On Nummer Twaalf
Angela Serino and Guido van der Werve in conversation, Amsterdam, September 18, 2009
1) Nummer Twaalf is your most ambitious project so far: it comprises a new film, a unique hand-made chess piano, and a musical composition. Could you tell me something about when the idea for this work first came to your mind? And how the initial concept developed over time?
Growing up playing the music of great composers, I have always been afraid to compose something myself. When I made Nummer negen in 2007, I couldn’t find any suitable music for it, so two weeks before the premiere I decided to step over the threshold and compose a piece for piano for it. I managed to write the music, but it was clear that I had to learn a lot about composing and music theory, so I bought a lot of books and started to educate myself
Around the same time, I was in Finland and a bit bored so I decided to pick up an old hobby of mine, chess, and I bought a chess book to get back into that. After a while, these two little studies started to blend into each other. First of all, the black-and-whiteness of the piano keyboard and of the chessboard have very similar formal qualities. Second, and more importantly, the way chess is notated is very similar to music. A chessboard has eight black and white squares in a row. Eight is the number of an octave. On the edge of the chessboard you find the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H. If you turn the last H into an A you have the scale of A minor. This was the basis for the chess piano, which I started building at the end of 2007, and which I see as the start of this project.
In 2008 I moved to New York and here the framework for Nummer twaalf became clearer. In order to learn chess and composition, I started working with Grandmaster Leonid Yudasin as my chess mentor and Dr. Benjamin Boyle as my composition mentor. The first year in New York was mainly studying and sketching the triptych structure of the work, as a chess game with three parts: opening, middle game, and end game.
At this time, Grandmaster Leonid Yudasi started working on the chess game for the film. I asked him to compose a chess game opening with the King’s gambit accepted and ending with a stalemate.
Getting more and more into chess myself, I got mesmerized with the endless possibilities of chess. When I calculated the number of possible chess games, this seemed to be exactly the square of the estimated number of stars in the sky. I finally combined these two with and old obsession of mine: the impossibility of tuning a piano in a perfect manner.
In New York I played chess in the Marshall Chess Club where mostly old guys play chess. I thought it was very beautiful that these old guys almost at the end of their lives were trying to improve their game, even though it would take almost the age of the universe to play all possible games. This paradox between the transitory and the definitive became the content for the three scenes. In the second scene, I’m trying to count the stars (an action that would last forever) from the top of an active volcano, which most likely will explode again during our lifetime. And in the last scene, I’m building a house on the San Andreas Fault, which is the place where two tectonic plates collide and where a massive earthquake will destroy the whole landscape somewhere between now and one hundred years from now.
I started composing the music for strings based on the chess game. The chess piano would be the very slow solo instrument. Each move would make a note, but also provide me with a scale context to write in. The key of the piece changes at every chess move, which made writing the music a big challenge.
2) Playing a chess opening, tuning a piano, counting the number of stars in the night sky: how do these three actions relate to each other in your mind?
They are all cultural problems, which require limitless time to be figured out. Also, all these problems are depicted in black and white fields: the stars in the sky, the clavier of a piano, and the squares and pieces of a chessboard.
3) In the film, you introduce the subject of each of the three chapters with figures and numbers—calculations made by scientists and mathematicians to measure the facts and phenomena you depict in the work. Listening to them I was caught between wonder and confusion. What was your reason for using them?
I wanted to show how long it would take to fulfill these tasks to perfection. The numbers are estimates, of course, but they are all plausible and accurate calculations.
4) As in other works of yours, here the music keeps the narrative of the film together. It weaves ingeniously with the chess game and it accompanies your wanderings among breathtaking, uncontaminated landscapes.
How do you see your relation to music now, after you authored your first musical composition?
My background is in music and I have always been very impressed with the direct and abstract way in which music manages to communicate with the audience. When I got more interested in visual art, this directness was always something that I really missed in the way that visual art communicates. It’s great now to be able to speak the language of music and work artistically on this abstract and more universal level. I really enjoy it.
Composing for me was a great experience. But I see it as a piece of a larger work. I think what Wagner described as a Gesamtkunstwerk—mainly his operas—is an idea that I would like to apply to my films. This would allow me to create my own personal universe, where audio and images are equal elements. I believe that I made an important step in that direction now that I started composing.
In the last few years I have made a fair number of films. However, in this process I missed a certain craftsmanship. I became a “production slave” of my own ideas and spent many months calling and e-mailing. In this situation, composing gave me a way to continue my artistic development on a daily basis which I was missing in making films.
Can you tell me something about how you draw and see the parallel between the worlds and play strategies of sound and chess?
I think I can best explain this question by quoting Grandmaster Yudasin: “In order to manage the infinite amount of moves and variations during a chess game, grandmasters have developed a certain intuition which is based on experience in compositional aesthetics. Rather than trying to calculate the infinite number of moves and consequences each move has, they look at the chess board and make a move that simply feels right.”
Chess and music are both extremely mathematical, but to deal with this insane mathematics you need intuition and aesthetics.
5) It’s not the first time that you have built or altered an object by yourself for a film (besides the chess piano—undoubtedly the most complex work—I’m also thinking of the homemade rocket in Nummer Zeven, or the structure holding the piano on the lake in Nummer Vier). Your romantic spirit does not seem to prevent you from being curious about the concrete mechanisms of the functioning of reality. Could you tell me something more about this “obsession” with playing with objects?
When I was a kid I was always busy building and inventing things. My first ambition in life was to be an inventor. Then I got more and more interested in music. Although I lost this interest when I was seventeen, I decided to go to the pre-year of the conservatory anyways. Soon it became apparent that it wasn’t for me, so I started studying Industrial Design at the Technical University in Delft, NL. When I realized it wasn’t artistic enough for me, I applied at Art School to study industrial design there.
In the first year we had many different assignments and I had to try different media. Soon I got more interested in video and performance art, but I never forgot about my first ambition, which was inventing. Just like with music, I really enjoy and need to be working with my hands every day. These things are also good to keep you busy and forget about everything else.
6) In 1968, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp played a chess game on an altered board (Reunion). Here the chessboard was wired and each of their moves activated or cut off the sound coming live from several musicians. Were you aware of this work? And if you were, did it provide you with any references?
Early on in this project a friend of mine told me about this performance. The funny thing is that Marcel Duchamp used to be a member and played a lot of chess at the Marshall Chess Club in New York, where I also play chess and where I made my film. I think their idea was to create a link between chess and experimental music. The fact that both happened live and were intertwined at that specific place and time was the most important thing. They wanted to create chess music.
In Nummer twaalf, in contrast, the emphasis was not so much on creating a link between chess and music live, but more on making a new instrument out of the parallels between a chessboard and a piano. I used this instrument and the unique music notation to compose the music.
variations on a theme
The king’s gambit accepted,
The number of stars in the sky
And why a piano can’t be tuned
Or waiting for an earthquake.
40’00”, 4k video. Marshall Chess Club, Mt St Helens & San Andreas Fault USA, 2009
– De Hallen, Haarlem