André Vida is a Hungarian American saxophonist, composer and lyricist living in Berlin. Between October and November 2011, Vida was ensconced in a grueling endurance performance with fellow saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc. Except Moondoc was suspended out of a housing block window, in a film by the artist Anri Sala. Every day, at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Vida would improvise maddening scores, with short bursts of respite between immersive plays. Human, machine, instrument: how to be different when every day appears to be the same.
Shumon Basar: When Anri Sala approached you, how detailed did he describe what he wanted you to do in his piece?
André Vida: Clara Meister originally approached me about performing Anri’s piece 3,2,1 for her Soundfair series in Berlin. The premiere was exhilarating, and in the improvised solo section at the end of the piece I went into an hour-long saxophone trance. After that I was very curious about working more at the limits of my own endurance. There was clearly something in the air, because Anri approached me several weeks later asking if I would be interested in performing the piece nine times a day over the course of his seven week long Serpentine Gallery show. I was intrigued, scared, and overwhelmed and am still a bit shocked that I actually made it.
SB: Did you do any mental or physical preparation?
AV: First I thought of all of the things that I could have done in my life before that moment that would have made me prepared. Like yoga, jogging, pilates. Then I cried. And I started eating. I ate and ate and ate all the time telling myself when this is all over I will do those things that I never do, so that if the opportunity should arise again, I will be ready. But now as I lie here in my bed in Berlin eating, I realize I’m probably not going to do any of those things. So I started training a combination of Grinberg therapy, playing a lot of sax, and kissing. In the process I became very aware of my physical habits with the saxophone and more importantly how to move and adjust to deal with potential pain and stress. Finally when I got to London I met an incredible acupuncturist, Karen Cohen, who is largely responsible for getting me through it all.
SB: Can you remember the first performance of the first day?
AV: There was the gala opening on a Friday night and there was so much anticipation in the unexpectedly very warm air. Then on Saturday morning in an almost empty gallery I found myself struggling. As I recall the first official performance of the first day was slightly dull and regurgitated. My journal from Day 1/Cycle 1 reads ‘This improvisation lacks an energy contour, a simple container. 400 to go! Ha – if I think like that I will never make it. My back is tight and fluid like a heated river. Where are the fish?’
SB: You’d play for 25 minutes and then have 25 minutes off until the next performance. What would you do in that time between?
AV: After 25 minutes of blowing air through a saxophone in an unheated gallery (with holes in the wall) my mind and body were often somewhere else. And then I’d find myself walking into the heated lobby of the Serpentine feeling quite vulnerable. My typical routine was to go to my sax room, take my instrument and wireless mic off then the layers of hunting clothing. Then if I needed a table to work on, I’d walk around the building to a second space. I have a huge stack of drawings from those in-between times. Anri described them as ‘anti-scores,’ which is fitting because they are not tools of intention as much as internalizations of the saxophone language I was living in.
SB: Were you writing stuff down over the course of the months you were playing? What kind of stuff was it?
AV: Yes, I kept a journal full of little notes about the performances and daily details. The following is an excerpt from Day 6/Cycle #5:
‘At the solo section two older women start talking loudly to the guard asking this and that. They feel so empowered and oblivious. If aliens were to come to earth, these women would first try to eat them. Some kind of mundane baked alien casserole gratin and me on the outskirts talking to myself.’
SB: How difficult is it to keep something like this from being repetitious or boring? What are the mechanisms for relentless invention?
AV: I am not sure how much I can reveal about the mechanisms as I don’t want to understand too much about them myself. In a broad sense I am continuously experimenting with amnesia. How flexibly can I move between my collective and specific memories? How can I forget what is about to happen? I have so many techniques for getting lost, so many friends who are experts, and so much of that aesthetic is hardwired into our collective sense of compelling performance.
SB: Is there epiphany in routine? Or is epiphany actually dull?
AV: When I am touring around the world one of the most exciting parts of the performance is packing up my gear after the concert. Some of my most profound epiphanies occur in the larger cycles of a process and within the routine of these 403 twenty-five minute performances the labyrinth of perspective was fully lit. Some of the epiphanies were languorous and steady, but dull is not the word I would use.SB: You told me that Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman are important to you. In what ways?
AV: Samuel Beckett taught me how to win half a cup of free tea from a full-breasted waitress, so I am forever indebted to him. His sense of timing is so distinct and I often wonder how he transmits that through words on a page. Morton Feldman on the other hand… there is a delicate sadness in his music that I gravitate towards. The seemingly endless feel in his works also fascinates me. There are some composers who write 100 year-long pieces and others whose music occupies 100 years in ten minutes. Feldman is both.
SB: And Marina Abramovic, ‘the god mother of performance art’ Like?
AV: I would rather call her the Goddess. The range of work itself, the risks she takes and her ongoing engagement with endurance are a source of inspiration for me.
SB: Would you fantasize about being elsewhere when you were performing in the gallery? Places you’ve never been before or familiar places?
AV: Yes. I fantasized and researched about the history of The Serpentine Gallery. I would imagine the natural flow of human motion in the rooms when it was a tea house. When I peered out through the holes in the walls I imagined past pavilions and experimented with my own designs. The pavilion that I designed in my time there was made out of white cotton and derived its structure from moving fans. I found myself inside that pavilion from time to time altering its structure with the wind from my saxophone.
SB: Did you continue to play in your dreams at night?
AV: No. I did not dream so much over the period of the show. It was more as if my entire life was a dream. There is a drink I had once in Brooklyn called Morir Sonando which translates to ‘dying in your dreams,’ and this performance more than any reminded me of the taste. Kind of synthetic orange cream powder with seltzer water. Now two weeks have past since I returned to Berlin and anytime I pick up my saxophone I smell oranges.
SB: Can you remember the last performance, Number 403? How did you make it definitive?
AV: I was very over-excited and spent almost the entirety of the performance on my knees or with my back on the floor. It was very emotional although I don’t know which emotion or story I was telling, as if the accumulated weight of the experience was releasing itself through me. I felt like the lit end of a portal. The audience clapped which was the first time throughout the entire 403 concerts that a group of people clapped together for me. I didn’t expect that at all and didn’t even know how to respond to it. As I was walking away, I heard this tremendous clapping and wasn’t able to stop the routine my feet were so used to, so I kind of turned halfway and lifted my saxophone in the air and my feet just kept on walking.
SB: When did you know this whole endurance was truly over?
AV: Four nights before the final performance around midnight a gang of hooligans on the street pulled out a tenor sax. They were drunk laughing and playing around with it and for a second I wondered if they had broken into the serpentine and stolen my baby. They started playing the sax intro to ‘Baker Street’ and I knew the cosmos was calling me home.