Concert halls of the future Spaces of possibility

Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future.
Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future. | Photo (detail): resonanzaum

Relevant Music Festival Music with Opinions

Matthias Kaul performed Frederic Rzewski's “Lost And Found”
Matthias Kaul performed Frederic Rzewski's “Lost And Found” | Photo (detail): Relevante Musik / Freunde Guter Musik, Kai Bienert

Statistics say that concertgoers are becoming older and older. Initiatives such as 'resonanzraum' in Hamburg counter this with new concepts and lure the younger generation into concerts. A model with prospects.

Before, of course, everything was better and a lot was also easier for the concert organizer. He set a time and a classical program, without outliers from other genres, took care that there were enough subscribers present, and then the music was performed and after the applause someone dutifully switched off the lights. Although things still function this way in many classical concert halls, and although some rising new buildings have the ambition to do it better than the top dogs, one question worries the industry: what should we do and omit today and all the more tomorrow so that we don’t show ourselves to be, out of a pure sense of duty to the tradition, expendable and from yesterday?

Concert halls as spaces of possibility

There is only one way to remain contemporary and relevant in the balancing act between entertainment and serious music: venues must transform themselves into spaces of possibility, away from traditional formats, away from rigid evening slots. For a musical snack a little concert would do as well. Away from stiff subscriptions structures, which smack of compulsory attendance. Away from “chalk and talk” instruction in emotion. Away too from some cherished formulas for concert menus, particularly the now stale sandwich model with the indigestible avant-garde between more popular pieces of music. Instead: use what you have, do as much as you can with the site and the site-specific options. New concepts and longer-term, tailor-made artist residencies.

No other new concert house construction in recent decades has caused so much turmoil as has the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. It can be considered as Hamburg’s attempt consistently to re-group itself and to derive a commitment to musical excellence from its own tradition, from the Gänsemarkt Opera of the Baroque to the beer-showering punks of the Electro / Hip Hop band Deichkind. In the autumn of 2012 a performance of tremendous symbolic power already showed the hanseatic audience how much seductively creative energy can be generated in a place when you exploit its unique character. Ironically, it was not Christoph Lieben-Seutter, the general director of the Laeiszhalle and the the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, but the Hamburg Theatre Festival that imported from the Radialsystem in Berlin Jochen Sandig’s Human Requiem. The music of the Deutsches Requiem by Brahms, a son of Hamburg, staged as a theatral spatialization in the Philharmonic’s so-called plaza. Thirty-seven meters above the Elbe, the Berlin Radio Choir performed the piece, thrice sold out.

Model: resonanzraum

In October 2014 an ambitious alternative concert house experiment was started in Hamburg. With a great deal of luck, bold capital injections and the backing of the Hamburg cultural policy, the Ensemble Resonanz (ER) found a new home in Europe’s largest high-rise bunker in the Feldstraße. The brutally chunky concrete block stands between the Reeperbahn and the trendy quarter Karolinenviertel and the also near Schanzenviertel. It is filled with, among others, creative companies, the studio of the internet radio station ByteFM and the club Uebel & Gefährlich (i.e. Bad and Dangerous). And the resonanzraum (i.e. Resonance Chamber): a mini-concert hall with a well-concealed orchestra infrastructure behind the large swinging doors. Its design is a far cry from noble and classic, and is instead rough and hip, there is a bar directly next to the seats. The resonanzraum is a classic club for a clientele of twenty-somethings and late-thirty-year-olds.

Here this age group is quite natural to stop by a concert of the “urban string” series for a cold beer and some late Beethoven. There are drinks and short concerts, DJ sets in between, and the word “subscription” comes from a parallel universe. At the opening ceremony, the members of the ER could hardly believe, after years of roving through the city, how well this 650-square-meter location fit their intentions, much more their target group. First they played Bruckner, then lounge music from a laptop, after that early classical by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In the dim light of the bar a barmaid, with a revolver tattoo on her forearm, stopped serving. She wanted to listen.
“urban string” at resonanzraum, source: Ensemble Resonanz / Youtube

Cooperation instead of demarcation

Since then things have gone well for the ER. The concertgoers are as young as they are consistently excited. There are a dozen “urban string” concerts a year; the percentage of seats sold, with 230 to 250 visitors per evening, is one hundred. And then there are the concert series of other organizsers, including even the public service radio broadcaster NDR. Through a cooperation with ByteFM, the ER has gained a fine little information platform.

The resonanzraum is a “giant step”, thinks the ER manager Tobias Rempe, “for the city, to a whole new audience, to ourselves. The combination of good acoustics for chamber music and the club atmosphere is unique and ensures an overwhelming response. On the basis of this experience, we’re very much looking forward to the next big step: the opening of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall and our residency in its Chamber Music Hall. In the tension between these poles – the residency at the Philharmonic and the home base in St. Pauli – lies a fascinating opportunity for us in the music city Hamburg.”

Can Hamburg in general and the concept of the resonanzraum in particular serve as models? That is a difficult question. After the forbidding planning and cost disaster of the Elbe Philharmonic, municipalities barely still dare to plan new concert halls. The debate about the construction of a concert hall in Munich takes a long time, in spite of purported decisions. The new Music Centre in Bochum contains, as befits a new building, a multifunctional hall; but the decisive thing will be what is done with it.

For the Ensemble Resonanz, on the other hand, this is the beginning of exciting times, because the Chamber Music Hall of the Elbe Philharmonic will become their new home in January 2017. This is a clever move in several ways. On the one hand because it executes an image transfer from an off venue that could give the Elbe Philharmonic, a grave of alleged billions, a good dose of coolness. On the other hand because the string ensemble then will be in the enviable position of being able to tailor-fit even better its offerings and concepts in the dazzling freestyle grey zone between repertoire and risk to the respective venue. A win-win situation for classical music, which could hardly be more classical.

A stereotype has taken root in the minds of listeners: whereas the visual arts have in recent years frequently treated political subjects, contemporary music has the reputation of being occupied mainly with itself. A three-day festival in Berlin wanted to show that New Music is quite responsive to social and political themes.

The exploding of traditional listening habits is a central concern of New Music, but there have always also been composers who wanted more than purely aesthetic experiment. Hanns Eisler, Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, Nicolaus A. Huber, to name only a few who produced very different work, all employed their artistic powers to oppose the superficiality of the world and the imperfections of human societies. In recent years, however, the political and critical dimensions seem to have gone out of style in the reception of New Music. In July 2013 in Berlin the three-day festival Relevant Music, organized by the Association of Friends of Good Music, therefore posed the provocative question: What is New Music actually for? Is this complex, abstract art form at all relevant to society? What ways and means can be found to dock it to the social and political realities of the present?

Approach through provocation

In the foyer of the Villa Elisabeth in Berlin-Mitte it already became clear that contemporary music not only breaks new ground in the variety of its themes but also makes permeable the borders to other genres, whether media art, performance or activism. An installation of the composer Gerhard Schultz, for example, presented a mobile record shop and the label’s artists themselves behind the counter. As part of the festival, Schultz founded the record label Care of Editions, which reduced the business model of the digital music industry to absurdity. Customers were paid money when they downloaded the label’s music.

This was financed by the sale of the same music on vinyl records. If enough records passed hands, a limited online edition became possible, which made the digital copy a sought-after object and, by means of numbering, even unique. Other artists made the audience musically aware of subjects such as the Iraq war, homophobia and digital surveillance. For instance, the Iraqi performance artist Hiwa K., who has been internationally present with musical, visual and medial projects since the 2012 Paris Triennial, accompanied a bloody Kurdish demonstration and played on the harmonica Ennio Morricone’s Play Me the Song of Death – New Music as activism.

That not music itself is political, but rather the context in which it arises and is performed, was emphasized by the festival director Volker Straebel by his including in the programme compositions that have been written since the 1970s or treat political positions of the past. For example, the joint composition Equale, by the composers Richard Barrett and Kees Tazelaar, is a tribute to Luigi Nono, in whose work the composers discern not the three often suggested successive periods of serial, political and introspective, but rather a parallel flare up of all these elements.

Avant-garde and politics

Lothar Voigtländer’s stereo playback Maikäfer flieg (Ladybug, Fly), which he produced in 1985 in East Germany, is in turn a vocal interpretation of the eponymous lullaby combined with booming noises and effects, which in the end radically deconstruct the model. In the GDR the piece was a provocation; today it no longer represents a risk. This transvaluation of evaluations was also a major theme of the festival. Bob Ostertag’s piece All the Rage, for instance, has never again been performed live since its premier in New York in 1993. It uses recordings of gay street protests in San Francisco, battle cries, shattering glass, and the shrill whistles of hundreds if police whistles as the structural basis for a string quartet score.

The relation of avant-garde composition and politics was also discussed at a panel discussion at the festival. The pioneer of electronic music in the GDR, Georg Kratzer, told of his dealings with censorship. Twelve-tone music, for example, was put on the index in East Germany; even a title such as Chain had to be discussed. Nevertheless, Kratzer and other composers contrived to hide critical allusions in tonal compositions and listeners understood this. But Kratzer qualified the political impact of New Music on the grounds that this art form hardly reached a broad audience and could therefore hardly have an effect. Even Bob Ostertag, whom many regard as a prime example of a politically engaged musical artist, did not call his work “political”. He reacted in music, he said, to events that moved him. The music itself could change nothing. No one would change his mind merely because he heard All the Rage.
Almost a classical setting: the Ensemble Neue Musik Berlin performing Bob Ostertag's 'All the Rage'. Almost a classical setting: the Ensemble Neue Musik Berlin performing Bob Ostertag's 'All the Rage'. | Photo: Relevante Musik / Freunde Guter Musik, Kai Bienert From beginning to end of the festival the bottom line was clear: there are very political positions in current New Music. Uniform aesthetic approaches were missing, but it was stressed all the more that politically engaged music can also be complex and of aesthetic value. Last but not least, the festival and its title, Relevant Music, also sent a message to the sponsoring structures of public institutions, which all too often determine the relevance of music not by its quality but rather by the existence of an outreach programme. The festival showed that there are enough composers who have taken part in the public discourse with “relevant” music.