This Is Kings Heath Calling Zurich; Ballroom Dancing and Avant-Garde Music Merge in the Theatrical World of Composer Michael Wolters, Writes Terry Grimley
Byline: Terry Grimley
Michael Wolters wonders if I can be a little early for our 3.30pm appointment in Kings Heath, as he has to take part in a performance of one of his pieces in Zurich at 6pm.
No, he doesn't have a private jet parked on the High Street. He will be delivering his performance from his small terraced house, over the phone.
The piece, devised with his Dusseldorf-based colleague Marcus Dross, is currently mid-way through a 14-city tour of Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It is called The American Penis.
'It's not as graphic as it sounds,' he explains. 'It's basically a piece about the loss of America's potency. It takes the form of a one-hour phone conference.
'There's a phone on stage in Zurich, with the audience sitting around it in a circle. It rings and it's me calling. Someone in the audience answers. I will be playing a CD and answering the voices on it, so you think you are hearing a phone conference with people calling in from various places, but at a certain point it becomes apparent that it is recorded.'
The piece also includes a number of pre-recorded musical examples illustrating unlikely stories. One is about a Swiss settlement called Lucerne in Iowa where a visiting choir traditionally provides musical accompaniment when the prize bull is mating, another is an excerpt from an opera Chelsea Clinton is writing about her father's affair with Monica Lewinsky.
'It's fun, but I'm a bit exhausted now,' says Wolters. 'There have been six performances and there are another eight to go. It started in Berlin and it's been to Hamburg, Dusseldorf and then it's going to Vienna.
'I'm usually there, but I'm calling from the dressing room. I'm not sure which I prefer, really. It's very strange if you do something all day and at six o'clock you have to make this call...'
The reason Wolters couldn't be in Zurich on Tuesday was that he has the premiere of another piece coming up in Birmingham on Sunday. Called Neighbours for a Night, it is being performed by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and was to have been conducted by CBSO music director Sakari Oramo, but due to his continuing illness he has been replaced by French conductor Franck Ollu, a regular performer with Frankfurt's Ensemble Modern.
Originally from Niederkruchten, near Munchengladbach, Wolters studied composition at Huddersfield and settled in Birmingham after coming here as a postgraduate student.
'I didn't even think of going back,' he says. 'I've made all my contacts here. If I went back to Germany I would have to start pretty much again. It's such a national thing, contemporary music - it's only when you get to the highest level you go abroad.
'So that's one thing. But also, I really like Birmingham! It's my fifth year here and I saw the old Bull Ring and then the big hole in the ground - which really fascinated me. There is an energy to it, and it's very friendly - especially when you compare it to Germany. There is so much change and I find I really care. I went to a meeting about Moseley baths because I'm in a swimming club there and I don't want it to close.'
Theatre and music have always been closely-linked interests for Wolters: 'I wanted to study composition but in Germany you have to study piano first and then composition and I was a bad piano player, so I took a course in theatre studies with a practical element, which was performance art. …