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He Came to Berlin to Modify the Entire world. Then the World Altered Berlin.


BERLIN — Not lengthy in the past, Sir Henry stood on the major stage of the Volksbühne theater in what was the moment East Berlin and conducted the cosmos.

In “Quarantine, For Solo Human,” Sir Henry, whose provided title is John Henry Nijenhuis, did so as element of an interactive musical set up that despatched a world spiraling by way of a personal computer-animated universe using movement-sensor technologies.

As he gracefully waved his arms, a fragile celestial choreography emerged. Earth hurtled via a galaxy that expanded and shrank at his command. His gestures also managed the cosmic soundscape, altering the pitch and quantity of a “space choir” that harmonized to a Bach prelude actively playing from a MIDI sequencer.

“Quarantine,” which streamed on the Volksbühne’s site in the course of the pandemic-connected summer season lockdown, was the musician’s very first solo perform on the most important stage of the theater in which he has labored as tunes director for almost a quarter century.

“The to start with six months of Covid had been a blessing simply because I could just hole up in my condominium and conceive,” the 56-year-aged Canadian explained. His interactive installations fuse his enthusiasm for tunes with his fascination in pc programming, a lifelong pursuit considering the fact that his studies in the 1980s at The University of King’s Faculty in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

On a stormy spring evening, I fulfilled Mr. Nijenhuis at the back again entrance of the shuttered Volksbühne. Putting on an tasteful brown herringbone overcoat, he ushered me via a labyrinth of backstage stairways to the theater’s Purple Salon, a nightclub-like venue that has been off boundaries because the pandemic began.

Balancing himself precariously on a stool, he loaded two glasses with water from the sink of the long-disused bar. He wore a black costume shirt unbuttoned at the leading his shoulder-length grey hair was pulled tightly back in a substantial ponytail.

Observing him so cozy and at property in the empty theater should really barely have arrive as a surprise. Several individuals at the Volksbühne have been in this article more time than he has.

For at minimum a 10 years right after the Chilly War finished, the Volksbühne was arguably the most radical and artistically daring theater in Europe. As audio director, composer and occasional actor at the playhouse considering that 1997, Mr. Nijenhuis has contributed to Berlin’s artistic flowering although dwelling by dynamic modifications that have redefined the metropolis — and not for the greater, in his viewpoint.

He savors his memories of post-Cold War Berlin, a wild, bohemian outpost of inventive experimentation spiced with a lively clash involving East and West.

Mr. Nijenhuis unabashedly embraced the East German revolutionary spirit at the theater. “We experienced a work to demonstrate socialism to the encroaching West in Berlin,” he stated.

“At the Volksbühne, you could often smell if the director wanted to change the planet,” he included. “And if they didn’t want to transform the earth, you’d say to oneself, ‘you could as properly be in the West Stop.’”

The theater “was a bulwark towards unthinking, invasive varieties of capitalism,” he explained.

To his regret, that environment evaporated in excess of the several years. “Nowadays, the standing of Berlin is as a celebration put,” he explained.

Nonetheless, couple of, if any, other North People have so decisively remaining their mark on Berlin’s cultural scene in the heady many years that adopted reunification. Mr. Nijenhuis has labored on additional than 50 productions in his virtually 25 yrs at the Volksbühne.

“John is a mastermind of music,” stated the director David Marton, who has labored with Mr. Nijenhuis due to the fact an acclaimed chamber model of “Wozzeck” in 2007. In an email, he proposed that Mr. Nijenhuis is “perhaps not identified sufficient mainly because he works primarily in the theater and ‘theater music’ doesn’t get considerably credit score.”

Mr. Nijenhuis was born in 1964 in Newmarket, Ontario, to Dutch moms and dads and grew up in Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the place his father worked for British Airways. After college, he put in a decade in Toronto, creating a model of piano he described as “two-handed mash-ups of, for instance, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with ‘Putting on the Ritz,’ or Ravel’s “Boléro” with ‘Take Five.’”

But expert prospects for musicians in Toronto ended up restricted.

In 1996, he was invited to complete at an arts pageant in Berlin. The location in Prenzlauer Berg, in the previous East, did not have a piano, so he experienced to make do with a living space organ. The curious working experience gave increase to his nickname, which is a tongue-in-cheek homage to a ’60s lounge organist, Sir Julian.

Whilst his competition overall look did not go to approach, Mr. Nijenhuis quickly started functioning at the close by Prater, a smaller sized location run by the Volksbühne. His all-all-around musical profile, his information of Kurt Weill and Prokofiev, but also Fats Waller and pop and rock, produced him sought-following in the culturally omnivorous and experimental milieu of ’90s Berlin.

“You could just about stroll out the door and discover you at a occurring,” he claimed of the minute. “There were many of people ruined residences, bomb-wrecked properties that had been housing experimental songs goings-on.”

That summertime he traded the skyscrapers of Toronto for the coal-heated tenements of Prenzlauer Berg. If Berlin available him a new dwelling, the Volksbühne grew to become his new resourceful relatives.

Back then, the theater was firmly below the way of Frank Castorf, a provocateur who served as creative director from 1992 until 2017. Mr. Castorf had a fondness for producing mincemeat out of the classics in prolonged, demanding evenings that were made to shock theatergoers out of complacency.

But as the city steadily evolved into the national capital and headquarters to several of Germany’s most important companies, the milieu inevitably shifted.

By the early 2000s, the Volksbühne was struggling with its ideological emphasis, and as its productions grew to become increasingly self-referential its audience started to drift away. And whilst the actors and directors ended up hurling Marxist provocations into the audience, the metropolis was speedily succumbing to the capitalist forces their theater was intended to protect against.

“I was ensconced in a wonderful relatives,” Mr. Nijenhuis explained. “We have been all on the exact website page. I experienced a task to do, there were fiercely inventive folks and I misplaced keep track of a very little little bit of what was exterior this creating.”

He additional: “It was very straightforward to slide into a peaceful slumber and wake up when the city was absent.”

When Berlin continues to get pleasure from a freewheeling standing, Mr. Nijenhuis thinks the metropolis has dropped much of its innovative soul. “The alter has been from an adventuresome, very daring city with adventuresome and daring artworks into an irretrievably bourgeois satisfaction palace,” he reported.

As Berlin settled down, so did Mr. Nijenhuis. In 2015, he purchased an condominium in Prenzlauer Bergand married the American poet Donna Stonecipher.

Increasingly, Mr. Nijenhuis has identified creative success away from conventional productions, by way of programming and executing interactive musical installations like “Quarantine.” For the earlier 15 a long time, he has also collaborated with the German author and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, for whom he has scored videos and accompanied in reside performances.

In just one the latest overall look, he tinkers all around on a grand piano singing arias by Monteverdi and Purcell as Mr. Kluge, a towering figure in German society, and the American poet and novelist Ben Lerner browse their functions.

Mr. Nijenhuis is one of only two ensemble associates at the Volksbühne with tenure (it is unusual for performers in Berlin to remain at the very same theater for the qualifying 15 a long time and was rarer below Mr. Castorf, who experienced a penchant for firing individuals). However, the current period of managerial and artistic upheavals at the theater has been attempting by his have admission, he was “put in the broom closet” for two years by an inventive director who did not price his contributions.

Mr. Nijenhuis’s most recent appearance onstage, in a output of “The Oresteia” in Oct, showed what can transpire when his skills and eclectic tastes are offered no cost rein. The inspired musical options ranged from Richard Strauss to Tom Lehrer.

“Had I stayed in Toronto,” Mr. Nijenhuis leaned in to notify me. “I would have in all probability turn into a bus driver.”



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