Obituary Armin Köhler, Enabler of the Unheard Of

Armin Köhler (1952–2014)
Armin Köhler (1952–2014) | Photo (detail): Donaueschinger Musiktage

The musicologist and radio editor Armin Köhler was looked upon as a visionary of artistic openness. As its artistic director from in 1992 until shortly before his death, he shaped the Donaueschingen Festival, giving the international music scene an important and groundbreaking stimulus.

A festival against the “incrustations of the cultural scene”, which laid bare the “deep layers of the current artistic will” – Armin Köhler’s expectations of the Donaueschingen Festival were never modest. When soon after the turnaround in 1990, he first attended the tradition-steeped festival as a trained trombonist, musicologist and Leipzig-Dresden publisher’s editor for the Saxony Television Group, no one suspected that and to what extent he was to leave his mark on the festival over a space of more than two decades.

But in 1992 Köhler, now editorial director for New Music at Southwest Radio Baden-Baden, had already assumed responsibility for his first festival year in Donaueschingen. From his predecessor, Josef Häusler, he took over the evolved structures: the concert with the SWF (later SWR) Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg, the events with vocal and chamber music, and the idea of a premiere festival, which on a long weekend in October consisted almost entirely of commissioned works specially composed for and performed at Donaueschingen.

He filled the festival with new life, with his own life, and became the enabler of approximately 400 new pieces (not including the performances in the concert series Ars Nova), with whose international composers he often remained in touch over the years: the Hungarian György Ligeti and the Frenchman Pierre Boulez, the Korean Younghi Pagh-Paan, the Germans Helmut Lachenmann and Dieter Schnebel, the Slovenian Vinko Globokar and, from the succeeding generation, Wolfgang Rihm, Martin Smolka, Mark Andre, Jennifer Walshe, Francois Sarhan, Simon Steen-Andersen ... the list goes on and on.

The Donaueschingen Festival and more

Many of them came to know Köhler not as an organizer but rather as a co-worker – in productive, often long-term exchanges about the resultant projects. And the same was true of the numerous performers and ensembles with which he worked. That Köhler discovered and nurtured so many artists had to do with his unbridled curiosity: there was no newcomers festival that failed to interest him, and for Donaueschingen he invented two of his own in the student workshop “Next Generation” and the “Upgrade” festival planned for 2015.

In other respects, too, Köhler extended the traditional structures of the festival: he established new forms in new spaces, used the Castle Park, the Court Library, the brewery and the Prince’s Stables as performing venues, dared early on border-crossings with others arts and scenes, and insisted upon the initially often derided genre of the sound installation. He also showed a fighting spirit in cultural policy when, in 1996, the 75th anniversary of the festival, he succeeded in averting the reduction of the annual festival to a biennial.

The now ill artistic director’s comment on this year’s Donaueschingen Festival, which he could follow only over the radio, was the short word “and”, which at first confused many people. “And” refers to an interface; in this case to a linking of various arts to the participating artists, whose musical works were extensively supplemented by other genres. Köhler made it his life’s work to serve as such an interface: a linking “and” between composers and performers, between producers of music and the audience.

The history of music as a universal mission

This included work in various committees and advisory boards – for many years he was active on the advisory board of the Goethe-Institut – and of course work as a radio editor, linked to the attempt not only to help shape recent music history but also to document and explain it. Köhler invented the Listening History of Music of the Twentieth Century, a 120-part broadcasting series in which various expert authors systematically unfolded the themes of the just ending epoch in one-hour formats. A few years later he supplemented this survey with a personal view. The project was called Experienced History, in which he interviewed in the early 2000s all the great composers about their memories and perspectives.

“Remembering is for me the coming together of past, present and future”, said Köhler in the opening show of this series, which he and I produced together. Today I remember not only the countless situations in the studio, the hallways of the music editorial staff and the trips to many rehearsals, concerts and festivals during which ideas, plans and reflections (past/present/future) always whizzed through the air thick and fast, but also and above all the intensity. Rarely have I known a man who could be so enthusiastic – and almost always, uncompromisingly, derived actions from this enthusiasm. His capacity for action, his strength, seemed limitless and extended if necessary to all areas. He was without affectations and conceit, but had for that reason all the higher expectations of those he worked with, who were important to him and from whom he often elicited unimagined efforts and achievements.

Armin Köhler seldom spoke of “ideals”, perhaps because the word was too close to “ideology”, but they existed in him as the motor of his actions, which he saw as dedicated to society, to people and to a common cause. Lucky were those who accompanied him on this path. Difficult to fill the gap that his death signifies for New Music and the world of culture.