‘The Nico Project’ dives deep into the German visionary’s psyche

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‘The Nico Project’ dives deep into the German visionary’s psyche

Photo: Joseph Lynn
Words by Tammy Walters

Christa Päffgen wasn’t just a triple threat in the world of art and creation; she was the full package.

Better known by her stage name, Nico, the German-born creator etched her name as a top model, an actress, a Factory Girl for Andy Warhol, and a boundary-pushing musician with The Velvet Underground in her own right.

Her colourful life, from escaping the bombardment of Cologne in World War II and her all-consuming dive into the tumultuous world of fame and addiction, all the way to her untimely passing, has left Nico with a strong identity and legacy in creative arts and music. She’s been cited as inspiration for The Cure, Morrissey, Elliott Smith and Björk. Now her work serves as the framework for performance art piece, The Nico Project.

Developed by an all-female production and performance team, The Nico Project delves into the creative process and artistic identity of Nico, as portrayed by Maxine Peake (Black Mirror, Shameless). The piece is soundtracked by Nico’s second solo masterpiece, The Marble Index (1968), as arranged and reimagined by GRAMMY award nominated composer, Anna Clyne, and brought to life with a 15-piece orchestra consisting of The Manchester Chamber Orchestra and local musicians.

“The concept emerged of the summoning of the spirit of Nico, so through the process of the piece, which is little under an hour, we witness Maxine transform into Nico and then transform back.

“It’s a real collaboration between words and music, with Emma’s script and my arrangements and reimagining of some of the tracks from The Marble Index which frames the work. Actually, the music follows the same order of the original album,” explains Clyne.

While Clyne’s previous work centres on more traditional compositions for Chamber Orchestras, contemporary dance backdrops and live performance, she was drawn to The Nico Project from the moment she heard The Marble Index.

“Before this project, I really only knew [Nico] through the context of The Velvet Underground and The Marble Index was new to me, so this was a really wonderful way to get introduced to her music… As soon as I was invited to work on this project, I listened to The Marble Index and immediately felt this connection to the music and felt it was very well suited to this concept of translating it into the Chamber Orchestra. It’s quite interesting to discover her music as part of the process of creating this work.”

“Something that was interesting about The Nico Project was delving into her psyche and her creative process,” Clyne says. “I definitely did a lot of reading to get the context of her work. It was a very definitive era in the New York pop culture and avant-garde scene and no doubt being in that circle of creative thinkers, which was people of all creative fields – musicians, artists – it absolutely must have influenced her music.

“But I always wanted to, whilst knowing the context of her creative life, I really want to also focus in on The Marble Index and not let too much of that sway the way I approached the arrangements of the music.”

The Marble Index is an eccentric, haunting and unconventional collection of work which transcends traditional methods of composition. Clyne’s task was transcribing and recreating each sound, with instrumentation across vocals, piano, percussion, harmonium, a complete woodwind section, the recreation of John Cale’s haunting strings, and a bit of improvisation. She further delved into distortion, looping and reverb to elevate the sound in a live setting.

“The organic quality of the songs lends themselves very naturally to the sound-world of the Chamber Orchestra. The process of her creation of The Marble Index is very interesting; there’s a lot of layering and different instruments; you’ve got the vocals, the harmonium, and a lot of processed sounds like harpsichord and the percussive sounds of the piano.

So I would transcribe those and imagine how I could translate those sounds into the sound-world of the Chamber Orchestra and also just trying to find elements that are very specific to The Marble Index and how they can translate. One of the strong characteristics of the album is that it is very fluid and very free in terms of the rhythm and the sense of time,” she says.

“I tried to be really strict in the transcription of those melodic ideas that would absolutely maintain her unique voice within the orchestrations. [The Nico Project] maintains the central elements of The Marble Index but it also gave me freedom to reimagine the context of that.”

While The Marble Index works as the framework for the performance, the musicians are an integral part of the performance piece and story. Clyne and choreographer, Imogen Knight, worked closely together to prepare the arrangement to match movement.

“I needed to make some of the music possible for them to memorise so they could move with their instruments through the space,” Clyne explains.

Catch The Nico Project at Melbourne International Arts Festival from Friday October 11 until Saturday October 19 at Arts Centre Melbourne. For tickets and more info, head to the Melbourne International Arts Festival website.