Herbert Distel ‘La Stazione’

La Stazione – An experimental opera in two acts

  1. Act One (26:31)
  2. Act Two (19:34)
    … Transeuropexpress
    Diretto – Binario sette

Total time: 45:55
CD released on Hat Hut Records, 1990

Herbert Distel, born 1942 in Bern (CH), is a Swiss drawer, painter, sculptor, photographer, composer and film maker. He studied lithography in Paris’ National Art School, 1963-64. He started creating sculptures with geometrical forms in the mid 1960s. In 1968-1969, he started creating eggs. In 1970, he launched a 3m long polyester egg on the West Africa coast across the Atlantic, which reached the Trinidad coast 7 months later (‘Projekt Canaris’ [+] ). The same year he installed a 22 ton granite egg along the road from Basel to Chiasso (‘Monument Canaris’ ). From 1970 to 1977, he started working on his landmark ‘Museum of Drawers’ (Das Schubladenmuseum), a found cabinet with 20 drawers each containing 25 tiny rooms where he invited living artists to contribute a miniature work of art [+]. Artists included: Arnulf Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Mergert Christian, Pablo Picasso, Robert Cottingham, Billy Al Bengston, Joseph Beuys, John Baldessari, Carl Andre, Chuck Close, Tom Blackwell, Tom Phillips, Joe Goode, Charles Arnoldi, Camille Billops, Nam June Paik, Frederick J. Brown, Robyn Denny, Valie Export, Mel Ramos, Edward Ruscha, Dieter Roth, John Cage, etc. At the same time George Maciunas was working on his ‘Flux Cabinet’ (1975-77). From 1985-1987, Distel studied in Warsaw with polish film makers Krzysztof Kieslowski and Edward Zebrowski. In 1993 Distel and Peter Guyer completed the video ‘Die Angst Die Macht Die Bilder des Zauberlehrlings’ [+], based on found footage.

His first sound work was the 1971 LP ‘We have a problem’, based on NASA recordings of Apollo 13 astronauts, mixed with a live rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue (pianist: Peter Aronsky). In 1973, he completed the sound work‘The Love Room’, later used in his first short film: ‘A Pornographic Movie’, 1974. He was included in Morgan Fisher’s 1980 ‘Miniatures’ compilation – the aural equivalent to the Museum of drawers, when you come to think of it – with a track called ‘Toscany In Blue (Last Minute)’. In 1984-1985, he worked on ‘Die Reise’ (The trip), a stunning train and rail road field recording montage. Location recordings were made in the Zürich-Bern Intercity, a trip he recorded 10 times to get the source material for ‘Die Reise’, which also included cicadas, birds and human voices.

La Stazione: From 1985 to 1989, Distel took a series of pictures in the ‘Staglieno’ Genoa cemetery in Italy [+], photographic close ups of marble sculptures and tombs. The series was exhibited in 1990 in Bern, CH, with accompanying poems from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. The cover for ‘La Stazione’ (The station) is excerpted from this series. Source recordings for this sound work – a masterpiece of ambient concrete music – were made in Milan’s Central Station in 1987 with the help of his wife, Gil Distel (pictured above). According to the model of Mario Peragallo’s own opera La Collina (1947), itself based on the Spoon River Anthology, each part is dedicated to an italian personality:

  • Trecentocinquantatre…
    to Arturo Schwarz, milanese art dealer, a Duchamp specialist
  • Torino-Ritardo
    to Malwida Von Meysenburg, who introduced Lou Salome to Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Capocaponeralearti…
    to Federico Paternina, Rioja spanish wine maker
  • … Transeuropexpress
    to Teresita Fontana, widow of Lucio Fontana
  • Diretto – Binario sette
    to Valeria Manzoni, mother of Piero Manzoni

La Stazione can thus be considered an hommage to italian art and way of life, as Distel actually lived in Italy for some time. The 5 parts’ subtitles are based on the train station’s PA anouncements. The music is continuous, so that telling which part is which can prove difficult. Recordings of clattering trains slowly stopping on arrival, doors of cars shutting, PA anouncements, whistles, people running to get their train, . . . have been processed and layered – sometimes beyond recognition – to make the industrial, lively sounds mingle in a surreal soundscape. The technique is well-known (drastically slowed down speed, multi-layering, echo and reverb sound effects, pitch modification), but the result is totally unique. Ultimately, you’re left with a bunch of questions: how does the music relates to the cemetary and Spoon River Anthology? the psychological aspects of trains (especially in Europe)? is this merely the portrait of a train station? why is it called an opera, anyway? Not that you need any answer to enjoy such wonderful music.


9 Responses to “Herbert Distel ‘La Stazione’”

  1. 1 Lucky May 15, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    thanks for this distel. i have his other record on hat hut, die reise – whenever i’m not in the mood of listening to music and still want some aural input i put either this or some birds recordings on.

    thanks especially for distel’s detailed biography – very interesting!!!

  2. 2 continuo May 15, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    I know what you mean, though I hope you don’t consider this background music. There’s a lot happening in the recordings as soon as you crank up the volume.

  3. 3 Lucky May 17, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    Background music is for ignorants. When I listen to music I mostly focuse my attention only to the music, or at least don’t do something besides which requires much of it, so I’m able to dive into the music.

    I really like this recording – it’s like an aural movie. Pierre Henry made similar things, but with much more harsh breaks, this is more like a continuing flow. Very interesting, and more tense than “Die Reise”, which is more relaxed and positive.

  4. 4 heine May 18, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Thanks a lot for Distel. it’s very hard to find him because his music is almost unknown in our country (Russia)

  5. 5 continuo May 18, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Heine, Distel’s music and art work is actually hard to find anywhere, except maybe in Switzerland’s art galeries. I’m glad I could write a proper introduction to his work, thanks to an interview he gave to a french zine in 1990. So much so that this is pretty much the most comprehensive introduction to Herbert Distel available on the web.
    Lucky: there is a psychological aspect in Distel’s 2 CDs, so that each listener will interpret the music according to his own experience and memories. This is open music, open to interpretation and debate. Anyway, glad you all enjoy this music.

  6. 6 Herbert Distel July 22, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Hallo Continuo

    By coincidence I falled into your wordpress.com and found your excellent summary concerning my work. Thank you very much and congratulations!

    May I allow myself to direct you to two little incorrectnesses: Federico Paternina is Rioja spanish wine maker
    Arturo Schwarz is the correct name of the milanese art dealer.

    Friendly greetings

    Herbert Distel

  7. 7 continuo July 23, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Hi Herbert, thanks for the kind appreciation of this post. I made the corrections you suggested. Do you know of any of your other soundwork available somewhere?

  8. 8 Herbert Distel July 24, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    There is another work available on DVD: The 18 minutes video “die angst die macht die bilder des zauberlehrlings” which you mentionned above and which I realized together with Peter Guyer in 1993. It is the ballad by Goethe’s “Aprentice Sorcerer” from the view of our time. The soundtrack of it I would consider as one of my soundworks, based on a rehearsal of Paul Dukas’ “L’apprenti sorcier”, directed by Ferenc Fricsay in 1961.
    Distributed through http://www.videocompany.ch

  9. 9 continuo July 24, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    Thanks Herbert for the info.

    I took the liberty to expand your miniature Wikipedia page with whole paragraphs from the post above. I hope you’re OK with this initiative. If you feel like proof-reading or correcting this article, just let me know.


    Reach me at:
    teepeesfrp [at] yahoo [dot] fr

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