Under elephantine skin

Under elephantine skin

(to be sung against a continuum of ignorance)



A work for countertenor, theorbo, baroque oboe, electronics, and improvising recorder (baroque alto and modern contrabass recorder).


Commissioned by Festival Wienmodern 2015.

A recording is not yet available.

Premiered on November 26th, Berio Saal Wiener Konzerthaus


Jakob Huppmann, counter tenor
David Bergmüller, theorbo
Molly McDolan, baroque oboe
Christina Bauer, live-electronics and sound design
Pia Palme, recorders

TE-R, visuals


About the compositional process of this work

As a composer, I listen to my surroundings, I listen into the world. Listening, I reach inside phenomena. My visual perception lingers at the surface. In my everyday life, in my urban environment, an abundance of shiny surfaces entices me to look, to buy, to consume. Metal, plastic, glass, lights, gadgets, shop windows, cars, screens … surfaces dazzle my eyes and mind.

My ears are alert, keeping vigil.


Foto by Markus Sepperer, general rehearsal of the piece. Visuals by TE-R.

Another perspective: a potato, heart-shaped

I bought a bag of good potatoes from a farmer and stored them in my basement. In a cool place, a potato is alive. A singular potato was left to itself at the end. I noticed the heart-shape right away, decided not to to eat it and put it back down into the bag. I forgot about it.

Weeks later, I rediscovered the potato. It was alive and had changed.


The natural process of decomposition appears to be efficient and elegant at the same time. Generosity manifests in how this potato, this lovely underground lump of a plant dries away, giving itself away to future generations. The surface shrinks, the skin decorates itself with wrinkles, crevasses, cracks, and crannies. Beautiful: like elephant skin.

To punctuate the facade of superficiality

For this composition, I looked more closely into my relationship with pop culture, from my perspective as a feminist composer and experimentalist. This was because of the festival’s theme Pop.Song.Voice. In much of today’s mainstream pop culture, I notice a high affinity towards the visual. Pop music seems to be ruled by the visual dimension and subject to the strict aesthetic rules of the genre.

I find myself bored by the visual perfection of a striking dream land. In many pop productions, the singer’s voices are technically manipulated to perfectly fit the given code and style. 
No faults are allowed, shortcomings are to be erased. Total control rules in the lustre of commercial pop; for my taste, much of it is too boring and too predictable.

Pop culture seems to thrive on magic. In my work as a composer, I want to punctuate magic, to crack the veneer, rather than sustain the glossy fabric of illusion and dreams. For the composition, I reflected on these questions:

What is hidden underneath the facade of pop culture?
From the crannies of the brilliant surface, what comes forth?
What is concealed by perfectly trimmed voices?
What is commercial pop afraid of, which themes are not addressed?

Decomposing, a wrinkled potato generates future

As I compose, I generate future. This is what I argued in my lecture at the Wien Modern symposium about my work, drawing on the brilliant essay of Byung-Chul Han ‘Im Schwarm. Ansichten des Digitalen.’


Over the course of weeks, I watched how the potato permanently changed. The slow manifestations of decay demonstrate the future arising – from a microbiological perspective. My compositional process appears to evolve in a similar way.

I keep an old silver casket which belonged to my grandmother. The inside of the metal box is lined with gold paint. I carefully placed the potato with its plant appendices inside. A baroque treasure.

Later, I placed the potato into a large pot with earth, and left it for a while. Summer changed into fall. The potato grew and expanded.


Jakob Huppmann and David Bergmüller during preparations for concert (photo P.Palme)


I mainly argued against commercially oriented pop here. However, I notice that I would raise similar critique towards the classical music industry as well, actually against any commercialised music genre, including the business of new music. The question probably is how to balance economic issues against artistic considerations. I find it important that the music business allows for openness and invites risks, uncertainty, and experiments in composition and performance.

In this composition and text, I wanted to focus on fragility and transience. I decided to work with historic instruments; the sound of a theorbo seems to convey joyfulness and timbral richness. A countertenor. A baroque oboe, to support and augment the voice, also to perform very long sustained tones, plus some electronics, and recorders.


Lyrics excerpt

The lyrics of the work came to my mind right after handling the plant object. I took pictures and filmed the potato. Here is a short cutout of the text.


No shiny surface
non-existent over death
therefore I am
Lockung ins Nichts.

I am so empty
I am


Underneath consumption all is emptiness
death covers non-existent surface

to look at.

Repeat, over and over: pop out pop up pop skin pop surface pop folds

Elephantine skin
surface planet
rough cracks

smell of dirt
earth shelters a life
and rotting.

Within folded skin
this heart of gold shimmers

tentacles pop out of shrivelled existence
touch world.

Between fingertips
dirt crumbles to dust

as I will rot to give way
to what will come
to what will grow

the folds and fissures of decomposed old self.

Void is earthy darkness
is humidity
is fullness teeming with small-scale life

microbiology does the trick

my body breaks apart into a canopy of darkness.

Tender fingers come to life

in slowest motion
swell with splendour nourished from my sap
take my generosity
take the milk of this body
do not hesitate to drink

this opulent voice
until it is consumed and silent forever.



I dug out the potato. It has swollen and grown, it has become heavier and bigger than before. The small balls adhering to its roots have grown, too. The entire arrangement manifests generosity.

The skin is not elephantine any more. It is moist and strong, the folds are smoothed out. One edge of the heart has turned mushy and is being eaten away by an earthworm.