Kafkeywordeska - Kafka and the german language in the beginning of the 19th century

Grafik©Judith Keller

Kafkeywordeska is my piece based on Kafka´s book "Letter to his father" or later "Dearest father" (2008 translation by Hannah and Richard Stokes). Kafka wrote the letter in 1919, and in 2012, almost 100 years later, a group of five composers (Sarah Nemtsov, Rom Rojo Poller, Laura Mello, Arne Sanders and Sebastian Ellikowski-Winkler), together with director Lotte Greschik and dramatic adviser Mauricio Veloso, staged Kafkaskop,

Grafik © Nicolas Wiese

a music theater play, created as a patchwork, where each composer was assined a part of Kafkas´s book to write music to. Kafkaskop was presented at and as a co-production of Konzerthaus Berlin, with video projections and staging by Nicolas Wiese and Stefan Rosinski.


My composition is conceived for an unusual instrumentation as mezzosopran, male speaker, sub-bass flute (Petzold), e-guitar, harspsichord and percussion. An additional instrument, a hand saw, was used during the piece as a perfect object to concretize my vision of Kafka´s feelings while he was writing the text, a mixture of sawing his father and at the same time himself to the deepest hidden fears and angers.

I couldn´t help thinking of this son writing a letter to a father in 1919: what was he experiencing, as a lawyer and surely influenced by the political situation of that time? All his work is full of metaphers, but this letter goes directly to the core, no plays with images, but only the cruel reality of a political era that would watch the german language being strongly born down and finally completely banned from the new being born czechoslovakian country not much later in time.

My decision to focus on the language and use it both as material and as meaning giving element was a result of this questioning. Further, I was stuck by the idea of obtaining recordings of the german language spoken at that time in the region of Prag.

On the other hand, I was assined the last part of the book, when Kafka opens to his father (and at the same time to himself) his thoughts on his own (until then but fortunately not until the end unhappy) love life. Some theories on Kafka´s book mention Kafka´s father reaction to his latest engagement to Julie Wohryzeck might have triggered the writing of the letter.  That being said, it was clear to me that the challenge here was to unite these four elements:  the text´s content, the text as a souding material, the context in which it was written and, as a feature, the actual context, so so speak, my point of view, my presence in the process.

In my composition process I usually try to cross materials, either showing an already existent bound or relationship between or amongst them, either forcing it by putting them together on stage.The use of keywords is familiar to me as a copywriter, and it makes a lot of fun to compose a text or a musical composition based on what I have chosen to be the main words of a text. As an author, free from commerce rules, I can put them together in whatever way I like, like a panopticum, a caleidoscope, as this stage play intended to be.

My researches led me to the Spoken German Databank, inside the Archive for Spoken German. There one can find audio recordings of spoken german language from all times and places, since recordings were possible. For my piece I chose recordings of Heinrich Heine´s poem "Mein Kind, wir waren Kinder" from 1919, made in the Prague Theater, a very important theater and opera house at that time in Europe. The voice from Alexander Moissi, an italian actor of albanese origin who dedicated all his free time to learning the german language and became the most famous actor of the german speaking area in the beginning of the 20th century.

One of the reasons I´ve chosen Heinrich Heine´s poem was that "My child, we were children" sounds like a parent speaking to a child, as if Kafka´s father would be given a voice in the peace (what Kafka also does in the text). Second, this poem changes from a childish in the beginning to a dramatic view by the end, similar to the crisis between Kafka´s and his father´s worlds, one artistical and the other, pragmatical. Third, the coincidence of time´s conjuncture: although Heinrich Heine´s poem was written almost 100 years before Kafka´s letter (Heine in 1827), Heine could be said, in 1919, as almost previewing the world´s financial crash of 1929 and the war etc, etc. Last but not least, Heinrich Heine was also a jew, but on this topic the two writers had very distinct attitudes.

Further, I´ve made some recordings from shortwave radio, what is for me a kind of a binding element, being born as a mass media in the beginning of the 19th century, resisting all newcoming media until now, and also my favorite medium.

Once the sound files were chosen, I´ve used a MAX/MSP patch by Wolfgang Musil to decode the speaches into rhythm patterns, output as MIDI-Files, so that I could use them with whatever software-instruments I would choose. Using these materials I´ve made the electroacoustic part of the piece, for a 4-channel environment. Nicolas Wiese´s video and Stefan Rosinski´s projection gave the last touch to the work. Thank you both guys!

KAFKASKOP from Iván López Tomé on Vimeo

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