Burkhard Kehring has further refined his project Divan of Song for the 2017 Heidelberger Frühling. A conversation with the internationally renowned accompanist and professor of lieder performance and collaborative piano in Hamburg about leaving, returning and song.
HDF: Herr Kehring, the Divan of Song is a concept you have realised in various forms since 2014. On the 8th April, a whole day will be dedicated to it in Heidelberg. What attracted you to this project?
BK: The relationship between East and West has been part of my thinking since my childhood. But there were two moments that triggered the start of Divan of Song. The first was that after twenty intensive years as an accompanist, I felt it necessary to find new and fresh perspectives for my work. Initiatives such as ‘Neuland.Lied’ serve to confirm that I’m not the only one with these concerns. The second was the personal shock of my parents dying. My sorrow at my loss led me to freshly explore my family’s background of migration. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents came from East Germany, India and Poland. None of these relatives remained in their countries of birth. I am the first who does. Maybe that explains my insatiable wanderlust and Divan of Song is also a measure against it – seeking home in fields of the strange.
HDF: What is, artistically, the basic concept of Divan of Song?
BK: It’s the attempt to explore and discover a global perspective for the classical song composition. This goes along with the essential farewell to a Eurocentric view. This view is outdated, even when we are lucky enough to have a large wealth of history on our side. But it’s also indispensable for the genre of song to reflect upon the change of world order that is taking place. And I believe that precisely the songform has, in this context, great potential to adopt a fascinating and definitive function.
HDF: What exactly is this potential?
BK: There are two key stages in European history that were vital for song production: the Vormärz period directly before the German revolutions, and the fin de siècle. Both periods occurred at the beginnings of colossal upheaval to the political and cultural order. That’s where I see an analogy to the present. Due to its unlimited wealth of word and style, a song can cross all national barriers, and at the same time serve as a mouthpiece for every region and individual. In this way, its poetry remains a medium for things that may otherwise be difficult to voice in a world of conflicts.
HDF: Is the classical Western form of art song still a substantial opportunity for composers from completely different countries and cultures heard in Divan of Song?
BK: Of course. That’s also the case with self-discovery. We always return to a central point and set out from there again. One of my orientation points remains the Lied of Schubert. Our Western concepts are, in the meantime, being reflected by global parallel cultures of equal standing – or replaced. India’s literature is a great example, with its still important, old languages and with an English that has emancipated itself from its colonial roots. This can also be seen when looking at the developments after the first import of the grand piano and Western composing techniques. I find it fascinating to see how the Western language of sound has changed after being taken somewhere new and how it now returns, either in a different or in a conserved form. This is also a real adventure for me, an expedition.
HDF: Let’s talk about the seven-part concert cycle Divan of Song: Stations that you’ve composed for the Heidelberger Frühling. Which ideas guided you, and how have you implemented them?
The Heidelberg Cycle is completely unique. The basic idea with the Divan of Song was to create a quasi-ritual day-to-day routine in the style of the prayer practices of the world’s religions prayer, but in a secular, poetic form. In this way, we move on every two hours to a new song point - seven in total. Between these stops there is plenty of time for the listener’s urban day-to-day business. I’m curious to see what that does to us, when we place ourselves for just one day – from nine to nine – completely under the influence of global songs. We’ve named the stops after places that have a connection to the programme or artists, and follow the sun’s route from east to west. Capital cities will be avoided in order to bypass national clichés. The voices that change with each stop can also be considered as various embodiments of a single walking figure, the principal line-up being completed with trained soprano voices. But this figure experiences every gender role and explores a highly stylistic and linguistic spectrum. And despite all their professional similarities, our seven international singers are distinctive and charismatic artistic personalities – a fact I’m extremely happy with.
HDF: One final question. You’ve dedicated your whole working life to song. What was the attraction?
BK: It just happened. Lieder singers captured me and thereby protected me from solitary confinement at the piano. Beautiful voices and lyrics were always there. And they keep inspiring me to overcome the humiliating deficiencies of that mechanical instrument....