Introducing: Natacha Diels

by Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen

A giant butterfly is slowly rising between the seven mountains of Bergen, Norway. Lit by huge floodlights below and the starry night sky above, three green construction cranes are coming to the end of their debut ballet performance. Carefully, consciously, they lift the enormous colourful butterfly higher and higher, while slow, dark, crackling electronic music by Natacha Diels gradually transforms, builds and reveals the manipulated voice of Toni Braxton singing Unbreak My Heart.

Commissioned by Borealis – a festival for experimental music that takes place in early March – and premiered as the final event of this year’s festival, Papillon and the Dancing Cranes was Natacha Diels’s biggest artistic project to date. In a large square in the centre of Bergen, these three cranes danced a meticulously synchronised dance, accompanied by a mix of recorded and live music performed by eight musicians from Diels’s own Ensemble Pamplemousse, and from the Norwegian percussion trio Pinquins (of which I myself am a member).

”The Borealis project was a dream project of mine,” Diels tells me. “A project I had been thinking about since 2005.” We meet again in Darmstadt, the biannual festival for new music in southwest Germany, where she is again part of a major project commissioned by the festival. This time it’s a collaboration with the Belgian ensemble Nadar and three other composer. “This is the year for huge projects, I guess! And it’s really fun and I really like it. I really like working on big scales, it’s totally terrifying and difficult in weird ways.”

As a part of a larger series called OurEars, presented across two days, Diels has created a piece called ”I love myself fully and unconditionally”. Or maybe I should say it’s not so much a piece as a personal experience – an individual journey specially crafted to make us all feel a little bit better about ourselves and the world. ”The original idea was to make a sort of feel-good haunted house,” she explains. “You know… when you go through a haunted house and there are all these things coming out and scaring you. I had this idea that it would be a place that you move through, and instead of things coming out and scaring you, they would somehow make you feel really good about yourself.”

When I enter Diels’s haunted house, a guide is waiting for me. The piece is a one-on-one experience, and I’m led through the house with my guide talking to me, telling me things, giving me her full attention and care. It is an intense tour. The words spoken by my guide while we walk through the different rooms go straight to my heart. At one point we enter a sort of basement dance club. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling, scattering sparkles across the walls. From the speakers, a dark, male voice sings a slow and incredibly sad song. ”Sometimes life can be like a lonely dance,” says my guide, looking me in the eyes, and I can feel my throat getting tighter, my eyes filling up to the brim. Leaving the room, she offers me her arm, and we dance together along the hallway.

”It’s all about creating an intimate experience with a stranger,” Diels tells me afterwards. “And also this one-on-one experience is a product of what I see happening in the United States where people don’t really talk to one another. Like, when do you ever talk to a stranger one-on-one? Or not even talk, but just have an experience of ‘we are both humans and we are really similar in a lot of ways, let’s have a mini-relationship right now’.”

Diels was born in California and grew up in New Mexico. She lived in New York from the age of 17, but moved to San Diego a couple of years ago to take up a post of Assistant Professor in composition and computer music at the University of California, San Diego. It was in New York that she met the other members of Ensemble Pamplemousse, among them the composer/performer Jessie Marino – whose piece Nice Guys Win Twice was also premiered at this year’s Darmstadt.

”I started composing really late,” says Diels. “I was a performer, and didn’t start writing music until 2005. Then I was just writing pieces that people weren’t writing for me. I had this idea of something I wanted to play, and I couldn’t convince people to do it for me, so I did it myself.” She is a fluteist – and she still plays the flute in projects with Pamplemousse. ”My pieces have changed a lot since then. At first I was just writing pieces for instruments and electronics, but in the last seven or eight years I started using a lot of video and visuals. And a lot of that has to do with the duo I have with Jessie Marino, because we also do a lot of performance-art and theatre-inspired things.”

”It’s a language I’m very interested in – to kind of join things that we do with our bodies as musicians, because we have a particularly awkward grace when we perform with our instruments that I think is really interesting. We don’t move our bodies the way a dancer would, even if we receive dance instructions. I really like this awkwardness, and for me it was part of the idea of the uncanny valley, this kind of creepiness. Most of my pieces between 2012 and 2015 were about that theme. Just sort of calling out the uncomfortable awkwardness or creepiness that we feel.” Having European parents but growing up in the United States, Diels often feels a bit out of place. ”I don’t understand a lot of American pop references, but I also don’t understand any European pop references. I always feel a bit awkward, and sometimes also a little creepy!”

Her work is often some sort of reaction to what is going on in the world around her, especially in the United States. ”In the last couple of years I have been looking at cult rituals and self-help terminology and things like that, which I think is definitely a product of what is going on in the States politically right now. I feel like I’m always doing the only thing I can do when I make a piece, but it’s maybe coming out of a sort of desperation of how terrible everything is. Right now I just want to make something beautiful, or something that makes people have a positive experience in some way. That is really all we can do right now, except trying to make ourselves better, and in that way trying to make the world better. Because if there are a lot of people making themselves better, then they are more able to make the world better.”

The beauty in Diels’s projects also stems from how they touch the community in unusual ways. Asking three Norwegian crane drivers to do choreography to a click track as part of a huge art piece ending with an enormous butterfly made by hundreds of school children? It’s not an everyday task for the average crane driver. From being part of that project myself, I can report that the crane drivers really appreciated being invited into what for them was an entirely new world of experimental music.

”I really love construction cranes,” says Diels. “I think they are really beautiful, and when you travel around the world you see them in all the cities that are having progress. So it’s a sign of progress, but then it’s also pretty complicated because, you know, when you have progress you’re also having environmental pollution, and there is usually somebody getting kicked out of that neighbourhood, so it’s these really complicated structures that I think are really interesting.”

To me, Diels’s work is simultaneously beautiful, emotional and strong. The experience of being guided through her Feelgood Haunted House will stay with me for a long time: the generosity, the love and care put into it. As a reaction to a society in which such basic humanity can be lacking, Diels is leading by example towards a more compassionate way of treating each other.

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