TQW Magazin
Chris Standfest on Talk to me of Mendocino by Philipp Gehmacher & Marino Formenti

In the wonderland of Thomas Mann and Roland Barthes


In the wonderland of Thomas Mann and Roland Barthes

Talk to me of Mendocino[1] – From the fullness of harmony to the grain of the voice. In the wonderland of Thomas Mann and Roland Barthes – Philipp Gehmacher and Marino Formenti perform together at Kunsthalle Wien.

The final performance in the scope of TQW’s reopening is advertised as a “performative concert”. It takes place in close vicinity at Kunsthalle Wien. One can hardly cross genre limits any more than that, one might think, and perhaps anxiously ask whether such a “performative concert” might not turn out to be over-elaborate and exhausting. Let me tell you right away: I had quite a contrary experience!

Entering the Kunsthalle, which rests in semi-darkness, we walk until we find purple carpeting in a corner that is more than remotely reminiscent of a garage; on it a Bösendorfer grand piano, a microphone and the protagonists of the evening: pianist, conductor and performer Marino Formenti and dancer and choreographer Philipp Gehmacher. They shine discreetly in the shimmer of small islands of light. The audience sit down on the floor or on benches along the walls; some lie down, others remain standing. Everything is ready, and when all 120 visitors have quietened down, a charming, or rather, a mischievously complicit smile flits across Formenti’s face. He turns to the piano and the play(ing) starts.

Wild, white horses

They will take me away

And the tenderness I feel

Will send the dark underneath

Will I follow?[2]

Gehmacher approaches the mic and – As she walks in the room / Scented and tall – is he singing? As I ponder this question, the most accurate, most touching and most precise association comes to mind in the form of Roland Barthes, the great linguist, mythologist, critic of ideology, and, of course, great lover: What sings to me, I who hear the song in my body?[3]

I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose

Fire away, fire away

Ricochet, you take your aim

Fire away, fire away

You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium…[4]

“Which body is it that sings the song?”, Barthes asks, even though his context is that of the romanticist lied, and he replies (for me as well): “All that resonates in me, scares me or arouses my desire. No matter where this hurt or this lust comes from.”

And then I see a darkness

And then I see a darkness

And then I see a darkness[5]

Thomas Mann titled one of the most famous chapters he ever wrote “Fullness of Harmony”. On his own one evening, Hans Castorp, the lively sufferer from the novel “The Magic Mountain”, puts on records from the sanatorium’s best-of selection. It’s 1912 or 1913, and the gramophone is still a fairly recent invention. Voice and body have only just separated from each other, as have sound and instrument. An utterly shocking concept, generating fearful lust which then goes on to fuel the battlefields of the Great War and reverberates today in an enthusiasm for vocoders (I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose / Fire away, fire away…) – or when Gehmacher tries, almost in vain, to sing the song of Daft Punk’s machines…

And we will never be

alone again

’Cause it doesn’t happen


Kinda counted on you

being a friend

Kinda given up on giving away

Now I thought about

what I wanna say

But I never really know

where to go

So I chained myself to a friend

’Cause there’s nowhere else

I could go[6]

I feel like Hans Castorp, listening with abandon, oscillating between Gehmacher’s selection of 7 songs taken from his own life, which condense as if into a romanticist cycle (musicians may forgive me) and Formenti’s gently melting and at other times dynamising sounds that luxuriate in an abundance of harmonies and are on no account pre-arranged. Because, again: “For the lover as for the child the romanticist song always sings the agitation of the lost, abandoned subject.” (Barthes)

I no longer can rely

On a friend who once kept

me alive

And you won’t see me

take a stand

’Cause I’m not special but it

helped to know that someone

thinks I am

And, God, it’s weird[7]

So Gehmacher sings. At times quite simply off-key or with an almost failing voice, while the grand piano roars and the two men engage in a musical-physical and, yes, erotic dialogue that may break down, turn sour or narcissistically peter out at any moment. However, much more important than failure in these senses, lurking constantly at the two performers’ backs, is the ordinary ALWAYS HAVING FAILED that manifests itself whirringly and generously and sparklingly and at the precise moment when the body (the lust) enters the voice. It is Barthes’ “grain” of the voice that makes itself heard here, in this singing that is both supported and attacked by the harmonious piano. “He who expresses himself through it would make for a strange, anachronistic, deviant, crazy subject if he did not reject the glorious mask of madness with a graceful gesture.” (Barthes)

And as your last breath begins

You find your demon’s your

best friend

And we all get it in

The end[8]

It may well be that the dancer protects the singer in this setting, the pianist the performer; nevertheless: Formenti/Gehmacher dare to make this graceful gesture.

They listened, their lips parted

in smiles.


They called for more,

and it was forthcoming.

(Thomas Mann)


Ja, Pop![9]


Chris Standfest is a (former) performer, dramaturge and curator. She studied literary, gender and cultural studies at Freie Universität Berlin and University of Lancashire (GB). Furthermore, she was involved in political activism and collective working practices in several artistic and social fields. She is dramaturge and curator at ImPulsTanz – Vienna International Dance Festival.



More texts in TQW MAGAZIN



[1] Anna & Kate McGarrigle, “(Talk To Me Of) Mendocino”.

[2] Some may hear them: Portishead, “The Rip”.

[3] Roland Barthes, Was singt mir, der ich höre in meinem Körper das Lied (What sings in me, I who listen to the song in my body), Berlin, 1979.

[4] David Guetta feat. Sia “Titanium”.

[5] Johnny Cash, “Darkness”.

[6] Daft Punk, “Instant Crush”.

[7] Scott Matthew, “Abandoned”.

[8] Scott Matthew, “In The End”.

[9] Because, in the end, it isn’t just Hans Castorp who is listening. All the bodies that have ever danced to Portishead or Daft Punk or Guetta, cried to Cash or Matthew, or sung with the McGarrigles are listening as well