“Look at the metronomes! A hundred of them!”
Daniel Libeskind, AIA, was standing in the basement of the Römer, the historic city hall of Frankfurt, Germany. Since the early 15th century, the building has been the seat of emperors, a meeting place for prosperous burghers and august dignitaries from around the world—and the business of feeding them, always a necessary practice of realpolitik, was carried out in the cellar, where a massive industrial kitchen now stands idle pending a prospective renovation.
On a weekend in mid-May, Libeskind had filled the half-empty space with ticking-tocking boxes, all set at different times and speeds, for a performance of Hungarian György Ligeti’s rarely heard Poetic Symphony for 100 Metronomes. The event was part of “One Day In Life,” a 24-hour concert series curated by Libeskind and organized under the auspices of the Alte Oper, the musical company that occupies the renovated 19th-century opera house in the center of Frankfurt.
Looking to reach a broader audience, the company charged Libeskind with finding 18 prospective venues all over the city (the unlikelier the better) to stage a wide assortment of his musical selections—classical, baroque, modern composed music—with tickets available to the public depending on how many attendees each venue could accommodate. Some pieces had an audience of 20; some had of upwards of 100; none were at anything less than near-total capacity. The citizens of Frankfurt (“Bankfurt,” as it’s sometimes called) were evidently eager to have a little offbeat culture in their notoriously on-beat town.
Libeskind as Musical Prodigy
As a drum major for this unusual procession, Libeskind was a perfect choice. He’s known as the fragment-obsessed, symbolically inclined designer of the World Trade Center master plan, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and dozens of other projects—a “starchitect” with honest claim to the title, being an alumnus of the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at MoMA that first brought him, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, to international attention in 1988. But there is another side to the architect, one not quite so well known outside professional circles: Daniel Libeskind, accordion prodigy.
Born in Poland in 1946, Libeskind was a gifted instrumentalist long before he was a designer, and he emigrated first to Israel and then the U.S. on the strength of his musical talent. Even after he put down the squeezebox and picked up the T square, he continued his preoccupation with music, maintaining an extensive record collection that veers from the impassioned piano sonatas of Beethoven to the complex tonalities of avant-gardists like Harry Partch and Elliot Carter. His taste is one of the few things he does not entirely share with his business partner and wife of nearly 50 years, Nina Libeskind. “Sometimes when he plays music,” she told me, “I say ‘Okay, I am leaving the room.’ ”
Mrs. Libeskind was with her husband on the tour, as were the couple’s artist daughter Rachel, their older son Noam, and Noam’s wife and son. There was also a small detachment of personal friends, Alte Oper representatives, and a few members of the U.S. press, all navigating the town with surprising ease in a fleet of well-appointed vans, arriving at the disparate locations just in time for each performance. Greeting the motorcade at each stop, hordes of Germans crowded in for a closer look at the architect-Konzertmeister. Libeskind received them all warmly (though he doesn’t speak German), and his enthusiasm for the enterprise seemed only to grow with every 45-minute presentation.
First there were the flutists in the subway. Sitting on an old-fashioned railroad handcar on an unused track, the musicians were pushed along by assistants, as the eerie strains of classic and baroque pieces wafted through the cavernous tunnel. Commuters and maintenance workers at a station stopped to stare.
“Only in Frankfurt!” gushed Libeskind.
A Little Urban Shock Treatment
That piece was only a preview-teaser; things began in earnest the next day at 10 a.m., when the Libeskind posse arrived at a firefighter training center—a vast mock-up of a city street, in which the concert organizers had installed a piano, two string players, and a series of speakers for a mixed program that included Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Songs of Youth in the Fiery Furnace.” The thematic connection, given the location, was clear; even more exciting for Libeskind was the technical accomplishment, involving the coordination of those strategically placed amplifiers. “That’s the first time it’s ever been played in four channels!” he said.
In the 800-year-old Hospital of the Holy Ghost, reconstructed after WWII, concertgoers packed into an operating room to hear an unusual piece of program music by 18th-century composer Marin Marais: a viola de gambol and a theorbo sonically “enacting” a gall bladder removal while a speaker, reading in the original français, explained each step of the procedure. (“Only in French!”) This was complemented by improvised Indian ragas performed by a sitarist perched cross-legged and barefoot on the operating table under the harsh glare of a huge surgical lamp. (“The light of the hospital!”)
Then there was the performance at the Commerzbank Arena, the city’s main soccer stadium, where a solo violinist paced across the field—a tiny spec in the huge void—playing snippets of Bartók, Bach, and others. There was the Hochbunker, a former military installation on the site of a destroyed synagogue, where the brutal screams and crashes of Luigi Nono’s “Remember What They Did To You in Auschwitz” reverberated through the building’s concrete maze. And there was the Boxcamp Gallus, where virtuoso pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was placed at the center of a boxing ring and proceeded to engage in an amazingly athletic tussle with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31. “Did you see him?” said Libeskind afterwards, rushing up to congratulate the performer. “He was drenched in sweat!”
Seeing the city through the lens of Libeskind’s adventurous musical mind was to see it animated and estranged, not a bad thing for a place one had believed (not without reason) to be a little stumpf—flat and lusterless. That, evidently, was what Libeskind was after—a little urban shock treatment, just to see how Frankfurt would react. He was not displeased with the results. At the Alte Oper itself, after a particularly clangorous rendition of a Helmut Lachenmann piece that featured scraping strings and a squawking vocalist, the audience’s response had Libeskind in raptures.
“There was a boo!” he said. “A 30-year-old piece and it’s still that controversial!” The composer, he said, would have been thrilled.