. This “wandering” has certainly determined my way of approaching music, even as a user. In fact, if today I am a musician I owe it above all to my mother who, with an all-female tenacity, was able to make me passionate about this language made up of signs and frequencies, despite my reticence as a child. Berlin (or rather, leaving Italy), on the other hand, was an almost predictable choice for a curious and (I quote) perpetually dissatisfied person, always looking for new stimuli to live and tell. Many other European metropoles have excluded themselves from my choice of life due to the impossibility of experiencing oneself without compromises, including economic ones. I wanted to continue living on music and Berlin offered me this chance; not with little difficulty, especially at the beginning. My arrival here was a successful blind date: it is a city that always manages to surprise me and that, for the moment, has become home. Who knows that the day after tomorrow, however, I decides to experiment elsewhere …
Your music moves between electronic experimentation, a new wave imprint, free jazz-style improvisation and a “punk” attitude. Furthermore, your classical training is evident in your vocal and instrumental techniques. How do you reconcile all these souls? Do you feel part of a musical tradition? What were your influences, or, in a broader sense, what music had an impact on your musical growth?
Tradition is something that, to a certain extent, I consider as binding in the absence of a due detachment: it tends to generate cages in which it voluntarily imprisons us. Influences are a different kettle of fish. Honestly, however, I have difficulty in identifying the music or artists who have influenced my expression more than others; perhaps because the list is long. There are records for example that I haven’t listened to for a long time or to which I have not paid too much attention and yet, somehow, they made their way into my memory, allowing themselves to be metabolized and whose trails emerge from time to time in my music, such as fungal spores. After all, my ratings are heterogeneous, also due to my teaching activity. But I tend to avoid those that emphasize the mood of the moment; which is a very interesting and surprising habit, because I often rediscover my moods in apparently opposing sounds.
It makes me smile as I observe myself from the outside, right now in answering this question, in the kitchen of my house, with my cats from East Berlin, drinking Château Saint-Estève and listening to the sequences of Hildegard von Bingen: tonight I am elated !
However, I try to name a couple: Meredith Monk, Demetrio Stratos and Dead Can Dance are certainly among the first to have affected me at the epidermal level. Followed by Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt as well as many exponents of the postwar avant-garde and minimalism. Aphex Twin , Alva Noto and Autechre among the many that inspire the acoustic sphere of my studio productions. Cocteau Twins and Einstürzende Neubauten, on the other hand, are mere merry melancholy. To these are added Arthur Russell, Dai Fujikura, Josef Suk, Salvatore Sciarrino, Bobby McFerrin, Rameau and Nine Inch Nails .
In your musical “wandering”, the cello is a constant, at least in your live performances. Organological question: why exactly this tool? What role does it play in your compositional process?
I would say more than anything else that it was the cello that chose me and it was love at first sight, or rather at first listening. I remember that I was waiting to enter class at Salerno Conservatory, where I was already studying singing, and a sound beyond a closed door kidnapped me. Not that I had never heard a solo cello before, but, in that precise astral conjunction, it touched something in me that I would define contemplative and at the same time passionate. That day I promised myself to study it and a few months later – although, according to my teacher, I was too old to start – I had my first cello.
Its role in my compositions is ambiguous instead: I produce a lot and often there is no trace of a cello. Certainly a strong bond has been established with my voice, which is still my first instrument and which plays a dominant role, both in the conception and production phase. On stage, however, the cello makes its way again as a true diva but, alas, too often I procrastinate when it comes to recording and publishing my live sessions. It’s on my To-Do List though.
Let’s focus on your recordings then. In reference to your discography, could you try to summarize what you want to express in your records?
What I compose, produce or perform live is very personal. Rarely – and generally in the case of commissioned compositions, such as films, for example – do I abstract from myself (is it just an illusion?) and think about something else. I have the obsessive habit of always having a notebook with me, without which I feel naked. I walk, I observe, I write. I travel, reflect and write. I wake up and write down my dreams. In short, I write a lot. Since I moved house, I have started to write down thoughts or ideas even on the kitchen tiles. All these notes must find an outlet and since I am a person of few / medium words, music becomes my spokesperson. Although my sounds lead to basically dark and lacerating atmospheres, however, I try with caution not to subject my interactions to precise and recognizable concepts or messages, but to leave space and time for the listener, to rummage through my music and find something personal in it. One of the reasons why, for example, in no piece of ’2 GATES’ do I sing a full meaning text.
In addition to being a musician, you are very active in the field of theater. I want to dwell on your theatrical production later, while now I would like to ask you what role does staging play in your musical practice. I try to explain myself better: I have attended many of your concerts and in addition to the exquisitely musical aspect, your stage presence and your corporeality are perceived very strongly. I think it’s the same in your improvisations, be it in form of listening or of building a relationship with the audience and with other musicians. In what sense do your experiences with theater influence your performances?
I don’t think it is the theater that influences my stage presence, but rather that it is an automatic consequence of my bodily awareness. I try to explain myself. I believe that the stage presence you are talking about is the daughter of the voice and of my work on it. The years of study and then, since 2000, my experience as a singing teacher have emphasized a relationship between vocal expression and movement, which is also necessary for didactic purposes. Sometimes, for example, during my lessons we dance to free the larynx from constrictions, or we sing upside down to metabolize the diaphragmatic breathing act. I mean body and voice, music and movement as elements of a single explosive thrust .
At the bottom there is also another non-marginal factor, namely the desire not to reduce the performative act to a mere sound level but to expand it and enrich it with the meanings and messages on which it is based and which are hidden in it. This is because in my performances I bring into play a private dimension rather than a scenario of observation and reflection, which instinctively impose on me a corporeality, I would dare to say, “animalistic”. Personally, I find it difficult to separate the rational expression – understood, in this case, as a score – from the innate impulses, considering my sanguine and emotional temperament. For me it’s a bit like wanting to illustrate a concept by avoiding the word: we need different media.
How then the theater took hold in my working activity – I state, I am not an actress – surprises me, even today. My first experiences in this field were born a bit out of fun, annexing literary excerpts to concerts; and then costumes, elementary sets and choreographies. From this to the theater, the step was short. But if I hadn’t had wonderful traveling companions, I don’t think I would have ever found the courage to formulate a sentence of complete meaning on stage.
Speaking of traveling companions: over the years you have shared stage with many artists: to name just a few, Bob Rutman, Martina Bertoni and Jochen Arbeit of Einstürzende Neubauten. How are your collaborations born and what importance do they have for your artistic practice?
It goes without saying that stage sharing is such a growth factor that it has almost become an essential practice. There is no “rule” regarding how collaborations are born, but they are generated in and from multiple scenarios. I love experimenting with other musicians and reinventing myself in new sound forms and I have played with musicians of great taste and experience, from which I have learned so much. I think that exchange, in all its forms, is the fundamental principle for not putting oneself aside, whether on stage, in studio or between the walls of a rehearsal room, whether it is music or other forms of expression. By this I mean not taking for granted who and what we do, pretending to know each other, examining the path followed and the one to take, without ever investigating the present. In general I can say that some collaborations are completely fortuitous, others lucky. More than limited merely to the technical-musical field, I prefer when these are established empathically: rare episodes, in relation to the majority of cases, from which however great friendships are also born.
At the same time, “solo” work is vital to me, as is silence, in learning not to repeat itself. In short, they are the sides of the same coin: distinct and decisive factors, such as dialogue and intimate reflection.
Let’s go back to the theater. In 2021 your first play, ALICES GESCHWISTER, premiered at the Delphi Theater in Berlin. Written, directed and set to music by you, the show takes inspiration from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to tell the world, indeed, the inner worlds of a schizophrenic girl – or maybe just too imaginative? – admitted to a psychiatric hospital. What prompted you to tackle this issue?
ALICES GESCHWISTER was an ambitious project, on which I worked hard despite the difficulties linked to the pandemic and a generalized sense of despondency. But I am more than happy to have brought it home, not so much for me but for that humanity (the one they call internships, crazy and deranged) that gave life and directed the project. The research and work on documentary material began many years ago, even before moving to Berlin, when I felt the need to scream my disappointment; the need to take a position against a summary and contagious judgment, which labels those who do not enter the canonical boxing of our society. But who decides which are the “good” and “bad” boxes? We know very well that perfection does not exist, but there is only the skilful masking of defects.
In ALICES GESCHWISTER I did not want to tell the story of mental illness or of a specific “psychopathic subject”, but of how CARE is the concrete problem: forcing an individual to become someone else, in the name of science, ethics, or morality. For what? To know how to stay well organized and in line? To stop seeing the world in color? As if individuals were comparable to malfunctioning lamps.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ and also the controversial figure of Lewis Carroll served in an excellent way as a plot to the production: after all, the bizarre adventures told in the book and which galvanize adults and children are in the real world something to avert and correct.
Mine is not an indiscriminate criticism of psychiatry, but of the abuse of it. The material that I have collected, which covers a very large span of time, is about problem children on the fringes of a society that is focused on making money. It speaks of widows who, perhaps in a way a little too progressive for the time, have sought love again despite the veto of their families; it speaks of girls raped by employers, who had the courage to report; speaks of orphans and soldiers. ALICES GESCHWISTER talks about people with neurological diseases whose place of care should not have been a madhouse. Or even cases of TSO (compulsory health treatment) exercised on individuals who have publicly and colorfully declared themselves sceptical of the anti COVID-19 restrictions, precisely during the first severe Italian lockdown. Are these the “crazy”?
I wanted to tell about those who have been denied the balance, between the landslides generated by others, or else, and who have slipped once too often. And in any case I believe that there is an elusive beauty in the imbalance, which is what distinguishes us from each other. I think, among other things, that there is no better medium than art to put a spotlight on thorny and elusive themes.
In fact, strong themes do not scare you, as in the play ‘Mädchenorchester’, based on the testimonies of the members of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra. You took care of the musical direction, re-arranging Lieder and symphonies of the time and composing an ad hoc soundtrack for orchestra and electronics. Can you tell us something more?
Having composed the music for ‘MÄDCHENORCHESTER’ and having worked with a team that was not only very numerous, but exceptional was a significant and rewarding experience, as was the compositional process, which turned into a journey into the depths.
The music of ‘MÄDCHENORCHESTER’ is in fact conceived as a narrative element at different levels in which history and the present, the interior and exterior experience, as well as the feelings of the historical characters and those of the artists in the production meet. While the classical titles – as historical facts – represent the objective exterior of the situations represented, my compositions for orchestra and electronic music elaborate the repressed feelings of the musicians.and their perception of the inhuman reality of the Auschwitz concentration camp, in which they had to play.
I wanted to use a spectrum that goes from the “drone” to the prepared piano and the processed analog instruments, to soundly convey the fragility of the artists’ existence in block 12. These sounds are flanked by compositions for the orchestra, hybrids between orchestral music and electronics and entirely electronic pieces: so the music not only takes on a role on a different narrative level, but also somehow transposes the reflection and commentary on the part of the artistic team.
Most of my compositions tend to embody the inner states of the women in the orchestra, in order to describe the destiny of the ensemble. I wanted to get involved by experimenting with simple elements and everyday objects, as in “Der fallende Faden”, a symphonic piece for knitting needles, in which the expression of women’s helplessness, stasis and despair is completely delivered to music. Once again, the music accompanies the disintegration of the orchestra through atonality and extended techniques, but also tells the exultation during a walk off the pitch and completely unexpected in “Weit weg vom Gebell”, written for orchestra and monophonic analog synthesizer. To this, as I mentioned before, our comments as artists of the present are incorporated, as in “Wolkenfamilie” (passage on the text of Susanne Chrudina) or the final piece for orchestra and live electronics, in which I wanted to express faith in the power of music and art.
We look to your near future with a customary question: Do you have any project in the pipeline or some professional goal that you set out to achieve?
Projects in the pipeline I always have many. I am currently working on MOONX, a sequence of 12 mostly vocal performances focusing on the golden Fibonacci spiral and a series of further numerical analyzes. “MOONX i” premiered on January 8 this year, in Berlin.
In addition to the album ‘MÄDCHENORCHESTER’ , the soundtrack of ALICES GESCHWISTER is also scheduled to be released in 2022, which will be preceded by the sharing of the video of the show on a scheduled basis (monthly, from 4 to 7). And then there are many dreams in the drawer or the famous To-Do List mentioned above. In addition to numerous collaborations, both with Berlin musicians and guest artists, I have a new release in the pipeline with an attached live for voice, cello and electronics, in which the pure impro-noise setting will converge with the song form, albeit experimental. All this adds up to the projects already underway, as well as to the productions with the Spreeagenten, the Berlin theater company of which I belong. These last months have brought a breath of fresh air and many stimuli; last for example, the collaboration with Il Wedding Kollektiv, who entrusted me with a splendid piece to remix and the scoring of the film “Totenschiff”, taken from a book by B. Travis, which is currently being mixed.
In reality, if I take into account the amount of projects in sight, with a realistic planning there is to be produced for the next 3 years.
MOONX i Murmur Mayhem @Multiversal # 113, Berlin
As for the future of the music industry in a broader sense, seriously damaged by the pandemic, do you hope for a change of perspective (on the part of institutions and “consumers”)? Do you have any suggestions about it?
Are you referring to the lack of concerts and consequently to the crisis in the sector’s insiders? I have to make a distinction – unfortunately – between Italy and Germany, where – despite the restrictions and the cancellation of cultural events – the State makes available special economic supports for artists officially registered as such, in addition to funding and grants.
In Italy, as far as I know, only today the Government acknowledges – with an amendment still to be implemented – the more than 320 thousand jobs in the entertainment sector that have been put in crisis by these two years of pandemic, however, mainly taking into consideration those who tread illustrious scenes. But the sector of live music, events such as cinema, is much broader and includes self-employed and “project” workers, such as sound and lighting technicians, backliners, drivers and transporters, set designers, tailors, make-up artists, stage and so on, to which the logistic, organizational, catering sector is added … There is a category of workers forgotten because it is not explicitly visible, although essential: the 2020 numbers refer to losses equal to 95% of the market, over 570,000 workers at risk and an entire industry on its knees, as if art were not a full-fledged job. It goes without saying that a radical change on the political level would be needed so that the entire population, without exception, is represented.
Looking at the purely creative side instead, I don’t think the music industry in general has suffered so much damage caused by the pandemic. Only when you consider the amount of independent releases that were produced during the lockdown period, you might say the opposite. Artistically it was a profitable period, actually. Here the “damage” has been undermining for some time, in my opinion: the taste of “wanting to discover” and “letting oneself be surprised” is being lost, both on the part of the distributors and the users, compared to a multitude of more than valid artists and innovators. I am not referring to the mainstream, but more to an ingrained laziness, whereby we are fine with what we already have, even if it’s something we’ve digested over and over again.
Even the taste for listening as a physical act has been lost, offending, among other things, the work of the studio technicians, even just enjoying the music from the mobile phone speakers (I shudder).
We are indolent, disrespectful, apathetic: an attitude that can be transhumed (ad hoc term) in different other contexts, if you think about it.
Interview: Marialuisa Bonometti
Photos: Anna Motterle
Translation: A. Kaudaht, U. Schneider