MEETINGS WITH MICHAEL VETTER (1994-2005)
Article originally published as part of the programme booklet of a concert in Taipei, and in the Journal of Aesthetic Education, Taiwan.
My first meeting with Michael Vetter occured in spring 1994, when I visited him in Germany to attend a weekend workshop on overtone singing. During the preceding decade his name as a prolific musician, writer, visual artist (including photography, painting, India ink drawing), and also as a philosopher and former Zen monk, had become well established in Germany, the Netherlands and other countries. His frequent workshops, retreats, seminars and concerts attracted a varied blend of people from many backgrounds. That friday evening we gathered with a group of 30-odd people in the Hospitalkirche of Stuttgart to learn about the hidden dimensions of the human voice. Those two and a half days we sat in a large circle and chanted together, sometimes one by one, and listened to Vetter, who explained us how to approach this unusual technique, and how to (re)discover music in general. He was a patient teacher, with no wish to push everyone into singing overtones as quickly as possible. Rather he let each individual discover something new about their voice in their own pace. For some the mystery of overtone singing remained a bit mysterious, while most went home enriched and inspired.
At that time I had already absorbed myself entirely in the vocal art of singing overtones for several years. In 1993 I had even spent several months in South Siberia to study the famed throat singing of the nomadic herdsmen of Tuva, considered to be among the greatest virtuosi of traditional overtone singing. I did not only enjoy the music, I was inspired by all aspects of traditional Tuvan life: I lived in tents, villages and cities in Siberia, and followed the flow wherever it would take me. And I came to the workhsop of Vetter in a nomadic attitude of sorts. I had arrived just in time for the beginning of the workshop on that Friday evening, without arranging a place to stay. When the evening ended an elderly lady inquired where I, the only foreigner, was going to stay. When she learned that I did not yet know, she kindly offered me the guest room in her home, in a beautiful village in the green mountains around Stuttgart.
Despite a considerable grasp of many techniques of overtone singing, I did not dare to sing all too obviously in the group. But I felt at ease to sing for my kind host in the car on the way to her home, and knew she would appreciate it. In fact I did not at all think of myself as a singer, even though I had performed as such in a theatre project. And even though I was assured by several participants that I was quite talented, I did not have the guts to sit next to the master himself for an improvised duet. Only in the choir piece that we presented on Easter Sunday in the Hospitalkirche improvised concert did I allow my voice to be heard above the others. After the final workshop session I browsed greedily through Vetter’s catalogue of Cds and artwork, and ordered some books for further study.
In fact I did not come to the workshop to learn overtone singing, as I felt technically skilled enough to do anything I wished. I was drawn to this event to get a bit closer to the person that had created such stunning and intriguing recordings as Overtones: Voice and Tambura (1983) and the Missa Universalis (1985). Through these recordings shone an immense clarity of mind: when listening I felt the presence of a creative genius of unsurpassed depth, transcending with great ease the distances between our familiar universe and another, more spiritual universe. The latter was a universe of sound and one way or the other it seemed to be more real than our own. Until the workshop, the sounds had spoken for themselves. But now I wanted to hear the voice of this master speak. I wanted to hear what he would say about music and the world behind it. Perhaps I went to Stuttgart merely to check if my intuition was right that I had really been listening to a great genius. Because after that memorable meeting it was still the sounds that spoke to me most vividly, with their rich symbolism that escapes human language. I recall little of what Vetter said at that time, obsessed as I was by sound, pure sound with no meaning.
My second meeting with Vetter was nearly nine years later, and many things happened in between. Absorbed in my own musical world, at times in practice as a singer, teacher and sound artist, at times in my professional faculty as a musicologist and music journalist, I remained impressed by Vetter’s output, but felt no need to intensify my studies of his work. I started working on a book about overtone singing, and tried hard to find other exponents of this singing technique, both in old and new worlds. In the old world, mainly Siberia and Mongolia, things were rapidly changing due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Musicians travelled back and forth to the west, and often my musician-friends passed through the Netherlands. I also returned to these distant Russian republics several times to witness their changing world through first-hand experience. In the new world, I saw and heard many musicians that were excited and inspired by these North Asian musicians, and others that were more geared towards western styles of singing. Gradually this new technique found its way to many styles of music, and I patiently recorded every new experiment and gave it a place in my book. The goal I had set myself was to get to grips with this phenomenon from all angels, and thus my book bore four main parts. One of my advisors called these double splits: Physics, Metaphysics, plus East and West. The final, personal synthesis of these four parts became the Quintessence.
When the work was done, in 2002, I sent a copy to Vetter, who would surely not remember me. During the writing period I had not approached him for an interview, as I felt that his music and writings sufficed to give me a clear picture of his work and philosophy. Objective though I had tried to be in putting together my materials, I had not tried to hide my admiration for Vetter: I wrote, among other things,
“In a seemingly loose way, Vetter journeys through the soundscape of a single tone, as if producing melodies from thin air. Yet he creates a sense of harmony and tonality that in its timelessness reminds one of his great example, John Sebastian Bach. The well-aimed selection of overtones and the control of rhythm and melody show that this is not a musician searching for harmonics. Here is someone who actually found them.”
It was obvious that I was impressed by his work, and so a letter of praise and gratitude arrived. Vetter had received my book on his birthday, and to my great pleasure he felt that so far no one else had described his person and work so aptly as I had done. When the official presentation of the book in Amsterdam was approaching, I decided to call him and ask if he would be willing to perform. Only then I learnt about his closest collaborator, Natascha Nikprelevich, whom he sent to perform on his behalf. As a young and talented actress Nikprelevich abandoned theatre school to pursue an intensive, full-time study with Vetter for several years. She had graduated from Vetter’s private academy (Capraia) with a new vocal piece written by Vetter for both of them. They had performed it, sitting on the kitchen-table in the home of Karlheinz Stockhausen, icon of twentieth century music and great inspiration of Vetter since the 1960s. Stockhausen valued it as a true masterpiece, and had never heard such a talented female overtone singer. Now I had the honour of hosting Nikprelevich’s first public performance as a solo performer. Even the Mongolian musicians that also gave acte de présence, and who often remain unimpressed by western ‘imitations’ of their own trade, were intrigued by Nikprelevic’s dance-like voice improvisation, supple gestures, and expressive mimicery.
Meanwhile I had come to an important point of my life: an obsession of more than ten years and five years of writing had finally turned into a palpable, concrete book. Now what next? As I kept pondering the question what my next goal might be, and became aware of the limitations of my musical view of the universe, I realised that I still wasn’t finished with the object of my obsession: I viewed and still view the universe primarily through sound and vibration. It began to dawn to me that there might be just one person to guide me further, when an invitation arrived from that same person: Michael wished to celebrate his sixtieth birthday at the Academia Capraia in Tuscany, Italy, with a small group of admirers. The celebration would last four days and take the shape of a Steinspiel (Rock Game), a game invented by Vetter and inspired by Japanese Zen gardens. It did not take long to make up my mind: I decided to renew the acquaintance in Italy at the occasion of his birthday, followed by a course entitled Intermediale Improvisation.
Thus we met again in spring 2003 in his wonderful Italian mansion on the slope of the Amiata mountain, overlooking the picturesque village of Seggiano. This time I could appreciate the full width of his teaching more. I no longer tried to see and understand everything from the viewpoint of sound, and vibration in general. I now began to see how every single part of life had its own patterns and processes, Vetter taught us to seek, to see and to create patterns, meaningful patterns, everywhere around us. The Steinspiel consisted of nothing more than a number of “Stones” (in this case handmade woodblocks of different, abstract shapes) which we could place, replace and remove in a paved circle in front of the hall where the lessons took place. At each instant there was a constellation, a certain order. One could either see it as more or less randomly or more or less arranged blocks. Or one could invest it with one’s full attention and creative energy to turn it into a dynamic, changing pattern of connections, paths, figures, possibilities….. Unlike the Zen masters, who had chosen the position of their stones in their garden for eternity, we carefully chose our move, which would last perhaps only minutes before someone else changed one stone in order to fit it into their imagined scheme of things.
Every new variation in this game offered a whole new range of possibilites. The new vistas sometimes felt like the discovery of a new, parallel universe, but still we were ‘just’ playing a game. It was perhaps the next day when the moving of stones turned into solo choreographies for moving stones. The act of moving itself now became a fully conscious process with its own dynamics. One player circled around the stone before getting hold of it, another lifted it up high and walked around with it, a third rolled it slowly, only to return to the same place. Later still an onlooker was tempted to join this dance: the solo became a duo. By this time the paved circle of the Stone Universe was also visited by nearby objects: a grotesque branche, a real stone, an old chair. Natascha boldly turned herself into a Stone as she positioned herself on the chair and froze, like a mannequin in a fashion magazine. The possibilities seemed endless, and not a second did I lose interest in this fascinating game. The half dozen or so guests showed the deepest parts of their being through the simple acts of moving a Stone, walking into and outside the space, and finally choreographing and singing their Stone movements.
The prelude to this fest had begun in Pisa, where I arrived at the airport and met with three other participants the evening before we undertook the journey to Capraia. It was on a shady terrace near the famous Tower of Pisa that I first heard what this Steinspiel was about. Anja, another participant, explained it enthustiacally after diner, using the cups, saucers, spoons, and sugar can we had just used for coffee. First we were talking still, while moving the objects one by one. Then we really got into it, and took more time to consider the new constellation before we actually moved something. We played it for a little while in silence and stared intently at the changing constellation. We forgot all about the people around us, the restaurant ambiance, when, all of a sudden, the waiter appeared at our table. In true Italian fashion, he lifted all the pieces of our universe, put them on his serving tray with decisive movements, and swiftly walked away with them, without a singel word. Within seconds he had turned our universe into a void, without the slightest notion of the gravity of his deed on his part (how could he know!). We were staring at the empty table in disbelief, when we realised what happened and broke out in a loud laughter.
In the days following the Steinspiel we continued to seek and create patterns during our course in Intermedial Improvisations. We used thick, long ropes, we drew lines and shapes on paper, we moved our bodies, we sang. We danced with sheets: I hopelessly tied myself up in a sheet of white cotton cloth of some six meters long perhaps. And I watched Vetter and Natascha in admiration when they performed their improvised dance that fully exploited the supple texture and folds of the cotton. After each evening session (the afternoons we were free), we gathered on the veranda where we could watch the stars. With amazing detail Vetter analysed the movements, sounds, and other creative explorations of one or all of us. He showed his great mastery in laying bare the hidden, subconscious meanings of our expressions. He pointed out how all those patterns could be meaningfully related to one another, as well as to the universe that shone so clearly above our heads. He would sometimes ask us to do the same, and through this act of introspection after our session we began to see, and then to break free from the patterns that are engraved deeply in our subconscious.
There is a clear and distinct Zen approach in Vetter’s work and thinking, yet it also embodies that typical, piercing German thoroughness (Gründlichkeit) that we know of its great philosophers, composers and scholars. He is intimately familiar with Zen art and aesthetics, as well as philosphy and ritual, but he has given them a dynamic turn that, I dare say, one will not find among Japanese Zen masters. Vetter has thus fused Western and Eastern sources to build his own world view like no other contemporary artist that I know. Of course the use of very different sources is typical of many modern artists. Yet few seem to be able to do this succesfully, and very few are able to give equal attention to the spiritual and the psychological, the artistic and the aesthetic, the visual and the musical, the East and the West, with a truly original, creative mind. In Western Europe one can easily find dozens of artists, or those who proclaim to be an artist, who do things that resemble Vetter’s approach, but who must by the nature of their talent limit themselves to one or two disciplines, or areas, in which they pursue their carreer. Vetter never sought to please an audience, as most artists will be tempted to do at some point in their carreer. Instead, he continuously develops his senses to observe and question every means of expression. He never tires to face the new and stays true to the spirit of creation at every instant. He has attained a degree of clarity of mind that only few spiritual masters can attain, yet he chose to utilise his capacities to grow continusouly through his artistic work. The ultimate message that we can learn from him lies perhaps in developing consciousness of our human nature, which is first and foremost a creative nature.
It is for this reason that I heartily recommended this inspiring teacher to professor Chung Mingder of TNUA, who tirelessly uncovers and promotes new artistic and spiritual domains. During my three visits to Taiwan, Professor Chung has continuously stressed the pursuit of art with one’s whole body and mind, one’s entire consciousness, one’s entire being. He has also emphasised the importance of considering spiritual questions in the artistic path, because of the similarity of true artistic offerings and true spiritual offerings. If there is any overtone singer in the modern world who has understood this and put this wisdom into practice, it must be Michael Vetter. What is essential, most of all, is that Vetter is not merely a teacher of overtone singing, but a teacher of life. Therefore I am extremely pleased with professor Chung’s invitation, the first long-time return of Michael Vetter to Asia in years. I expect and I wish that many will benefit of his creative genius, and that it is the start of further cross-fertilisations of Eastern and Western art and spirituality.
– Mark van Tongeren
University of Leiden, the Netherlands