Maerzmusik Festival The principle of exchange

Matthias Osterwold, the artistic director of the festival Maerzmusik since 2001.
Matthias Osterwold, the artistic director of the festival Maerzmusik since 2001. | Photo (detail): Kai Bienert

Berlin has always exerted an immense appeal as a cultural metropolis. This is also true for New Music. Many composers from around the world have been and are drawn to the city. What is so special about Berlin for composers of contemporary music? In the most recent edition of the Maerzmusik Festival, Matthias Osterwold, its artistic director, pursues exactly this question. In an interview on the occasion of Maerzmusik 2014, he talks about the potential of the city in the conflicts of history, high culture and free projects, new Berliners, international guests and long-established artists.

To Berlin! To Berlin! With this well-known football rallying cry, you invited people to Maerzmusik 2014, the Festival for Contemporary Music. What makes your latest edition of Maerzmusik a crowd puller?

The initial situation in the New Music scenes is this: there’s no longer a model for New Music; there are infinitely many parallel trends and a rather considerable complexity, which the festival has to reflect. It has to be so focussed every year that it builds lanes of perception for the listeners. Over the years we’ve succeeded better and better in so designing this agenda of themes that the programme has gained more and more the character of a subordinate composition or landscape or music exhibition through which the visitors can wander.

After having travelled all over the world with various focal points in the last few years, this year you’ve put the focus on Berlin. In an extensive essay in the programme notes, you describe the situation before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. How does the situation in Berlin look for composers and musicians, perhaps for artists in general, twenty-five years after the fall of the Wall?

There were already precursors before the fall of the Wall, but after it fell Berlin soon loomed as an attractive place to live and work for “new” musicians, for the inventive and creative musicians, because this city has many empty spaces, interstices, unused spaces – both physically and in terms of buildings as in the metaphorical sense. Into these spaces the imagination of artists was able to flow. Places could be established where they could work and somehow live. Favourable material conditions, low prices, certainly played a role. The wave of immigration was international. Now artists from every corner of the world, far beyond the borders of Europe, come to Berlin. And the degree of overlap and networking among the arts and artists is relatively high.

The programme of Maerzmusik focused on Berlin today. What does that mean in specific terms?

We don’t present Berlin as a city that has a certain sound, but rather as one whose foremost characteristic is diversity and the parallelism, of various artistic trends. Maerzmusik wants to reflect this diversity, not only in the design of the programme of invited guests but also in the form of the genres concerned, ranging from orchestra music and smaller forms of music theatre to composer-performances and so-called “real-time music”, the latest stage of improvised music, which is something like subtle sound research. From all this we’ve made a selection that projects the broadest possible picture of this diversity.

In the programme notes you write that in Berlin musicians live rather in coexistence than in competition.

I think this is one of the great virtues of the musical community in Berlin, that it is really stamped by the spirit of cooperation rather than competition. When the Wall fell, we experienced here a social laboratory par excellence, namely two population groups with completely different backgrounds and life histories, in one place. And needless to say, an experimental situation means you can’t know the results beforehand. The open spaces, the empty spaces, that were and are available ensure that there’s sufficient room for creative resources. We don’t need to push one another; we can rather together seek to strengthen our forces. I think this is one of the finest and most beautiful characteristics of Berlin.

The Maerzmusik festival is part of the Berlin Festivals and is funded by the federal government. Does this federal funding have an effect on the specific choice of representative international composers and projects?

I’ve always seen this funding as a commission that we make things possible that others can’t do, that we risk things, that we invite special projects. And this we’ve done in many ways, though always with consideration for the local, small forces that are native to Berlin. Money from the Federal Republic of Germany is an obligation in respect to originality, quality, innovativeness and the opening of new horizons. I’ve also always seen this as coming down to an inter-cultural perspective: that is to say, to think beyond Germany, beyond Europe, and also to think vertically, beyond the educated middle-class, to take note of subcultures, to be alert to whatever things of artistic interest are happening.

For Maerzmusik, have you tended to invite Berlin residents or people who, because of their current life situations, a scholarship or a guest stay, could become such?

We have older Berlin residents and also artists who live only temporarily in Berlin, but who have suggested that they could do a good deal with the Berlin situation. The oldest “immigrant”, I think, is Sven-Åke Johansson, the “old Swede”; he came here already in the late 1960s. Among the other older immigrants is the American artist Arnold Dreyblatt, who came to Berlin in the early 1980s, used it as a base to search for his family and cultural origins in Eastern Europe and then, after he’d lived for a time in Belgium, decided that Berlin is his city. He found here a resonance for his experimental musical forms. And we’re happy he’s remained in Berlin and founded a family here.

Another artist whose long been in Berlin is the marvellous experimental vocalist David Moss. On the other hand, we also have recent immigrants such as the “American-born Chinese artist” Audrey Chen, a music performer who has been in Berlin for only about a year; and we have temporary guests who have lived in Berlin and maintain close connections here, such as Nicolas Collins. Then there are those like Sergej Newski, one of the most interesting contemporary composers; he comes from Russia and has now lived for fifteen years in Berlin.

The current Russian guest of the Berlin Artists Programme of the DAAD, Boris Filanovsky, for whose Scompositio we’re having a big premiere, plans to stay in Berlin when his grant expires. Arthur Kampela from Brazil stayed in Berlin a while after his DAAD grant and then moved to New York – but why? Because his teenage son lives and goes to school there. But he’s on the verge of then perhaps moving back to Berlin with his son. In conversation with artists I feel again and again the strong appeal, the sex appeal, which Berlin exerts on them. Some, I know, prophesy doom and destruction, that everything is already over, that the zenith has been passed. I can’t say that I know this, because we can’t see into the future. It may be that Berlin will gradually become more rigid because the gaps are being literally built over, because society is polarizing more and more, but at present musical life and artistic life in general is still very much alive and dynamic.