On “Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches”

By · Photography © Paula Cort · Date 10/20/2016

On a early fall evening, a packed audience at the Kitchen theater in Chelsea’s art district sat quietly as the visual artist and gallerist Emily Sundblad took the stage. Dressed in a red and black Proenza Schouler gown with suggestive cutouts and a dramatic slit, her long strawberry-blond hair cascading over one shoulder, she looked like a caricature of a lounge singer. Behind her were fellow friends and colleagues, notably Juliana Huxtable, a performance artist, writer, and DJ, as well as Ken Okiishi, whose multimedia works hang in major museums.

Okiishi, seated at the piano, began playing a plaintive melody, and Sundblad’s light soprano joined him with the opening line of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” the first piece from Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.” The inclusion of the 1840 song cycle was not a surprise—after all it gave the performance its title, “Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches”but still it sounded shocking. Taken out of its usual sober concert hall setting and into an art-world cabaret, the cycle provided the framework to an evening that encompassed notions of the erotic, motherhood, love, and loss as experienced by a female narrator.

This was the third edition of Sundblad’s “Dichterliebe” series, which was first presented in April 2015 at the Kitchen with a second staging at the Serpentine in London in May 2016. In all the performances, Sundblad used Schumann’s music as an “aesthetic backbone,” giving them a structure as well as emotional melodies and atmosphere. Also on stage were a number of friends and colleagues who spoke prepared texts, and a small group of singers from Trinity Wall Street Chorus, who had formed a new ensemble, the Sky High Choir, to accompany Sundblad in arrangements of pop hits, also delving into the nature of love and lust. In pairing Schumann’s work with modern equivalents and contemporary writings exploring similar themes, the composer’s song cycle never seemed as provocative.

Emily Sundblad and the Sky High Choir at a performance in The Kitchen in New York.
Emily Sundblad and the Sky High Choir at a performance in The Kitchen in New York.

The afternoon following her performance, Sundblad met me at a café not far from the Kitchen en route to an art opening at Reena Spaulings, the Lower East Side gallery she helped found and currently directs. Over coffee and bread dipped in olive oil and Moroccan spices, she ruminated on her inspiration for the “Dichterliebe” series, her background in choral singing, interest in writing, and preoccupation with fluid identity.

“For me, my performances come together like a collage of influences and desires of the moment,” she said. “I wanted to make a more theatrical work with a narrative arc creating an idea of a female protagonist who could have many faces, many ages, and many backgrounds. I like that idea of an umbrella femininity that can be inhabited by any woman regardless of age, sexuality, or sexual preference. That was the initial desire for this piece.”

At the same time, “I was thinking of how do I bring my idea of musical performance into a new realm,” she recalled. And she drew in inspiration from the music she had been listening to: “Dichterliebe,” R&B, and choir music.

These preoccupations frequently resurface in Sundblad’s work, many dating back to before she embarked on a career as an artist. Born in Sweden, Sundblad learned to sing before she began to paint. She enrolled in choral school in Stockholm in her middle grades and attended theater school afterward. When she moved to New York at 21, she enrolled in Parsons the New School for Design, where she honed her skills as a painter. In 2003, she and John Kelsey opened Reena Spaulings, named for a fictional art-world “it” girl, creating an umbrella figure that different artists could inhabit, such as the woman at the core of her “Dichterliebe” performances.

Since opening the gallery, Sundblad has resumed taking voice lessons and become known in art circles for her lilting soprano. On the occasion of her performance in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, The New York Times described her voice as “angelic,” though her song choices are often anything but. The odd contrast, she told The Times, results in “expressing extreme emotion in a flamboyant or almost borderline kitsch way.”

Sundblad hadn’t considered attempting to sing Schumann lieder until Okiishi, a fellow music lover, played her a historic recording of “Dichterliebe” sung by the Danish tenor Aksel Schiots. Sundblad recalled hearing Schiots’s voice for the first time: “It was recorded in 1945 in Germany, so right after the war ended, and you can really hear the sort of deep pain of what was happening in that moment in his voice. He has a way of singing that is different than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf—it’s a little bit more like crooning, and it made me realize that this is something that I could try.”

Robert Schumann, “Dichterliebe”; Aksel Schiotz (Tenor), Gerald Moore (Piano) 

Based on poems of the German writer Heinrich Heine, the song cycle (translated as “A Poet’s Love”) features an anonymous and genderless narrator who vocalizes the spectrum of emotions aroused by romance. Over the course of its 16 Romantic-era songs, love is blissfully found then forever lost and finally revisited in a feverish dream.

With its technically demanding music and nuanced lyrics, “Dichterliebe” marks a turn for Sundblad: “In the past singing has been my way to express myself, to find an emotional expression for my creative urges so it’s been very much about communicating very intense raw emotion. I’m still interested in that but I’m also interested in the craft of singing, learning to sing really properly.”

In past performances, Sundblad experimented with the classical repertoire, often mixing or juxtaposing it with pop culture references. In 2011, she collaborated with the composer Pete Drungle on a mashup of “If It’s in You” by Pink Floyd front man Syd Barrett and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Drungle also worked with Sundblad on “Dichterliebe” to create similarly unusual arrangements of Top 40 hits—often with the Sky High Chorus—such as Drake’s “Hotline Bling” set in the style of Debussy and a rhapsodic version of Sia’s “Chandelier.”

“I like to mix highbrow culture with sort of lowbrow or more mass or pop references,” she said. “So I wanted to put [“Dichterliebe”] together with something that would contrast but also be similar thematically. These pop songs and R&B songs are somehow at their emotional core similar in message.”

A performance of “Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches” at the Serpentine Galleries in London.

This message was further expanded and iterated with erotic, explicit, and even pornographic texts by Sundblad, Huxtable, the gallerist Sophie Mörner and Elsa de Remur, who also works at Reena Spaulings. Sundblad’s instructions to them were open ended: “The first one was just female erotic experiences expressed through writing and that’s a pretty big subject,” she said. “At the Serpentine, our theme was death and more elegiac experiences. And this time I was interested in motherhood, death and this idea of our relationships with our mothers, and the erotic is always welcome.”

Mörner, an accomplished equestrian, contributed a story equating her experience of riding a horse to a sexual revenge tale. Another speaker disclosed instructions to her lover of how to make her sexually climax. Huxtable, who has collaborated on all three performances, read excerpts from her diary.

“Initially I didn’t know what the actual words in ‘Dichterliebe’ were,” wrote Huxtable in an email. “The piece has been a very personally informed and evolving work from its outset. There’s an unfulfillment that I think we’ve both experienced on so many levels. An often masochistic and sometimes chaotic relationship with the inherent unrequited nature of love between ‘men’ and ‘women,’ thinking about these categories openly, was a part of how I related to Emily, how I processed my past lovers, and hers as well. So the erotic and the elegiac are already entangled…and when I heard the ‘Dichterliebe’ pieces, it made sense to me intuitively.”

Juliana Huxtable at a performance of “Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches” at The Kitchen. 
Juliana Huxtable at a performance of “Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches” at The Kitchen. 

Huxtable continued: “[The songs in ‘Dichterliebe’] serve, particularly in a context where the audience is largely English-speaking, as a way to stage the text. The music, and the sort of fragility of Emily’s voice when she performs these pieces, announce a vulnerability that comes from a place that is yet to be pronounced, so the text can enter as an articulation in space, to pull the emotional inclinations of the ‘Dichterliebe’ into a scene-in-text. Some of the pieces I had written before, and after each performance, I would write a new piece for the next one, sometimes pulling from my poem diary. There was a back and forth between the movement of the music and text, and how they were sequenced in response to where Emily and I were at personally in our lives. It became a way to take diaristic inclinations and perform them in a way that shifted between the erotic-elegiac and the tragi-comic…and I tried to expand that in the text.”

As Huxtable and her fellow speakers spoke in lurid and graphic detail about frustrated affairs and unsatisfying trysts, Sundblad sweetly sang Schumann’s lyrics. Translated from German—nearly 200 years after they were written—they belied similarly raw emotions: “When I kiss your mouth / I become healthy through and through / When I lean on your breast / I feel the bliss of heaven / But when you say: I love you! Then I must weep bitterly.” ¶