A Week of Ostrava Days

A hot night in late August in Ostrava’s brightly lit Philharmonic Hall with an orchestra playing alongside an enormous register of organ pipes made for what was surely a cultural event of the season for the business-casual crowd in this industrial Czech city. In store for them was an evening of single-movement pieces, works by established 20th-century composers interspersed with scores by students attending the three-week “summer institute” of music study, underscoring what may be the most important aspect of the biennial Ostrava Days festival. Founded by the Czech-born composer and conductor Petr Kotik ten years prior, the biennial festival has built an international reputation over its five previous editions, and has made its mark on the sleepy city, which had suffered pollution problems before the coal mines closed in the early ’90s and economic depression since.

The official opening concert (although some two dozen performances had already happened by that point) began with a massive orchestra on the floor, a pair of percussionists on the stage, and disembodied voices intermittently echoing through the hall, a meditation interrupted by brash, ritualistic themes and romantic interludes combined with an unusual pathos, moderating between militance and stillness. Rolf Riehm’s Wer sind diese Kinder (Who are these children) from 2009 concerns fairly explicitly the child victims of war, intermingling a recording of a song sung in Arabic and news reports with the plaintive piano-led symphony in a single, 30-minute movement. It managed the sadness of its content with majestic music, ending with a remarkable, unexpected, sustained note, a moment of placidity while setting the tone for the coming week of bold, adventurous music. There was remarkable clarity in the voices of the 100-strong Janáčkova Filharmonie Ostrava, a product certainly of the composer’s craft but with great credit going to Kotik’s stewardship. The first half of the program concluded with his Fragment (1998), built from richly resonant phrases that used the orchestra to great effect with full ensemble sections, concurrent counterpoints, and a beautifully naked brass passage. The student work included in the opening night program was Accept by accordionist Lucie Vitková, seemingly one of the busier of the institute enrollees. It began with heavy strings and rock drums alongside the composer’s accordion and hiccup-and-growl vocals, and ramping way down to a nervous accordion concerto by the end. It made for an evocative showing of the promise the student works would hold during the week to come.

Cecilia Lopez in action

The festival actually began two nights before the opening concert, and the two days of “pre-festival” performances made for something of a sound conference, whether it be new music, contemporary classical, electro-acoustic improvisation, or sound art. The first night was staged in a retired coal mine outfitted with old miner’s uniforms suspended from the ceiling. The evening paired music by Kurt Schwitters and Karlheinz Stockhausen, works by a member of the resident Ostravská Banda, and a student at the summer institute, as well as an installation exposing a piano—and Chopin—to the elements. Música Mecánica para Chapas – resonadores #2, a sort of concerto for sheet metal by institute student Cecilia Lopez, was at once abstract and full of resolution with a trumpet soloist seemingly bent on providing satisfying harmonies over metallic percussion that over 30 minutes worked its way down to pulse and chorus. Banda member John Eckhardt performed a piece he wrote for solo electric bass that took such bass heavy musics as techno dub and Krautrock as inspiration but came closer to downtempo black metal.

Karel Donhal gives his all for Stockhausen

Stockhausen’s 1975 Harlekin for solo clarinet seemed a strange descendant of Berio’s Sequenza V from a decade earlier, a solo trombone piece customarily performed in a clown outfit. In full jester costume, Karel Donhal mugged his way through the demanding clarinet lines for close to an hour in a perfect parody of a performer yearning for attention while being taken to be “generous” with his talents. To that extent, however, it might have been more effective had he been less generous; the piece has been performed in a fifth the time, presumably to greater effect.

Soprano Salome Kammer gave a muscular and animated reading of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, delivering each line with deliberate consideration. Kammer was one of the vocalists featured most often throughout the festival. She also performed Carola Bauckholt’s Emil will nicht schlafen…, a seven-minute frivolity of baby sounds set to playful orchestration and Bauckholt’s rhythmic Triebstoff, based apparently on the sounds of running puppies, later in the festival.

Such sound sculpturing practices were present through much of the festival program, especially on the second pre-festival day. Dubbed a “Mini-Marathon of Electronic Music,” the 10-hour program didn’t demand the “mini” prefix. It was a full-on, 18-act presentation of the state of electro-acoustic arts. The day managed an impressive batting average for such a diversity of experimental works. Kotik set the marathon in context with a piece composed in the 1960s, a construction of discrete sound blocks and sudden shifts. Baritone Thomas Buckner (the other most often appearing singer) performing Robert Ashley’s setting of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. Track was originally composed for baritone and string quartet but rearranged by Ashley at Buckner’s request. With not just the strings but even the text removed, it became a piece for wordless vocals and electronic backing track, emerging as a lovely and barely moving tone poem. Larry Polansky‘s Psaltery was a processed meditation on Appalachian fiddle dedicated to composer Lou Harrison, elegantly holding the tone—wavering with the fluctuations of the bow—and then capitalizing on the unevenness of the sustained note and slowly crystallizing it into a round, electronic tone. Thomáš Vtípil played clusters of electronically generated tones like collisions of club music, loud blasts of noise alternating with base, primitivistic yells before switching to some ugly and misshapen unamplified violin. It was a bold move and one of the more memorable sets of the long day.

Gordon Monahan was responsible for the open-air piano installation at the coal mine. A Piano Listening to Itself – Chopin Chord beautifully transmitted segments from Chopin piano pieces down six lengths of wire, attached at one end to a 40-foot-high tower and at the other to a weathered piano, the soundboard of which acoustically (and with no excess fidelity) amplified the lonely chords. He performed live during the marathon, this time pulling sounds through the air via radio waves. Local Czech signals were put through Max/MSP software and processed using a theremin as a controller, creating another site-specific work. He shifted announcer voices, musical fragments, difference tones, and static into a single, modulating sine wave. Andrea Neumann also deconstructed a piano, playing only the inside “harp” of the instrument with contact mikes and a variety of preparations in duo with Ivan Palacký, who had a table of objects including a knitting machine. Their found-sound recital worked surprisingly well with the bluster of a beer garden just outside the window.

If it sounds questionable as a classical music festival (and there was some more proper Boulez, Ligeti, and Scelsi to be sure), it could also be postulated that these were the descendants of patron saints, parts of the fulcrum which connects back to Cage (back even to Schoenberg) and Feldman via Christian Wolff to Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury and then via the AMM school of minimalist improvisation and back to such younger players as Neumann, Rhodri Davies, and Franz Hautzinger, interlaced with challenging contemporary works by the likes of Phill Niblock, Salvatore Sciarrino and Galina Ustvolskaja. It was, in other words, to the festival’s (read: Kotik’s) credit that such non-idiomatic music was given a seat at the classical table. If, in other words, the inclusion of electronics and improvisation seems to run counter to the classical canon, Ostrava Days is poised to challenge such paradigms.

And if indeed such a symbolic table was being set, it was Tilbury at the head. An accomplished classical pianist and member of the longstanding minimalist improv ensemble AMM, Tilbury was invited to perform at the festival but instead asked to lead a student workshop on improvisation and then to “coordinate” a performance with them. He led them in an inventive take on The Tiger’s Mind, composed in 1967 by Cardew, who preceded Tilbury in AMM. The piece is in two sections, but Tilbury had the students perform them simultaneously, one in light and the other in darkness (representing the “day” and “night” of the two movements). Slowly the players crossed the divide, making a cycle of passing time. It was a genuine happening, where even the Velcro on a player’s gym shoes could be an instrument.

Simultaneity was further explored in a performance of three pieces by John Cage, the champion of multiplicity. Kammer sang his Aria, performed in conjunction with Kotik’s live mix of the tape collage Fontana Mix while pianist Joseph Kubera and members of the Ostravská Banda gave a reading of Solos from Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The performance began with solo piano for several minutes, then the Aria began in a surprisingly guttural rendition. Several more minutes passed before the Fontana collage (created in real time by Kotik, who had switched from flute to mixing desk) came in just loudly enough to threaten to overpower the rest of the performers—if, that is, such a thing were possible in the world of Cagean soundscape. The orchestra slowly dropped out before the end with the Aria and Fontana ending as if on cue.

Bernhard Lang’s imaginative acoustic remix of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly carried a sense of simultaneous performance as well, even if it was the same piece being performed twice in conjunction, or perhaps his realization playing alongside the listener’s memories of the familiar themes. Entitled Monadology XIVa, Lang’s score applied the language of looping and sampling to the orchestra, gradually and subtly warping the themes, getting stuck in repetitions and nicely ending without resolve. In a sense, Lang (who was born in 1957) applied Cagean ideas to a piece from the turn of the 20th century using the inventions of the turn of the 21st.

It was Feldman, however, who was the best represented of the generation of composers responsible for the radical reinventions of the mid 20th century. His 1962 Structures was delivered by the Janáčkova Filharmonie in a mere eight minutes and given an overtness through a bold reading as if the emotions couldn’t be quelled. Feldman wrote the piece in an effort to duplicate in standard notation his experiments in notated scores without tempo or time signature, which perhaps explains the rigid feel it took on under the Janáčkova. The Filharmonie delivered the 1975 Piano and Orchestra, on the other hand, softly rolling its exquisite repetitions. But his 1980 Trio was one of the absolute highlights of the festival. Played by the ONCE Trio (Conrad Harris, Arne Deforce, and Daan Vandewalle), it was electrifying in its quietude. The two-hour recital began at midnight and was almost frightening in its soft and delicate assuredness, like listening to amber. It was an easy highlight of the festival, not just for the gorgeous performance but for the electricity in the room. About 75 people were still in attendance (and few had left) as the piece entered the final laps. Roughly half were asleep, many sprawled out on a long mat laid across the floor. As the strings carried on softly singing, the piano continuing its treble punctuation and the very occasional bass clef signal to a shift in modality, it became clear that the dozers among the audience had been exonerated of the capital crime of drifting off in the concert hall. And deep within this shared experience it was difficult to tell whether each of the few highly attenuated audience members redirecting their gaze toward the slightest non-scored sound was completely cued in to every audible occurrence in the room like a Buddha of All Ears or if they were fancying themselves the crossing guards in this aural equivalent of climbing a small mountain.

Former institute resident Carolyn Chen’s Wilder Shores of Love (composed this year and performed by the Ostravská banda) also worked in remarkably slow waves, bows barely touching strings, brass barely given air, pushed in starts by cello and percussion before a full orchestral swell took over, then another, then more, gaining a new momentum until a surprising new round of Spring-like flutters overtook and gave way to low dissonant strings in a massive sustained vibrato leading to a soft finale. All the motion, however, happened within a sort of stasis, as if it were all a single camera shot. Györgi Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto (played in the 2002 revision) worked a different sort of stillness and was a favorite among many audience members. A work from late in the composer’s life, the fascinating piece is scored for a small ensemble containing tempered and non-tempered instruments. The four natural horns moved gracefully throughout a framework created by French horns, strings, and winds under the baton of Johannes Kalitzke. They created an easy placidity which was broken in short order by clanging percussion and then a sequence of fanfares which led (without offering resolution) a series of loping, interlocking melodies.

If there was an antithesis of stillness to be found, it was Jiří Kadeřábek’s 2011 Technological Process, commissioned by the Ostrava Center for New Music and performed by the Banda. It was a wonderfully well organized 11 minutes of chaos, with electronic utterances, abrupt buzzings, ticking clocks, parade drums, and multiple themes cascading across the orchestra leading to a Wagner quotation. Petr Cigler’s 2011 Entropic Symphony was similarly dramatic, huge settings just short of themes that fell away and rose again, literally, as parts were delivered by a brass section installed on the balcony. The piece intensified halfway through by the lights suddenly being cut, leaving the Banda playing in darkness then under a severe spotlight with heroic refrains and then a return to normal lighting again. An unfortunate glitch led to a prerecorded section not playing, leading dirigent Johannes Kalitzke to stop and restart the performance. But within the bounds of entropy even that seemed to work. Roman Berger’s Korczak in memoriam also employed such dramatic staging. The second half of the hauntingly beautiful requiem was performed in the dark with a flutist and mezzo-soprano positioned in the back of the room. But in both cases the music was strong enough that the performances didn’t rely on staging.

While most of the concerts took place either in the Philharmonic Hall or the Janáček Conservatory, one concert, leaning heavily toward choral music, was held in the 13th century St. Wenceslaus Church. Within that space, Czech-born Peter Graham’s Cantiga del amor final (2001) combined a pounding orchestra and soaring English horn (played by Beatrice Gaudreault-Laplante) with a moaning choir, then proceeded with a tribal drum beat and the orchestra pushing complementary lines to surprising volume before a dramatic break and an unaccompanied aria from Marta Tománková. If there were a palme d’or for dramatic use of dynamics, Graham would have taken it.

Katalin Károlyi

But the highlight of the chapel concert—one of the far and away highlights of the festival, in fact—was a breathtaking performance of Salvatore Sciarrino’s 1998 Infinito Nero, a chilling half-hour operetta bearing the subtitle Etasi di un atto (One Act Ecstasy). The heroine (dramatically sung by Katalin Károlyi) is the sole character in the haunting scene based on the story of Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, a turn-of-the-17th-century mystic who heard godly and demonic voices. In a long, black dress and on a small, black bed, Károlyi softly sang a nightmarish text which began, “The soul was transforming into blood by creating blood so that there was nothing else to intend but blood / nothing else than blood to see, to taste, to feel, to think / not able to think of anything else than blood.” The room had grown dark since the opening piece—a Ben Hanlon setting of a verse by Hildegard von Bingen, another woman of centuries past given to spiritual visions—and Károlyi was bathed in orange light alongside the small ensemble of piano, strings, clarinet, flute, and percussion. The instruments played slow, alternating rhythms, barely picking up tempo for the first five minutes as the vocal slowly grew stronger, jumping octaves, sounding as if she were speaking in tongues, eyes wide, hands open, jaw clenched, moving in small circles from her hips, she was possessed by the spirit of a woman possessed. Against the never-more-than-sparse music, her voice grew to permeate the room—and then, with no release, just stopped.

The hallmark of the festival is its two resident orchestras, but some wonderful spots for unaccompanied soloists were still reserved. Rolf Riehm’s 2007 Ton für Ton (weisse Strassen Babylons) for contrabass clarinet, was played by Theo Nabicht during the choral night. It opened with two blasts to show its metal before beginning a soft, slow, sinewy, octave-jumping progression, then a sudden increase in mid-register volume, keeping the same pace but suddenly echoing through the church. It was an effective piece and at the same time an amazing demonstration of technique.

Perhaps most notable among the soloists was harpist Rhodri Davies—as well known in the world of experimental improvisation as he is contemporary classical—who played a succession of short pieces that focused on silence and manipulation. Christian Wolff composed For Harp Player for Davies in 2009, taking full advantage of Davies’s improv background and leaving dynamics and tempi unspecified. The 12 brief movements (lasting in total only 10 minutes) ran in episodic clusters, building unevenly, beautifully, sometimes abruptly toward longer lines. Yasaone Tone’s 2006 Ten Haikus of Matsuo Basho was even more open-ended, working with a set of rules for reading the kanji characters of the poems. With contact mikes attached to the harp’s body, every buzz and overtone was made audible, often with amplified sustain. John Lely’s Cycling in … (2004) made subtle use of the instrument’s pedals, running through a sequence of chords in different registers and soft repetitions. James Saunders’s 2010 materials vary greatly and are simply materials was played with prepared strings and nearly silent bowing. On a different concert during that same long night the slippery dissonances of Iannis Xenakis’s brief violin solos, Mikka (1971) and Mikka-S (1976), were played with striking precision by the Banda’s Conrad Harris, while his 1977 Kottos for solo cello was given a muscular reading by Arne Deforce.

A program of electric guitar music included solo, quartet, and mixed ensemble pieces, but suffered from a persistent problem among composers approaching amplified guitar. Composers tend to write for electric guitar as if it’s an instrument that can’t be played well. The guitar and its many voices are so associated with rock music that, presumably, composers turn to guitar groups to “do” volume, feedback, distortion, or to evoke a rebellious spirit. The program by Belgian/Dutch group ZWERM followed largely along those lines, even eliciting a solitary “boo” by the third piece. Fortunately there was a quick turn before intermission with Polansky’s for jim, ben and lou (1995), a triad of pieces for the composers Tenney, Johnston, and Harrison (respectively). The first inventively used a retuned harp and a guitar being methodically detuned by a third party as it was being played.

The guitar quartet was followed by a string quartet, namely New York’s JACK. The clear and away highlight of their concert (which also included pieces by Iannis Xenakis, Elliott Sharp, and three institute students) was Horatiu Radulescu’s String Quartet No. 5 “before the universe was born” (1995). A masterwork of spectral composition—which takes into account all of the wavers and overtones of the sound produced by a vibrating string, and not just the pure or intended tone—it achieved enormous depth of field, sometimes sounding as if there were twice as many instruments on stage. The playing was spectacularly rich, with seamless switches between tonal and harmonic playing creating a kind of aural illusion, a quartet and a ghost quartet. It may have been based in mathematics, but it was borne of the mystic.

Festivals, of course, demand big finishes, and the combined Janáčkova and Banda orchestras along with Kubera and baritone Alexander Vovk made for a monumental showing. They opened (less the JACK) with one of the boldest of the student compositions. K. C. M. Walker’s Symphony was a compelling piece of orchestral percussion led by a trio of conductors with stacked and shifting counts, rarely was an instrument not played pizzicato in the epic first movement before the sparse tone poem of the second. If there were a prize for an Ostrava Days student to watch out for, the South Carolinan—currently studying under Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University—may be it.

New York drone master Phill Niblock got a rousing ovation for his Baobob, a drone piece utilizing both orchestras. Here the depth of field was real, actualized by the physical presence of the musicians and the wavering tones of Niblock’s score. The piece was played along with projections of two videos from his series of manual laborers: these being films made in Asia of people weaving nets, fishing, and cooking. The point was never quite spoken, but it seemed intended to tear down the differences between physical labor and performance. The 75-odd players were there, on the clocks, doing what they were trained to do, and in a certain sense even given menial tasks to perform—slowly going up a half step and then back down again over the course of half an hour.

Wolfgang Rihm’s Concerto (2000) added JACK to the double orchestra, but treated the string quartet as a single entity, a “beast with four mouths” in the composer’s own words, with the orchestra as a cage. As such, it was a concerto for string quartet with JACK as the soloist, a fast and huge thing and the polar opposite of the Niblock that preceded it.

Galina Ustvolskaja’s 1979 Symphony No. 2 – True and Eternal Bliss, performed by the two orchestras (less the strings) with Kubera and Vovk and a pair of bass drums stationed at the front of the ensemble made for a brilliant closing of a remarkable nine days of music. The piano, percussion, and the rest of the orchestra seemed to rotate positions in the soundfield against Vovk’s invocations (in Russian) of God’s name. The instrumentation varied, dropped out, and returned, but never wavered. It was religious fervor on the verge of being maniacal and at the same time maddeningly episodic, encompassing contemporary forms with a devotional theme that proved to be a rather surprising undercurrent of the festival—a festival of (as it bills itself) new and experimental music. Given the context of the classical tradition, it perhaps should be of little consequence that three of the four strongest performances—those of Sciarrino, Radulescu, and Ustvolskaja—were devotional.

Petr Kotik conducting

Petr Kotik

Standing on the Philharmonic Hall balcony at a closing reception, during which students were awarded certificates of completion, Kotik enjoyed a cigar while speaking candidly about the institution he’s built over the last decade. Asked by a British reporter about the freedom curating a festival allows, Kotik responded sternly but with barely the hint of a smile. “You don’t take risks, you do your work,” he said. “You take risks when you are in fear of what will happen.” In a dusty corner of the Czech Republic, just miles from the Polish border, Kotik has created a fearless festival.

All photos by Martin Polelář, courtesy Ostrava Days

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Kurt Gottschalk‘s writing about jazz, rock and new music has appeared in All About Jazz, Time Out, The Village Voice, and The Wire as well as publications in France, Ireland, Portugal and Russia. He is the host of the weekly program Miniature Minotaurs on WFMU and recently published Little Apples, his first book of fiction. His occasionally-updated blog can be found at spearmintmusic.blogspot.com.

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