Talk with Niels Lanz

A Conversation with Niels Lanz, sound designer, and Sinéad Rushe

Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London

31 January, 2018.

SR: Welcome everyone, thank you for coming. It’s my great pleasure to introduce Niels Lanz from Germany. Niels will introduce himself and talk about his work but I just wanted to say how I’ve come to meet Niels and how Niels happens to be here.

Many years ago, I was working on a show of my own, Out of Time, which was a sound-based dance theatre show. Over the years I’ve watched the work of the choreographer William Forsythe whom Niels has collaborated with for twenty five years, and he’s one of the most inspiring practitioners for me, as a performance maker. So when I was working on Out of Time we had some issues around sound and I asked Niels if I could talk to him about how he approaches the work on live sound with Forsythe. It was a very brief conversation but Niels met me very briefly (when you were at the Tate Modern) and told me about how he works with sound and space which I was very interested in.

I am about to direct this play (by Bernard-Marie Koltès, Night Just Before the Forests) with our BA Acting CDT students and with BA Theatre Practice students as a final year public production at Central and I wanted to approach the show as a sound work. It’s written as a monologue but we’re working with it as a polyphonic work for five performers and I wanted to work with it in terms of sound, live sound, amplified sound and so I asked Niels if he would be willing to work on it. He said yes, so he’s here working with us on it and while he’s here, we had a desire for him to share with the larger Central Community his approach to sound overall.

NL: Thank you Sinéad for inviting me here. It is also a pleasure for me to work in a different context, to work in a school or student context is different. It’s also for me a different style of work with different approaches and scheduling, so that’s a good experience. So first I want to introduce myself. I’m from Frankfurt, I’m German-born and in 1982, I joined as a trainee in a puppet theatre because I was always interested in acting and that was my starting point to dive into the theatre. After my traineeship, I was so fascinated with theatre that I helped out in my free time while still at school with lighting especially and after I finished school I worked for them for a time. Then there was an opportunity to join Ballet Frankfurt in 1992 which I did and I became an assistant to the sound designer so that was my starting point.

So, I don’t know how much you know about Forsythe but this influenced me a lot because he worked in a very extreme way that means he’s always developing. So it’s not, ‘the premiere – it’s done’ and he leaves and somebody else takes care of it. No; a premiere means second performance, third performance it’s always developing and that’s always a thrill for everyone and that was part of his approach and why he’s such an important director. Ballet Frankfurt was, at that time, part of a big change: they cut the ballet out of the city theatre structure and Forsythe went out as a private partnership, The Forsythe Company. So I went with that shift as Leader of the Sound Department and we were developing new things all the time. At the same time, at the end of the 90’s, I started to do creation and music creation with young choreographers where I developed some sound designs for these creations.

So the question is, what is sound design in Ballet Frankfurt or Forsythe-style? First of all, we have to recognise that Ballet Frankfurt was a classical ballet company and then a young American guy came and started to do something completely different: he installed a contemporary ballet company. That means we no longer worked with an orchestra any more. There was electronic music, and for electronic music we needed loud speakers, of course. He started to work with microphones, also speech with radio mics. We worked with radio mics in the 90’s, when they weren’t at all reliable or secure. So he was always interested (or we were always interested) in new technologies and to implement these technologies inside of these classical ballets.

The biggest thing in sound design for me is to sit in a big house or auditorium and have the depth of the space. Proscenium doesn’t mean that the sound is everywhere, it’s just there. It’s not like cinema, no, we have the possibility of depth and it is great to work with these dimensions. This is also one important aspect of our sound concept: that the zero-point of the music is always the upstage loud speakers and we will delay it throughout the rest of front of house. Our aim was always to control the amount of feeling and sound that came out of the stage. Not like in the cinema- boof! (he demonstrates) No, we really have the…

SR: The depth…

NL: The depth. Of course, in Frankfurt we had good conditions to produce, but then the difficult thing was always to transform this into other theatres worldwide. For example to go into an old traditional opera house and say ‘we need loud speakers, we have electronic music’, and they would reply, ‘Here? Loud speakers? No, no, the orchestra pit is there’. So to get an understanding of what we were doing was quite difficult. I think this is a good time to show you two short examples from one ballet called The Loss of Small Detail. It premiered in 1991 (it was before my time but we performed it often since then and I was involved in remounting it). Then I’ll show another short sequence from a piece from 1996, Eidos:Telos. I’ll show you and then I will tell you a little more about it.


NL: We created them both pieces at the opera house and the opera house in Frankfurt is a really deep, big space. You see, the first piece (you heard it maybe?), The Loss of Small Detail, we used a radio mic and we pitch-shifted the voice of the dancer; in the 90’s, that was really unusual. Today you hear it in many Hollywood productions but at that time and to do it live, it was quite shocking, especially because he was naked too. Forsythe often (not always but often) made his major pieces a little bit strange and searched for some strong effect and potential meaning. In the second work, Eidos:Telos, there were trombones (you heard them at the beginning), three live trombones on stage. This camera position was behind the proscenium, it was a close-up camera just for internal recordings. The trombones were performed, processed in a live processing effect where it became really loud and big. Then the wire that you saw suspended across the stage was held with metal frames and we added a pickup from a guitar, and we took the vibration of the metal frame and the boom-boom-boom that you heard was actually a huge sound interference. I mean you don’t hear it of course especially inside the stage but outside, from the audience the effect was massive, like ‘fuck, what’s going on there?’.

SR: And at the beginning of the second clip from Eidos:Telos, was that just the acoustic sound of the dancers we were hearing there?

NL: Yes, that was just acoustic. So there was silence before the last climax. This is also the strategy of our sound design: to play with…

SR: Contrasts.

NL: Contrasts, exactly. If you are quiet before then it sounds even louder. So this was, at that time, our typical proscenium theatre pieces. Let me continue now with two other examples?

SR: Yes. Kammer/Kammer?

NL: Kammer/Kammer, exactly. Kammer/Kammer is different, it’s a very visual piece. You will see that the expensive seats are, shall we say, reversed and the best seats from which to see the show are actually far away, the cheapest seats.

SR: So the cheapest seats have the best view?

NL: Yes. You will see why. The second piece is Decreation and it’s also about creating a certain energy and transforming it. The content of the piece is maybe not so important as the mood, or the…

SR: The atmosphere.

NL: The atmosphere, yes.


AUDIENCE: What year was the one that we just watched from?

NL: The first one?


NL: Kammer/Kammer.

AUDIENCE: What year was that?

NL: 1999, I think.

SR: With all those cameras.

NL: No… 2000.


NL: So I think you begin to see the transformation from the older works, from Loss of Small Detail and Eidos:Telos in a big space into this. In this work, everything is a little bit closer and our venue changed because we left the playhouse and opera house – a transformation for the Forsythe Company – and moved into another space called Bockheimer Depot, an old tram depot. You can use this space in very different set-ups but usually we worked in a tribune-style stage configuration, like you saw, but without a main curtain. Everything was open and connected. So the first production, Kammer/Kammer was with many elements: lots of video where you saw the angles and their transformation and where everything was live. There was just one pre-recorded loop, later on, but most of what you saw was live so to find the right angles and the movement and walls coming in front of the audience and moving out… (he makes an explosive sound – ‘boof!’)

SR: A really enjoyable process.

NL: We thought, ‘wow’, yes!


NL: It was very interesting.

SR: And did you feel the shift to the Depot space changed the nature of the work? That the work became even more complex as a result?

NL: That’s one part of it, but it has different layers as well. For example, one layer is, I think, to work on a playhouse stage or opera stage you really have only certain times to work in the actual space because at night there’s an opera playing or it’s not easy to block one whole week until the premiere to really work content or to work on details. We had always to work it out and I think the opera was happy in the end that Bill was… gone!

SR: He left!

NL: Yes because then they no longer had to figure out these things. For example, Kammer/Kammer with all these monitors (you can’t imagine), they had four weeks preparing – that means blocking for four weeks – imagine that in one venue they had nothing else going on except the preparation of this work. So it was a real luxury for him to produce in that way, it’s not in the real world. Normally if you have two full rehearsals at the venue then you are lucky.

SR: The conditions of production are obviously related to the form and quality of the work.

NL: And in the Bockheimer Depot he had even more time and freedom. It’s also dependent upon teams. Often in the traditional venues, we had a whole lighting crew, a whole stage crew hanging around the whole day, hanging out because there was nothing to do, there was no changeover. Bill’s pieces were always open with nothing. So I think for these kinds of theatres Bill’s work didn’t fit very well.

SR: Seeing both of those pieces again, I’m reminded of a feeling that’s always struck me about the Forsythe work (and obviously because it’s dance it’s more forgiving in this way) is the level of complexity in the composition. He is always troubling this sense of where we might look or where we might focus as an audience member. There’s always slightly too much going on or a sense that he’s trying to provoke a certain sensation in the audience. It’s sometimes frustrating in his pieces and at other times really, really strong because it feels like you can’t take it all in in one sitting. There’s a level of detail and layering that is tremendously sophisticated and exciting. Of course we’re dealing with it a little in our production of Night Just Before the Forests because we’re working on a text. Part of me wants similar kinds of layers but when you have words (and a real text that actually has a sense and a dramaturgy) it’s much more challenging. So I find myself throwing out the layers and coming back to the text, purely and simply, so it’s interesting.

NL: But for example the last piece, Decreation was very interesting from the sound perspective because we didn’t work with radio mics; we worked with shotgun microphones on stage. It was also a statement, part of the architecture to have long shotgun microphones and the screaming, well, perhaps it’s not about the clear spoken words sounding nicely, in the end, it’s about something else sometimes. Something more…

SR: Visceral, yeah.

NL: Coming out from…

SR: The body.

NL: From a deep part of the body, yes, that wouldn’t normally be heard.

SR: Yes. Good.

NL: Now Heterotopia, which is from 1999. And Endless House.


SR: Oh, that’s so great, we could have watched the whole thing!

NL: So now you see how the work shifts. It experiments in a new dimension and really to integrate the audience on stage or let the audience be around the stage and that, of course, was a big challenge for us as sound designers: how do we amplify, where are the loud speaker positions, how can we work with different sound layers? The first piece was Endless House, performed in this large, very deep tram depot and it was roughly 60 meters depth of the stage with walls breaking the views. That was very thrilling. The last piece, Heterotopia, is a later work from 2007 or 8. There were actually two stages and the audience could look through one part (to see one stage) and over to this stage that we saw.

SR: Ah, so there’s a whole other room?

NL: Yes, it was really another room so you never caught everything. You have to decide: ‘should I stay here?’ and then there was a big noise over there and then people had to decide to shift ‘oh, now I have to go somewhere else because I missed something’. So it was interesting also to see how audiences react.

SR: And in Heterotopia, the second one, the sound setup was that the dancers wore radio mics?

NL: No-

SR: Or were the tables mic-ed?

NL: The tables were mic-ed and under the table was a kind of front-fill, near-field thing then we also had some speakers above them and there were certain inserts of music in addition. So it was multi-layered.

So that’s more or less the quick overview from Forsythe’s works to give you an idea, but he also does things for museums and he’s performed a lot of times here in London with, for example, White Bouncy Castle, a huge big, bouncy space, a real white castle with a huge amount of sound so you can bounce and hear and lie down. Or Scattered Crowd, that was with balloons. An installation with balloons only which the audience moved through.

SR: So were there no longer dancers; rather the audience members were in a kinaesthetic experience with a material or structure?

NL: Yes, exactly and his idea is: how can I get the audience to move? What can I do so that the audience gets a sensitivity of movement, a perspective, a feeling: What about if I have to go underground, to see the art, for example? Yeah? To go underground to see the artefact, for example. That’s a transformation from just presenting something to getting you to move.

SR: And it seems to me that when the dancers are mic-ed, there’s also something about the sound or the amplification that is also trying to encourage something of that in the spectator even though they’re just sitting watching. They’re having some sort of access to the breath, the experience, the vitality, or the energy of the dancer working. Through the sound technology, the audience has access to that. the addition of that.

NL: So I would like to open the Q&A out now to you. Are there any questions?

AUDIENCE: I have a question about process, I guess. Stepping into a project, like the last one we saw with the tables, how much of a conductor are you in this orchestra? How much are you present as a choreographer of sound? And how much are you creating the architecture and then stepping away and allowing it to discover itself?

NL: Yes. It’s a good question. Of course for this piece, there was an architecture or space idea with the tables and with two rooms and then we got involved to find out: ‘what solutions can we offer?’ Then we offered solutions and then Bill took these solutions to have a play. Out of this something new developed and then we did some adjustments. It’s organic. We get behind the idea and run with it and we try it out. But just a short time before the premiere he shifted everything (and really, totally shifted everything) because he felt it didn’t work. It wasn’t what he was looking for and then we had to deal with this. So process is very important but the bigger process is inside the ballet studio. It’s inside the dance world and I try to get into it but it’s a hard language. It’s not text, text is hard to understand or to find out what is the meaning behind but to have these movements as a text: I think you really have to be a dancer to really understand. But, of course, I have my own emotional relationship to it and can offer something and then maybe it fits or not. It’s more like trial and error.

AUDIENCE: Another question about the creation, the process: do you often work with the performers to give you something to make from? Do the performers give you the ideas or do you come with the ideas and then let the performers explore through them?

NL: Yes, the performers come up with ideas and I have to understand what is the clue behind it and try to explore it. On the other hand, I offer some tools which they can play with, let’s say. Microphones or other elements, we implement some normal things, balls, for example, and then they play with these things and at a certain point we create a rhythm live and that was part of the sound sphere.

AUDIENCE: Both points.

NL: Yeah, both ways. Then we always worked with (not always but most of the time) Thom Willems, the composer who was also in our process. For example, back to Eidos:Telos with the wire and the trombones. There was a big idea to work with Joe Vine, he was a programmer from America so they discussed on different levels and then together, we figured out how to make it all happen. How can we process the trombones technically and also artistically so that it fits into our artistic placement.

SR: And how much does Bill Forsythe understand the technology itself, the ins and outs and details of what you’re doing with it?

NL: I think he doesn’t understand very much, but he is really interested in it. He is really up to date and he is open. He sees things and hears about new things and is really interested. So that was lucky for us because if there was something new on the market we could say, ‘I thought this could be interesting for us and do you think we should get some?’, and the answer was always, ‘yes, yes, buy it. Buy it!’.

SR: Just like here!

NL: Of course, not so easy elsewhere… But it was very important to experiment with new facilities if we wanted to make new work. So we work with MaxMSP for example, as a voice treatment element tool and then there was a cooperation with the other new music theatre from Stuttgart. They brought in some programmers and programmed us a special layout where we controlled MaxMSP for doing live processing for Three Atmospheric Studies, for example. So there was always collaborations with specialists because I had to do other things, like organise the touring, and couldn’t just be in the studio learning how to programme things. But the process was always team work. Yeah. And I have no copyright or never had to say, ‘Oh I worked so long on this tiny part, please don’t throw it away!’, no he’s the boss and he decides and in the end it’s his ideas, but that was always part of the deal and for me that was ok.

AUDIENCE: In your life now what are you most excited about exploring in terms of new ideas that you have? What’s exciting to you at the moment in terms of sound and also maybe what’s becoming available in terms of the new technology that’s exciting and could break some new boundaries in the way that you broke so many boundaries over the last couple of decades?

NL: It’s not so easy to reply to your question; it’s also depending a lot on my personal story.


NL: I must say at a certain point I stepped back out of it, so, I don’t know. Now from a different perspective to take a look at what we did at that time, that’s interesting and now in the work with you, Sinéad, it’s coming back, but there were some years I did really different things. I stayed with the theatre and I stayed with art but I did other things. For three years I was the technical director of a small theatre so I stepped away because I thought it necessary. So I’m starting now again to do research.

AUDIENCE: I see, that’s exciting.

SR: That’s why we could get him! It’s good timing. Any other last questions?

AUDIENCE: Can I ask about time frame of process? How long are we talking about from the beginning of a conception of idea to the end?

NL: I think if you would ask Bill Forsythe this question he would say, ‘it’s forever’ because everything is a big process and everything is related. His world is really, really big and layered and in terms of specific…

AUDIENCE: Rehearsals, let’s say?

NL: Six weeks. The biggest thing for him was to show his work in New York because he is from New York, he is American and I thought there were the most reactions from the audience in New York because he really spoke…

SR: To them.

NL: To them. The New York jokes, for example. So, in the end, the whole process to create a show in Frankfurt and to bring it out there and then we transformed this show several times, really (it always developed) and then we brought it to London. That was the almost last step or the very last thing would be to bring it to New York. So in the end that was a whole process.

AUDIENCE: And that would be a year, or…?

NL: Six, eight years? And besides, of course, we had different works also. If you see pieces in the premiere and then you see it ten times later it changes so much, and he always worked with different casts. It wasn’t like the leading dance girl is 1m70 in height, no it could be also someone of 1m50 metre, or someone not so thin, for example. Then it’s a different style and it’s maybe a different piece but as long as certain moments are there then it’s fine and then it’s the right thing: it shifts.

SR: Maybe you would say something about what your relationship to those works is now? Do you go back, when the Forsythe works are revived elsewhere and happen in different places? Are you still involved? How much work do you do?

NL: So after my break from the Forsythe-world, I stayed connected to him and now although he is not a director any more, he’s still freelancing around the world. He did a creation two years ago for Opera Paris and I went there and I worked with him as a sound designer to bring that onto the stage so we are still connected. Of course, old pieces from Forsythe are performed worldwide in other big ballet companies and I go there and do the training for the sound people there, on how it should sound, or our idea that we work with the depth of the space. So I’m still related, yes and that’s good. It’s continuing now in May, there’s a new premiere at the English National Ballet, something small that he will create for them, an approximate sonata. In the Fall we are performing a project at Sadler’s Wells, also something new with old members of the Forsythe company, so I’m still connected to him, yes.

SR: Great. Any last comments? Quick questions?

AUDIENCE: A small question?

SR: Yes, go ahead!

AUDIENCE: The example you showed us with this stage in blue? It wasn’t Kammer/Kammer?

NL: Stage in blue was Decreation.

AUDIENCE: Decreation, thank you.

SR: And the films of the works aren’t really available are they, Niels?

NL: Take a look on YouTube, sometimes it’s very funny what you find.

SR: What ordinary people have done?

NL: Yes, ordinary people have filmed. People are so funny; they took the music from a piece of Bill’s and then they performed it (as a young, student project) and filmed it! There is just one film about Bill’s work with these tables that were used in the last clip I showed you, Heterotopia, and they are also involved in that piece, One Flat Thing, Reproduced, that’s amazing. It’s from a famous film director and that was really produced for us but there were a lot of offers from big television companies, where they wanted to really have a good production with twenty cameras, but Bill always said no. He didn’t want it. He sees his work as a live thing and I think he’s right. It’s hard to put this on film.

SR: Yes and I guess also to honour the fact that the work really changes even across the performances. When I met you at the Tate Modern they were doing the pendulum piece in the turbine hall. How many pendulums were there Niels? So many.

NL: Five hundred?

SR: Yes, five hundred pendulums in the turbine hall and they were dancing round them. It was amazing because I saw it both nights and it was very different the second night. Apparently there’d been a discussion from the previous night of certain things that happened and the second might it had really shifted in terms of it’s energy, dynamic, what its focus was. So I can appreciate that there’s something not quite right about trying to capture that on film.

AUDIENCE: Now there is one big pendulum in the Tate?

NL: Yes, that’s nothing-

AUDIENCE: It’s because of them?

NL: No, no. Not related. Not that I know of!

SR: A new idea!

NL: Yes, maybe the artist who did the big pendulum saw all of the other ones!

SR: Great, well I think we should stop there. Thank you very much, Niels, for giving us your time and thank you for coming everyone.