Orpheus Underwater & Poetry at the Spa: Remann’s Modern Glashaus Temple of Hearing and Healing
In 1897, the Berlin poet Paul Scheerbart, the so-called “high-priest of Expressionism,” published some of the first sound-poems in German, including his love poem “Kikakok!ú Ekoralábs!,” consisting of purely fictional words and relying on the element of sound for coherence. Years later, in 1914, Scheerbart composed his book Glass Architecture, a full-fledged treatise envisioning a world set right by implementing colored glass. He succeeded in having his poetic visions realized in architecture: his friend, visionary architect Bruno Taut, who shared Scheerbart’s utopian vision of the transformative power of glass, opened the Glashaus pavilion at the May 1914 German Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. Credited with combining function, form, and fantasy, the Glashaus comprised a fourteen-sided prismatic dome of colored glass with glass-block stairs decorated with mosaic and a cascading waterfall. Viewing the construction of glass monuments not merely as a symbolic act, but as one that would encourage social cohesion and spiritual renewal through “human transformation” and the “expansion of human consciousness,” Scheerbart and Taut set out to supplant masonry with colored glass and adorn the earth “with sparkling jewels and enamel” and fantastical verse. Before completed, the walls of the Glashaus were inscribed with six of Scheerbart’s whimsical poems and aphorisms celebrating glass.
Scheerbart’s utopian vision, like the Glashaus itself, did not survive the horrors of World War I, and had it not been for curious poetry lovers, including Mickey Remann, Scheerbart’s vision might have been forever lost to future generations. Remann, a trained Germanist and free thinker, followed in Goethe’s footsteps from Frankfurt to Weimar, taking with him Scheerbart’s vision, which he crystallized again in architectural form: this time in the shape of the modern Liquid Sound Temple, located in the small town of Bad Sulza in Thuringia.
Additional inspiration came from boat excursions with Jim Nollman, a musician who explores interspecies communication through music, investigating whether music is a true universal language and a possible form of cross-species communication. Rather than forcing communication, Nollman beckons participation from wild Orca whales, enticing them with music he plays alone or in small groups and amplifies underwater. When lucky, the Orcas show interest, as with Remann’s experience, when toward the end of their journey, a group of whales encircled their boat and joined in the music-making. Their movement around the boat illuminated the bio-luminescent plankton, causing the water to sparkle. Musicians and non-musicians alike grabbed instruments and chimed in—participating as they could. The concert lasted a mere thirty minutes, but forever changed Remann, leaving him with a sense of urgency to communicate this experience. Words alone did not suffice. Instead, the larger dream of Liquid Sound was born. Remann pondered what it would be like to hear music underwater as whales do. Blessed with no understanding of the technological difficulties involved with a project of this magnitude, Remann simply knew what poetic vision was and remained faithful to his vision until finally the underwater light and sound experience that mirrored his visions was realized architecturally: in 1999 the Liquid Sound Temple at the Toskana Therme spa was opened and featured in the Hannover world exposition in 2000.
Remann’s modern sound temple brings together the worlds of poetry and spa culture, as well as the disparate German lyric traditions of both Goethe and Scheerbart, the traditions of ancient Greek dream temples, legendary European spas, great opera houses and the futuristic Berlin’s nightclubs, offering a multi-media experience of “sound wellness.” Embracing the same playful, poetic spirit of creativity and invention found in Scheerbart, the Liquid Sound Temple is a veritable post-modern celebration of sound. As the showpiece swimming-pool, the modern “temple” (simply called the Tempel), consists of a dome-covered, cavernous, circular pool in a freestanding, windowless building, kept dark so that the hint of colored lights projected onto the walls and water evoke the effect of multicolored transparency and shimmer on the water’s surface. Although not made of glass, the walls of the Liquid Sound Temple retain the shape of the original Glashaus and the inscriptions of Scheerbart’s verses, while the roof of the Temple, the main focal point when one floats on one’s back daydreaming, presents a glass mandala looking out to the sky.
All high culture pretensions are literally stripped away, as one enters the temple in one’s bathing suit. Floating on one’s back in thermal saltwater, which carries the body effortlessly, so that even sinkers stay afloat, with ears submerged, the body relaxes. Cocooned by luring underwater sounds and bathed in colored moving lights, the body becomes an instrument in the Orphic sound experience, so that one begins to hear and resonate with one’s whole being the “water melodies,” underwater concerts, and readings made with the liquid-sound system in this “underwater opera-house.” This spa, as most modern destination spas, represents a modern sanctuary of relaxation, self-discovery, and a “place of metamorphosis,”[i] where individuals undertake what Dean MacCannell has called “a voyage of discovery […] to discover or reconstruct a cultural heritage or a social identity.”[ii] Central to their quest is the search for “authentic” experiences, which enhance their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Like other spas, Bad Sulza has become a modern-day pilgrimage site for spa-goers embarking on secularized versions of the traditional “spiritual journey.”
For the reinvented Toskana Therme spa, this idea of metamorphoses takes on a much wider significance culturally, socially, and economically not only for the rebuilding of this economically poor region, but also for the re-construction of German spa culture. Until recently, new spas and reinvitalized old ones were a rarity in Germany. In 1996, the German government severely cut back national health insurance funding for the traditional water cures, the centerpiece of most German spas, sending Germany’s vast spa network, financed largely by health insurance money, into turmoil and causing many specialized clinics to close. German spas, like the Toskana Therme, had to redefine themselves in more attractive ways in order to survive. The Toskana Therme embraced Liquid Sound and transformed from what originally was a small 19th century clinic operating on a minimal scale in GDR times to a multi-million dollar resort. In this small “futuristic and historic” spa, Remann serves as cultural director, also known as the “conductor in flip-flops,” for the holistic opera-house, offering the unique experience of “bathing in light and sound.”[iii]
Despite its modern look and multi-media technology, this spa is part of a much longer spa tradition that informs the overall experience. As Jonathan de Vierville has suggested, the modern spa at Bad Sulza, is a re-envisioned replica of the ancient Greek healing dream temples of Delphi and Epidaurus, dedicated to Aesklepios, the god of healing.[iv] These pilgrimage sites[v] were important meccas where people consulted the oracle to gain insight, purification, and healing, and where the practice of receptivity, i.e. “inner hearing,” facilitated the process of dream incubation, or incubatio, derived from Latin words, in meaning “upon” and cubare meaning “to lie down.” Seekers were “cured” by their dreams, involving a direct visit, metaphorically or symbolically, from the god in a dream and the consultation with the priestess, the pythia, who would speak as the oracle’s medium, while male priests “interpreted” the visitation from the gods. The oracle fell into disrepute around 500 BCE, and until Freud and Jung, the modern world had lost touch with the tradition of dream incubation and its ability to understand dreams. Mapping the inner landscape is a territory usually relegated to poets, and more recently to psychologists, who understood how to address the deep currents within the self, but in particular the tradition of Orphic poetry was able to mediate the gap between heaven and earth.
One of the most thorough modern explications of Orphic poetry is found in Rainer Maria Rilke’s work. Orpheus, known from Classical sources as the divine supreme poet-singer, able to tame the hearts of wild beasts and transform reality through the power of his song, emerges in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus as the dismembered and resurrected god who becomes oracle. Elizabeth Sewell describes Rilke’s Orphic work as an “exploration of the labyrinth of body-and-mind, a field between living and dead with the poetic self as the instrument of investigation.”[vi] Robert McGahey sees Rilke’s Orpheus as an evolution in the Orphic tradition: Orpheus becomes the “poet-thinker,”[vii] whose self-knowledge emerges from “body-learning and body-thinking.”
Emerging as a “way between modes” (xiv), this figure harks back to the tribal shaman as “the oldest go-between of the spiritual and human realms.”[viii] Embodying the sparagmos, i.e. the moment when the scattered limbs of the dismembered god first stir back to life as vibration, this Orpheus is painstakingly “restrung” (vii). This “inner song of creation”, analogous to the shaman’s impersonal song (31), allows the “poet-as-instrument” to become the “mouthpiece” for larger forces, like the Romantics’ Aeolian harp, passively sounded by the divine winds passing through it. As inner music, it breaks out of its confinement, shattering the very human confinement that produces it. Orphic song is “poetry thinking itself,”[ix] and its creator, the Orphic poet, is a “new being,”[x] part shaman, part philosopher.
Rilke’s Orpheus emerges through sound, symbolizing the possibility of a multi-sensory poem of transformative power, whose sounds engage all the senses and create a physical presence audibly tangible with the entire body, echoing the Pythagoran belief that musical resolution brings the human being into sympathetic vibration with the cosmic order and harmony of the spheres. Rilke’s opening sonnet evokes Orphic song in the image of a tree, placed firmly in the ear, which constructs in word and sound a “temple of hearing” and a sanctuary where nature heals its differences, bringing harmony to the chaotic uncivilized world, as articulated thematically, in the poem’s imagery, and aurally, in its sound-patterning of the sacred mantram AUM within the poem, which creates its own reverberating “world of sound.”[xi] Musicologist Joachim-Ernst Berendt speaks similarly of sound as spaces, or “cathedrals,” which are characteristic of the evolution of a new sound ideal from a collective “old World” Classical sound to the more individualistic “new World” sound of jazz:
“Old-world sound […] grows, rises, searches you out, penetrates you. [...] New-world sound, on the other hand, has more female traits. The sound of a rock group, for instance, is a body that incorporates a musical process and in which the listener himself is incorporated. There are sounds in rock that can be said to be ‘as large as a cathedral’. When hearing them, the listener 'stands inside them'."[xii]
These modern sound temples and cathedrals, as described in Rilke’s and Berendt’s works, best explain the experience of the Liquid Sound Temple, which acts as an entryway into the landscape of consciousness. Audience agency and participation is key to the experience: in this modern temples, seekers lie down in the water, “sleep,” and dream in thermal water, which relaxes the body, engages the senses, and incites a lucid dreamlike meditative state of heightened inner awareness. On the aquatic stage of their inner minds, each spa-goer is encouraged to become part of the production, a “dreamer,” co-creator, visionary, actor, director, and instrument in their own inner story that plays into the larger musical performance. This whole-body, inner listening allows audience participation in a way traditional theater has not made possible, reorienting the audience to the water and to ways of engaging in imaginative cultural practices. The womb-like environment of Liquid Sound evokes a deep transpersonal response of returning to a primal state of one’s being,[xiii] echoing the Delphic oracle’s exhortation to know oneself more deeply.
Thus, in the Temple, kept dark so the colored lights seem to dance in the water, under the skylight of a mandala, modern seekers bathe in this modern vision, which as Judy Lazarus observes is not new, but “really Old World, transported from the past into the new millennium on a magic carpet of imagination, modern technology and academic investigation.”[xiv] As such, the Liquid Sound Temple in Bad Sulza appears as a testament to the imaginative potential of dreams and the transformative power of poetry.
[i] Shelley Baranowski and Ellen Furlough, “Introduction,” Being Elsewhere: Tourism, Consumer Culture and Identity in Modern Europe and North America. Eds. Shelley Baranowski and Ellen Furlough (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001) 5.
[ii] Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schocken, 1989) 13-14.
[iii] The European Fund for Regional Development (EFRE) subsidized the complete project of the Toskana Therme in Bad Sulza, complete with its Liquid Sound Temple, with 19 million DM. All pools are fed with local thermal saltwater that comes from a well drilled into the underground Trias Sea. Spa goers relax in the 92-degree Fahrenheit warm water with 3-5% salinity content, which enables a relaxed, weightless kind of floating.
[iv] Jonathan Paul de Vierville briefly speaks of the history of bathing in his article: “Taking the Waters: A Historical Look at Water Therapy and Spa Culture Over the Ages,” Massage & Bodywork (Feb/March 2000). However, it is in his course, “Dreams and Rituals in Healing Waters,” offered annually at the Toskana Therme spa in Bad Sulza, where he has drawn parallels between the Ancient Greek dream temples and the Liquid Sound Temple as described in the course description
[vi] Elizabeth Sewell, The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History (New York: Harper & Row, 1960) 326.
[vii] Robert McGahey, The Orpheus Moment: Shaman to Poet–Thinker in Plato, Nietzsche and Mallarmé (Albany: State U of New York P, 1994) xvi.
[viii] MacGahey 6.
[ix] Sewell 47.
[x] McGahey xvi.
[xi] H.W. Belmore, Rilke’s Craftsmanship: An Analysis of his Poetic Style. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1954) 53.
[xii] Joachim-Ernst Berendt, The World is Sound: Nada Brahma. (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books : Distributed by Harper & Row, 1987) 129.
[xiii] Ontologically, sound harkens back to a “collective” beginning of all time, as expressed by Pythagoras, but also to one’s personal beginnings, as the ear is one of the very first human sense organs to develop in the womb. Early in fetal development, an infant hears the mother’s voice, as filtered through bone, flesh, and amniotic fluid and perceives high frequency sounds. The infant adapts this hearing to hear not only through their ears but through their whole body, with the baby’s body functioning as what Alfred Tomatis terms a “full-body sound resonator” [See Alfred Tomatis, The Conscious Ear: My Life of Transformation Through Listening (New York: Station Hill Press, 1991) 212], able to perceive the “whole universe of relationship established in utero.”[xiii] The ears thus prepare the infant’s path of development for speech and for the processes of their adaptation to self and environment. As Kay Gardner indicates [See Kay Gardner, Sounding the Inner Landscape (Stonington: Caduceus, 1990) 63], this neurological pathway can, however, become developmentally blocked by deeply emotional and physically traumatic experiences.[xiii] By reestablishing the sonic atmosphere experienced in the womb, one can retrain one’s entire ability to listen from the formative stages, so that “gradually two tiny but important ear muscles are reconditioned to respond to a broader frequency spectrum” (63), thus drawing one “toward previously unexplored areas” (63).
[xiv] This is a quote from spa writer Judy Lazarus, taken from the aforementioned article written by Leigh Baldwin, “Necessary Hype: Three Spa Writers Talk Trends,” Experience ISPA Spa Reading (2004)
Erika M. Nelson is an Assistant Professor of German Studies at Union College. Her book, Reading Rilke’s Orphic Identity, explores issues of identity construction and sound in Rainer Maria Rilke’s work. Currently, she is working on transnational poetry, German spa culture, and modern renditions of myth in literature and film.