Darmstadt Summer Courses
The Eye Listens Too

The Ensemble Interface performs Jagoda Szmytka's “Limbo Lander – an audiovisual Performance” at the beginning of the 47. International Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music 2014, photo: IMD 2014 / Daniel Pufe
The Ensemble Interface performs Jagoda Szmytka's “Limbo Lander – an audiovisual Performance” at the beginning of the 47. International Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music 2014, photo: IMD 2014 / Daniel Pufe | Photo: IMD 2014 / Daniel Pufe

The Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music 2014 again demonstrated that they still have their finger on the artistic pulse of the times. The spectrum of ideas and creative offerings was immense; a look back on two crowded weeks abounding in perspectives.

Spectacle is an indispensable part of musical performance. What was already apparent in 2010 and even more in 2012 was declared to be the focus of the 47th International Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music: the motto of the event, founded in 1946, was Performing Matters, and cemented anew its significance as a hub of biennials in the contemporary music world. The number of participants at any rate testifies to this: never before were the registrations so numerous, never before the teachers’ calendars so full – an observation that it seems can be made every two years.

Permeability of styles and genres

A panoptic and suggestive view of the current musical scene yielded the density of ensembles in the course and concert programme, for the musical zeitgeist was reflected unmistakably in the increasingly clear-cut profiles of younger ensembles. A considerable permeability of borders between styles and genres is its chief characteristic, accompanied by the high value attached to performance. Ask yourself whether you heard an unamplified piece at Darmstadt and you will have to think pretty long. Jiggling the classical concert setting is now the order of the day, and no longer particularly novel. But beware! A good musician is not automatically a good stage actor, however much the trend may demand this of him. Moreover, every musical tendency forms its own cosmos of style and sound which, like everything else, requires its corresponding expertise before you can enlist it effectively and meaningfully.

Here too: it is the dose that makes the poison – in extroverted performances all the more so. For example, the ensemble Decoder overshot the mark by rushing headlong into a performance overkill that took the familiar pattern of theatrical expressiveness. Neither the screeching of the singer nor the histrionic insertions of the instrumentalists in Gordon Kampe’s Niche Music with Poltergeists, nor again the seemingly forced entr’actes, were capable of helping the programme achieve a convincing coherence in form or content. By implication rather, Decoder’s gig reminded the listener that artistic identity and authenticity are the alpha and omega of every performance. The tenacious, light-coloured wafts of mist that accompanied the booming 90s club sound of Alexander Schubert’s Lucky Dip and made the setting invisible, were therefore felt to be a blessing.

Balanced, well thought-out, multimedia

The Israeli ensemble Nikel, which with its cast of electric guitar, saxophone, piano and percussion brought the coherent basic requirements for music acoustically oriented to rock and jazz, succeeded in achieving an equilibrium. The question of explicit performance became superfluous, because alone the instrumental virtuosity of the quartet in, for example, Michael Wertmüller’s metrically complex piece Skip A Beat made the audience hold its breath, while the intricate interplay with electronics demanded by Stefan Prins’s Flesh and Prothesis was rendered with captivating chamber music-like transparency. A poetic counterpoint to this was Pierluigi Billone’s slow and deep-breathing piece for electric guitar solo Sgorgo Y – one of the most beautiful moments at Darmstadt this year.

The technically highly skilled Belgian ensemble Nadar is never at a loss for a spectacular, well though-out performance. It did justice to this reputation with its multi-media open-air event DEAD SERIOUS in the forecourt of the municipal theatre. Subtly, the big attraction – four hot-air balloons in Michael Maierhof’ piece EXIT F – gained in ambivalence in the course of the evening. Interventions by the Iraqi media artist Wafaa Bilal, who has American citizens read aloud the Patriot Act in his videos, effected a transformation in the fluid dramaturgy of the evening and led into Stefan Prins’s multi-media piece Generation Kill, in which he reflects on the blurring of the boundaries between war games and real war using technical and musical resources. When at the end the musicians bearing drone remote controls stepped out of the stage setting, this suddenly transformed not only the frame of perception; the physical confrontation of a belly dancer and the drones was also the symbolic dance of a tense, complex media world, which became accessible and comprehensible in Nadar’s concert installation.

A scholarly view

The symposium Scelsi Revisited Backstage served as a half-time break in the Summer Courses – spectacular because of its uniqueness. It documented and reflected on the major project “Scelsi Revisited” commissioned by seven composers (including Tristan Murail, Georg Friedrich Haas and Fabien Lévy) to compose new works on the basis of a recently discovered ondiola recording of Giacinto Scelsi. While the bulk of the scholarly lectures afforded insights into details of works and threw new light from a constructive vantage point on the nimbus surrounding the figure of Scelsi, the project remained short on a overall artistic evaluation of this study-like experiment. The flexible boundaries between interpretation and composition corresponding to the de-pigeonholing spirit of the times exercised a productive effect on the courses and on teaching and learning. The interaction of the latter was particularly pronounced in the project Ensemble 14, which presented selected emerging ensembles at a hinge-point between advancement and tradition. This year they were Ensemble Garage, Trio Catch, soundinitiative and Ensemble Distractfold. The latter received the Kranichsteiner Music Prize for Interpetation. The Kranichsteiner Music Prize for Composition went to the American composer Ashley Fure.

The spectrum covered by the invited teachers may be seen as a mirror of the undogmatic diversity that also shaped the Darmstadt Summer Courses concert programme. In addition to always popular Darmstadt old hands such as Brian Ferneyhough, Helmut Lachenmann and Georges Aperghis, a younger, pluralistic generation including Simon Stehen-Andersen, Martin Schüttler, Joanna Bailie, Raphael Cendo and last but not least the high-energy Irish composer and musician Jennifer Walshe ensured a constant change of perspective in the courses and lectures. In her composer-performer workshop, for instance, Walshe fostered the associative strengths of her students against all self-censorship – an example of performance art that could not have happened without authenticity and that thus honoured the festival motto of performance matters. Flexibility in musical thinking such as was taught with due diversity during the two weeks of the Darmstadt Summer Courses is, at any rate, also a key discipline for every listener who wants to understand the New Music scene.