But Is It Music?

I just came back to New York City after an amazing week abroad which culminated in my attending the 2010 Donaueschinger Musiktage. Just about everyone I encountered from all over the country emphatically stated that this was the single most important contemporary music event in Germany. Imagine if Cabrillo, Tanglewood, and the Bang on a Can Marathon were somehow all fused together into one event and you’ll sort of begin to get the idea. It’s actually even larger than such an amalgam, since in addition to the ten concert events crammed into a weekend, there are also several sound installations and a large exhibition space where publishers, recording companies, concert promoters, book dealers, etc. hawk their wares. Plus, the whole thing is sponsored by SWR2, Southwest Germany Radio, whose own orchestra—the radio station has an orchestra!—performs during the festival and whose concerts are broadcast live on air, as well as on the internet. (Some folks who caught my Facebook updates over the weekend actually got to listen in. But worry not if you didn’t: the festival is always recorded and commercially released on CDs—on the Neos label—the following year.)

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Gotta love the signage.

Anyway, there were many musical highlights for me in Donaueschingen, although it’s hard to top the final concert which culminated in music for six pianos tuned 1/12th of a tone apart from each other (resulting in 72-tone equal temperament). First, the pianists played both versions of Arc-en-ciel, the sole 72tET piece by Russian-French microtonal pioneer Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), a longtime hero of mine whose obituary in Ear Magazine was my first published piece of music journalism. Then they upped the ante by bringing the orchestra back on stage for a concerto with the six pianos, the utterly mind-blowing limited approximations by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas which closed the entire festival to seeming universal euphoria.

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Perhaps the only thing more impressive than seeing all those pianos on stage was seeing Georg Friedrich Haas (not pictured) navigate around them to greet the musicians after the performance of his limited approximations.

I was also completely taken with Geometria situs by British composer James Saunders, which is one long, very quiet orchestral drone comprised of all sorts of unusual sonorities such as bowing on stringed instruments covered with cloth or Styrofoam. Also, Double Up by Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen (b.1976) very effectively blended sampled sounds with a chamber orchestra. And while his use of aerosol spraying as percussion therein might seem a tad gimmicky, it made extremely intriguing musical sounds. That same concert also featured a fine piece by Brazilian-American composer Felipe Lara, who lives in New York. Americans also mesmerized the locals at Saturday night’s jazz concert in which Ken Vandermark (as part of an ensemble led by Michael Wertmüller) and the Peter Evans Quintet offered up some really probing free improvisations, the latter involving extensive sound processing, while never completely losing a sure sense of groove. On the opening night of the festival there was a wild piece by Vinko Globokar for accordion, percussion, chorus, orchestra, and live electronics which culminated in subgroups onstage forming dance circles and singing Slovenian folk songs. Its bizarre combination of Fluxus-like experimentation with centuries-old vernacular traditions reminded me somewhat of the 1970s films of Dusan Makavejev.

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The JACK Quartet navigates between clanging on their instruments and tables filled with various tools in Alan Hilario’s slap Schlag, Klaps + stick Stock.

On Saturday afternoon there was a three-concert marathon involving three different string quartets—our own JACK Quartet, the French Quatuor Diotima, and the legendary Arditti Quartet (Arditti had opened the entire festival the night before with a new massive Bernhard Lang piece and also appeared in the closing night with the orchestra for Pascal Dusapin’s Quatuor VI “Hinterland”.) All three quartets performed James Dillon’s new String Quartet No. 6; by the third time around, it was starting to feel like standard repertoire. I was also quite captivated by Philippine composer Alan Hilario’s slap Schlag, Klaps + stick Stock in which the members of the JACK Quartet went from banging on a table with various tools to assaulting their stringed instruments first with various slap pizzicatos and then with off-kilter bowings.

But the scandal of the weekend was undoubtedly Peter Ablinger’s WACHSTUM UND MASSENMORD, which appeared on the programs of JACK and Diotima. For approximately 15 minutes, the members of the quartet attempt to play a couple of measures, never quite getting them right. Their rehearsal—stopping and starting, retuning, adjusting their chairs, pages of the score, etc.—constitutes the “music” of the piece. This is akin to American composer Christopher DeLaurenti’s surreptitious recordings of orchestras warming up at performances. We usually choose to ignore such sounds, so having them made into foreground listening material is quite provocative. So provocative, in the case of Ablinger’s quartet, that the audience rebelled at both of the performances I attended. During the JACK’s performance, someone (who apparently is an important official at SWR) threw paper airplanes at them. Then soon thereafter the audience started clapping over the proceedings, forcing them to end. I initially thought all of those shenanigans were actually part of the piece—why not?—but they turned out not to be. That same audience did the same thing when the Diotima attempted a performance. They tried even harder to keep playing through the applause, but the audience would not relent and they too finally stopped. After that Ablinger came to take his bow and was summarily booed. Yet he was indeed causing us to listen to details we rarely choose to pay attention to and gave me much to think about.

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A very attentive audience listens to the Karl Sczuka Prize-winning Hörspiel presentation.

However, early on Saturday morning, another event made me think even more. Every year the Donaueschinger Musiktage presents the Karl Sczuka Prize for the best new work of “Hörspiel”, a genre that has not really been on my radar up to this point. Hörspiel is recorded spoken text which can be anything from a straight-on audio drama to incomprehensible productions involving multiple simultaneous texts. It is considered something of a hybrid between sound art and literature. It has a long history in Germany, dating back to the Weimar Republic, and is disseminated via public radio; considering our very different approach to public radio in the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that it is does not seem to have much of an existence on our own shores. While the runner-up, One from In the Room by composer Sung Hwan Kim in collaboration with David Michael DiGregorio was filled with singing and instrumental sonorities, the winner Ohne Ort und Jahr by Oswald Egger and Iris Drögekamp, was all spoken text, in German, layers upon layers of it. After getting over being fascinated by something new, I just remained completely lost. I studied two years of German 28 years ago. Hearing one voice reciting German and understanding it is a challenge; making sense of multiple texts in German is impossible for me. Of course I could just appreciate it as music, right? After all, verbal comprehension is not a prerequisite to experiencing sonic art. But verbal comprehension, or at least being able to make an attempt at it, is a key ingredient to appreciating Hörspiel, which means that ultimately, it might not be music.

P.S.: During the chamber orchestra concert which featured the Lara and Steen-Andersen pieces mentioned above (as well as Sgraffito by New Zealander Michael Norris and a concerto for electronically enhanced basset horn by Italian Marco Stroppa), it was announced that the spot-on orchestra that journeyed to Donaueschingen from the Netherlands to perform these challenging works—the Radio Kamer Filharmonie of the Muziekcentrum van de Omroep—is being threatened with closure apparently due to budget cuts. Attention must be paid and a website has been set up where fans can voice their protests about this.

5 thoughts on “But Is It Music?

  1. colin holter

    Wow, thanks for the writeup. Wish I could have been there – especially to hear the Ablinger! I’m a moderate to big fan of his work.

    Reply
  2. pgblu

    [Re: During the JACK’s performance, someone (who apparently is an important official at SWR) threw paper airplanes at them. – ed.]

    His name’s Hans Peter Jahn. For the record, he does have a sense of humor.

    Reply
  3. amc654

    I think even the ‘Cabrillo, Tanglewood, and the Bang on a Can Marathon combined’ analogy probably sells it short. (Imagine the budget required to commission ten new orchestra pieces and nine new string quartets.)

    Reply
  4. pgblu

    A blinger
    amc, since you’re here, do you think the Ablinger was all it could have been?

    I often think, with his work, that the observation “There’s so much more he could have done with the idea” is both easy to conclude and completely off the mark. His work isn’t intended to be “clever”, and especially not “crafty.”

    I know how much of an advocate you are, so I’m curious whether this piece struck you as being on his usual level, conceptually speaking. In any case, based on both performances I heard the piece could have used some more (meta-)rehearsal. But then I don’t know what was intention and what was not (an uncertainty which is itself a part of the experience).

    Reply
  5. Mr. Petrenko

    Just came across here. It’s a shame that Ablinger isn’t more appreciated, his Voices and Piano cycle is a masterpiece IMO. It could stand up to any other piece in the Donaueschinger 2010 edition (Ferneyhough sixth quartet, Haas limited approximations, etc.).

    Reply

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