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A Cabaret Voltaire Memoir


									A Cabaret Voltaire Memoir Zurich, Switzerland February 5th 1916

I sit on my bed and carefully pull a stocking over each knee. I attach the tops to the clips from my garter-belt and throw over my evening dress. It is black. I like it very much. I wrap a scarf around my neck, its chilly outside. I glance at my reflection in the mirror and dab some rouge on my lips. 18:03 The time I left my place. My feet stride over the cobbled pathway, each stone positioned to reflect a perfect structure. But I can see flaws and cracks in the precision. I can see pain and suffering and torment and death. Structure. Such a thing I have been trying to avoid in these times. Structure doesn‟t give us peace and security. Structure is a murderous ideal with twisted intentions, moulding our destinies to its binding ways, sending fighters to rip-out impossible and endless roots. My feet hit the ground hard, sometimes I trip on the cobbled stones, but tonight my feet are determined and won‟t let the cunning floor take me. I sense a tingling in my body similar to the pleasure I get when my mouth wets from the smell cinnamon. Ah, excitement. I met an interesting fellow at my local café last week. The Café de la Terrasse. Quite a handsome man too. Said he goes by many names (quite a bizarre story actually. Not too sure why he told me such a personal trait, perhaps because we both come from Germany and he feels a sense of trust) but the one he told me was Hugo, or more formally Mr. Ball. He‟s a writer and seems to have many interesting ideas. He came to Zurich to avoid the structure (as I put it) just like so many individuals I‟ve come across lately, including myself. Zurich is the cool ice in a glass of lemonade after a hot day. It is our refuge from the noisy and senseless war. Hugo said we‟re in a birdcage surrounded by roaring lions. I liked his use of words so I agreed to attend the opening night of his club downtown, The Cabaret Voltaire. I am on my way. I make a turn and enter a lane. The Spiegelgasse. I‟m looking for number 1. I can already hear music. There it is. What a nice spot. So close to the Limmat River. I love walking along the quay to clear my head from its busy thoughts. 1

The place is full of people with an abundance of wine and beer and spirits and music. Cigarettes hang from all kinds of mouths; sagging, bearded, rosy, laughing. Smoke swirls around the room, framing the faces of its alluring creators. The music is quite peculiar. Very raw-sounding, a heavy drum beat with flowing overtones of intense rhythm. A robust man enters the cabaret bouncing with enthusiasm. “Stronger music!” He calls out to anyone who can hear. “Stronger rhythm! I want to drum literature into the ground!” What could he mean? He sounds like he wants to teach literature a lesson. Or perhaps in the ground is where our roots are found, so in doing thus with the music we return to such a place. Interesting choice of words. I like ambiguity. The music evolves into a dense pounding. My chest dances with the vibration entering it. “What peculiar music!” I say to a gentleman standing near me, nursing a glass of red. “Oh you like it?” He beamed at me. I realise he has a young face and must be about my age, early twenties. “Yes, quite. Something very alternative though… something I‟m not very used to at all. But of course, something I could get used to!” “Well yes. We‟re heavily inspired by the Negro music and drumming here. Just like the lively gentleman who just entered, Mr. Richard Huelsenbeck. Good man, he brought a lot of his ideas on primitivism with him from Berlin. Fascinating people, the Africans. I‟m working on a few masks at the moment; I‟m intending to explore a primitivism that also can be found in the essence of this music. I‟d like to have them displayed here at some point. I also explore with charcoal, I love the tribal style.” “Well I‟d love to see some of your work.” “Of course! See the Archangels hanging over there? That is my work”. “Oh how wonderful! Sorry I haven‟t even introduced myself, my name is Amalia Abendroth.” I gesture to shake his hand. “The pleasure‟s mine” he grins and takes my small hand in a tight grasp. “I‟m Marcel Janco. Did you hear of the Cabaret from the Poster or the Press Notice?” “Neither actually. I met Mr. Ball at The Café de la Terrasse last week, he invited me. He told me how the cabaret was started. Very interesting. Approaching the owner and expressing how artistic entertainments was needed in Zurich for the intellectuals and she let him have it!” “How right he was though! Don‟t you agree?” 2

“Oh yes, its wonderful here. He also mentioned how he‟s actually seen the war. In Belgium 1914, he went on a private visit- can you believe that! How bold of him. He told me how it disgusted him. He said it greatly affected his art and writing. He mentioned his involvement in the anti-war protest in Berlin and how he finally fled Germany to escape the folly of war altogether. But we can‟t really escape it can we? I guess all we can do is try…” “Yes indeed my dear. That‟s what we‟re all about here at the Cabaret Voltaire!” “…Is he here, Mr. Ball?” “Of course, of course! He is about to perform with Emmy. Oh no, Tristan Tzara is on first. They must be next.” “Who is she?” “Emmy Hennings? Well many things my dear! An artist for one, but also the friend and lover of your new acquaintance”. “Ah I see.” I sense a smidgeon of envy in me. I ignore it. Janco hands me a glass of red wine filled to the brim. It smells bittersweet and I drink it in one gulp. He smiles approvingly and pours me another. The room sways with colour like a Monet painting dipped in water. Spots of luminosity frolic about the place and teeth and gums fleet in a whirl. I smell wine and beer on the breaths of the charming hyenas around me and take comfort in the heat protruding from their husky throats. A young fellow, must be my age, enters the arena of light and focus. He steps up on the little stage and looks solemnly at the crowd, commanding attention with pensive eyes. He is very attractive and clever at revealing his vulnerability. “I will be reading exerts from La Cote by Max Jacob”. He adjusts his pince-nez without any hesitation and commences. He reads beautifully. I can tell he‟s practiced this many times in front of the mirror, like a schoolboy before a class presentation. His audience is as silent as falling snowflakes and his mouth curls around each word with such grace. “Adieu ma mere, adieu mon pere” he completes his reading. Still silence. Then great applause. The crowd loves him. I think I too love this young poet. Hugo and Emmy take the stage. “We will be performing for you Das Leben des Menschen, a play by Andreev.” Ball announces to the spectators. “Enjoy.” Everyone claps to welcome them and they take a bow to commence. There is a piercing scream that suggests childbirth and they begin to 3

move about the stage. It is dark and brooding. Their movements are surreal and they frighten me ever so slightly. I find this quite traumatic. The Man they are representing seems to have a very distressing life. There are many characters in the play but Hugo and Emmy only personify two. Life-like marionettes play the others. They haunt me. Their limbs dangle about the place and their woodenheads droop with broken necks. Their faces are menacing with gleaming eyes painted on, staring at me with wicked grins. In his life the Man seems to achieve nothing. Although surrounded by wealth and glory, all that appears to muster from the murmurs around him is that he is “Mr. Man” and only that. The play ends in a wild dance, tribalistic and untamed. Grey shadows loom and masks hide their faces. The play is truly a piece of horror. There is an intense silence. The crowd is clearly as disturbed as I am. A slow clap begins and then a louder applause grows as we begin to value the interesting and somewhat intimate piece of drama that was fed to us. I walk around the space absorbing my surroundings further. The room is dark and somewhat sultry. Strange posters hang on the wall. The colours are contrasting and the layouts are precise. Sharp and intense. They capture me. Engulf my senses. They remind me of Picasso‟s work with his geometry and hues, but there‟s something else… mechanical. “They‟re great aren‟t they?” An attractive woman takes my attention. A cigarette hangs from her lush lips and she twirls strands of her curly hair through her fingers. Her outfit reminds me of the vaudeville dancers back in Germany. “I‟m Sophie. Sophie Taeuber.” “Amalia Abendroth, pleasure.” It‟s a new style, Futurism. What do you think?” “They‟re interesting…” “Yes indeed. Hugo insisted on putting them up. He‟s loved Futurist paintings for years, ever since he met Kandinsky and went to that exhibition in Dresden in 1913. He sees the paintings as a true representation of the modern mechanical world. He now feels like he needs to change this, change the materialism. He thinks it is the destruction of Europe, the war, the machine. “Yes, I agree! I often call this thing structure. How similar we are…” “Yes, us here at the cabaret are on your side, Amalia. These posters reflect the ideals burning is us.” She takes a moment of reflection. “Have you heard of Marinetti?” “No, who is he?” 4

“He‟s the founder of Futurism, one of its main leaders. He has been corresponding with Ball for some time now. They‟re both fascinated with fantasy in language. Similar to the play he just put on, Marinetti gave him great inspiration. There‟s this piece the Italian wrote called Parole in Liberta, it means free verse. He gave Ball a copy. He‟s been writing heaps of poetry nowadays. He calls his style Verse ohne Worte, verse without words. The similarity is obvious, but Ball‟s is nothing like Marinetti‟s Manifesto. I think his style is more indirect. He frees his words from sound and meaning, liberating it from the language from instrumentalism and of the national tongue, from the myth of organic essentialism. He said „the word‟ has become a commodity and has lost all dignity. He said the Cabaret is a place where we will not only enjoy our independence but give proof of it too! It‟s so very exciting, you see. I feel like we have a chance now, a chance of sanity against the war.” “This sounds like a utopia… Will he be reading some poetry tonight?” “He hasn‟t finished any yet but he plans to read some on another night, you must come. You should see some of the outfits he‟s coming up with!” She giggles. “I will also be dancing some other nights too. It will be great fun!” “Thank you, I would like that very much!” Sophie flashes a broad smile. “My boyfriend is on stage next, Hans Arp. I think you will like what he has to say. She smiles again and leaves me, weaving her way through the cloud of smoke and disappears. Arp appears under the beam of light on stage and stares at the occupants of the Cabaret. They turn to him and immediately become his audience. There is intensity behind his handsome face and he begins by sharing his dislike towards certain artists‟ styles. I find this quite uncouth but I listen on. He‟s against the Expressionists‟ use of richness on canvas and articulates how he wants to see more order and geometry in art and less colour, sentiment and analysis. How fascinating. He asks for more simplification and speaks in high favour of mechanical exactness with a love for the circle and the cube. So similar to the posters and what Sophie spoke about. He is very passionate about this subject. He seems to want to return to the roots of things, the primitiveness of art… “The artists who works from his freewheeling imagination is deluding himself about originality. He is using a material that is already formed and so is undertaking only


to elaborate on it.” He tells us. “We need to purify our imagination and concentrate on opening up not so much its store of images but what those images are made of.” It suddenly struck me how I‟m not too sure what is going on in this little Cabaret. I feel very puzzled at this whole ordeal, the plays, the readings, the artwork… is this really making much of a point? Everything proves so abstract. “This is a playground for crazy emotions.” A voice whispers in my ear. I turn to see Hugo Ball. I feel a grin on my face. “Good to see you came!” He smiled, kissing me on the cheek. “Of course, it sounded so interesting, how could I refuse?” “Good, good!” He chuckled. “Are you enjoying yourself?” “Yes, I am! Although, I‟m a little confused. What is the meaning behind all of this art and show?” “It is our assault on logic. It is random. It is nothing.” He laughs. I‟m still puzzled. “How irritating!” I laugh too. “No, but it is our aim. The war has caused us all so much pain, we want to provoke, perturb, bewilder, tease, tickle to death, confuse… so we joke and cry. I guess for us its a way of coping and a way to expressing our feelings against it all. We‟re trying to create a community within this city of exile and I think the success of tonight has confirmed my hopes. I sense this will be a memorable eve. “And what about what Arp was saying about imagination, I don‟t fully understand.” “Let me try to explain this to you. As artists our secrets usually lie in fear and awe, but our times have turned them into terror and dismay. We live rashly and easily lose control over our impressions, becoming prey to unconscious emotions and motives. Creating art does us well, provided we do not pursue any purpose in our subjects. We must follow a course of free and unfettered imagination. This is because we are conditioned in society, controlled with structure and rules.” “Yes I understand.” “To reject this structure we must create living art that is irrational, primitive and complex; it will speak a secret language and leave behind documents not of edification but of paradox.”



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