Austerity vs. Stimulus debate on Twitter inspires music by Eugene Birman & libretto by Scott Diel
Vocal star Iris Oja is to sing words of Mr Paul Krugman & President Toomas Hendrik Ilves as Anima Musicae is conducted by Balázs Horváth
O as in Opera
The aim of staging a contemporary opera in LOOK is as old as LOOK itself. Therefore it is even more to our utmost pleasure to end this year with the irregular performance of Nostra Culpa also referred to as the world’s first ‘financial opera’. Our contemporary exhibition program will continue – after a lengthy pause – with the screening of this extraordinary concert; and we also celebrate the festive season.
This approximately 16-minute two-movement cantata was inspired by a disagreement between Nobel Prize winner economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves that took place in 2012. Music was composed by Eugene Birman and the libretto written by Scott Diel. The Hungarian debut performance was preceded by a premier at the Tallinn Music Week and then in Riga last year.
Nostra Culpa has become a kind of soundtrack of the financial crisis and its lingering effects. Though the days of the Lehman brothers collapse in 2008 seem far in the past, the effects of austerity vs. stimulus are being felt today more than ever. There is great relevance to a piece of dramatic classical music that captures the emotions and ideas of this period of our time.
The drama unfolds through the actual debate about actions introduced by Estonia to resolve the effects of the economic crisis and their evaluation. Nostra Culpa takes up the age-old economic disagreement of austerity vs. stimulus, the Keynes vs the Austrian school of economics. The piece does not take sides but it certainly invites its audience to debate and discussion. The short operatic piece in two movements, uses two voices, Economist Paul Krugman and Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. However, it would be unfair to characterize the piece as a debate between only those two gentlemen, since most every economic thinker has registered an opinion on the topic (Adam Posen, John Maynard Keynes, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, to name a few). A paper published on the occasion of the Budapest premier contains a selection of these articles, as well as the posts that inspired Nostra Culpa, introduction of participants, interviews and opinions and other related writings (available only in Hungarian).
We hope that our publication and the irregular presentation of the piece will contribute largely to it. Composer Eugene Birman and librettist Scott Diel have agreed to join to attend and to assist at the rehearsals and preparation of the project, where Estonian vocal star, Iris Oja and the 15-string-player Anima Musicae Chamber Orchestra plays Nostra Culpa conducted by Balázs Horváth.
The concert can be viewed from around the world through live streaming, in Budapest at Castro Bisztró and a recording will be on view in LOOK for six weeks after the premier.
Debut performance date and place: 6 December 2014 (Saturday) 7:00 p.m.; LOOK, 1065 Budapest, Bajcsy-Zsilinszky köz 2. (www.look.org.hu, +36304893569)
Live screening: Castro Bisztró, 1075 Budapest, Madách Imre tér 3.
Related exhibition: 7 December 2014 – 18 January 2015 open every day: 10:00 am – 10:00 p.m.
All programs are free | Gate opens: 6:50 p.m. | Concert starts: 7:00 p.m. | Seats available on arrival; due to the limited space it is adviced to arrive in time and check for availability
Against Type: how Nostra Culpa came to be
by Eugene Birman
Nostra Culpa was "finished" before it even started when in mid-January, the news leaked to the world media that Scott and I were writing the world's first austerity-, finance-, twitter- opera - or should I say cantata. The piece, defined in the minds of business journalists and, to a lesser extent, the media spinners looking for the next exciting story, was hardly even begun, though. I had scarcely written a note when I started receiving requests for clips and sound bytes of what this strange, new music might be. Imagine, as a novelist, having your novel be described and analyzed before you had written a single page, or, as a visual artist, reading about your big new painting when the concept had only just formed in your mind. This was what it was like when I began to write the piece.
Expectations are funny things in music: it is particularly useful to destroy them. It is almost a curse to write the same piece twice, no matter the occasion. Each first page is a chance to do something different, to create ex nihilo, to give voice to the voiceless ideas. It turned out that the unceasing attention that the piece received on its first round of coverage, in a way, helped me. I wanted to write a piece that no one would expect, yet one that would reach millions. It was a special opportunity.
Like any good piece, Nostra Culpa starts out with a crash and a bang. Here, it's the collapse of the world financial system. It takes about 5 seconds and it never comes again - at least, the former might have been true in the real world. Lehman Brothers et al failed in the blink of an eye. We are still dealing with the repercussions, so the rest of the piece, its two movements like two unwavering monoliths, stand opposite each other, refusing to communicate yet both reaching out in incompatible media, much like Krugman and Ilves themselves.
Among the copious generous and positive press coverage, there were those for whom destroyed expectations proved less than satisfying. For example, Liis Kängsepp of the Wall Street Journal published the first review of the piece just after the performance, noting that Nostra Culpa debuted to "mixed reviews." And in fact, that might have been it! But elsewhere, the piece found devotees and detractors in highly unequal numbers. Despite being "modern" music, at times difficult to listen to, it has secured a future beyond its premiere.
And that's what music that dares to surprise, to confront, and to defy expectations does. Whether the reviews are mixed or not, there was attention and there was opinion. People have something at stake with Nostra Culpa. The most humbling part of the process was knowing that whatever I would write, would make a far greater difference to the ears of listeners than the pens of journalists. And that all of those people deserved something they hadn't heard before, and hadn't imagined.
Balázs Horváth on Nostra Culpa
To say that Nostra Culpa is a financial piece? I have no idea... Of course the libretto of the piece is finance related, but to me it rather raises musical problems, as most probably an economist would cast the questions of his or her profession into any given area of life. What is important for me is that Birman's cantata deals with issues of our everyday lives and does that by music. Each and every word or sentence of the singer is companied by a musical event or sound and it is the music's dynamic, dramaturgic undulation that finally outlines and 'analyses' financial - and who knows what other - problems.
The live debut performance of Nostra Culpa in LOOK Budapest was streamed and could be followed here ago. From 13 December 2015 until 31 January 2016 it was screened in Fekete LUK (Fekete Kutya Gastropub) (approximately 16-minute streaming)
Exclusive interview w/ the authors of Nostra Culpa
You’ve visited Hungary previously. When was it and what was your impression? SD: I have two distinct memories of Hungary. The first was at the Gellért spa in 1993, which a friend insisted I visit. I was perplexed by those little loincloths they give you (was it intended to cover your front or back?), and then I recall being literally mauled by a masseur. I was told later that the custom is to tip beforehand.
My second trip to Hungary was in 1998 and I recall being really amazed by some of the wines. My Hungarian hosts remarked, “What? You really think we all drink Bikavér?”
EB: It was 2006, I was 18 years old, traveling with an old friend of mine, and Hungary was a blank spot on a map for me. In fact, it more or less ended up that way even after the trip because it rained the whole time in Budapest and I never even made it to the Buda side of the river. I have a fond memory of almost getting run over by a bus on Soroksári út. But I swore to come back and actually take the underground passages to cross the streets next time.
Do you find any similarities or differences between Hungary and Estonia? SD: I speak Estonian and so for that reason have always had a curiosity about Hungary. I’ve looked at Hungarian language textbooks and can see the language’s logic and structure are the same, but for the most part I don’t understand a word of Hungarian. Except for “kummi madrats.” I’m told the words mean the exact same, so you can’t say I’m completely lost in the Hungarian language.
EB: Aside from purported linguistic similarities? There are many. For example, did you know that Estonia's most important symphonic composer, Eduard Tubin, visited Hungary to meet Zoltan Kodaly in the 1930s, which changed entirely the course of Tubin's music? Or that the Estonian financial opera was performed for the first time outside of the Baltics in Hungary? I could go on...
Do you have any expectations about your visit in December? SD: Perhaps because I don’t have a background in music, I come with an open mind and no expectations whatsoever. The music world is always new and fascinating to me. I get a real thrill from just playing witness to everything that takes place onstage and backstage.
EB: I am sure I will be surprised and I am sure it will be quite familiar too because, of all of my music, I have heard Nostra Culpa by far the most. I hope that we can use the visit to re-tell the story of the financial crisis in music and invite audiences to share their stories as well. I can't wait to see how this actually works out in the gallery space. What do you know about Hungarians, Hungary, our music, composers and art? SD: This possibly won't win me any friends, but I admit to having grown up watching the Gabor sisters on American TV. In the US, however, we don't make a big deal of being from somewhere else, so I never knew until later they were Hungarian. There are so many Hungarians who have left their mark internationally - Joseph Pulitzer, Robert Capa, Attila the Hun, to name a few – but most people probably don’t realize they’re Hungarian.
Concerning music, I recently read a long, interesting article in The New Yorker about Iván Fischer and the B.F.O. I don’t know how Hungarians feel about him, but the article certainly made him out to be a fascinating and very likeable iconoclast.
EB: Given Hungary's contribution to music, in particular (but to so many things, even culinarily), it's impossible to not know something! Culturally, and perhaps there is a linguistic reason for that, Hungary has been a special case in Europe and the traditions and music have been preserved in this unique way that I feel I know less than I should but I am almost happy about my ignorance. The result is fewer preconceived notions. Everything from the Ottoman period to the Empire to the dark days of communism, I have read in history books; Bartok was, and still is, one of my very favorite composers; and I survived a few years in Estonia drinking Hungarian cabernets and merlots of incredible value and really decent quality. But despite knowing something, I see I know very little at all. I will be using my visit for the Nostra Culpa concert as a way to rectify that!
What do you know about the current situation in Hungary? SC: Not enough to offer highly intelligent comment on it. In the press I follow the controversy surrounding Viktor Orbán, the new constitution, and the internet tax. But as an outsider can only read foreign newspapers, I’m sure I don’t know enough. My only real conclusion is that someone should definitely write an opera about Mr. Orbán, how he came to power, and what he’s done with it.
EB: It is receiving more and more attention outside of Hungary, and just recently, a lecturer at the University of Oxford happened to speak about the political situation. So far outside the borders, it's difficult to judge but I think this turn for the worse is not lasting, but part of an important push-pull between the people and their government.
Do you see something specifically Hungarian in the events? SD: I usually try to hold my tongue about the colorful folkways of a people. I come from a place in the US – Kansas – which is full of conservatives who appear pretty odd to the rest of the world. Every once in a while we Kansans get together and burn books, attempt to ban the teaching of Darwin, or do something else incredibly embarrassing. Every place I’ve ever lived has its share of problems - Kansas, New York, St. Louis (Ferguson!), Ukraine, and Estonia, too. So I am sure there is something specifically Hungarian in the events, just like there is something specifically American going on in Kansas. I suppose all human beings are pretty strange creatures, regardless of nationality. EB: I couldn't even begin to know. Despite borders, language, and culture being so distinct in Europe, the connections between peoples are much stronger than they seem. Is there something Estonian in the fact that Estonian politicians don't really seem to have a clue what they want their country to be like in the next five years, other than "richer"? The aftermath of the financial crisis was recently described (in the same lecture at Oxford) as settling the check after a raucous party. But in that sense, we are in a good place right now. We are paying for the damage, but the damage has already been caused. Hungary, having suffered like every other country, will prosper like every other as well.
I don’t think there has ever been a similar attempt: the ‘austerity debate’ – even economist have no clue what it means – is retold in opera? Peculiar idea. It is at least as peculiar as the basis of the opera itself, the discussion between Nobel laureate Paul Krugman and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves in cyberspace. Most probably, the Nobel Prize-winning economist did not understand even at last what his partner had been talking about, because to him these three Baltic countries where – after liberation from the Empire a generation in their twenties and thirties took the lead of the country and advanced decades within years – are faraway and unfamiliar.
The great leap forward has come to a halt with the crisis, pityful articles and studies were published about the fading Baltic miracle. At the begining of the crisis Krugman and many others immediately suggested the devaluation of local currencies and, through this, adjustment – to them internal devaluation, i.e. introducing severe austerity measures seemed like a harsh and irreversible sacrifice. However, Baltic countries have taken the way that was considered impossible. Crisis management was based on such brutal austerity measures, that could not have been introduced in any other European country without risking political collapse.
(the author is an economist)
The libretto of Nostra Culpa was adapted to Hungary's current economic policy by senior business editor for World Economy Weekly (HVG)
An unorthodox experiment
Ain’t no austerity
Revolution in the polling booth
Regulated utility price cuts!
Hold banks to account
Opening to the East!
Structural reform plan trumps
Stuck public debt
Foreign debtors in the wasteland
Dumb & silly West Europeans
A sheepfold is led better
Someday will understand (maybe)
Smug, overbearing & patronizing
Sh*t on the poor, and the underdog
Hit the road
We would like to express our most sincere gratitude to each and every participant for devoting themselves fully to the project/performance, the enthusiasm they have shown and the commitment they have made throughout its realization; also to our supporters for making it all possible. Moreover, our special thanks go to Júlia Ránki for running our press campaign and much more; Máté Fábik for great graphic design & layout, patience & not cracking under pressure last minute hard work; Dóra Szauter for proofreading for the sake of friendship and professionalism; Dávid Pap for sound engineering and bringing Zsuzsi along; László Dinea for his anticipation, par excellence camera manoeuvers and post editing skills; Gábor Kerekes for being cool headed and saving the evening with his presence & inventions; Krisztina Szita and Judit Berta for their indispensable and unconditional assistance. Without them Nostra Culpa's performance in LOOK surely would not have been the same. A BIG THANK YOU TO ALL!