German electroacoustic composer Hans Tutschku’s work asks what it means to be human by pressing on where the human is situated—in space, in time, in the world. His music pivots around the point where human meets machine, bridging this gap while blurring the line uncannily and spinning tensions together with tranquility through sound and light. During the first of a two-evening concert series Tutschku recently gave at Rice University, he described the last piece on the program, his 2017 virtual bodies, as moving beyond technology to find a space for dreams, a mode of transporting any listener to spaces—real and imaginary—that we don’t usually inhabit. “Sound travel…” Tutschku said as the lights went down in the Lois Chiles Studio Theater at Rice’s Moody Center for the Arts.
To achieve this kind of intermedia voyage, it matters where you sit during Tutschku’s live performances. When I first walked into the theater and sat in the front row, Tutschku quietly approached and encouraged me toward the center of the room, gesturing at the circular positioning of the speakers. His advice quickly made sense: his music is remarkably attuned to its environments. It moves with space and bodies in mind, as Klaviersammlung (2011), which opened this first program, succinctly demonstrated. Comprising recordings Tutschku made of ancient pianos that whir around an audience through sixteen channels placed throughout the theater, the piece transports the listener inside the body of an old instrument where you feel the hammers press and the strings pull, and the grain of the wood scratches along your cheek.
Experiencing Firmament-schlaflos (2010), a subsequent piece featuring Sarah Maria Sun’s recorded voice, a similar constellation of sound made it feel as if someone were whispering urgent secrets in the darkness while violet light danced in shapes around me. In the center of the stage, a speaker glowed blue. “It’s not a nightmare,” Tutschku’s program note read. “It’s just the interplay of our imagination.”
Two days later, I sat across from Tutschku, on the ground level of the James Turrell Twilight Epiphany Skyspace, for the premiere of his work nighttime songs from afar. With exceptionally cold weather for Houston in April (my phone registered a windy 48 degrees), the sounds of bells, voices uttering indistinct words, and plucked strings filled the corners and wrapped the space in a meditative pulse. The sound complemented a beating—sometimes punching—grey, azure, lime, and tangerine light that, increasing in rhythmic pace over forty minutes, became hypnotic.
nighttime songs from afar pulls from cultures all over the world—melodies, lullabies, and prayers Tutschku has documented on his travels and re-recorded in new voices and tones. “I want to warm your hearts,” Tutschku said in opening. “When I travel places, I’m interested in what happens musically in that place … where rituals come together in a peaceful way, where people respect each other.” Even so, he also noted that when one travels, one has to confront the feeling of being the alien in another’s home.
When I spoke to Tutschku later on the telephone, he said that while much of his work flirts with the line between machine and mortal, he wanted to foreground the human in nighttime songs from afar.
“We live in a very technological world, where technology and machinery and so-called ‘aides’ to our lives are omnipresent,” Tutschku said. “And so for me, for someone who works with all these technologies and still have the human shine through that, where are the moments of communication and dialogue and purposefulness … communication aides help us not just to read email or watch a video on YouTube, but how those technologies can actually extend our imagination.”
Composing nighttime songs from afar specifically for the Turrell Skyspace meant reconciling a singular performance environment. The Skyspace comprises two open-air square levels: a lower level with marble built-in benches along the walls and a larger level above with a block of concrete benches that frame the floor below. After visiting the structure several times and toying with sound and light systems to observe how they behaved, Tutschku found the Turrell Skyspace to be somewhere in between a public performance space, where people can just be walking by, and a concert hall, which by design keeps a more captive audience. Complicating matters, the Turrell is vulnerable to outside noise—as the chopping of a medevac helicopter flying over midway through the performance proved.
“It’s a very noisy space—it’s not a space where you can do something with a lot of silence,” Tutschku explained. “It creates a special listening condition, whether you’re down there on the marble benches or up above, the sound is not neutral, the space is not neutral. I needed to find … a kind of space that manifested a strong spirit—not necessarily religious, but spiritual.”
Tutschku describes the resulting sound as an abstracted cultural celebration. “We’re not entirely sure what they celebrate, we don’t understand the language, we don’t understand their customs or their habits,” he said.
The conceptual uncertainty driving nighttime songs from afar engages with sound as much as it does with light, making the experience all the more enveloping—an effect that took some careful balancing on Tutschku’s part.
“I noticed with the light sequences, if I dimmed the lights totally to black, the space is not actually black,” Tutschku recalled. “There was a quality change from something artistic and defined to something else. You look actually at the roof, in a very similar analogy, I felt that if the musical intensity drops too low under a certain level and I’m more aware of the external levels, then I’m not aware of the lights anymore.”
The emphasis on the human marked a subtle turn from the program earlier in the week. Thinking back to that evening, Tutschku noted the piano pieces that combined with live-electronics (Das Bleierne Klavier  and virtual bodies) alternatively used technology to magnify the human gesture.
“What interests me most is to create those networks where at times things are extremely obvious and the response of the technology is not so one-way, so we have to decipher some mystery, how is this line of complexity to be interpreted,” Tutschku said that evening. “The media-based pieces I guess particularly in Firmament-schlaflos, that’s the strongest piece in the form that’s clear in the position of something human and very fragile, very naked, someone who does not try to shine but is just someone, but on the other side has a kind of energy pushed on us.”
Beneath the tension between machine and human in Tutschku’s compositions lies a confrontation of human with human—something we rarely admit is more uncomfortable and uncertain than the cool steel against flesh that nighttime songs from afar makes explicit. Next to friends and facing strangers on the Turrell’s squared marble benches, the audience held camaraderie while the work unfolded layer after layer of new experience. But between the levels of warmth and human community were pockets of something very close to terror: a mirror that reflects a human face both familiar and alien. The trepidation one feels in those gaps—listening, watching, waiting—is the moment one decides whether or not to trust in that human reflection.
Sydney Boyd is a critic and scholar in Houston, TX. She studies how music shapes narrative temporalities in twentieth-century literature at Rice University and, occasionally, returns to her origins as a violinist.
Banner image courtesy Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University. Performance by Hans Tutschku on Feb 3, 2016, in response to Pneuma(tic) Bodies exhibition, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (Feb 3–21, 2016).