International Summer Course for New Music 2016 In the here and now, everywhere and back then

François Sarhan's “Commodity Music“ at the Designhaus
François Sarhan's “Commodity Music“ at the Designhaus | Photo (detail): © Daniel Pufe

Every two years the scene foregathers for its on-site inspection in Darmstadt. About 300 artists, scholars, composers and mavericks of New Music perform, experiment and debate around the clock for two weeks and generate a cultural programme of international standing.

Archives shape the writing of history; they give rise to narratives, are instruments for deciding what remains in memory and what passes into oblivion. They also make possible the sudden emergence of finds that have lain undiscovered for decades. Depending on the perspective, archival research can bring to light the hidden connections of historical events or bring forth wholly new, unconventional interpretations of historical material, especially when the research is impelled not by a scholarly motive but rather by an artistic and creative one.

Here was a core concept of this year’s International Summer Course for New Music, which was celebrating its 70th anniversary: “We invited various artists to look into the archives of the International Music Institute in Darmstadt and to develop their compositions out of this”, said the course director Thomas Schäfer. “Such an approach raises questions such as ‘What does this old material still say to us today?’ and ‘Where are there direct points of contact?’ It’s interesting to note how much already happened in the 1940s and 50s – activities which no one any longer knows about today since they were simply eclipsed by the frequent reduction of the history of the Summer Course to personalities like Karlheinz Stockhausen or Pierre Boulez.”

Archives and the present

So that even the less conspicuous chapters of the post-war avant-garde should see the light of day, the anniversary Summer Course gave composers and musicians the opportunity to work freely with all archive material. For example, in his installative concert performance Archive Fever the Norwegian composer Lars Petter Hagen approached the IMD archives in a markedly subjective fashion: “I’m no historian or librarian. I therefore went through and ‘filtered’ the archive material in my own way. In this work I discovered relations between completely different sounds, scores, books and pictures, relations that never occurred to me before. Associative links that arise in a nearly dream-like, unconscious, feverish state fascinate me. Because this reminds me of the way we experience music. As a composer, I regularly make decisions about pitch, dynamics and tempo. Here I had to choose which archive materials I’d generate my musical material out of.” Thus, in five rooms of the Justus Liebig House, Hagen designed an idiosyncratic juxtaposing of various pasts: the space was filled by a previously believed lost video interview with Iannis Xenakis, photo albums of the Summer Course founder Wolfgang Steinecke, recordings of readings by Theodor W. Adorno and sound fragments of long past concerts at which the Frankfurt ensemble Interface performed live.

The Historage Project

The artists of the trans-national project Historage , supported by the Goethe Institut, treated the (now comprehensively digitalized) IMD database ans other archives in a similarly imaginative and intuitive manner. The Archive of the Present, explained the curator of the project Michael Rebhahn, “is ‘de-placed’, available globally; it allows hypertext search and so is open to the autonomy of aesthetic practice”. Thus, for instance, in his work BikoHausen (i.e. BikoHouses), the composer and sound artist Philip Miller realized an imaginary dialogue between Karlheinz Stockhausen and the South African black consciousness activist Steve Biko by assembling voice samples of both: “I’ve chosen recordings of statements by Biko and Stockhausen”, said Miller, “that deal with the theme of ‘change’ – in terms of socio-political conditions, but also in terms of thinking about music”.

So as to bring this historical material into connection with the here and now, Miller organized a performance workshop in Johannesburg with a group of South African musicians, who responded improvisationally to the voice recordings. This work could then be experienced as an audio-visual documentation in the Design House on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt. “I felt a distinct lack of an ‘African presence’ in Darmstadt”, explained Miller. “In South Africa we have a strong free jazz scene, but no contemporary music scene comparable to that in Europe. I therefore specifically wanted to integrate people from my homeland into the framework of the festival.” Thus arose with BikoHausen a multi-perspectival and multi-temporal work that also reflects the desire of the Darmstadt Summer Course to offer artists an international forum.

Still room for experimentation

The young British ensemble Distractfold, which in 2014 was awarded the Kranicherstein Music Prize, has over the past two years established for itself a firm place in the music scene. Their concert programme, which combines instrumental music with purely electronic tape pieces, previously often met with rejection. “Sponsors and organizers”, says the violinist of the ensemble, Linda Jankowska, “were for a long time sceptical of our concert formats and dramaturgy. The award at the Darmstadt Summer Course was therefore an important gesture of recognition, which encouraged us to pursue our artistic concepts with conviction. Now we get invitations form various countries in Europe and the Americas.”
Lecture Johannes Kreidler “Why Political (New) Music?”, Darmstadt 2016

Not having to labour under the constraint to bend to the commercial music industry is a basic prerequisite for the emergence and preservation of contemporary art, a condition that has been firmly supported by the Darmstadt Summer Course. Here what is wanted is not packaged, standardized formats, mandatory participation in personal hype and pseudo-avant-garde art works off the rack, but, on the contrary, the will to work freely and experimentally, and thereby “to proceed”, as Theodor W. Adorno put it, “[exercising] human rights and without uniformity”.