“Acht Brücken” Festival Openness as Principle

The british electronic music pioneer Matthew Herbert asking questions at the Acht Brücken Festival.
The british electronic music pioneer Matthew Herbert asking questions at the Acht Brücken Festival. | Photo (detail): Acht Brücken / Künstleragentur

Insiders have known it all along: electronic music has no stylistic limits. But this truth is seldom presented as clearly and pointedly in a programme as at Acht Brücken – Music for Cologne. Beginning with the work of Iannis Xenakis, the festival included artists as different as Ensemble Modern and Matthew Herbert, DAF and Nicholas Jaar. A report.

Electronic processes of recording and playback, techniques of production and reproduction, have revolutionized the musical history of the twentieth century far more profoundly than have the ideological wars of opinion that accompanied the move to atonality. Tones could be preserved and modified, then freely generated and programmed using electronic circuitry. The instrumental sound that we had refined over the centuries to the highest degree of brilliance was assigned to a narrow, physically barely distinguishable region on the scale between graphically clear sine oscillations and formless noise. Nothing really special anymore when a composer has such excitingly new and different material at hand.

Bombs and electronics

For example, the sound recording of a bombing raid in the Libyan civil war. The British conceptual musician Matthew Herbert dissected the only ten-minute sample into a nearly hour-long apocalyptic sound scenario. “Is that music?” people asked after the first noise salvos. But they were already sitting amidst an acoustical hail of bombs. This took place in the Cologne Philharmonic Hall at the performance of Herbert’s quartet as part of the 2013 Acht-Brücken-Festival.

“Elektronik-electronics” was the overall theme of the third edition of the thirteen-day concert event Acht Brücken – Music for Cologne, which stirred up the cultural life of the city at various venues from 30 April to 12 May 2013 with a special focus on the work of Iannis Xenakis. Of course the programme also featured classics of electronic music. Above all Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths), in which synthetic sinusoidal tones interfere with a bell-clear boy soprano’s voice. It is well-nigh a liturgical fusion of the voice given to man and a voice made by him. A direct experience of spirituality in the resonant space of the Cologne Cathedral, where Stockhausen would never have been permitted to perform the work during his lifetime.

Old warhorses, young heirs

The famous percussionist Martin Grubinger played Rihm and Xenakis at the Acht Brücken Festival. The famous percussionist Martin Grubinger played Rihm and Xenakis at the Acht Brücken Festival. | Photo: Acht Brücken / Felix Broede Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Requiem für einen jungen Dichter (Requiem for a Young Poet) is regarded as no less epochal a work. Depressive shock already emanates form the first bars, then rises into the monumental in a complex interplay of a large orchestra, three choirs, six percussionists, a jazz combo, two speakers and two vocal soloists. Tape recordings with texts and text and music fragments condense the zeitgeist of the 1930s to the 1970s into a critical mass of cultural pessimism and explosive sensitivity.
The newcomer of the electronic music Nicolas Jaar deconstructed in Cologne works of Iannis Xanakis. The newcomer of the electronic music Nicolas Jaar deconstructed in Cologne works of Iannis Xanakis. | Photo: Acht Brücken / Pascal Montary
Equally overwhelming were the performances of Wolfgang Rihm’s Tutuguri VI and Iannis Xenakis’s Persephassa, two pieces for six percussionists round the Austrian star percussionist Martin Grubinger. Here the cult of the virtual met deterministic chaos, the mathematical precision of stereophonic geometry blurred into ecstatic polyrhythms. The extent to which the musical œuvre of the sound architect Xenakis radiates into the present was demonstrated by the young American lap-top virtuoso Nicolas Jaar. The 1990 born shooting star of the electronic scene filled the Cologne Philharmonic with his four-piece band and digital periphery. He playfully focused his grooves into song structures, even into veritable rock rhythms, and then let them drift apart until they approached the harsh sound masses of a Xenakis or the cosmological acoustical space voyages of the Italian experimental composer Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), to whom a concert in the large broadcasting hall of the West German Broadcasting Corporation was dedicated.

Crossover with prospects

Bridging the gap between concert and pop music, which had often grotesquely failed in questionable crossover projects of previous decades, took place here quite naturally and organically out of the musical production processes. Whether it was DJ Spooky in concert with the New York Jack Quartet, Adrian Sherwood and Moritz von Oswald, two icons of the European dub scene, or DAF, pioneers of sequence sounds, protagonists of punk and precursors of the New German Wave and techno-rave – in the concrete listening experience, purported crossovers proved to be only a change in the aggregate state of one and the same material.

Whether experimental sounds and melodic beats, complex composition or straighter dancefloor, no oppositions could be made out here, only smooth transitions and creative interactions. Now in its third year, the festival’s very special quality was the production of surprisingly direct connections between seemingly remote contexts. And this without striking academic attitudes, even without smug glamour, not something that can be invariably assumed in Cologne. Success has corroborated the concept. Around 30,000 spectators attended the concerts, 10,000 more than in 2012.

A chamber music avant-garde ensemble from New York: the Jack Quartett. A chamber music avant-garde ensemble from New York: the Jack Quartett. | Photo: Acht Brücken / Justin Bernhaut Perhaps the most multi-layered contribution to the festival theme was provided by “punch card music”. Together with the video artist Gudrun Barenbrock, the composers Udo Moll and Wolfgang Mitterer cast a glance at the history of computer technology. A tribute to bit and byte pioneers such as Konrad Zuse and Charles Babbage, but also to the composer Conlan Nancarrow, who was born in 1912, and his player piano studies. A theremin, an early prototype of electronic instruments, and a fossil card punch from the primeval age of binary data processing, ensured authentic retro-sounds. Thus even the historical performance movement has made it into the computer age.