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

An interview with Heiner Goebbels Language as Music, Music as Language

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.

Hardly anyone else currently experiments so intensely with the boundaries of music theatre as does the composer and director Heiner Goebbels. In his works he focuses on the strange, the unknown and the marginal in the relationship of language and music. One good reason for the Musique en Scène Biennale in Lyon to give Goebbels’s work centre stage in 2014 – and also for an interview with Heiner Goebbels on his understanding of music, theatre and composition.

When you were appointed to the Chair for Applied Theatre Studies at Gießen, were you still the composer Heiner Goebbels?

Heiner Goebbels: Well, no longer only that. By then I had pieces like Die Wiederholung (The Repetition), Eislermaterial, Max Black, Ou bien le débarquement déastreux and Schwarz auf Weiß (Black on White) behind me. I was already also a man of the theatre.

But the dramatic had before then already played an important part in your music.

Perhaps you should say rather the gestural, to tie in with a term of Eisler’s. From Hanns Eisler I learned that music too has a dramatic quality. You can make out attitudes in music, and if you treat questions of attitude responsibly you can also work in a gestural-political dimension in the non-verbal art form of music. The second phase of this development was the “acoustic stage” of the radio plays, where spaces opened in which you could reflect on the relationship of language, sound and noise and create scenes or images. I’ve often spoken of my early radio plays as images and also worked in visual forms. This later gave me the opportunity to conceive of the visual dimension of staging as something independent, separate.

You worked for a long time on stage as a practicing musician – in the so-called Radical Left-Wing Brass Band, with Cassiber and in other bands and projects. But in the early 1990s you stopped.

I then started to do theatre and suddenly found myself again in the role of the director. I’d also begun to compose – for example, for the Ensemble Modern. That is, I had to assume positions off the stage. I lost my innocence, the innocence you need when you’re active on stage. If you work on stage, you must be able to forget the view from off stage. You have to feel at home in the material, in the music, in the corporeality of music-making, in the communication and in the spontaneous improvisation with others. If you then think about changing the lighting or about the attitudes of the others or about the use of space, your perception is split.


What role did the collaboration with the Ensemble Modern play in your development?

That was an important beginning for writing down things I knew from improvised music, Noise Art and experimental rock music. I didn’t want simply to take the side of art music, but rather to maintain a balancing act between an aesthetics of entertainment music, pop music and jazz on the one hand and the writtenness of music on the other. That isn’t easy; it must be done bar for bar. This development began for me in the collaboration with the Ensemble Modern.

In your theatre works you use various sound materials. Language is often one sound material among others; that is, not a vehicle for conveying meaning.

Yes, and I also like to use various languages, each with its own rhythms and melodies. There are two kinds of hearing, depending upon whether we are listening to a language that we understand or whether we’re listening to music. I don’t trust this format; I look instead for the transitions. I want to give the audience the opportunity to hear language as if it were music, and to hear a sound as if it were language. In this way I want to point to the unreliability of our concept of understanding. When we listen to someone, we’re operating at several levels: hearing how he speaks and hearing what he says. In most cases, this falls apart. We should train our senses to perceive that.

Which brings us back to attitude. It always resonates in the speaking and the feeling, but it is seldom decoded. You’ve written stage plays in which no music whatever of yours occurs.

Those are plays in which more is demanded of me as a theatre maker and director – or in other words, in which the concept of composition is conceived of more broadly. I don’t distinguish between music and theatre. I compose the relationship of spaces to movement, of light to the text, of the body to music. This leads to a kind of expanded polyphony, a polyphony of our perception, which is coupled with the polyphony of the many members of the audience, with the polyphony of views and perspectives. And it also stands for the polyphony of those who have helped create these plays – the stage designers, the actors, the musicians, the sound engineers and also the director – and through which all of them are perhaps brought into relation to each other. So in the end I am the composer, although none of my music is performed.